“The attack could not have lasted over a minute”: The Charleston Riot

Yesterday I posted about Confederate authorities dealing with dissidents in Florida.  To balance that, let me offer a similar episode occurring for the Federals at roughly the same time, 150 years ago.  The incident took place in Charleston….

Charleston in Coles County, Illinois that is.

On March 28, 1864, a group identified as everything from “copperheads” to “Knights of the Golden Circle” used the cover of a political rally to attack Federal soldiers in Charleston.  The report cited here is from Colonel Greenville M. Mitchell, 54th Illinois Infantry, addressed to Lieutenant-Colonel James Oakes, of the Provost-Marshal-General of Illinois:

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 ball in Sallee’s breast, which has since caused his death. Sallee fell, but partially rising shot Wells dead. This was in the courthouse yard, near the west door. Immediately firing became general, the sheriff of this county, John H. 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.

Maj. 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 for 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.

In another inclosure, Mitchell provided the names of those killed, wounded and taken prisoner.  The attackers killed six soldiers, wounded five, including Mitchell himself, and killed or wounded eight civilians.  Two of the attackers fell dead.  Mitchell listed the names of twenty-seven men arrested.  Of those, authorities released all but sixteen (and one of those died while in custody).

The Illinois Civil War 150th website has a very detailed accounting, by Peter J. Barry, of the incident, what happened to the men arrested, and those who escaped Federal authorities.  And the city of Charleston has events planned this weekend coinciding with the anniversary.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 32, Part I, Serial 57, pages 633-4.)