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Roseburg's “Champagne Riot”: Probably not what you think

The year after the Civil War ended, the partisans of North and South still clung to their resentments in Douglas County. On Christmas Day, those hard feelings broke out in a knock-down-drag-out that left two men dead.

The Douglas County Courthouse as it appeared during the murder trial of the instigators of the “Champagne Riot” of 1866. Built in the early 1850s at a cost of $200, the old courthouse was replaced with a more impressive-looking edifice in 1868, and the old courthouse became what it had always resembled: a store. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

It was Christmas Day in 1866. Officially, the Civil War had been over for a year and a half. Unofficially, though, not everybody agreed that its outcome settled things ... especially in Douglas County, Oregon.

At the time, Douglas County was like a microcosm of the United States. There was a Republican majority in the more populous and powerful northern part of the county, which had voted itself into full control of county government, much to the fury of the resentful, disenfranchised Dixie-friendly majority in the south of the county. And like Washington, D.C., between the warring North and South, the county seat at Roseburg was located almost directly between the two regions.

Approval or disapproval of the outcome of the war, and the subsequent reconstruction program in the South, split the Roseburg community right down the middle, with Southern Democrats bitterly resentful and Republicans (and pro-Union Democrats) gloatingly triumphant.

Douglas County wouldn’t really be at peace until the following year, with the outcome of an event that’s been described — only partly in jest — as the last battle of the Civil War. It’s known today as the “Champagne Riot,” although it was more a drunken brawl than a riot, and there was almost certainly no champagne involved.

The Champagne Riot started out as a Christmas party — or, rather, two Christmas parties. Feelings were so sore in the Roseburg area that the two sides each threw their own. The pro-Southern citizens threw their “Christmas ball” at Goode’s Mill, near Roseburg; the Unionists had theirs at the home of Joseph Champagne, in the tiny now-long-gone hamlet of French Settlement, six miles west of Roseburg.

Everything was fine and jolly and festive until about 3 a.m., when the pro-Southern party wound its way to a close, and the dancers and revelers started heading home to bed. But a small group of them, young hot-blooded men from old Southern families, decided the night was still young enough for some more action. They further decided that the place to go for that action was Joseph Champagne’s place, where the damn Yankee sympathizers were celebrating their recent victories.

Armed to the teeth and well fortified with holiday spirits, these young troublemakers set out on horseback for French Settlement, four miles away.

The primary purpose of the visit was for one of the five, Solomon Culver, to settle a score with one of the Unionists, George Bennett. Culver’s cousin, John Fitzhugh, came along, and three of Culver’s friends — Abe Crow, Bob Forbes and John Hannon — rounded out the little war party.

Fitzhugh was a particularly interesting character. Reportedly a distant relative of Robert E. Lee, he was a prominent Democratic leader in Roseburg and the founder and former publisher of Roseburg’s first newspaper — the Roseburg Express, which he launched in 1860, just before the Civil War broke out. It didn’t last long; after the shooting started, federal authorities went looking for “copperhead” newspapers and shutting them down, and the Express — along with the Albany Democrat, Corvallis Union, Table Rock (Jacksonville) Sentinel, Eugene Herald and Portland Daily News — was suppressed.

What the erstwhile journalist did after that, for the duration of the war, isn’t clear. But there’s one thing we know he didn’t do, and that’s give up on his pro-Southern beliefs.

Fitzhugh and his four comrades arrived at the rival gang’s party around 4 a.m. Upon their arrival, they got busy right away. Culver found Bennett, whipped out his Dragoon revolver and pistol-whipped him across the face with it, breaking his nose.

Then the party’s host, Frank Barringer, hurried to the scene, apparently to try to defuse the situation, and — presumably after a heated exchange of words, although the newspapers don’t say — Fitzhugh pulled a derringer and shot him through the heart. Barringer slipped to the floor and died without speaking another word.

Then fists, knives and pistols started flashing and flying as the fighting became general. The fiddle player, Ash Clayton, set down his instrument, grabbed a knife and used it to let some air out of Solomon Colver’s left lung. Abe Crow took offense to this and, pulling his revolver, shot Clayton twice with it (once in the leg, and once across the scalp) and then slashed him across the head with his knife. Fitzhugh, now armed only with the empty derringer, rushed another partygoer named Tom Thompson — which turned out to be a huge mistake, because Thompson clearly knew his way around a six-shooter better than anyone else in the room.

Two gunshots later, Fitzhugh was done for the night — not dead, but badly wounded. Forbes and Hannon, seeing this, attacked Thompson and were also shot down — both hit in the stomach. Crow, suddenly realizing he was the only survivor of the little war party, gave full rein to the better part of valor and fled into the night.

Over the next week or two, much to the surprise of nearly everyone, nearly all the injured parties rallied and recovered. Only Bob Forbes, whose spine had been broken by Thompson’s revolver ball, and Barringer, shot through the heart by Fitzhugh, died.

Fitzhugh was soon arrested, and put on trial for murder along with Hannan; Crow, who had made a dreadful mess of fiddle player Clayton, couldn’t be found. It’s not clear why Culver wasn’t charged, but chances are good his sucking stab wound was still too serious for him to make a court appearance.

The “riot,” which got extensive newspaper coverage all over Oregon, had brought the lingering resentments in Douglas County to a head, and hundreds of people took an avid interest in the trial. For most of them, it was more than a drunken act of petty criminality; it was a proxy fight between the forces of the North and the South.

When it was all over, the jury found both men guilty. But the judge sentenced them to very light sentences: five years for Fitzhugh, and one for Hannan.

The champions of Unionists and Southern Democrats alike decried the verdict in editorial pages and coffee houses — the one side complaining about the light sentences, the other about the guilty verdict. But after it was all over, and nobody’s “team” had “won,” Douglas County residents were finally able to settle down and live with one another — if not at peace, then at least not actively at war.

(Sources: Lalande, Jeff. “Dixie of the Pacific Northwest,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, spring 1999; Portland Morning Oregonian, 3 Jan 1867 and 14 Jan 1867)