A Democratic rally. Angry Copperheads, Judge Charles Constable holding court. Soldiers bent on teaching Copperheads a lesson. And enough whiskey for everyone. The ingredients for a perfect storm.
As the afternoon of March 28, 1864 wore on, a large crowd of civilians and soldiers milled about the Charleston courthouse square. Fueled by whiskey, the mood of the crowd had turned ominous. Democrat Congressman John R. Eden decided it would be unwise to deliver his planned remarks. Eden along with other conservative Democrat leaders urged the crowd to disperse and go home. Eden left town and Circuit Judge Charles Constable opened his court at 3 p.m.
Supposedly, the Democrats were instructed to wait inside the courthouse until the soldiers departed on the afternoon train to Mattoon. Only a few followed this advice. Soon after Constable opened court fighting erupted. No one knew who fired the first shot or why. When the gun smoke cleared, six soldiers lay dead and four wounded. Among civilians, one Republican was dead and three wounded while two Copperheads were killed and five suffered wounds.
After narrowly escaping death and fearing further violence, Colonel Greenville Mitchell, commander of the 54th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, wired Mattoon for reinforcements. Meanwhile, 40 or so Copperheads got on their horses and wagons, hightailing it out of Charleston for their homes in neighboring townships.
Over the next several days, soldiers scoured the county, rounding up roughly 50 Copperheads. Of these, 27 were moved to Camp Yates in Springfield and the rest released. Another 11 were turned free after further investigation. Miles Murphy, one of the 16 who remained in custody, died on April 17. Some say he was poisoned though officially his death was due to natural causes. The alleged leaders of the Copperheads managed to elude capture. Some went to Canada to wait out the war.
News of the Charleston Riot caused a brief panic in the North. Fearing a widespread Copperhead uprising that could tip the balance of the war, the price of gold briefly soared to record highs. In the South, the Richmond Daily Examiner opined: “Far north on the prairies of Illinois, the Yankee presidential campaign has auspiciously begun, as we trust it is likely to end, in riot and slaughter.”
The staunchly Republican Chicago Tribune called for swift justice for the Copperheads: “Any mistaken lenity now will multiply throughout the West instances of rebel revolt.”
On the other hand, the Washington correspondent for the New York World, a Democrat paper, observed: “The troubles in the West are clearly due to an unhealthy public sentiment among the Republicans, countenancing drunken soldiers in insulting peaceable citizens.”
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel James Oakes found himself in the midst of storm. Oakes, who was the acting assistant provost marshall for Illinois, had taken custody of the prisoners and moved them to Camp Yates. It had been assumed the military would try these men, but the civil courts saw things differently. There was growing civilian sentiment that the men be returned to Coles County to face justice.
Next: Causes and consequences.