The Political Game

The old Illinois State Capitol.   From the Library of Congress.

The old Illinois State Capitol. From the Library of Congress.

Another explanation for the rebellion that occured in Little Egypt from 1860-1865 is to suggest that rebellion was simply a product of politics. Prior to Southern secession, Southern Illinois newspapers and politicians made many bold claims supporting southern rights. For example, John A. Logan’s defense of black codes in Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act design, or Egyptian newspapers such as the Belleville Democrat declaring, “To submit then, or secede, is forced upon the South….Thus far, they have justice and right on their side.” (Cole p. 253) Thus, from 1840-1860 Little Egyptian Democrats, and newspaper publishers took an interesting political approach. Unlike their fellow Illinois citizens to the north, Southern Illinois democrats did not fully support abolition. Politically their position was unique.

Almost all Egyptian residents were devout Democrats, many of whom had southern roots and perhaps most importantly hated the growing Republican party of the North. Therefore, politically many Southern Illinois newspapers and politicians choose to claim neutrality, while acknowledging southern rights. The Cairo Gazette best illustrated this position in 1860 stating, “The statement that the inhabitants of Egypt are in favor of the perpetuation of the Union by force, is unauthorized. No such feelings exist. On the contrary, so far as our observations have extended, the sympathies of our people are mainly with the South.” (Cole p. 253) An argument can be made that a neutral, yet pro southern stance, was taken simply as a measure of putting political pressure on Republican office holders.

By defending the South in Congress, and admitting that Little Egypt’s sympathies were with the South, Democrats wanted to give the impression that they would not support Lincoln’s war. This was purely a political attempt to push the Republicans towards neutrality, a strategy used for years by Stephen A. Douglas in Congress, and later mimicked by the “copperheads” or peace democrats such as Vallandigham during the 1864 election. (Rosentreter) However, this political position also left Little Egypt open to attack by Northern newspapers. Taking an anti-Wilmot Proviso, anti-banking, and later anti-Lincoln and anti-war stance, created great strife with Northern Republicans who often exaggerated the Southern Illinois rebellion.

Lincoln House

Republican rally at the Lincoln House, Springfield, Illinois. From the Library of Congress.

Exaggerations of the “southern sympathies” were overblown and account in part for why Little Egypt was considered a hotbed of rebellion in the years before 1861. (Cross) In fact, Illinois Governor Richard Yates was greatly impacted by this Democrat political strategy, and counter-writings from the North. Yates came to the conclusion that, “secession is deeper and stronger than you have any idea. Its advocates are numerous and powerful, and respectable.” (Cole p.267) Governor Yates’ fear of uprising spread down to Colonel Prentiss, who was placed in charge at Cairo, and reported directly to Gov. Yates.

Col. Prentiss was so afraid of the alleged uprising that he sent 2 cannons and a regiment of men to Big Muddy just above Carbondale. Of course, in an area of peace democrats who wanted to avoid war at all cost. This military action set the the peace democrats into a, “anti-army, and anti-establishment frenzy.” (Gleeson p.8) Carbondale responded by forming a mob of people around the bridge and depot where the guns were located. The mob is noted to have consisted of, “screaming women wielding home clubs.” To fix the issue, “state officials, with considerable difficulty, prevented a serious crisis by promising to have the unwelcomed troops removed if the people returned to their homes.” (Gleeson p. 8-9)  This mob has been noted in several historic works of Illinois to be a pro-rebel mob. However, in reality it was simply an anti-war mob, and was more the result of politics than of true Confederate activity. Stories like the Carbondale incident, are common in Little Egypt’s past and demonstrate how much of the “rebellion” was simply the result of other circumstances, which would be misinterpreted and over exaggerated over the years.