Thursday, March 25, 2010

Charleston Illinois Riot Of 1864.

While I was researching my sheriffs list I ran across this report, it tells how and why the riot came about and the end result. Now of course there is a sheriff in the repot, his name is John O’Hair, but this is not just about him as he only played a small part in the riot, but it was a important part. This is interesting reading and a must read if you would like to know the feelings of the people at this time in history.

Springfield, Ill., April 18, 1864.

COLONEL: I have the honor to report that information of this disturbances in Charleston, Coles County, Ill., on the 28th of March last, reached me on the afternoon of the same day.

Captain Montgomery, U. S. Army, being about to proceed to Mattoon on mustering duty, I directed him to repair to the scene of the outbreak, ascertain the posture of affairs, and telegraph me if my presence was deemed necessary.

About 8.30 p. m. the next day I received a dispatch from Captain Montgomery requesting me to come down without delay, and left by the next train for Mattoon, where I arrived on the morning of the 30th. Finding the town in a state of great excitement from rumors, apparently entitled to credit, that the insurgents meditated an attack in force to rescue the prisoners which has been sent up from Charleston, I deemed it prudent to order forward the Forty-first Regiment, Colonel Pugh commanding, from Springfield.

Taking a fright train I them proceeded to Charleston. Colonel Mitchell, fo the Fifty-fourth Infantry, was absent with a mounted detachment of his regiment in search of the insurgents, who had left the town and were reported to be collecting in large bodies in various directions in the surrounding country.

In the afternoon (30th) I received a dispatch from Colonel True, Sixty-second Illinois, on recruiting duty at Mattoon and commanding post, representing in urgent terms the need of more troops at that point. I therefore asked for 500 men from Indianapolis, and returned by next train to Mattoon, finding the place in a state of the most intense excitement, over a hundred citizens being organized and under arms, the prisoners lodged in a secure place and strongly guarded, pickets posted, and every preparation made to defend the place, an attack upon which was confidently anticipated.

The Forty-first Illinois, Colonel Pugh, and Forty-seventh Indiana, Colonel Slack, arrived about midnight, and both regiments, under the command of Colonel True, proceeded to points some 12 miles west and southwest of Mattoon in search of the rebels who were believed to be there collected in considerable force. Finding that the insurgents, small parties of whom had been assembled at the designated places, had dispersed upon the advance of the troops and made good their escape, the command returned to Mattoon, arriving on the morning of the 31st, when the Forty-seventh Indiana was permitted to proceed on their way to Cairo en route for the field.

Leaving the Forty-first at Matton, I again repaired to Charleston, where I found the excitement subsided and confidence partially restored, the people feeling secure in the protection of the troops, consisting of the Fifty-fourth Illinois, and Company E, Twenty-third Veteran Reserve Corps, which had been stopped by Captain Montgomery on the 29th while on its way from Paris, Ill. After making such arrangements for the protection of the place and the maintenance of order as circumstances seemed to require, I returned to Mattoon and thence to Springfield, arriving on the morning of the 2nd instant.

On the 8th instant, I again visited both Charleston and Mattoon, and found those places and the surrounding country quiet and confidence generally restored. The Forty-first was furloughed on the 11th instant, and the Fifty-fourth left for the field on the 12th, leaving one company of the Veteran Reserve Corps at Charleston and another at Paris, which I deem ample for the present.

A large number of prisoners were taken by the military and citizens, most of whom were released for lack of evidence. The proof against 29 was, however, deemed sufficient to warrant their being held for further examination, and I ordered them to be forwarded, under guard, to Camp Yates near this city, until the necessary testimony could be obtained and examined, to enable me to determine what further disposition should be made of them. After careful examination of the evidence received, consisting of affidavits, reports, letters, &c., and which is very voluminous, I have discharged 13 of the 29, and 1 has since died, leaving 15 yet to be disposed of. I have forwarded all the testimony, together with an elaborate report, to Major General S. P. Heintzelman, commanding Northern Department, with request that the prisoners might be tried by military law, if consisted and expedient, and requesting early instructions or suggestions for my further action in the premises.

It is much to be regretted that the ruling spirits and chief actors in this treasonable insurrection have not as yet been captured. O'Hair, the sheriff of Coles County and the ringleader of the insurgents, is not to be found; and others who were prominent in the murderous assault have made their escape.

It is impossible to doubt that this outbreak was premeditated and preconcerted, and that its immediate purpose was the murder of the soldiers, to be followed by such other movements as circumstances might warrant, and it is this fact that gives special significance to the whole affair. The occasion was favorable. The circuit court of Coles County, Judge Constable presiding, was to open on Monday, the 28th of March, and Mr. Eden, member of Congress from that district, was to make a speech. It was known that the Fifty-fourth Regiment was about to return to the field, and that a number of soldiers belonging to that regiment would take the cars on that day at Charleston for the rendezvous at Mattoon. There was thus an excellent pretext for a large gathering without exciting suspicion, while the number of soldiers would be comparatively small and in no condition for defense.

On the appointed day the court convened. Sheriff O'Hair was present attending to his official duties; the court-house square was thronged with people, including notorious secessionists from the adjoining county of Edgar, whose sheriff is brother to the sheriff of Coles County. Mingling with the crowd, an unarmed with one or two exceptions, were some 12 or 15 soldiers of the Fifty-fourth, who were residents of Charleston and vicinity, quietly conversing with their acquaintances while waiting for the train for Mattoon. Presently, without cause of provocation, a desperado named Wells fired upon and mortally wounded a soldier. Sheriff O'Hair instantly rushed from the court-room, marshaled the insurgents, put himself at their head, and directed all their subsequent moments. Every man of the assailants was found to be armed. Pistols were drawn and fired in all directions. When these had been discharged they rushed to wagons near by and brought forth guns and ammunition, which had been lain concealed beneath the straw, &c. In one minute, as Colonel Mitchell reports, 100 shots were fired and nearly every soldier was either killed or wounded, although scattered about over the whole square; every blue coat or brass button, without distinction, became a target for the assassin.

think all this admits of but one solution, a deliberate plot on the of the leaders to murder the soldiers of the United States. This view is confirmed by several witness, who swear that the purpose of "cleaning out" the soldiers and Union men on that day had been avowed by the ringleaders several days before, and preparations had been extensively made to execute the threat; and I am satisfied that but for the timely action of Colonel Mitchell in ordering up his regiment from Mattoon, and the prompt measures subsequently taken to check the progress of the insurgents and thwart their designs, it would have proved the beginning of an extensive and dangerous emeute in that part of the State.

have directed personal knowledge that some at least of the gang were members of a treasonable secret society, kindred in its character and objects with that known as the "K. G. C.," or Knights of the Golden Circle, and I have little doubt that the outbreak was planned and executed in great part by and through that organization. There is also reason to apprehend that through the same agency an extensive and formidable conspiracy is being formed against the Government, and that it is only awaiting a fitting opportunity for developments. It is therefore not so much on account of the intrinsic importance of these disturbances, desperate and bloody as they were, as from a sense of their revelation of and bearing upon future and more daring machinations against the Government, that I am desirous that these prisoners and the leaders, should they hereafter be taken, may be tried and (if found guilty) punished by the military authorities. I fear it would be useless to turn them over for trial by the civil tribunals, whether State or Federal, to whose jurisdiction they would belong. Prompt and rigorous dealing by military law could not fail to be of salutary and lasting effect. It is scarcely necessary to observe that many of the insurgents were without doubt merely the dupes of others and were inveigled into the scheme without apprehending or approving the real purpose of the chief conspirators. It is proper to add that the opinion of the origin, character, and purpose of the insurrection, herein expressed, is concurred in by every loyal man of the counties concerned with whom I have conversed.
Herewith I have the honor to transmit the report of Colonel G. M. Mitchell, Fifty-fourth Illinois Infantry.
I am, colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Lieutenant-Colonel Fourth U. S. Cavalry,

Mattoon, Ill., April 8, 1864.

COLONEL: In pursuance of instructions from you, I have the honor to report my proceedings during the recent disturbances in coles County, as follows:

The furloughs granted my men having expired they were ordered to rendezvous at Mattoon, Ill., March 28. As many of the men lived at, or would pass through, Charleston on their way to camp, I remained there Monday to see them all on the train and to prevent any disturbance.

Before the afternoon train left for Mattoon about 3 p. m., Nelson Wells, a so-called captain of a company organized some 7 miles north of Charleston, whose object in drilling was only known to themselves, commenced firing at Private Oliver Sallee, Company C, Fifty-fourth Illinois, so far as I can learn without the slightest provocation, lodging a balk in Sallee's breast, which has since caused his death. Sallee fell, but partially rising shot Wells dead. This was in the court-house yard, near the west door. Immediately firing became general, the sheriff of this county, John O'Hair, leaving his seat and taking the lead in the attack upon the soldiers. Some 16 of my men were present on the square, nearly all of whom were killed or wounded. Some 75 men, after firing wherever they could see a blue coat, collected at a grove about one-quarter of a mile from the square east of town, under the lead of the sheriff, held a consultation, and learning the Fifty-fourth Illinois were on their way from Mattoon, moved out in the country.,

Immediately on the report of Wells' pistol I stepped out of the west door of the court-room, when 3 men with revolvers drawn, apparently expecting me, commenced firing, 2 of them running by me into the room. I caught one named Robert Winkler by the wrist as he was attempting to shoot me, turning his revolver down until he discharged all his loads.

Major Shuball York surgeon of the Fifty-fourth Illinois, was shot from behind as he was leaving the court-room, expiring almost instantly.

The attack could not have lasted over a minute, during which one hundred shots must have been fired, nearly all of my men being either killed or wounded. The fact that my men, scattered as they were over the square, were instantly shot down, and the systematic manner in which the sheriff rallied and drew off his party, together with affidavits of reliable citizens forwarded, leaves no room to doubt that a party of men came to Charleston armed with revolvers and shotguns with the knowledge and consent of Sheriff O'Hair, with deliberate intention of killing the soldiers.

As soon as the firing was over I telegraphed to Colonel Chapman at Mattoon to bring men and guns. He arrived at 4.30 p. m. with 250 men. I immediately mounted 75 men and scoured the country in all directions, arresting several parties implicated, and releasing Levi Freesner, private Company C, Fifty-fourth Illinois, who was confined in a house under guard 7 miles from town. He was arrested by Sheriff O'Hair some distance from the square while on his way to the station to take the cars from Mattoon, and knew nothing of the affray. His gun and accouterments have not yet been secured. As the regiment arrived in the court-house yard a man named John Cooper, living in this county, who had been in town all day intoxicated, wearing a pistol in sight and swearing he came to kill soldiers, was accosted by a patrol, but turning to run was immediately shot down, citizens and soldiers firing without orders. Unfortunately a ball passed through the residence of John Jenkins, citizen, wounding him and since causing his death.

Captain Montgomery, mustering and disbursing officer, arrived from Springfield, Ill., Tuesday morning, and examined several witnesses, instructing me to remain at Charleston with my command until you arrived.

A company of the Invalid Corps, Lieutenant Baker commanding passing from Paris, were detained by Captain Montgomery and ordered to report to me.

On your arrival Wednesday you instructed me to continue to arrest individuals implicated in the murder, procure affidavits of reliable witnesses, and to keep the peace, which has been done.

Hearing of large bodies of rioters of the country, I left Charleston with 100 mounted men at 9 p. m., April 2, proceeded south through Martinsville, to within 5 miles of Marshall, county seat of Clark County, from thence to Auburn, and north to the Terre Haute, Alton and Saint Louis Railroad at Kansas, and thence to Charleston, arriving at 7 p. m., April 4. I found bodies of men from 25 to 100 had been seen, but had dispersed; one squad of 16 I arrested but released. At present all is quiet.

forward herewith lists of killed and wounded; also lists of prisoners forwarded.
Respectfully, your obedient servant,
Colonel Fifty-fourth Ill. Vet. Vol. Infty., Commanding.

The following is the list of killed and wounded during the disturbance at Charleston, Ill.:

Killed: Major Shuball York, Fifty-fourth Illinois Infantry; Privates Oliver Sallee and James Goodrich, Company C, and John Neer and Alfred Swim, Company G, Fifty-fourth Illinois Infantry; Private William G. Hart, Sixty-second Illinois Infantry; John Jenkins, citizen (loyal); Nelson Wells, citizen (sheriff's party); John Cooper, citizen (sheriff's party).

Wounded: Colonel G. M. Mitchell, Fifty-fourth Illinois; Privates William H. Decker, Company G, Landford Noyes, Company I, and George Ross, Company C, Fifty-fourth Illinois; Citizens Thomas Jeffers, William Giolman, Young E. Winkler, Robert Winkler, John W. Herndon, George J. Collins.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

See the book The Charleston Illinois Riot, March 28, 1864 by Peter J. Barry (2007), especially for more detail on the Copperheads involved.