Around Burlington Logo

In 1863, the Civil War had divided not only the nation but also Iowa — especially the southern counties where many settlers originally came from the states of the Confederacy.

Because of its this volatile mix of sympathies, Burlington and Des Moines County were a hotbed of divided opinions, and the possibility of violence ran just below the surface of everyday life.

Often this threat bubbled to the surface in unexpected manners, as when the principal of the North Hill School was judged by his neighbors to be insufficiently loyal to the Union cause.

This suspicion of disloyalty nearly led to a death as one day the school official walked along a quiet North Hill Street to his work.

As the principal approached a ditch in the street where crews were doing repair, a worker looked up and spied the approaching school official and “in a very cheeky manner” began to offer his opinions on the character the suspected Southern sympathizer.

Words were exchanged and the confrontation escalated until the school official reached into his carrying case and withdrew a small revolver to fire two times at his tormentor.

Fortunately, in his excitement, the school official proved to have poor aim and all his shots missed.

But the matter did not end there for while the school board conceded they could understand the principalſ reaction, attempting to kill a ditch digger on a Burlington street may have gone beyond the pale. The school official was dismissed and quickly left town.

But this was only one instance as Charles Mason, one of Burlingtonſ most prominent citizens, was to discover. Mason contributed much to the community and the state through his untiring efforts.

But this did not stand him in good stead when his political views were found not to mesh smoothly with Republican Party war policy.

In the autumn of 1861, when Mason appeared on the same political platform with James Neal, Democratic candidate for Congress, both men were soundly booed and forced from the stage because of their “secesh” leanings.

Burlington Mayor Thomas French was especially adept at painting those that disagreed with him as disloyal to the Union cause.

He went so far as to compile a list of 223 citizens deemed “ascertained” secessionists and 15 residents strongly suspected of disloyalty.

When asked for proof of the charges, French refused to elaborate, but that did not stop many in town from believing his charges.

Often citizens with little political leanings were caught up in the animosity that was sweeping the town.

Casper Riepe should have escaped this conflict as he was generally supportive of the aims of the Union.

His main concern was simply running his grocery store at Ninth and Locust. But in June 1863, he found himself drawn into the turmoil.

On that day, Casper had ridden to the Walker settlement in Benton Township, 10 miles north of Burlington, to attend a church service of the United Brethren.

It was 10 in the morning and the preacher had begun his service when there came the sound of a large group of horsemen rapidly approaching the church.

Suddenly, the door at the rear of the church was thrown open and a heavily armed crowd pushed their way into the building. In an instant, the room was in an uproar.

Male members of the congregation rose to protest the intrusion but were roughly shoved aside, while the women began to scream and cry.

The cursing and gesturing raiders pushed their way to the front of the church, and Riepe was shocked to notice that among the 30 invaders crowding into the church, many wore the uniform of the Second Iowa Cavalry of the Union Army.

Parishioner Alex Hartmen rose and demanded of the lieutenant in charge that his men should leave the church. But the soldiers shouted him down and declared, “We won’t leave. We are here looking for Copperheads.”

The soldiers then forced the men in the church to exit one at a time and each man was searched. Only Riepeſ brother, Peter, was found to be carrying the clipped penny that was the secessionist emblem.

Casper remembered what happened next.

“My brother was thrown to the ground and they knocked and beat him and threatened his life. Alex Hartmen cried out that the soldiers should leave and not disturb the meeting. But six soldiers leveled revolvers at his breast and order him to shut up or they would shoot him.”

After more rough handling of Peter, the soldiers relented and allowed Casper and a neighbor, Herman Koutz, to load the battered man into a carriage.

The trio had ridden only a short distance before they were stopped again.

This time it was Koutz that was dragged to the ground, but the soldiers quickly released him when he offered proof that he was a prominent Republican.

Attention then turned to the Burlington grocer, but Casper faced the troopers and declared; “I am not a Copperhead and will not be searched. My word should be sufficient.”

At this point, the officer stepped forward and agreed with Casper and ordered his men to release the trio.

The troopers then returned to the church to disperse any parishioners that lingered there, and then the soldiers returned to their camp in Burlington.

But they were to ride again to ensure that Confederate sympathizers in southern Iowa would not interfere with the Union cause.