By Leigh Morris
Our place in history
Other than the 1863 New York City Draft Riot, the Charleston Riot of March 28, 1864, resulted in the largest number of casualties of any such civil disturbance during the Civil War.
Of the 50 or so men apprehended in the wake of the Charleston Riot, all but 16 (one of these men died on April 27) were released. Lieutenant Colonel James Oakes, the acting assistant provost marshall for Illinois, was in charge of the prisoners who were being held at Camp Yates in Springfield.
Coles County authorities and the prisoners’ attorneys insisted the men be returned to Charleston to face a civilian court. On June 22, a federal court issued a writ of habeas corpus, ordering the release of the men to the court. Two days later, General Henry Halleck wired Oakes, advising him that Abraham Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus for the prisoners. Now that the 15 men were considered prisoners of war, Oakes put them on the 10:40 p.m. train for the trip east to Fort Delaware.
Legal wrangling continued throughout the summer and fall. Then, days before the election, Lincoln ordered the prisoners’ release. Ten days later on Nov. 14, the prisoners left Fort Delaware under guard for the train ride back to Charleston.
Of the 15 men held by the military, only Washington Rardin and John Redmon had been indicted for murder. Both were found “not guilty” in a trial that took place in Effingham that December. The others were released. A number of men considered to be leaders of the riot had fled the county, many going to Canada. Though most returned to the area after the war, none were ever brought to trial.
We are left to ask why Copperhead sentiment was so strong in Eastern Illinois. With the outbreak of war, farmers lost access to the markets of the South, but price gouging made it uneconomical to ship to the East. Adding to their woes was the collapse of many local banks. Dissatisfaction with the war intensified with the imposition of the military draft.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was not at all well received. Though few supported slavery, most white people considered blacks to be inferior. Many feared newly freed slaves would migrate north and take jobs away from whites because the former slaves would work for lower wages.
Also, many considered Lincoln to be a dictator with no regard for civil liberties. As evidence, they pointed to the arrests of administration opponents, the suspension of habeas corpus and trials of civilians by military tribunals.
This volatile mix only needed a lit match to set off a deadly explosion. That match was provided by soldiers on leave who had too much idle time and too much cheap whiskey.
However, as Lincoln recognized, it would be a mistake to label as “treasonous” the actions of Charleston Copperheads. They did not view their actions as anti-government. Rather, they felt threatened, believed the soldiers fired the first shots and opened fire to protect themselves and their families.