This page features a series of questions and answers developed to be integrated or adapted to high school or undergraduate curricula that delve into the history of this region. Each question deals with topics presented within the murals of Charleston's downtown square. For more information on the themes described here, see the links and bibliography page of this site.
1. Why is the study of local history important? Why should we delve into our community's history? What sources can be utilized?
The study of local hsitory can be quite beneficial. Since all national events in the history of the United States have been played out on a local level, looking into local history can result in a better understanding of our nation's history. In addition, the history of a locality provides local communities with an identity - a collective past and common bonds that help unite us. As with history in general, local history establishes precedents that can help guide the decisions of community members and leaders in the present and in the future. Local history is also the most accessible of all history because it is closest to home. As Carol Kammen states, at its heart, local history is "the study of the human condition in and through time." Its broad focus allows you to look at economic, social, religious, and political trends that have shaped a particular community or region.
The study of local history also allows one to take advantage of a variety of primary sources. These include: newspapers, city directories, maps, census sheets, church records, the built environment (buildings), photographs, legal papers, letters, diaries, memoirs, older histories, probate records, oral histories, and even town names.
2. Looking at the Historic Courthouse, Historic Charleston, and Facades of Historic Charleston murals, what was the physical and symbolic importance of the central courthouse square in Charleston? Why did a central courthouse square develop in Charleston and how does it reveal regional cultural values?
In looking at the significance of Charleston's courthouse square, one should consult "The Central Courthouse Square in the American County Seat" by Edward T. Price (see bibliography). Price defines a central courthouse square as "a rectangular block surrounded by streets, with the courthouse, often the grandest and most ornate building in the county, standing alone in the middle of the square and the town's leading business houses enclosing the square symmetrically on all four sides" (125). This definition provides a good description of Charleston's square. Like in Charleston, typically, construction of a courthouse is completed on a new site, where it becomes the center of the county seat, which in turn becomes the trading center and largest town in the county. The courthouse, in the early development of Charleston served as a magnet that attracted people and businesses.
As far as the origins of Charleston's square is concerned, one would have to look south. In central Tennessee, the Shelbyville, or Block, square emerged during the early 1800s and that design was carried in all directions. It took hold primarily in the Midwest. Since Charleston was first settled originally by emigrants from Kentucky and Tennessee, it makes sense that they would develop a town along familiar lines. Price argues that unlike the other squares (depicted below), the Shelbyville square seems to have been an "American development." The others were modelled after Old World plans. Thus, one can observe a shift from inherited Old World practices to new patterns throughout the United States during the early 1800s. Comparing the Shelbyville square plan (shown as "A" in the diagram) to an early map of Charleston, one can notice striking similarities.
Not only was the central courthouse square in Charleston the political, social, and economic center of the county for over a hundred years, but it also possessed many symbolic qualities. The square served as "an expression of pioneer pride on the frontier of a burgeoning civilization." Price reveals that "variety is the genius of the square, in an interweaving of form, meaning, and function." The appeal of the square "lies in its meaning of many things to everybody" (142). Nancy Easter Shich and Douglas K. Meyer describe Charleston's square as the "hub of the community" - a place where celebrations, parades, and political rallies brought local residents together as a community.
As in many other areas, Charleston's square eventually saw a decline in much of its original vitality. Many different developments aided this decline. The railroads usually brought money away from the square. The advent of the automobile resulted in congetion in downtown areas. Within the past couple of decades, urban sprawl has had an adverse affect on central courthouse squares across the nation.
3. In dealing with the same murals, how has Charleston's downtown architecture changed to accomodate national attitudes and trends in aesthetics and commercialism?
Although the first structures built downtown consisted of a series of log cabins, soon after many more permanent buildings were constructed. The first courthouse built on the square (in 1835) was constructed in the Federal style. As a two-story brick structure, it consisted of a truncated hipped roof with a cupola - both of which represent distinctive Federal characteristics. The Federal style in architecture celebrated America's recent Independence and portrayed a sense of nationalism. It remained quite popular during the 1830s, when similar courthouses were built throughout Illinois during that time. The Charleston courthouse was surrounded by business buildings, built one to two stories high and facing the courthouse. The buildings, built of wood or brick, consisted of Federal and Greek Revival styling. The courthouse square served as a strong visual and symbolic center for Charleston as a community.
Architectural elements - building materials, scale, and decoration - changed the square repeatedly over time, even though the basic central courthouse square plan remained. Between 1858 and 1866, the Federal Style courthouse transformed into a Classical Revival structure. A renewed interest in classical civilizations during the early to mid 1800s saw a classical revival in architecture throughout the United States - especially in state and local government buildings. Then, between the 1880s and the 1910s, downtown Charleston went through another series of alterations as popular Italianate and Queen Anne decorations were adopted. Charleston's prosperity became evident through the construction of larger, two to three story structures downtown. The side and rear walls of these buildings were composed of inexpensive bricks, while the side facing the square consisted of better quality materials - such as stone, tin, red brick, terra-cotta, glass, and cast iron. In keeping with modern styles, the Classical Revival courthouse was demolished and replace with a large Richardsonian Romanesque style structure (which still serves as the Coles County Courthouse). As Shick and Douglas point out, "at the turn of the century the Charleston square with its recently built late Victorian facades, new business blocks, new courthouse, new electrical and telephone lines, new curbing and paved brick streets, an interurban railway, electric streetcar, and the building of Eastern Illinois State Normal School attested to the progress, prosperity, and future of the town."
Beginning in the 1930s, the automobile age emerged and ushered in a series of "modernizations" on the square. Alterations to the buildings on the square emphasized plainness and utility as up-to-date materials were utilized in the "streamlining" of downtown. The new "modern" look was epitomized by the Will Rogers Theater's Art Deco styling. In later years, chain stores and nationally recognized corporations opened branches along Lincoln Avenue (evident today by the variety of fast-food restaurants on Lincoln Ave.), which transferred much of the economic vitality from the square. Neon signs, standardized display windows, and new building materials were some of the standard features of the new commercial architecture that made its way to the square and to Lincoln Avenue. Today, Lincoln Avenue serves as Charleston's economic hub, while business on the square continues to decline.
4. Delving into the Charleston Riot mural, why did hostilities break out on March 28, 1864? Why did the Copperheads have such a strong presence in east-central Illinois?
The riot that occurred in March of 1864 was the result of years of partisanship, personal animosities, and political tensions. The riot was a significant event in Charleston's history: it serves as an example of how political tensions can get out of control, illustrates the political climate of east-central Illinois during the Civil War, and shows what happens when civil liberties are suspended or denied in time of war. To illustrate how divided Coles County was at that time, the 1860 Presidential election results for the county reveals that 1,495 voted Republican and 1,467 voted Democratic. With such an even split, conflicts in such a tumultuous period were inevitable.
During the first couple of years of the Civil War, there were many disturbances between Republicans and Democrats in the region. For example, in 1861, the house of a known Copperhead in Mattoon was burned allegedly by Unionists. Two Copperheads instigated a street fight with Union soldiers and a pro-Union crowd in Mattoon in June of 1862. In that same year, a anti-war mob threatened the offices of the Republican Prairie Beacon in Edgar County. The federal government shut down many Democrat newspapers throughout the Midwest (including the Democratic Standard in Edgar County) and often jailed the editors on charges of treason. To make matters worst, furloughed soldiers in the region enjoyed confronting known Copperheads and forcing them to take an oath of alliegance. One such incident resulted in the shooting death of a Copperhead by a drunken soldier in Mattoon in 1864. These constant conflicts increased tensions in the region dramatically throughout the war.
On March 28, 1864, local Democrats held a rally on Charleston's square, where influential Democratic leaders were to speak. A group of the 54th Illinois Infantry Regiment decided to stop by Charleston on their way to Mattoon. After a lot of corn whiskey was consumed, violence broke out. It has never been determined who shot first, but by the end of the fighting, nine were dead and twelve were wounded. Parkinson has stated that it "was one of the largest such incidents to occur in the Old Northwest during the Civil War." Some historians argue that it was a planned attack by the Copperheads and some argue against that particular view.
Why was Copperheadism so strong in the region? Copperheads were conservative Peace Democrats. They were anit-conscription, anti-Republican, anti-abolition, and represented proponents of Jacksonian Democracy and the constitution. They wanted a peaceful solution to the war. They became quite powerful in the region because Coles County represented a very rural, traditional region. Even though Lincoln hailed from this region, his war policies were perceived as too radical for many local residents. Economics also played a large role. Many local farmers barely survived the economic depression of 1861-62, the bank panic of 1861, and Lincoln's blockade of the Mississippi River, which forced local farmers to ship their products east on the railroads - the railroads charged excessive fees. These events were blamed on Lincoln and the Republican party. Western sectionalism, religious factors, "Negrophobia," and Union defeats during the first stages of the war attracted many local residents to the ranks of the Copperheads. Most importantly though, the upland-Southern influence in Coles County played a large part. Many of the original settlers emigrated from Kentucky and Tennessee, and with them, they brought southern cultural values. Many also brought with them a dislike of abolitionists.
5. Peace Democrats went by a variety of names during the Civil War, including Copperheads and "Butternuts." What were the origins of these names?
The term "Copperhead" was coined by Republicans during the Civil War to characterize out-spoken Democrats that opposed Lincoln's Administration. As a derogatory term, it compared Peace Democrats to the deadly copperhead snake. Charles H. Coleman discovered that the term "Copperhead" first appeared in the New York Tribune on July 20, 1861, and from that point on it became synonymous with Peace Democrats.
Peace Democrats were also referred to as "Butternuts" by Republicans of that time - although the term was not used as much as "Copperhead." According to Richard Orr Curry, the term "Butternut" was coined by "Black Republicans" during the Civil War. It was a reference to the illiterate, poverty stricken farmers of southern origin, who inhabited the southern portions of midwestern states and who predominantly supported the Democratic Party. They often wore home-made clothing that was dyed brown from the use of butternuts as dye - hence the use of the term "Butternut." A Democratic editor in Ohio during the Civil War defended the backwoodsmen by writing, "it used to be the 'barefeet' Democracy in Jackson's time - then it was the 'pokeberry' Democracy, and now it is the 'butternut' Democracy - and they all, as used, mean the same thing - a contempt for those who earn their bread by honest toil." Eventually, the epithet became a mark of distinction to Democrats and they used the butternut as a symbol "of the indissoluble nature of the Union."
6. Looking at the Lincoln Arriving at the Train Depot and Historic Charleston murals, what innovations in transportation are represented? What affect did they have on the region?
The first settlers of the region relied on beasts of burden (primarily horses an oxen) for travel. They moved into the region from Kentucky and Tennessee on horseback and in wagons. Since that time, transportation in Coles County has been transformed repeatedly as new innovations in transportation have altered the American landscape.
One major innovation that had an enormous affect on Charleston and Coles County was the construction of the railroads. Not only did the "iron racehorse" bring mobility, but it also brought people and economic expansion to the region. The Terra Haute and Alton Railroad was completed in 1855. It brought "progress" and prosperity to the region and more specifically led to the founding and expansion of Mattoon as a commercial center. Known as the Big Four (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad) in later years, it allowed Coles County farmers to ship their agricultural products out to different markets and in turn provided Charleston residents with commercial and manufactured goods from the East. A drawing of the first train to pass through the region is depicted here.
The Clover Leaf Railroad, completed during the 1880s-90s, had a more significant impact on Charleston. By 1900, it was the largest employer in the city, with over 300 employees. The company made Charleston a division headquarters, which resulted in the construction of a repair house and a 12 stall roundhouse. The Clover Leaf Railroad had as many as 32 passenger and freight trains pass through Charleston by 1900.
The Clover Leaf and Big Four Railroads, located to the north of the square, consisted of a variety of buildings, including: depots, telegraph offices, warehouses, grain elevators, broom corn warehouses, coal sheds, water towers, stockyards, and a switching tower. In addition, many businesses emerged around the railroads to take advantage of the increased traffic and mobility. These included hotels, lumberyards, electric generating company, and so on. Eventually, the railroads were rendered obsolete in this region as the highway systems of the mid-1900s were constructed.
The trolly line (called the interurban) of Charleston, depicted in the Historic Charleston Mural, reveals yet another technological innovation in transportation. The Central Illinois Traction Company opened the interurban railway in 1904, which connected Charleston and Mattoon with electric trolleys. Cars ran every hour from 5:30am to 11:30pm and not only hauled passengers, but mail and freight as well. An accident on August 20, 1907, resulted in the collision of a freight car with a passenger car. Eighteen people died and 50 were injured in what was described at the time as the "world's worst interurban wreck." The incident reveals that sometimes technological innovations come with a high price. In 1926, the interurban was abandoned for a number of reasons - one of which was the advent of the automobile.
Finally, one can notice in the same mural an airplane flying over the square. On July 29, 1910, the first airplane to land in Coles County touched down near Urban Park, just west of Charleston. Local residents would see many more in the future. The advent of the airplane provided even more mobility for passengers and freight in the region. Construction on the Coles County Airport began in 1951 and was completed in 1952. The airport received some influential visitors throughout the past 50 years, including Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. In 1968, Ozark Air Lines provided prop jet transportation to Charleston-Mattoon. Today, commercial jets bring visitors to the region through the Coles County and Willard (to the north) airports.
7. In dealing with the Portrait Sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, what was the significance of the debates of 1858?
First of all, the life and career of Abraham Lincoln represents an important part of Charleston's history. Lincoln had many friends and relatives who resided in Charleston, including his father and stepmother, Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln. Though Abraham Lincoln never lived in Charleston, he was a frequent visitor. During the 1840s, Lincoln was a representative in both state and federal governments. He also was among the circuit-riding lawyers of the early bar of Illinois, which brought him to Charleston on many occasions.
Elected to the Senate in 1847, Douglas (described as the "little giant") represented the Democratic party in Illinois and was campaigning for re-election in 1858. Like Lincoln, he was a lawyer, but also well known as the most influential Northern Democrat before the outbreak of the Civil War. As a firm believer in Popular Sovereignty, he helped enact such legislation as the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Controversy over the question of slavery and its territorial extension posed many obstacles for him during his senatorial career, which lasted from 1847 to 1861.
By 1858, Abraham Lincoln was still relatively unknown in the national political sphere. Prior to the debates, Lincoln had already served four terms within the state senate and was elected to the House of Representatives. During that time he became very popular within the state of Illinois. As a former Whig, Lincoln switched to the Republican Party two years before the 1858 debates. In the debates, Lincoln disagreed with Douglas on the topic of slavery in the territories. He stated that the country could not survive much longer as half-slave and half-free.
As the fourth of a series of seven debates, the significance of the Lincoln and Douglas debate in Charleston within the region's history is immense. The debates attracted national attention. They put Charleston on the maps. The main reason they were followed by many Americans was because of the issues Lincoln and Douglas addressed - the main one involving slavery. Lincoln's opposition to the institution of slavery became evident through the debates. Even though Lincoln lost the senate seat to Douglas, he would eventually beat Douglas out in the presidential election of 1860.
The study of history incorporates many different interpretations of the past. Only a few are presented here. The challenge is to use some of the sources provided in this website to discover more interpretations and possibly draw different conclusions from the scenes depicted in the murals.