Keokuk County IAGenWeb
Free genealogy records

What's New | Bios | Birth/Marr/Death | Cemeteries | Census | Courts | Directories/Lists | History | Land & Property | Military | Photos & Postcards | Resources | Schools

1880 History
The Skunk River War 1863
Also Called Tally's War

See also transcribed newspaper articles regarding this incident.

Most everybody who resided in Keokuk county during the war, or who has since located in the county, has heard of the Skunk river war. Sometimes it is spoken of in jest, but the bitter feeling which is invariably aroused, if the jesting is correct, too far proves that the incidents of that most unfortunate affair were neither too remote nor too trivial to be a serious matter, even at this time. During the period of the civil war there were criminations and recriminations, bickerings and altercations which could not fail to engender strife, and give birth to the most deadly feuds. In many communities throughout the North the rival factions resorted to violence, which resulted in the destruction of life and property. The war party was largely in the majority, and in some instances, doubtless, was arrogant and overbearing; but they were entirely excusable when goaded to this conrse of action by the utterance of disloyal sentiments; for their brothers and sons were at the front, falling like sheep, before the rebel bullets. The anti-war party [was] in the minority, and in some instances made too free a use of the rights of the minority, guaranteed by all civilized nations, in expressing disloyal sentiments and circulating seditious documents; but it must be remembered that their former political allies, and the brothers and sons of many were arrayed on the other side, and the prospects of being conscripted into an army to fight those whom they deemed to be their friends, should have mitigated their conduct in the eyes of the opposite party. Great national contests have a right side and a wrong side. At the present time there are few enlightened and progressive men who do not admit that the right side of the war of secession was the side of union, freedom and enfranchisement. But, while there was but one right side, the peculiarities of temperament, early associations and the ties of kindred, are circumstances which went far to modify the wrong of the wrong side, and now that the unhappy strife is over, and the bloody chasm has been bridged by the lapse of years, it is a private virtue, and it is public policy to admit the fact.

In 1848, there came to Keokuk county a family by the name of Tally. They had previously resided in Tennessee, and by birth and education were in sympathy with the "peculiar institution " of the South. Upon the breaking out of the war they arrayed themselves on the side of the antiwar party, believing, as many thousands throughout the North did believe, that unless the erring sisters could be peaceably prevailed upon to remain, they should be allowed to go in peace.

One of the family, Cyphert Tally, was a young man of more than ordinary brilliancy of intellect, and though possessed of meagre education, was an orator of great force and ability. A short time prior to the war he had entered the ministry of the Baptist church, and as far as appears from the evidence of those most likely to know, was, in his private character as an individual and in his public character as a minister, above reproach. Some time after the begiiming of the war he was called upon to preach the funeral of a soldier who had died in the Union army. He consented to do so, the place where the appointment was made being Mt. Zion Church, in Steady Run township.

When the congregation had assembled, and after Tally had taken his place in the pulpit, the question of his loyality was raised by some of the brethren and, at their suggestion, another Baptist minister who was present went into the pulpit and informed him thai his loyality was questioned and if rumors were true as to certain sentiments which he was reported to have uttered, there were those in the audience who preferred not to listen to his discourse. After a short consultation Tally arose and announced that as there appeared to be objections to his preaching from that pulpit he would dismiss the congregation and those who desired to hear him should go to a certain school-house near by. He thereupon left the church and started for the school-house followed by the greater part of tiie audience, but upon his arrival at the place found the school-house locked and the sub-director refused to give up the key. They then went to a grove where the funeral sermon was preached and the audience dismissed. The circumstances attending the preaching of this funeral gave rise to bitter disputes and bickerings in the neighborhood and party feeling ran high. Encouraged by his friends Tally became still more pronounced in the expression of his political views and soon after abandoned the pulpit and took the stump. Numerous opposition meetings were held in the county and Tally was invariably the chief speaker. He soon became quite a hero and received and accepted invitations to speak in various parts of the adjoining counties. On every hand he was extolled and lionized by those of a like political faith. Thus flattered and petted it is not at all remarkable that as young a man as Tally should become bold to commit some very indiscreet deeds and make some very unwise statements. In his public speeches he nged language which was very offensive to the war party and threats were piade in some parts of the county that Tally  could not speak there. Whenever such threats were made the friends of Tally seemed to be particularly anxious that he should speak at those very places, and urged forward by the injudicious counsels of these friends improved the very first opportunities which presented themselves in .making good the assertion that he could speak and would speak at any place in the county where he chose to. To these meetings people from all parts of the county would flock, many of them well armed. Such was the condition of affairs when occurred the tragic event which put an end to the eventful career of young Tally.

On Saturday, August 1, 1863, a Democratic mass-meeting was held near English river, in Keokuk county. The speaking occurred in a grove, about one-half mile from town. The chief speaker was Tally. Several hundred persons were present at this meeting, most of whom had come in wagons, in the bottom of which was hay or straw, and therein secreted were arms of different kinds, which fact was developed at a later hour in the day. Speeches were made during the forenoon, and as some Republicans were present, party spirit ran high. As an illustration of the excitement, it is related that in a stripping of butternut badges [identifying them as southern sympathizers] the clothing was almost torn from a couple of ladies present who displayed the objectionable emblem. Wild and perhaps idle threats were made that the party would come up in the afternoon and clean out the town of South English, which was quite a Radical stronghold. Reports of these were carried up into the town, where, from the balcony of a hotel, a Republican was addressing a meeting of his party, and in the town the Radical feeling was also quite strong. To be prepared for emergencies, the citizens were armed as far as there were weapons for their use.

In the afternoon the Tally party came up to the town in wagons. In the front wagon were several men, including Tally, who stood up in the rear part. The Republican meeting had just closed, and arms were freely displayed. Some persons warned Tally that he had best not go through the town, as there would be trouble; but he claimed he meant no injury to any one, and merely asked the privilege of the street. As the first wagon came into the crowd, there were cries from th e street of "coward!" "copperhead!" "afraid to shoot!" etc. Previous to this time no weapons had been displayed by the party in the wagon, but upon these cries they came up from the bottom of the conveyance. Just then the street became so crowded that it was necessary to stop the wagon for a moment. At that instant a citizen accidentally, as he claimed, discharged one barrel of his revolver into the ground. This was the occasion for a general firing, and it is marvelous that the loss of life was not much greater. It has been estimated that one hundred and fifty shots were fired, which is evidently a great exaggeration. Tally stood in the back part of the wagon, with revolver and bowie-knife in hand; he evidently fired twice, as two chambers were empty, when he fell from the wagon dead, having been shot once through the head and twice through the body. One of the horses attached to the wagon was wounded, which caused the team to run, and probably avoided more serious consequences. The only other party senously wounded was a man by the name of Wyant, who recovered. Upon receiving the fatal shot, Tally fell prostrate in the wagon, and it was not known that he was dead until the driver of the team succeeded in controlling the horses, when an examination revealed the fact that life had already departed. The next day being Sunday, preparations were being made at the home of Tally, whither his remains had been conveyed the previous evening, for the funeral, while messages were sent in every direction informing Tally's friends of his death, and calling upon them to avenge it.

At the solicitation of certain influential citizens of Sigonrney and elsewhere, a committee, consisting of S. A. Evans, Wm. H. Brunt, Presley Doggett and others, proceeded to the Tally neighborhood on the Monday following. When they arrived Tally had already been buried, and about one hundred people, from various parts of the county had assembled, determined on revenge. The committee said that they had come in the interests of peace, and that they were authorized to guarantee the arrest and speedy trial of the person or persons who killed Tally. Their words seem to have had little effect on the crowd, and they departed. All this time wagon-loads of men were on their way from Wapello, Mahaska and Poweshiek counties to the place of rendezvous on Skunk river. Probably as many as 150 came from Mahaska county alone. These volunteers formed what is currently known as the Skunk River Army.

By Monday night affairs began to present quite a dangerous aspect to the people of South English and Sigourney, and that night two citizens of the latter place made their way to Washington on horseback, and there, procuring a hand-car, proceeded to Wilton Junction, where they took a train for Davenport, in order to consult Governor Kirkwood, who was known to be there at that time. They found the Governor early on Tuesday morning, and stated the facts; his first reply was a verbal order for three hundred stands of arms, which he then gave the gentlemen in writing, and told them to procure the arms and return to Keokuk county. One of the gentlemen replied: " My God, Governor, am I to understand you to return home and shoot down our neighbors?" The Governor replied: "On second thought I guess I'll go myself." And go he did, just as he was, without collar or neck-tie, and attired in the careless dress which he [was] accustomed to wear when at his regular employment. The Governor arrived on Wednesday evening at Sigourney; troops and a couple of cannons followed soon after. That night he made a speech in front of the court-house.

The popular story of the governor's threat of minie balls and canister to the Skunk River Army, and of their terror-stricken flight from their camp is a myth, the truth being that there was no considerable number of armed men nearer English river than Skunk river, which is sixteen miles from the town. The project of armed resistance had been practically abandoned before Governor Kirkwood reached the town, many of the Mahaska county troops having returned to their homes on Monday or Tuesday. It is probable that there were still some men assembled at the time of Governor Kirkwood's visit, and that his proclamation was read to them which gave rise to the more extravagant story. There was nobody badly frightened on either side, and no particular cowardice manifested. It is highly probable that if Bill Tally had continued as leader that the result would have been quite disastrous.

The Skunk River Army has been variously estimated at numbers ranging from five hundred to four thousand; the first figure is probably not far from the truth.

According to the Adjutant-General's report, the following list of companies was engaged in various parts of Keokuk county in suppressing disturbances during August, 1863: Muscatine Rangers, Washington Provost Guards, Brighton Guards, Richland Home Guards, Fairfield Prairie Guards, Fairfield Union Guards, Abington Home Guards, Libertyville Guards, Mt. Pleasant Artillery and Sigourney Home Guards—eleven companies.

The grand jury, at the following term of the District Court, took the Tally matter under consideration, but no one was indicted, and up to the present time it has not been found out who fired the fatal shot. It is highly probable, however, from the nature of the wound, that the shot was not an accidental one, but well aimed, and from an unerring hand.

Source: The History of Keokuk County, Iowa, A History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., Illustrated, 1880