On March 28, 1864, shots rang out in the courthouse yard in Charleston, Illinois. A sharp, short struggle between local residents disgusted with the Lincoln administration and its conduct of the war and furloughed troops of the 54th Illinois Infantry ended in the death of six soldiers and three civilians and left a dozen wounded—some of the deadliest civil violence in the wartime North.
Tensions build in Coles County While the level of violence stunned most observers, trouble at Charleston riot did not suddenly spring up from nowhere. Tensions had been building in eastern Illinois-as through much of the loyal North-even since the war’s early days. There were numerous points of conflict.
Cultural attitudes helped to divide Illinoisans. As was true in much of the southern half of Illinois, many Coles County residents had been born in or descended from families that came to Illinois from the South. They were unlikely to hold feelings against slavery, in fact many probably approved of the institution, though not living in a state in which it was legal. The coming of black freedom, limited as it was, and an influx of freedmen into Illinois could only be a subject of anger and anxiety.
Suspicion of centralized power—governmental, political, economic, and even religious-on the part of the Democratic Party seemed to be confirmed with every passing month. Fear that the Lincoln administration was subverting the very liberties for which the Revolutionary generation and those since had struggled grew. Arrests of opponents of the Lincoln administration were reported in newspapers throughout the North. In many places persons deemed to be disloyal were humiliated by being forced by local vigilantes to sign loyalty oaths. The suppression of Democratic-leaning newspapers through military order or by the action of mobs that sometimes included soldiers were denounced in countless public meetings (see this website’s June 2013 monthly feature).
A kind of battle fatigue also played a role in bringing feelings to the boiling point. Those opposed to the Lincoln administration condemned the seemingly endless bloodshed of the last three years, a struggle with no end in sight. A standard part of their critique was denunciation of what they saw as the administration’s bumbling conduct of the war. Many expressed their opinions openly in letters to newspaper editors or by attending political rallies that called for an end to the war.
Large numbers of men in the military service in turn looked upon those who expressed such opposition as worse traitors than those in the rebel army. Confederate troops, they said, stood up honorably in battle while antiwar men at home acted secretly to stab the loyal soldier in the back. In letters home and in resolutions adopted in mass meetings troops often declared that they could not wait to arrive home at war’s end and deal with such cowards.
Opposing sides gather in Charleston Aggrieved citizens and Democrats from Coles and nearby counties gathered in Charleston late in March during court week, to listen to prominent Democratic speakers including Congressman John Eden. By a sad trick of fate the same date had been designated as the time for furloughed veterans of local companies of the 54th Illinois Infantry to gather and begin their return to the front lines. These men had reenlisted after a full three-year term of service during which they had experienced suffering of many kinds. Many shared the feeling common among servicemen that civilians at home who opposed the war effort were worse traitors than Confederate troops. This mix of men carrying chips on shoulders would prove explosive.
March 28, 1864 The two groups gathered near the courthouse square eyed each other warily. Democrats suspected that the troops might force loyalty oaths on some of the prominent antiwar men who were present, something that had happened in the recent past. They were determined to prevent any further such outrages. The veteran soldiers were confident of their ability to “whip” any antiwar men who might put up a fight. Threats were passed.
The critical confrontation finally took place. By a quick, confused sequence of events shots were fired and two men fell wounded. Firing quickly began around the square as civilians ran to wagons to get weapons or pulled pistols from pockets. Armed men tumbled into the courthouse, shooting. Firing continued about the square until the county sheriff formed the antiwar Democrats at a corner of the square and marched them out of town. Two more men would be made casualties when soldiers fired at and killed a captured Democrat who had not reached his compatriots. The same volley killed a merchant who supported the Lincoln administration.
Interested in learning more?
Special events commemorating the riot will be held in Charleston on March 28-30, 2014. Visit www.charlestonillinoisriot.org for detailed information.
The Charleston riot has been well covered by a number of authors. Important studies include Peter J. Barry, “The Charleston Riot and Its Aftermath: Civil, Military, and Presidential Responses,” Journal of Illinois History 7 (2004): 82-106; Robert D. Sampson, “‘Pretty damned warm times’: The 1864 Charleston Riot and ‘the inalienable right of revolution,'” Illinois Historical Journal 89 (1996): 99-116, found at http://dig.lib.niu.edu/ISHS/ishs-1996summer/ishs-1996summer099.pdf.