March 28, 1864 (Monday)
While the war was slumbering through much of the winter, many regiments were given a furloughs so they could visit their homes before the spring campaign season began anew. Some towns, however, were not so happy to see their boys return. Charleston, Illinois, for example, had been a divided town at the start of the war. Unionist newspapers waged a war of words with pro-secessionist “copperhead” papers, as the actual war progressed. When Lincoln instituted the draft, however, the copperheads, also known as the Peace Democrats, became even more vigilant, causing many to question their loyalties.
The Peace Democrats wanted the war to come to an end by giving the South what she wanted – an independent, slave-holding nation. They generally despised abolitionists and often saw the soldiers as armed Republicans.
When the soldiers were on leave, more than a few of them did their own cause any favors. The 54th Illinois was raised in the area around Charleston. When they returned, they were not fully welcomed as heroes. The soldiery did themselves no favors. For example, they forced random citizens of a nearby town to swear an oath of loyalty to the Federal government. Some citizens were shot or beaten by drunken soldiers, while, in Charleston, at least two more Peace Democrats were beaten.
It all came to a head on this date, known in Charleston as “Court Day,” which was a sort of celebration of the opening of the circuit court. Typically, there was a festival atmosphere with food, drink, and political speeches. This year, it was turned into a rally for the Democratic Party.
Rumors had been spreading through the week previous that the 54th Illinois would be in town to apparently cause trouble. Some of the Copperheads vowed to seek their revenge upon the regiment before any of their number had a chance to strike again.
As the local Democrats gathered to hear a speech by congressman John Rice Eden, the whiskey flowed and by the afternoon, weapons began to appear. Congressman Rice, seeing that the situation was about to devolve into something horrible, canceled his speech and circulated throughout the crowd in an attempt to calm them. But it was no use.
Not long after, there was a confrontation between a Copperhead and soldier. At first, only words were exchanged, but soon they turned to shouting and fisticuffs. Both drew their pistols, but it was the citizen who shot first, mortally wounding the soldier. Before the soldier died, however, he fired back, immediately killing the citizen. Then all hell broke loose.
The Peace Democrats, who were well armed, pulled their squirrel rifles and shotguns, and opened fire on the two companies of Illinois troops. The soldiers had stacked arms and were caught off guard. As the troops ran for cover, the county sheriff stormed out of the courthouse to try and settle the dispute. Instead, he picked up a gun and sided with the Democrats.
Col. Greenville Mitchell of the 54th was also inside the courthouse when the shots were fired. Like the sheriff, he ran outside, followed closely by the regimental surgeon. Both were shot, though it was the surgeon, Major Shuball York, who was specifically targeted. York was an abolitionist from a nearby county, and had drawn great ire from the Charleston copperheads as he was planning to run against John Rice Eden. The colonel was wounded, though not severely.
The two companies from the 54th Illinois grabbed their guns, but by that time, the sheriff, who had been seen firing upon Republicans, had more or less taken control of the Democrats, and the affair was over. The soldiers captured only one Democrat, who they killed when he reportedly tried to escape. In all nine were dead – six from the 54th, two Copperheads, and one Republican shopkeep who was more of a bystander than anything. Twelve others were wounded.
The sheriff eventually slipped through the dragnet thrown across the area by the 54th Illinois, and made his way to Canada. They would soon round up fifty or so citizens, though only sixteen would be sent to a prison at Camp Delaware. There they would remain for seven months, held without being charged, until President Lincoln finally pardoned them. The sheriff would eventually stand trial, but would be found innocent.1
- Sources: “Pretty Damn Warm Times” by Robert D. Sampson, as appearing in the Illinois Historical Journal, 1996; The 47th Indiana Volunteer Infantry by David Williamson. [↩]