Only Patriots―Or Traitors

How political opposition to the American Civil War led to a bloody confrontation at the Coles County courthouse.

The year was 1864, and the month of March was just coming to a close. The watershed battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg had long passed, and it seemed as though the American Civil War would never end. The presidential election was still over seven months away. On March 28, 1864, tensions between soldiers on leave from the 54th Illinois Volunteer Regiment and antiwar Democrats erupted in what became known as the Charleston Riot. When the smoke cleared, eight men lay dead and twelve writhed in agony.

Why did animosities erupt in central Illinois that fateful spring of 1864? One historian theorized that antiwar Democrats (copperheads) who fought Union soldiers around the Coles County courthouse in March believed they were exercising their “inalienable right of revolution,” and that, in his words, “when the normal remedies of the ballot box and the courts failed, a few were willing to emulate the founders of the Republic and take up arms to protect their rights.”[1]

Did radical Republicans and Unionists, as Robert Sampson suggested, push Democrats into violence? The answer, of course, is complicated.

After seven Southern states seceded in the winter of 1860-61, newspaper editors and politicians in southern Illinois reacted strongly against President Abraham Lincoln’s call for a volunteer army to put down the rebellion. Early in the war, the Cairo City Gazette declared, “we are opposed to our Legislature voting one cent to aid in equipping troops to be sent out of the state for the purpose of prosecuting the unnecessary war inaugurated by the present administration.”[2]

Stephen A. Douglas

Some counties in southern Illinois talked openly about joining the Confederacy. After former Democratic candidate for president Stephen Douglas conferred with President Lincoln, his former rival, in Washington DC, he rushed home to Illinois to persuade Democrats to stand with the Union. “There can be no neutrals in this war,” he said at his final speech in Chicago, “only patriots―or traitors.”

Douglas’ words had a striking effect, and according to historian Wood Gray, he “stamped out the secession movement [in southern Illinois], and heavy enlistments began that would make the district… the banner recruiting area of the state.”[3] One loyal follower of Douglas, John A. Logan, became intensely pro-Union and anti-slavery. But the love affair between rival political parties did not last long.

“Many Democrats had probably never been altogether sincere in their professions of support of the war policy,” Gray wrote cynically.[4] However, there is ample evidence to suggest Radical Republicans attempted to turn war policy to their own political advantage and were instrumental in souring the spirit of cooperation between the two parties.

On August 30, 1861, John C. Fremont, a politically-appointed general in command of the Department of the West, issued an order that slaves under the ownership of “rebels” should be confiscated and set free, ostensibly to “intimidate rebel sympathizers” and “win favor with antislavery Republicans.”[5] Abolitionist newspapers spurred him on. “Freedom should be proclaimed to all the sons of Africa that would fight on the side of the government,” the Central Illinois Gazette editorialized.[6]

President Lincoln, however, rescinded the order and removed Fremont out of fear that his actions had alienated supporters in the border states, but the political damage had been done. Later that year, a Republican Representative from Illinois, Lyman Trumbull, introduced a Confiscation Bill that would have freed the slaves of “all persons supporting the rebellion.”[7] Shubal York, who would die on the grounds of the Coles County Courthouse nearly three years later, counseled Trumbull that it would be unwise for the Union to “hold a Traitor’s Negro with one hand… and fight his master with the other.”[8]

President Lincoln issued his own preliminary Proclamation at the end of September 1862, and Illinoisans made their opposition known when they returned a Democratic dominated legislature in the midterm elections that November. Democrats saw their victory as a “rout of abolitionism and a proper rebuke to the party that was trying to Africanize the north,” Illinois historian Arthur Cole explained.[9] The feared Emancipation Proclamation came in January 1863, but only applied to rebellious states.

Abraham Lincoln added insult to injury, in the minds of Democrats, by instituting a draft and then suspending the writ of habeas corpus, which had long been considered a fundamental legal right. Legal historian Kellee Green Blake argued that “President Lincoln… lumped those who obstructed the draft with rebels and insurgents” when he suspended the writ,[10] and there were many in Illinois who opposed the draft.

A mural by Rebecca Sawyer Spoon depicting the Charleston Riot of 1864. Photo by the author.

Responding to these policies, one Democrat from Charleston, Illinois wrote to the Chicago Times on January 25, 1863, “history does not produce a more damnable and corrupt set of tyrants.”[11] They were “the death of liberty” a Democratic newspaper proclaimed.[12] In a September 1863 speech in Casey, Illinois, Congressman James Carroll Robinson warned that Democrats might have to “wade through blood knee deep to the ballot box.”[13]

It was in that atmosphere of profound suspicion, mistrust, and outrage that dozens of copperheads and furloughed soldiers began murdering each other around the Coles County Courthouse in the spring of 1864. For those antagonists, Congressman Robinson’s ominous warning had taken on a frightening, and tragic, reality.


[1] Robert D. Sampson, “‘Pretty Damned Warm Times’: The 1864 Charleston Riot and ‘the Inalienable Right of Revolution’,” Illinois Historical Journal 89 (Summer 1996): 113.

[2] Wood Gray, The Hidden Civil War: The Story of the Copperheads (New York: The Viking Press, 1942), 57-8.

[3] Ibid., 59.

[4] Ibid., 63.

[5] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era, The Oxford History of the United States, ed. C. Vann Woodward, vol. VI (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 352-353.

[6] Central Illinois Gazette, 24 July 1861.

[7] Frank L. Klement, “Midwestern Opposition to Lincoln’s Emancipation Policy,” The Journal of Negro History 49 (July, 1964): 174.

[8] Arthur C. Cole, The Era of the Civil War, 1848-1870, The Sesquicentennial History of Illinois, vol. III (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1919, 1987), 293.

[9] Ibid., 297.

[10] Kellee G. Blake, “Aiding and Abetting: Disloyalty Prosecutions in the Federal Civil Courts of Southern Illinois, 1861-1866,” Illinois Historical Journal 87 (Spring, 1994): 104.

[11] Sampson, 103.

[12] Belleville Democrat (Belleville), 26 September 1863.

[13] Sampson, 110.

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.

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.