A violent gun battle 55 miles west of Terre Haute during the Civil War has earned several names. The Charleston Riot of 1864 and The Coles County War are the most popular. A few refer to it, simply, as the Battle of Charleston.
The date: March 28, 1864, almost exactly 150 years ago.
The adversaries were two companies of the 54th Illinois Infantry on the one hand and, on the other, between 100 and 150 militant anti-Lincoln forces popularly known as Copperheads, Butternuts or Peace Democrats.
Though Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s father and step-mother, had resided in Coles County since 1837, citizens there were not enthusiastic in support of their son’s administration.
Political sympathies in Coles County were almost equally divided during the war. In 1860, voters gave Lincoln a plurality over Stephen Douglas, 1,495 to 1,467. In 1862, the Seventh Illinois Congressional District, of which Coles County was a component, elected Democrat John R. Eden, to Congress, while the county chose John H. O’Hair, a Democratic sheriff.
Yet Coles County men volunteered for military service in far greater numbers than the state average. In 1855, militant Peace Democrats formed an organization in Indiana called the Knights of the Golden Circle. By 1862, it boasted 15,000 members.
On Aug. 27, 1863, the Order of American Knights was founded in Terre Haute. By February 1864, the Sons of Liberty became the premier group responsible for subversive activities in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri. The center of operations was eastern Illinois, headed by Capt. Thomas R. Hines and Major John B. Castleman. These groups opposed the draft and contrived schemes to liberate prisoners from Camp Morton in Indianapolis and Camp Douglas in Chicago.
For the most part, Copperheads were Confederate sympathizers for economic reasons. The South was the top produce market available to Midwest farmers and emancipation of African Americans threatened to flood the labor market.
The first publicized confrontation in eastern Illinois between the military and the Peace Democrats occurred in early March 1863 involving Charles H. Constable of Marshall, Ill., judge of the Fourth Judicial Circuit.
Four deserters from an Illinois regiment were trailed by two Indiana army officers across the Illinois state line and arrested them in Charleston, where Judge Constable was holding court. Friends of the deserters urged Constable to release them. He not only complied but also ordered the arrest of the two Indiana officers for kidnaping.
His combative spirit aroused, Indiana Gov. Oliver Morton directed Col. Henry B. Carrington to go to Charleston, where Judge Constable was hearing a case against the “kidnappers,” to address Indiana’s grievances. Carrington arrested Constable for interfering with Indiana’s military operations. Judge Samuel H. Treat of the U.S. District Court for Southern Illinois intervened to order the judge’s release.
Feelings between the two groups escalated. Copperheads treated soldiers home on leave harshly and, in return, soldiers — especially after consuming whiskey — stopped Peace Democrat civilians on the street and forced them to take an oath of allegiance. On Jan. 30, 1864, during such ridicule in Mattoon, Charles Shoalmax of the 17th Illinois Cavalry was killed by Edward Stevens, a Copperhead.
On Feb. 16, 1864, Milton York of the 66th Illinois shot and seriously wounded a Copperhead in Paris. The Yorks were known abolitionists. On Feb. 22, several soldiers were wounded on Paris streets and a Copperhead named Kennedy was killed.
No deaths were divulged in Charleston but, in early March, reports surfaced that several Copperheads had been severely beaten there and that retaliation was planned. Meanwhile, stories circulated that the 54th Illinois was ordered to assemble at Mattoon on Monday, March 28, and stop off at Charleston “to clean up the Butternut court,” as Judge Constable’s courtroom was called. The stage was set for violence.
The 54th Illinois Infantry, organized at Anna, Ill. in 1861, was mustered into federal service in February 1862. Col. Greenville M. Mitchell of Charleston became its commander in November 1862. Companies C and G included many Coles County men.
March 28 was “Court Day” in Charleston. Judge Constable and Sheriff O’Hair would be there and Congressman Eden was scheduled to speak at a Democratic rally.
Expecting soldiers to be in town, most Peace Democrats brought arms with them concealed under straw in farm wagons. Both soldiers and civilians drank whiskey freely.
By about 1 p.m., the ugly temperament of the crowd was palpable. Eden canceled his speech and urged Peace Democrats to go home. Few followed his instructions. Not expecting brutality, many soldiers apparently were unarmed.
The first violent confrontation occurred about 3:30 p.m., involving Pvt. Oliver Salle of Company C and 23-year old Nelson Wells, a Copperhead from Edgar County. Both died from gunshot wounds. Reports of the showdown were contradictory.
Major Shubal York of Edgar County, surgeon in the 54th Illinois and father of Milton York, was shot and killed from behind while leaving Constable’s courtroom. Soon thereafter, Deputy Provost Marshal William G. Hart, Pvt. Alfred Swim and Pvt. James Goodrich were mortally wounded. Col. Mitchell claimed that 100 shots were exchanged during one minute, resulting in injury or death to several soldiers.
The infantrymen were outnumbered. Six were killed and four, including Col. Mitchell, were wounded. Only two Copperheads died but six were wounded and 60 were arrested. John Jenkins, a non-military Republican, died when he was accidentally struck by a shell intended for a Copperhead. Three others were wounded.
On April 2, the 54th Illinois Regiment and Coles County each offered rewards for the apprehension of Coles County Sheriff John H. O’Hair, Elsberry Hanks, John and James Frazier, Henderson and Jesse O’Hair, B. F. Toland and B.F. Dukes for murder.
A grand jury brought indictments against 14 men on June 20. None of the defendants were caught and, when they returned after the war, they were not arrested.
It is probable that several indicted Coles County Copperheads were related to President Lincoln by blood or marriage.