Monday, May 12, 2008

KING OF THE COPPERHEADS

The scene is Fayette Country, Illinois, right after the Civil War. During the War, while many of the County residents fought bravely with the Union troops, some of the citizens were violently against the War and against the policies of Abraham Lincoln. Torn between the ideological issues of the North and South, these citizens were as divided as the Democrats and Republicans of today's world, a deep and disturbing disagreement.

Some of the younger citizens opposed to the War formed an organized group called the Clingman gang. This group was led by a charismatic man named Josiah Woods, who for some reason had taken the name Clingman. According to local newspaper reports, Clingman and his gang terrorized residents of Fayette County during and after the War, as well as those folks living in Bond and Montgomery Counties.

They were called Bushwhackers and they were also known as Copperheads, people strongly opposed to the war. No one really knows why the name "Copperhead" was used, unless it was in honor of the deadly and poisonous snake that slithered through the swamps of the Southland. Many robberies and even some murders were committed during these times and the blame was placed on Clingman and his band of thieves. They were also said to have burned down the Ramsey Creek and Kaskaskia River bridges, tactics intended to frighten and intimidate the Country inhabitants.

In the eyes of some, Josiah Woods, aka Clingman, was admirable, the stuff of which heroes are made. He was a daring and imposing figure. He rode across the roads and the fields of the country and was said to shoot as straight as an arrow even while mounted on his horse and riding like the wind. Somehow he eluded the Marshals who were sent to apprehend him and led his gang on a destructive path through the fields and forests of Illinois.

Tale after tale of the exploits of Josiah Woods and his gang were told around the woodstoves and fireplaces of Fayette Country, each story reemphasizing the brutality of these men. The gang was composed of secessionists and deserters, as well as some soldiers who did not want to give up the violence they had seen in the war. War does that to people sometimes. It is difficult to return to a life of peaceful calm after the storm of battle. The Clingman gang held raids on the farms of Union sympathizers and loyal patriots, killing them, wounding them, robbing them of cash and valuable possessions. Residents locked their homes, boarded the windows, and shivered in fear of a midnight visit from these marauders.

A man named John Sears was known as the "King of the Copperheads." His son, Tom Sears, rode with Clingman and was described as a "terror" as he followed his mentor around the counties.

On August 15, 1864, Deputy Provo Marshall Sperry, a Lt. Colonel Hale, and a squad of five soldiers were sent by the federal government to apprehend Tom Sears. Before embarking on their mission, the soldiers stopped at Decatur, Illinois, to partake of the liquid refreshments available at the Central Hotel. They became so enthusiastic that they smashed glasses, toasted each other and literally "tore up" the bar before re-boarding the train, heading for the town of Ramsey.

The Sears' lived in a log home near the town of Bingham on a rural country road. It was dusk when the soldiers arrived at the farm. One can imagine them approaching the log building, the hooves of the horses clop-clopping on the dusty road, the soldiers laughing and talking, their words a bit slurred, their spirits high. As the soldiers, still reeling from their drinking spree, surrounded the log home, the Lt. Colonel sent a man to the door to inquire of the presence of Tom Sears.

Instead of asking about Tom, however, the soldiers asked if they could borrow a saddle. "I'm tired of riding bareback!" the soldier complained.

The King of the Copperheads flatly refused, indignant at the request. The saddles were his and he wasn't about to hand them over to a drunken soldier! It is reported that Sears fired a shot into the air and shouted to his wife, Anna, who stood staunchly behind him, "Bar the door and I'll shoot the bastards!" or words to that effect.

Before the door could be closed, one of the soldiers fired at Sears. The ball went through his body and struck his wife, Anna, killing them both instantly. Sears died at the age of 68 and Anna was 75.

Tom Sears was not arrested on that night. He moved to Joplin, Missouri, and did not return to his home territory until the 1900's. There is no information on his death. Clingman, too, moved away to Sedalia, Missouri, where he shot another man and was jailed. An angry mob broke down the door of the jail and Clingman was hung from a signboard at a railroad crossing.

As the old man, John Sears, and his wife, Anna, were shot in the doorway of their log farmhouse, a frightened girl cowered in the kitchen, then frantically crawled through a window, squeezing through, terrified by the gunshots, her heart beating, her only thought to get away safely to the surrounding woods. She was a girlfriend of John Sears, another son of John Sears. After the funerals of his parents, this younger John Sears and his girlfriend were married. They were my great-grandparents. If I have this story straight, their daughter, Sarah Sears, was my grandmother and mother of my beloved Pop.

Facts from this story are from an article written by Linda Hanabarger, who is editor of the Fayette Facts, a quarterly publication of the Fayette County Genealogical and Historical Society. Since this author mentions that John Sears was in some way her relative, too, then Linda Hanabarger may well be a cousin of mine. Thanks, too, to my cousin, Judy, a history buff, who lives in Illinois and dug up this article for me. Now, Judy, could this Tom Sears be the "red-headed" Tom that Pop told me about?

It's always interesting to hear tales and adventurous stories from the past, especially when one's relatives are involved. This one is especially strange, what with the army troops pausing on their mission to drink themselves silly, and the terrified girl running into the woods to escape the mayhem. I have a mental picture of her, gathering her skirts around her, shimmying through the window, and making for the darkened woods, the sound of gunshots and the voices of drunken soldiers filling the air behind her.

However, it isn't easy to admit that one's relatives opposed Abe Lincoln. It is difficult to imagine anyone opposing him. I can't imagine those wild Copperheads, following Clingman on his deadly path through the Illinois countryside, being distant relatives of mine. However, it has been said that one can select one's friends, but is stuck with one's relatives, so the King of the Copperheads, my great-grandfather, enemy of Honest Abe, is definitely a branch of the family tree.