A brief celebration
Madison County Democrats rejoiced when seven local party members came home from prison. Their joy was brief. A month later, in January 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, freeing slaves in Confederate-held territory. Locals remembered that Lincoln had said the war was to restore the Union, not to free the slaves. Many doubted Lincoln’s word.
As the pot began to boil, a Union Army recruiter set up shop in Winterset.
Peace Democrats take a stand
The next month, February 1863, about 100 armed men came to Winterset to publicly oppose the war. They were Peace Democrats. Their desire: Persuade the Southern states to come back into the Union. They risked jail time when they resolved:
- The Confederacy should be recognized at once.
- They would oppose the draft.
- They would oppose paying taxes if the war continued.
One speaker also criticized the Lincoln administration.
The new Union Army recruiter, Lt. G.A. Henry, heard the resolutions. Some Peace Democrats spoke heatedly. Someone said he would tear down the U.S. flag if Lt. Henry dared to raise it. Lt. Henry responded, he would shoot anyone who touched the flag. Rumors ran wild about the Peace Democrats’ evil intentions.
Assuming the worst
The local Republican newspaper editor and other “loyal Union men” assumed the worst. They begged Gov. Samuel J. Kirkwood for 100 rifles and ammunition to defend themselves from the “nullifiers” as they called the Peace Democrats.
Lt. Henry briefed Marshal H.M. Hoxie who also assumed the worse. Hoxie believed informant George Rose (a shady character and former gun-runner) that 800 Madison County men belonged to the Knights of the Golden Circle. Supposedly, they met secretly and wanted to overthrow the Union. Hoxie wrote, “The public mind is in a feverish state.”
Hearing from Hoxie, Gov. Kirkwood also assumed the worst. The governor sent an Army Captain and ten troops to guard Lt. Henry’s recruiting station in Winterset. Kirkwood also sent 50 muskets and ammunition to the “loyal Union men.”
Local Republicans, Lt. Henry, Marshal Hoxie, and Gov. Kirkwood all jumped to conclusions about the local Peace Democrats.
They thought that Peace Democrats were ready to help the C.S.A. gain its independence. They accepted George Rose’s false report of 800 K.G.C. members in Madison County. They feared that the bitter war in Missouri might spread into southern Iowa.
Decades after the war, resident Caroline Murray remembered that a Peace Democrat came inside a Winterset store with a butternut symbol pinned to her waist. A Mrs. McNeil, whose husband was a Union soldier, tore the butternut off the other woman’s dress. Murray recalled:
“A lively fist fight was on, but the bystanders separated them, and thus spoiled what promised to be the liveliest female battle of the war.”
For the rest of the war, there were no other arrests. But the hard feelings continued. Murray recalled:
“It is hard for us now to realize that the much loved, martyred President, Abraham Lincoln, was so thoroughly hated and constantly abused in language, not only by the southern rebels, but equally as much by our home ones …
At the time of his assassination, an ignoramous was heard to say, ‘I would like to have a stone as large as I could carry and drop it on him as he is put in the grave.’”
“A legend with nine lives”
Today, 150 years later, most of the stories are dim memories. But some people still associate Madison County with the Knights of the Golden Circle. However, “No unimpeachable evidence” supports this belief, according to historian Frank L. Klement.
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