The Charleston Riot

March 28, 1864 – Violence erupted between anti-war Democrats and Federal soldiers on furlough in Charleston, Illinois.

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Charleston had been politically divided since before the war, and the dueling Unionist and Copperhead newspapers in town worked to intensify the enmity on both sides. When men of the 54th Illinois came home, they forced local Judge Charles H. Constable to swear loyalty to the U.S. after Constable had ordered the release of Federal army deserters. Other suspected Copperheads were beaten or shot.

A traditional festival called “Court Day” took place on the 28th; this was the day that the circuit court (which included Judge Constable) began its session. The festival included music, celebration, food, drink, and speeches. With Federal soldiers in attendance, many Copperheads armed themselves in case the troops tried waging any more violence against them.

John R. Eden, an anti-war activist running for Congress, delivered a speech hailed by the Copperheads. Liquor flowed among the spectators, and a confrontation between a soldier and a Copperhead led to a fist fight. Both men drew their pistols and fired, killing each other. Pandemonium ensued.

The Copperheads began firing at the soldiers, many of whom were unarmed and ran for cover. Coles County Sheriff John O’Hair, a Copperhead leader, joined his comrades and helped them gather weapons from nearby wagons. Both Colonel Greenville Mitchell and Major Shuball York of the 54th were shot; York was especially targeted because he was a local abolitionist planning to oppose Eden in the upcoming election.

The troops regrouped, grabbed their stacked rifles, and drove the Copperheads out of town. The violence finally ended after nine men (two Copperheads, six soldiers, and a bystander) were killed and another 20 wounded. A local newspaper reported: “This afternoon a dreadful affair took place in our town…”

Federal reinforcements from Mattoon later arrived and helped round up about 50 alleged participants. Sheriff O’Hair escaped the posse and fled to Canada. Eventually 16 men were held as instigators. President Abraham Lincoln, whose father and stepmother had lived in Coles County, waived the prisoners’ right to habeas corpus and ordered them imprisoned at Fort Delaware before finally releasing them in November. Nobody was convicted of any wrongdoing.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 389; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 412; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 479

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