Once Upon a Time

Mid-1800s was time of bushwhackers, copperheads

This Illustration in the Feb. 28, 1863, edition of Harper’s Weekly depicts anti-war Northerners as copperhead snakes. | Courtesy of the Newberry Library
Posted: Jul. 7, 2019 12:01 am Updated: Jul. 7, 2019 12:21 am

In the mid-1800s, Quincy sat on a boundary line between a slave state and a free state. This dividing line was the Mississippi River, and like most boundaries, it was porous. Across the river came fleeing slaves, immigrants, smugglers, bandits, kidnappers and people actively attempting to overthrow the government of the United States. As dramatic as this sounds, a glance at the newspapers from the 1860s confirms it.

Illinois has always held a wide range of partisan views. During the War Between the States, a pro-Southern group, the Order of American Knights, aka the "Sons of Liberty" had one of its three Illinois temples in Quincy, according to a report by the Judge Advocate General. This was a secret society that firmly believed in a state's right to secede from the Union, as well as in a natural order where God had established that certain superior races were to be served by other races that lacked "divinity within them," and the ability to "be inspired onward and upward." These people should be held in "benevolent servitude" until "they shall be able to appreciate the benefits and advantages of civilization." This secret society had between 100,000 and 150,000 members in Illinois. Local membership is not known but warranted the "temple" designation.

Confederate supporters often crossed the river to raid in Illinois, stealing horses, supplies, food, money and runaway slaves. Sometimes the raids were carried out in a single night, and other times, these "bushwhackers" would spend weeks raiding and living off the Illinois countryside with help from Confederate sympathizers. The outlying areas around Quincy both to the north and south were often the target of these strikes. The Quincy Whig reported in October 1862 about "Trouble at Barry."

The Whig said that area was "… suffering a good deal from secession horse thieves and other thieves, who take advantage of the troubled state of this country to perpetrate numerous rascalities in that vicinity."

The Barry Post Office had 300 letters stolen, along with $5 or $6. Evidence showed that the letters were taken about a mile away, opened and then burned. Four homes also were burglarized that night, with $35 stolen from one, clothing valued at $100 stolen from another and a grocery lost a large amount of provisions. "As for horses and mules, they are such precarious property, that some owners sleep in their barns with them, or bring them up to the windows of their houses and tether them to the bed posts by a long halter."

There was no statute of limitations for capturing and returning an escaped slave. One such man, William Rolin, a Quincy resident who lived on Eighth Street, was tricked into accompanying a woman on a train to a hospital in Missouri. In appearance the man seemed to be a red-haired Caucasian. When the train reached Hudson, Mo., Rolin was stopped by a man and his son who said Rolin "owed them service ‘for the past eighteen years, having ran away from them at that time."

Rolin was immediately put into irons and taken onto a different, southbound train. The Quincy Daily Whig reported that "… the owner stated that he had known for some time that he resided here; and he had been anxious to get him, but rather than pursue the course provided by law in such cases, he preferred to set the sneak-thief and decoyed his victim from his home to enable him the better to accomplish unlawful purposes."

At other times, capture attempts were more straightforward. At the volunteer army camp near 12th and Spring in Quincy, two men entered, armed with a whip and a club, seized a negro cook by the collar and hauled him to the head of the 119th regiment, Col. Kipney. They claimed the cook was owned by them. Kipney, without requiring proof in this instance, allowed the men to leave with the cook. This was not proper protocol, but such things were sometimes not enforced.

Even among Quincy newspapers, accusations flew and name-calling was rife. In 1864, The Daily Whig referred to The Herald as "Copperhead all through." The Whig also reported that there had been an attempt to ban the Chicago Times from some trains because of its "true Copperhead Spirit."

The Whig in February 1863 reported on a series of anti-Lincoln resolutions introduced in the Illinois House of Representatives recommending "a convention to be held in Louisville, Ky., on the 1st Tuesday of April, 1863, and memorializes Congress for an armistice and cessation of hostilities between the two sections." These resolutions were based on actions by President Abraham Lincoln, such as "declaring martial law in every State of the Union, imprisoned citizens in loathsome dungeons; … attempted to equalize the white and black races; to excite servile insurrection in the Southern States, degraded the Union army by recruiting negroes into the service; squandered the national wealth; … suppressed the press and free speech; proposes to involve us in a ruinous system of taxation for the purpose of purchasing and freeing negroes. ..."

Local Southern supporters sometimes ran out of patience, or Northern supporters took action. Lima was the setting for such a confrontation. An interesting paragraph in The Quincy Daily Whig in August 1863 says, "There are rumors of very serious times at Lima, in this county, though it does not appear that it is due directly to political excitement. It seems to be somewhat of a Copperhead family quarrel, inasmuch as, after harboring a lot of bushwhacking horse thieves from Missouri, deserters from Illinois and denouncing the Administration generally, the Lima Copperheads became so disgusted with the stealing propensities of their ‘friends' that they first hung one fellow and then shot three others. ... The statement above is what is current here, but we do not vouch for it at all, and very possibly it may have soon some other phase."

These sentiments did lead to a hanging in Quincy, of bushwhacker Thomas Rose. But that's another story.


Beth Lane is the author of "Lies Told Under Oath," the story of the 1912 Pfanschmidt murders near Payson, Ill., and the former executive director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.



"City of Quincy," Quincy Daily Whig, Feb. 27, 1863, p. 2.


"Civil War in Lima," Quincy Daily Whig, Aug. 20, 1863, p. 2.


"Copperhead Resolutions for Illinois," The Quincy Whig, Feb. 7, 1863.


"Local Matters," Quincy Daily Whig, June 15, 1861, p. 3.


"Local Matters," Quincy Daily Whig, Oct. 4, 1862, p. 3.


Report of the Judge Advocate General on "The Order of American Knights," Alias "The Sons of Liberty." A Western Conspiracy in Aid of the Rebellion, Washington, D.C., Chronicle Print 1864, pp. 5 and 7. Accessed on May 16, 2019 http:// civilwarmo.org/assets/pdfs/order-american-knights-report.pdf


"The Lynching of Thomas Rose of Lincoln County, Missouri in Quincy, Illinois," compiler, Thomas Rose, Columbia, Mo., 2016. Private printing.


"True Copperhead Spirit," The Quincy Whig, Feb. 7, 1863.