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.