Tales of Coles County: The Charleston Riot

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $4.99. Tales of Coles County, Illinois was originally published in 2004. A 10th Anniversary edition was released in 2013, but has gone out of print.

The year was 1864, and the month of March was just coming to a close. The battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg had long passed, and it looked as though the tide of the Civil War was finally turning in the Union’s favor. The presidential election was still over seven months away, but many believed it would decide the course of war.

Illinois had always been divided on the issue of slavery, and there were many people living in the southern half of the state that still had strong ties to their neighbors in the South. They didn’t want Abraham Lincoln reelected, because they knew he would never make peace with the Confederacy. These supporters of the movement for “peace without victory” were called “butternuts” or “copperheads.” Each faction—Unionists and copperheads—equally despised each other, and these divisions were exacerbated along political party lines.

On that mild spring day of March 28, Oliver Thomas stepped outside of Huron’s Bookstore on the west side of Charleston’s town square, engrossed in that week’s issue of the Plaindealer. The newspaper headlines were still fresh with news of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest’s daring and profitable raid on Paducah, Kentucky the previous week. Oliver was afraid a Confederate attack that far north would inflame the passions of the copperheads, who had been raising a stink over the recent arrival of the 54th Illinois Infantry Regiment in Mattoon. Many of the soldiers were local boys from the county, however, so he couldn’t imagine anything coming of these idle threats.

The din of an unusually robust number of people chatting near the courthouse tore his attention away from his newspaper. He looked up to see several clusters of men gathered around the square. He recognized many familiar faces, but some, who sat on horses near a couple of hay-filled wagons, appeared to be from the countryside. Additionally, there were a little more than a dozen Union soldiers dressed in blue uniforms that ducked in and out of the storefronts or talked with each other on the street. Only a few were armed. Finally, Oliver recognized his friend Daniel, who was standing against a tree near the courthouse, and strode over to him.

“Isn’t this exciting?” Daniel shouted even before Oliver could reach him.

“Isn’t what exciting?” Oliver asked in reply. “What are all these people doing here?” He finally reached the tree, which was in earshot of a small group of four men who stood on the courthouse steps. The quartet included James O’Hair, who was the father of the county sheriff, and his friend Nelson Wells.

“Judge Eden is goin’ to give a speech to the soldiers,” Oliver’s friend replied with excitement.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” he whispered under his breath. Everyone in the county knew that Eden, along with Sheriff John O’Hair, were leaders of the local Peace Democrat faction—Northern Democrats who wanted to make peace with the Confederacy. Eden giving a speech to the soldiers was only asking for trouble. Oliver took note of a Union soldier who walked up to the elder O’Hair. He appeared slightly drunk.

“You call yourselves white men?” he jeered.

James O’Hair and his friend Nelson appeared somewhat startled by the soldier’s remarks, but James’ face revealed a poorly disguised animosity. Daniel witnessed the proceedings from his vantage point by the tree and threw a worried glance at Oliver.

“You’re no white man,” the soldier continued. “No man who’s for Jeff Davis is a white man.” Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy.

Nelson Wells remained calm and stuck his thumbs into his vest pockets. “Look around you, sir,” he casually replied. “There is plenty of Jeff Davis men here.” A fairly large crowd began to gather around the argument.

A man, who Oliver recognized as Robert Leitch, came out of the crowd and took the soldier by the arm, gently leading him back to a group of his fellow infantrymen. Daniel and Oliver watched Mr. Leitch talk to the soldiers in the street but couldn’t make out what he said. He then returned to the crowd, which for the most part loitered on the lawn in front of the courthouse, and then addressed Nelson Wells in particular.

“Sir,” he began, taking his hat in his hand and delicately turning it around. “I have spoken to the soldiers and they say they are heading to the train depot shortly to return to Mattoon. They won’t start no trouble if they’re left alone.”

Nelson Wells looked at him coldly, his gray and black beard shimmered in the noon sun. “Those soldiers have done nothing but pester us all morning, sir,” he explained with a fiery edge to his voice. “And some of our own citizens have pointed us out as Democrats so that the soldiers may take revenge on us. I say that it’s about time for us to have revenge in return.”

“Revenge is a bad thing,” Mr. Leitch replied. “Have you known any man here who is a Democrat or who has been considered loyal, and who has been disturbed by one of these good soldiers of our Union?”

Mr. Wells gave no reply, and after a moment of icy silence, Robert Leitch put his hat back on his head and walked in the direction of the train station. Oliver and his friend Daniel nodded to each other and decided to follow, confident that the situation had been diffused.

* * *

The judge’s gavel slammed down on the pulpit, attempting to resonate over the noise of the crowd outside. “Damn it, John,” the Honorable John Rice Eden bellowed, addressing the sheriff below. “It’s really a mess out there. How are we supposed to conduct the court with this anarchy outside?”

Sheriff John O’Hair shrugged his shoulders and turned toward the two men who were on trial for stealing horses. Before he could reply, the courtroom doors burst open and in walked a tall man named Schofield. He was a known member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a radical branch of the Peace Democrats. Schofield, with locks of hair spilling down over his shoulders, strode confidently to the judge’s bench and leaned over to whisper something in Eden’s ear.

A worried expression crossed the judge’s face, and he glanced over at Sheriff O’Hair. “John, I won’t be delivering my speech today,” he said in a solemn voice. “Mr. Schofield and I have some matters to attend to out of town.” He lowered his tone considerably. “I’m expecting you to take care of things here.”

The sheriff nodded in reply and ran his fingers over the butt of one of his pistols.

Judge Eden slammed his gavel down for the final time. “The court is adjourned for today,” he shouted. “Sheriff, escort these two to the jail.” With that, Schofield and the Judge left the courtroom and exited the building on the side facing away from where most of the crowd was gathered.

* * *

It only took a few minutes for Oliver and his friend Daniel to reach the train station. There they saw dozens of Union soldiers milling around, waiting for the train to come take them back to Mattoon. There were only a few other townspeople in the area, including themselves and Robert Leitch. Someone they didn’t recognize was shouting at the soldiers.

“You’re all a bunch of no-good cowards!” the young man yelled. He attracted the attention of a couple of station attendants, who quickly attempted to drag him away, but he resisted. “You’re all Lincoln-lovers!” The young man continued to yell as he thrashed his arms, pushing at the men who tried to restrain him. One of the soldiers, who Oliver could tell was an officer by the gold stripes on the shoulders of his uniform and the sword at his side, calmly approached the commotion.

“You are drunk, son,” he said with a razor’s edge. “I suggest you go on and get before trouble starts. As you can see you are greatly outnumbered.”

“Not for long,” the young man spat. “We’re goin’ to clean you out of here today!”

“That’s Colonel Mitchell,” Daniel whispered to Oliver, referring to the Union officer. “Him and my pappy are friends.”

Colonel Mitchell walked past the raving man in the direction of the town square, and two soldiers grabbed their rifles and rushed to his side to accompany him. “I’m going to speak to Judge Eden,” he announced. “He’ll put a stop to this harassment.”

Oliver and his friend followed close behind. Several others headed in that direction as well, while the man who had been yelling insults was finally pulled away from the nervous and agitated soldiers. It was a short walk to the square, where an even greater number of men was gathered, farmers, lawyers, and shopkeepers alike. Colonel Mitchell marched up the stone courthouse steps and threw open the heavy wooden doors. He disappeared into the building as Daniel and Oliver ran around the other side to get a closer look at the commotion. The sun slowly crept toward the western horizon, signaling the arrival of late afternoon.

“There’s a better view over here,” Daniel called out from the middle of the street. Oliver ran to join him just in time to see another Union soldier stumble into Nelson Wells, who had been running around the square teasing the bluecoats. James O’Hair was no longer with him.

The Union soldier, whose name was Oliver Sallee, apparently didn’t recognize Mr. Wells and tapped him on the shoulder. “Are any of those damned copperheads around here?” Sallee asked.

“Yes, damn you,” Wells replied while drawing his pistol on the surprised solider. “I am one!” Before anyone could act, Wells’ finger depressed the trigger and smoke exploded from the barrel. The lead ball struck Sallee in the chest and he stumbled backward.

Read the exciting conclusion to this story and more in Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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