Peace Democrats not so peaceful

By Daniel Briseño
Posted 3/13/23

Edgar County had several men fight in the Civil War. Many fell ill, were wounded or even killed in battle. They believed when they were home on leave, they might have a period of relaxation, but, …

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Peace Democrats not so peaceful


Edgar County had several men fight in the Civil War. Many fell ill, were wounded or even killed in battle. They believed when they were home on leave, they might have a period of relaxation, but, thanks to Peace Democrats, many soldiers learned to fear for their lives just as much at home as they did at war.

Peace Democrats, also known as Butternuts or Copperheads, were southern sympathizers living in the northern states, but their name is quite deceiving because the faction here in Edgar County was involved with violent incidents.

Edgar County had one of the largest Butternut encampments in the nation during the Civil War and although these men did not always start conflict, with this encampment came a lot of trouble.

The Copperheads did many things here in Edgar County. They arrested, tried and sold a black woman because they said she was trying to move into Paris. Some stood on the streets and heckled people and even beat people with rocks and wooden items. On one occasion the Copperheads heard a train carrying 1,000 Union soldiers was returning to Paris. So, under the cover of night, parties unknown but believed to be Copperheads cut the ties on a bridge. The train carrying the Union soldiers passed over unscathed, but the next train crashed through injuring the crew.

There was one event that surpassed them all leading to the streets of Paris being riddled with bullets and men dead.

In 1864, the encampment of Copperheads numbered between 400 and 500 men. They set up camp at Big Creek and were led by a man known as Powder Horn. Paris businessman Amos Green, a known Jefferson Davis patriot, counseled Powder Horn in his movements.

Green owned a local paper called the Times and after rumors surfaced that he gave orders for more than 100 Butternuts to converge on Paris the Union men in town paid him a visit. Green ultimately swore his oath to the Union.

In the middle of February 1864, Paris resident and Union soldier, Milton York was home on leave with several other soldiers. York got into an argument with a man named Cooper. A gunfight ensued and York gravely wounded Cooper. Edgar County Sheriff William S. O’Hair, a known Copperhead, attempted to arrest York but was unsuccessful as one of York’s friends stopped him with a rifle. York was later arrested but released for technical reasons.

The incident between York and Cooper put the Copperheads on high alert. They gathered weapons and came into Paris to guard Green’s newspaper business. On the day the furloughed soldiers were to leave, O’Hair rode into town with a posse of more than a dozen men and they were seen by a local boy hiding weapons in a wagon.

The boy ran and told some of the Union soldiers and the soldiers went to investigate. As the soldiers approached an alley off Central, they were fired upon. The men who fired at them fled to a horse stable near the west edge of town where it is believed O’Hair had the wagon of weapons waiting.

W.C. Slemmons, Lemuel Trowbridge and Mark Boatman were the first of the soldiers to reach the stables. Inside was a Clark County man named Alfred Kennedy. Kennedy fired at the men striking Trowbridge in the wrist. Kennedy then yelled out he surrendered and as Boatman lowered his gun and entered the stable Kennedy fired again. This time hitting Boatman in the shoulder.

Many Union Soldiers showed up and fired volley after volley into the stable. After the smoke cleared Kennedy was found inside wounded badly. Kennedy confessed the Copperheads had planned to ambush the soldiers at the train station.

Tensions were still high in March as two soldiers of the Illinois 54th attacked two Copperheads in Charleston.  Just a few days later Copperheads retaliated attacking men of the 54th. This event is known as the Charleston Riots and the place where Major Shubal York was killed.

The Big Creek Army existed fighting against Union men in Edgar County until the war ended. In later years, although there is proof the Copperheads instigated several events, they tried to justify what they did during the war saying they always felt a threat from the Union men.