CHARLESTON -- The conflicts of the Civil War reached Coles County on March 28, 1864, when a fight in Charleston between U.S. soldiers and Confederate sympathizers left nine people dead and 12 wounded.
With the 150th anniversary of what became known as the Charleston Riot approaching, plans are taking place for a sesquicentennial commemoration. The three-day event will be centered at the Coles County Courthouse, where the battle took place.
"We want things to be historical, educational and good for commerce," said Ann Winkler Hinrichs, who's heading the committee planning the observance. She said the organizers want to have a full-scale commemoration because the Charleston Riot "is one of the most important things in Coles County."
The conflict is also sometimes called the Copperhead Riot in reference to the name given to the southern supporters. Coles County Circuit Judge Mitchell Shick said John O'Hair, the county sheriff at the time, and many others were "notorious Copperheads" and the county's population "was really split."
Shick has spent time reviewing court documents from the riot, still in storage at the courthouse, and said his interest comes from several reasons. For example, his family is related to a man who owned a sawmill to which the rioters fled after the fight, he said.
The court records are the original depositions, or sworn accounts, of about 30 people military investigators interviewed after the riot. The stories are "all over the place" but Shick said he was able to conclude that the sheriff led the Copperheads and the fight wasn't spontaneous as some believe, that some type of fight was planned.
"What isn't clear to me is what the plan was," Shick said.
Hinrichs, whose great-great grandfather Young Ewing Winkler was injured during the riot, said the group planning the anniversary has been meeting for nearly a year. Also participating are genealogist and historian David Kent Coy, local historian Nancy Easter Shick, author Peter Barry, retired Charleston Library Director Sheryl Snyder, Charleston Tourism Supervisor Diane Ratliff and Coles County Historical Society Director Kim Bauer.
The actual anniversary date of March 28, 2014, will be a Friday so events will be limited as that's a weekday, Hinrichs said. Still, she said there are plans for a wreath-laying at the courthouse and the group is working with area schools to encourage lessons on the riot and attendance at the ceremony, she said.
She said the plans for Saturday include walking tours of the square and other sites with ties to Abraham Lincoln history along with a dinner. A re-enactment is planned for Sunday in addition to speakers who will talk about what happened at the riot and after, she said.
Now, the group is looking for descendants of people involved in the riot to participate in the anniversary. Hinrichs said she thinks it's important to have that kind of direct connection.
"It brings it more to life," Hinrichs said. "It means a bit more when someone is a descendant."
She said some common names with ties to the riot include Rardin, Galbreath, Rennels, Murphy, Frazier, O'Hair, Mitchell, Swango, Decker, Sallee, Toland, Dukes, Elden, Wells and Hanks. She said she and Coy can trace genealogy for people who aren't sure if they're related, and the group can be contacted on its website, www.charlestonillinoisriot.org, she said.
Volunteers are also needed, Hinrichs added, and people interested can contact her by email at annew615(at)aol.com or phone at 314-608-3451.
Shick said the varying accounts in the court depositions mean "you have to look at it with a bit of skepticism" but there are several signs that the Copperheads planned a fight. A woman visiting someone at the county jail said she overheard the sheriff or a deputy tell a prisoner he'd be released "if you go down and fight for Uncle Jeff," referring to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and there were accounts of people bringing weapons hidden under hay in wagons, he said.
"They were going to do something," Shick said.