The Rev. George Cyphert Tally from Keokuk County was described as a “rugged, forceful, crude, uneducated man.” At the same time people said he possessed “a natural gift of oratory.” However, his critics said he showed “more zeal than discretion” when expressing his opinions. The Baptist minister didn’t believe in the separation of church and state when it came to his feelings about the “Abolition War,” as he called it. (Most people called it the War Between the States and later the Civil War.)
His dad had been from the state of Tennessee, and Reverend Tally’s sympathies lay with the Confederacy. In fact, it was said there was “no more open or bolder defender of slavery” than Tally in all of Keokuk County. His enemies said that while he preached the Gospel from the pulpit, he preached “moral and political treason on the stump.”
Reverend Tally was a Copperhead also called “Peace Democrats” or “pro-Confederates.” They were a faction of the Democratic Party that expressed anti-war sentiments—sometimes violently. Newspapers at the time declared that “nowhere in the state” was opposition to the war more “intense, more deep-seated, more manifested, or more outspoken” than in Keokuk County. In fact, the anti-war passion “glowed at a white heat” in Sigourney and the surrounding area. Clashes between the Copperheads and Republicans were not uncommon.
On Saturday, August 1, 1863, a group of Copperheads gathered southeast of the town of South English for a rally led by Reverend Tally. When the word was received that a Republican gathering was taking place in town at the hotel, Tally convinced the Copperheads to follow him into town. They climbed into their wagons—weapons concealed beneath the straw in the bottoms. There was talk of “cleaning out” the town of South English of its pro-war faction.
As the Copperheads entered the town, they heard cries of “Copperheads” and “cowards.” A Union soldier in the crowd “accidentally” discharged his gun. Luckily, no one was hurt. However, Tally, armed with a bowie knife and a revolver, drew his gun and began to fire. Someone in the Republican crowd fired and hit Tally in the head—killing him instantly.
The Copperheads withdrew to the outskirts of town along the south bank of the Little Skunk River. By the next day Copperheads from Poweshiek, Mahaska and Wapello counties had joined the group that vowed to avenge Reverend Tally’s murder. They talked of burning Sigourney and South English to the ground. They claimed they would secure their “right of free speech.”
On Monday a committee of influential citizens from Sigourney went to the Copperheads’ camp. They wanted to assure Tally’s friends that “prompt justice” would prevail in the murder investigation. But they couldn’t be pacified.
Two citizens from Sigourney decided to contact Gov. Samuel Kirkwood in Iowa City. They rode by horseback to the nearest rail road station and rode a handcar to Wilton—where they boarded a train to Iowa City.
The governor agreed to return to Keokuk County to help calm fears and settle the dispute. He arranged to be accompanied by a company of infantry and a squad of artillery. (The artillery had no ammunition for their guns so they used “bars and rods of iron” as ammunition. When the governor reached the Keokuk County courthouse he told a gathering of townspeople, “I will make an example of those engaged in these disturbances, which will forever deter others from engaging in like proceedings.” He added, “I say what I mean, and I mean what I say.”
The governor’s speech must have frightened the Copperheads. Sometime during the night they disbanded and scattered. The confrontation—called Tally’s war by some historians—seemed to have been averted. Eventually 12 men were arrested for the murder of Reverend Tally, but no one was ever convicted.
Read other Iowa Stories and learn more about author Cheryl Mullenbach at http://www.cherylmullenbachink.com/.