Following Abraham Lincoln’s election and the subsequent secession of 11 states, there sprang an eclectic amalgam of big city bosses, laborers, immigrant groups, farmers, and others who opposed war. Their slogan, “The Constitution as it is, and the Union as it was,” supported the restoration of the pre-secession balance between the industrial North and the agrarian South.
These anti-war agitators became known as “Copperheads.” Most likely this label originated with an incident that occurred soon after Lincoln’s inauguration. In a post office near the Capitol a box broke open. Inside were two snakes. On April 10, 1861, the New York Times frantically reported Southerners had sent copperhead snakes as “weapons of war.” The story quickly spread across the country amid speculation the box had been sent to the White House in an attempt to assassinate Lincoln.
Seven days later, the Chicago Tribune calmly explained the box actually contained benign scarlet snakes, which are native to the Southern states. The newspaper speculated the box had been addressed to the Smithsonian Institution. Nonetheless, by the summer of 1861, Northern newspapers and Unionists used “Copperhead” to identify anyone who opposed the war or sympathized with the South.
The venomous copperhead, found throughout the South as well as in Illinois, seemed a perfect symbol. Unlike its cousin the rattlesnake, the copperhead gives no warning before it strikes, and its coloration makes it next to impossible to see. The copperhead came to symbolize the hidden enemy.
By the end of 1861, Peace Democrats, anti-war activists and Southern sympathizers were embracing the Copperhead appellation. Many would proudly wear a badge featuring a copper Indian Head penny.
In Illinois, Copperhead activity was strong in Eastern Illinois, especially Coles County. Here in early 1864 rumors circulated that Copperheads were amassing arms and planning to resist the draft.
Coles County was called the “Buckle on the Corn Belt” because of the enormous quantity of corn whiskey produced there. This abundance of whiskey made the county a favorite for soldiers on leave. Fueled by liquor, soldiers often stopped citizens on the streets, pushed them to their knees and made them recite this oath: “I do solemnly swear to support the Administration, Abraham Lincoln, all proclamations now issued and all that may hereafter be issued, so help me God.”
In Mattoon on Jan. 29, 1864, soldiers on leave forced a number of leading citizens to take the oath. Tensions between Copperheads and Unionists neared the breaking point the next day when Copperhead Edward Stevens was shot in the back and killed. The murder was committed by a soldier on leave. Though details are lacking, Stevens most likely taunted the soldier. In turn, the soldier reportedly attempted to make Stevens take the oath. Both had been drinking.
Animosity intensified during the weeks that followed. With whiskey in their bellies, soldiers on leave stepped up their harassment of citizens. On March 26, soldiers assaulted and disarmed two prominent Copperheads on the streets of Charleston. Rumors of Copperhead retaliation spread. Then came word the 54th Illinois Volunteer Infantry would assemble in Mattoon on March 28 and march on Charleston to “clean up the Butternut Court.” This was a reference to Circuit Court Judge Charles Constable, a conservative Democrat and Copperhead sympathizer.
Next: A riot in Charleston.