Historic America

A Confrontation in Paris

How an effort to shut down a newspaper in Edgar County, Illinois led to one of the Civil War’s most violent home front riots.

In February 1864, the raging gunfire of the American Civil War echoed far from Edgar County, Illinois, yet the conflict seemed fearfully close to home. In the small east-central Illinois town of Paris, elements of the 12th and 66th Illinois Volunteer Regiments were on leave, visiting friends and relatives. “In a social way everything had been done to make their visit a pleasant one,” wrote the local Daily Beacon News, but not everyone welcomed the presence of the soldiers.[1]

Democrats opposed to the war and to the policies of the Lincoln Administration, known as copperheads by their critics, were afraid furloughed volunteers would force them to take loyalty oaths or attempt to shut down the newspaper office of the Paris Times, a Democratic periodical.

Earlier that month, Union soldiers had paid a visit to Amos Green, editor of the Times (and a “Jeff Davis patriot” according to some), after locals in the nearby town of Kansas had reported that between 100 and 150 armed “butternuts” were converging on Paris on his orders.[2] Under the watchful eyes of the soldiers, Green swore an oath and pledged a sum of money to prove his loyalty.

In the middle of February, a soldier named Milton York, scion of a local family known for its abolitionism and its support for the Republican Party, shot and seriously wounded an outspoken copperhead named Cooper. According to one account, the sheriff of Edgar County, William S. O’Hair, attempted to arrest the soldier, but one of York’s compatriots prevented him at the barrel of a rifle from doing so. According to the Mattoon Independent Gazette, York was eventually arrested, but the court released him on a technicality and he rejoined his regiment.[3]

Local copperheads decided to gather weapons with the aim of protecting the Times and its editor from any further provocations. Upon hearing rumors that the soldiers planned to burn the newspaper office before they returned to the front, Sheriff William S. O’Hair, accompanied by over a dozen men, rode into town on the day the furloughed soldiers were to leave. A young boy noticed their activities, as well as the guns they had placed in a wagon, and informed the soldiers. The soldiers immediately went to investigate.

As they approached an alley behind Central Avenue, a group of men fired on them before feeling toward a horse stable on the edge of town, where, presumably, Sheriff O’Hair and his posse, along with their wagon, were waiting. According to the Daily Beacon-News, these men promptly escaped to the west in the direction of neighboring Coles County.

Three soldiers—Lemuel Trowbridge, Mark Boatman, and a man named Slemmons—were first to reach the stable. As they approached, Alfred Kennedy, a young man from Clark County who had been hiding inside, shot Trowbridge in the wrist.[4] Mark Boatman peered into the building as he heard Kennedy call out that he surrendered. As Boatman lowered his weapon, Kennedy shot him in the shoulder.

More Union soldiers arrived and poured a volley into the stable, which riddled the planks with bullets and killed a nearby calf. When they looked inside, they found Alfred Kennedy badly wounded. Kennedy told the soldiers that his fellow copperheads had planned to ambush them at the train station.[5]

Early next month in the nearby town of Charleston, soldiers on leave from the 54th Illinois Volunteer Regiment assaulted two Democrats who were known to be opposed to the war effort and confiscated one of the men’s revolvers. Late in March, soldiers confiscated weapons from two more copperheads, James S. O’Hair, Sr. and Frank Toland.

Days later, an unknown number of copperheads attacked men from the 54th Illinois around the Coles County courthouse in what became known as the Charleston Riot. Major Shubal York, the father of the Union soldier who had wounded a copperhead in Paris early the previous month, was shot and killed along with five other soldiers and two copperheads. Twelve men were wounded in the affair.[6]

John H. O’Hair, cousin of William S. O’Hair and sheriff of Coles County, took charge of the copperhead rioters and helped organize and direct their escape. According to Illinois historian Robert D. Sampson, some of the copperheads on the town square that day had been involved in the previous confrontation in Paris.[7]

The events in Paris and Charleston show that anti-war Democrats experienced firsthand the persecution of their friends, relatives, and fellow party members courtesy of Union soldiers and, often deprived of traditional means, sought a redress of grievances outside the bounds of law. These acts of revenge, as well as low-level partisan activities like the destruction of property and military-style drilling, seemed like the realization of Unionist fears of a vast copperhead conspiracy in Illinois.

Democrat and Republican suspicions, reinforced by rumors or by actual events, led directly to clashes like the ones in Paris and Charleston in 1864. With each passing incident, the fears of politically active Illinoisans became reality.

Individuals chose to pick up the ballot, the pen, or the rifle to oppose the war and the Lincoln Administration because they felt personally threatened by the war and the Administration’s policies, whether they had been targeted for arrest for being an outspoken Democrat, forced to take a loyalty oath at the hands of Union soldiers, or had friends or relatives harassed or threatened by Unionists. Like the copperheads of Edgar County who marched into town to defend their newspaper office, most Democrats who embraced copperheadism felt a threat looming over their heads.

[1] Carl L. Stanton, They Called it Treason: an Account of Renegades, Copperheads, Guerrillas, Bushwhackers and Outlaw Gangs that Terrorized Illinois During the Civil War (Bunker Hill: by the author, 2002), 173.

[2] Crawford County Argus (Robinson), 18 February 1864.

[3] Independent Gazette (Mattoon), 7 February 1864.

[4] Crawford County Argus (Robinson), 10 March 1864.

[5] Stanton, 172-74; John Scott Parkinson, “Bloody Spring: The Charleston, Illinois Riot and Copperhead Violence During the American Civil War” (Ph.D. diss., Miami University, 1998), 168-171.

[6] Plain Dealer (Charleston), March 29, 1864; Parkinson, 216-217.

[7] Robert D. Sampson, “‘Pretty Damned Warm Times’: The 1864 Charleston Riot and ‘the Inalienable Right of Revolution’,” Illinois Historical Journal 89 (Summer 1996): 100.

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