EDN Bicentennial Series: A deeply divided country and county

Submitted photoMethodist Clergyman Reverend Bliss became a “pistol-packing” preacher during the Civil War Era. Bliss Park in Effingham is named after the Rev. Bliss.

Across five Aprils, from 1861 until 1865, the harsh reality of war came home via the mail and the newspaper.

There was much pain and sadness in a nation that was deeply divided. Even the major religious denominations were divided. There was, for instance, a Methodist Episcopal Church, South, a group which supported states’ rights — a political stance most entrenched in the Deep South. Such a congregation existed in the town of Effingham.

Just as the deeply divided citizenry of the whole United States had strong responses to the Civil War so did the deeply divided citizenry of Effingham County. Those who supported the Union cause were full of patriotic fervor. In Mason, Goddard’s Hotel became a focal point for rallies. Pro-Union meetings also were held at the Mason Baptist Church. In part due to the great number of enlistments from the community and its immediately surrounding area, Teutopolis township came into existence.

There were Effingham County residents with strong anti-slavery sentiments. One such person was H.H. Wright, who wrote about his family’s experiences. He described his father’s acquaintanceship with the famous Abolitionist leader Elijah Lovejoy.

“At that date (1827) the boat crossed the river twice a day and there were 20,000 inhabitants in the city. My Father stayed there that summer and worked at his trade.

He got good wages while there, but there was a feeling on the slavery question and Lovejoy was printing a Free Soil Paper and my Father being raised a Quaker He read his paper and a friend of Lovejoy’s and I recollect Lovejoy well when he was ordered to leave St. Louis. His friends thought it not safe and left also. Lovejoy went to Alton and was killed. His horse threw in the river.”

There was a great moral debate about the issue of slavery and about the need to support President Lincoln as he tried to keep the country united as a single nation. A network of pro-Union newspapers that borrowed from each other’s editorial pages described what was happening in other communities in this part of the state.

The Loyalist was an Effingham County newspaper printed in Mason. Its editor and publisher was a man named George Brewster. He was described by those who knew him as a talented and educated man who, although not a firebrand in personality, could create strong emotional responses in people by what he wrote. He started publishing The Loyalist in April 1863. For nearly nine months, his seven-column folio became a “Red-hot exponent of abolitionism.” With the motto of “Union and Liberty, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable,” the newspaper located in Stephen Hardin’s store, at the corner of Main and Washington in the village of 200 people, printed scorching editorials berating deserters and local insurgents. Of course, there was war news, stories regarding what was significant in the strategy for winning the war, soldiers’ letters, and heart-felt defenses of the President. Correspondents, such as Dr. J.N. Matthews and others, went to the newspaper office carrying weapons due to the frequent threats of violence. The Loyalist building became the gathering place for Unionists who came together to conduct political rallies.

The large number of “Peace Democrats” showed the other side of the divided citizenry. For many who supported the President, these Democrats were “Copperheads,” a name given them because Unionists thought they were like poisonous snakes who were ready to strike. Toward the end of May 1861, the Chicago Tribune carried an article in which an individual spoke of hearing a portion of a letter which the very prominent William Yancey, a pro-slavery extremist, had written to a citizen of Effingham County in which the Southerner rejoiced in the fact that the North was full of people who were sworn to the insurrection cause, that there were “Golden Circles” of Southern supporters to be found throughout the Union. These secret Copperhead societies were a real presence in the central and southern parts of Illinois.

In the Abolitionist newspaper, The Centralia Sentinel, a correspondent wrote:

“A somewhat extended visit to the counties of Coles, Jasper, Edgar, Clark, Effingham, Moultrie, Christian and Montgomery ... has not only satisfied me that the reported strength of the order in Illinois was not exaggerated, but that in many of the counties above enumerated, whole communities are ripe for rebellion ... In Clark and Effingham counties there are no soldiers, and treason flourisheth in consequence.”

The “Peace Democrats” were involved in many activities. A Decatur newspaper carried a story in 1864 about a Copperhead speaker who had been brought into the central part of Illinois to get members of the Democratic Party to rally against the war. Near Mason there were those citizens who denounced the President, Northern soldiers, Loyalist citizens and, of course, the war. Through their words and deeds, they tried to intimidate the opposition forces. These “Copperheads” planned one or two futile attempts to lay the town in ashes. They wore distinctive “Butternut badges” which pictured “Lady Liberty” carrying a national flag like a rag in her hand. The threat posed by such anti-war forces within Effingham County led to formation of the Union League to counteract any hostile activities which the “Peace Democrats” might carry out.

To many individuals, Effingham County seemed like rebel territory. In fact, that attitude was reflected by the well-known Civil War nurse Mary Newcomb, who told about her experiences with the war’s opponents in the tiny hamlet that would later become the county seat. She wrote:

“We arrived at Effingham, the home of my son, at noon Wednesday, only to find that he had enlisted in the Twenty-sixth Illinois Infantry, and was already gone; but his wife was at home to receive us. My husband grew worse rapidly, and at eleven o’clock on Thursday evening he died- — just nine days after he was wounded. The last word he said was: ‘Mary, go back and take care of the boys, they need you.’ Alone among strangers, in a rebel community, and my only son gone to the army, I felt very lonely. Mothers know that an only son means much, especially when one has laid a husband upon the country’s altar. It seemed more than I could bear. My son was then in Missouri, near Cairo. He was telegraphed for, but army regulations would not permit him to come.

“On the 2nd of March, 1862, they laid away my loved one. At that time there was a strong rebel sentiment prevailing in Effingham county, and it was said I could not get a loyal minister to officiate at the funeral. I said I would have a loyal one or none at all. Mr. Newcomb was a strong Presbyterian, but there was no Presbyterian minister to be had. A Methodist minister sent me word that would take the risk, and I gladly accepted his offer. There was a great danger of a riot at the funeral, for the court house was the only place that would hold the people, and some of the rebels said we should not use it; but I found a few loyal friends who stood by me, and we laid my loved one in his grave — the second soldier buried in the cemetery.”

The experiences of Reverend Alfred Bliss, who moved to Effingham in the 1880s and the man for whom Effingham’s Bliss Park was named, validated Mary Newcomb’s claims. As was the case with many Methodist clergymen, Bliss had a reputation for taking a strong stand against slavery. That stand nearly cost him his life on more than one occasion. He became a “pistol-packing” preacher due to the serious threat posed by supporters of a desperado named Thomas Clingman, a man who had a reputation of being an officer in the Confederate army. His force of upwards of a thousand guerilla soldiers wreaked havoc near the Bliss farm in Montgomery County, not too far from Vandalia. At night, a hired man and one of the preacher’s sons stood watch to be sure the Clingman’s raiders did not destroy farm buildings.

A favorite tool of the Copperheads was the torch. Rumors were widespread that several area Methodist church buildings and some schools were set afire by the pro-Southern sympathizers. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, The Centralia Sentinel carried an article about “:the torches of Effingham secesh.” The writer told about the need to destroy the torches, which Effingham County Copperheads had planned to use to burn houses of Abolitionist leaders in Salem. When the Eccles school near Beecher City burned in 1863, Copperheads were suspected of arson since both the Golden Circle Democrats and the Union League Republicans held meetings at the facility.

The great division which characterized the United States as a whole was clearly evident in Effingham County. In early September of 1863, a detachment of the 16th Illinois Cavalry led by a Captain Jackson attempted to arrest some deserters near Mason when approximately 20 other citizens came to the aid of the deserters. Shots were exchanged during which two Cavalrymen were wounded, as were five deserters and several of their supporters. The county was greatly agitated by this event. The public clearly was polarized, yet daily life continued and when the war came to an end in 1865, those divisions were put to one side as the citizens worked to restore the goodwill that had marked the area before the great struggle had begun.

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