An outspoken war critic raised the Union establishment’s hackles and put Abraham Lincoln on guard against what he called The Fire in the Rear.
A fist slammed violently against the front door, startling the couple within from a deep sleep. It was 2:30 in the morning, May 5, 1863. Clement Vallandigham was momentarily confused. What was this? He pocketed a revolver from the nightstand, and from the second-floor window of his Dayton, Ohio, home he looked down at the street below. Now he understood. The corner gaslight penetrated the night and illuminated a squad of Union soldiers with an ominous glow. The glint off their bayonets left no doubt—Vallandigham’s gambit to incite the government to act had worked.
The Rev. James Vallandigham, Clement’s brother, would later record the night’s events in a biography of his sibling. According to James, Captain Charles Hutton called Vallandigham’s name, incorrectly emphasizing the third syllable. His voice, full of anger and menace, demanded that someone open the door.
“That is not my name,” the rousted homeowner hollered. Then, knowing full well the reason, he called again. “What do you want?”
“I don’t care how you pronounce it, sir. That is your name and you are my man,” Hutton announced. “I’m here to arrest you by order of the commanding general of the Department of Ohio.”
Vallandigham defiantly refused to come down, and the officer ordered his men to break down the door. An ax smashed against the oak planking, sending shards of wood flying. Vallandigham’s wife screamed.
For two years the Civil War had raged across mostly Southern soil, inflicting more than 200,000 casualties. As with other Northern states, Ohio continued to supply men to snuff the rebellion, but happily its ground had remained unbloodied. Confrontations between soldiers, however, were not the only battles being fought. Ohio, a hotbed of opposition, was about to become the stage for the most celebrated civil liberties case of the war.
In March 1863, President Abraham Lincoln hoped to hasten the war’s end. Volunteer induction that had fueled Northern armies early had slowed as irrational exuberance gave way to the cold reality of war. Patriotism and a craving for adventure had produced about as many men as they were going to. It was time for more drastic measures, and Lincoln persuaded Congress to enact the Union’s first draft. Previously, state governments had controlled recruitment, but the Enrollment Act of 1863 transferred that responsibility to the Federal government. Provost marshals at the direction of the War Department entered each congressional district to enroll all male citizens aged 20 to 45. These lists served as the basis for the draft scheduled to commence that July. The War Department set district quotas based on population. After adjusting for volunteers, additional men chosen by lot covered any deficit. Peace Democrats in the North were quick to react. Tired of the growing body count, they wanted to end the war, even if it meant continued slavery. They held little sympathy for blacks and believed that Lincoln had consistently acted unconstitutionally in conducting the war. Arguing that the president was egregiously overstepping his authority, they cited the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the Emancipation Proclamation, the National Banking Act and the draft as instances where Lincoln had subverted states’ rights.
Republican newspapers dubbed Peace Democrats “Copperheads,” more a comment on their perceived poisonous character than a reference to their fraternal lapel pin, fashioned from copper pennies. Copperheads enjoyed a strong following among like-minded newspaper editors and blue-collar workers and in so-called Butternut regions of certain border states that harbored Southern sympathies. In simple terms, poor whites in cities did not want to fight for black freedom, not when former slaves would compete for jobs. In rural areas, farmers could hardly afford to leave fields and livestock to take up arms.
New York Governor Horatio Seymour, a Democrat, and elements of New York City’s rabid press would stoke the fires of anti-draft and anti-black sentiment too aggressively. On July 13, 1863, riots erupted in America’s largest city, and mob rule reigned. In four days of violence, 105 residents were killed, most of them black.
The Copperhead movement had found its leader and fount of energy in a handsome, gregarious 42-year-old Ohio congressman, Clement Vallandigham, whose political ambition and passion sparked what Lincoln called “the fire in the rear.” War Democrats and Republicans alike considered Vallandigham a pariah. In December 1862, he had boldly introduced a congressional resolution calling for Lincoln’s imprisonment and in a speech that winter to war supporters he railed, “Defeat, debt, taxation, sepulchers—these are your trophies.” He counted the war “a most bloody and costly failure.”
According to Harper’s Weekly, Vallandigham was relentless in his attacks. “He voted against every measure which was intended to enable the Government to prosecute the war, and did everything which ingenuity and malice could devise to hamper the Administration, weaken the country, comfort the enemy, and provoke foreign interference.”
Peace advocates had reason to feel emboldened. The Union Army had recently suffered a costly and humiliating defeat at Fredericksburg, Va., in December 1862. Vallandigham, though he had lost his November bid for a third congressional term, remained undeterred in his opposition to the war and redirected his sights closer to home. Believing he could ride the peace movement all the way to the governor’s mansion in Columbus in 1863, Vallandigham would then use the Ohio statehouse as a base to criticize the White House with impunity.
Helped immensely by his friendship with sympathetic newspaper editors, including those of the Columbus Crisis and Chicago Times, Vallandigham sounded a consistent theme: The president’s war policies shackled the white race and Lincoln had converted the government into despotism, all for that most ignoble cause— abolition. Stumping across the North, he articulately and energetically pushed the envelope in speech after speech, encouraging soldiers to desert and inciting war weary crowds, all the while knowing how he enraged official Washington.
Lincoln had little tolerance for anything that smacked of dissidence. He gave War Secretary Edwin Stanton nearly free reign to arrest hundreds of Southern sympathizers across the North, including newspaper editors. The president considered open disaffection with the draft and emancipation as beyond politics; it bordered on treason. But Vallandigham was a special case. As head of a growing antiwar movement, any aggressive action to curtail his rantings was fraught with danger. Lincoln did not wish to focus attention on the irritating Ohioan. He waited patiently, hoping that a victory on the battlefield would silence the peace advocates. Unfortunately, events beyond the president’s control soon promoted Vallandigham into a national figure. The catalyst was an unlucky and unwitting former Union commanding general.
Burnide Vs. Vallandigham
Major General Ambrose Burnside at 39 wore the army’s most distinctive whiskers. His initiation into the war gave little portent of what would follow. A bright figure at First Bull Run, the war’s first major engagement, he next led a victorious sea assault against Roanoke Island off North Carolina, securing an important beachhead in the North’s strategy to blockade the South. Thereafter, Burnside’s luck took a turn for the worse.
Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army invaded the North for the first time in September 1862. The Union Army of the Potomac under commanding General George B. McClellan chased Lee with superior forces until it corralled him near Antietam Creek, just over the Maryland border. Burnside led the left wing of the Union Army. But when the day called for decisiveness, Burnside blinked. He failed to pressure Lee by moving early across a bridge, which to this day infamously bears his name. His hesitancy likely cost the Union a clear victory. McClellan caught the brunt of the president’s frustration over Lee’s escape. When the general exacerbated the situation by failing to promptly pursue the retreating enemy, Lincoln fired him and tapped a reluctant Burnside as his replacement. But when given his own opportunity to engage Lee’s army that December, Burnside over-corrected his previous hesitancy. He ordered a series of suicidal charges against well-protected Confederate riflemen and artillery at Fredericksburg. The results were horrendous. Worried about what the country would say in the face of nearly 13,000 casualties, Lincoln felt compelled to remove Burnside from the scene. The president relegated him to a less sensitive spot—the Department of Ohio, headquartered at Cincinnati.
Burnside, distraught over his recent performance and demotion, took out his own frustrations on the Copperheads. In April 1863, he threw down the gauntlet and issued Order No. 38, threatening death or banishment to anyone committing treason: “The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed….It must be distinctly understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department.” A military tribunal would try perpetrators.
No political novice, Vallandigham now saw a way to boost his floundering candidacy for governor. Hoping to goad the government to act, on May 1 he spoke before a large rally at Mount Vernon, Ohio, aware that undercover officers stood ready to record his every word. Using inflammatory and incendiary language, the candidate ridiculed the president’s war policy and called for the crowd to vote the “tyrant” out. As for Order No. 38, he said he “despised it, spit upon it, trampled it under his feet.”
The next day’s edition of the Republican Ohio State Journal blasted the speech and the orator. “One thing is remarkable, vis: that in a speech of some two hours and a half, abounding in the most bitter and calumnious abuse of the president, the Government, the war, the ‘abolitionists,’ and the late Congress, there was not one single sentence, word, nor syllable of rebuke or condemnation of the rebellion, nor the rebels—not one, not anything that approached it. The inference from this fact is open to the conclusions of all men: that the sentiments and sympathies of C.L. Vallandigham, the chief of the Butternuts, the Captain of the Copperheads, are with the South, and not with the North, with the rebellion, not with the Government.”
Burnside’s agents dutifully reported back to their boss. Four nights later, on the general’s order, Captain Hutton arrived at Vallandigham’s Dayton home to arrest the agitator in the middle of the night. By the time the prisoner and his escort entrained to Cincinnati, a mob of the hometown hero’s supporters moved to vandalize and torch the offices of the city’s most prominent Republican newspaper, the Dayton Journal. They left it a smoking ruin. The Ohio city remained in chaos until martial law restored order three days later.
Of the two protagonists—Burnside and Vallandigham—only one understood that the incident set the stage for the president’s embarrassment. Vallandigham, playing the role of the oppressed to the hilt, hoped to back the administration into a corner.
Burnside convened a military commission in Cincinnati on May 6. He charged the prisoner with “Publicly expressing, in violation of Government Order No. 38, sympathy for those in arms against the government of the United States, and declaring disloyal sentiments and opinions, with the object and purpose of weakening the power of the Government in its efforts to suppress an unlawful rebellion.” Despite conflicting testimony, the commission naturally convicted the gubernatorial hopeful of working to undermine the government. Based on its recommendation, Burnside ordered Vallandigham imprisoned for the duration of the war and sentenced him to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. Vallandigham, knowing beforehand the outcome, immediately filed a motion for a writ of habeas corpus. A Federal judge promptly and summarily dismissed it, consistent with the president’s policy in such cases.
Now, as expected, Vallandigham watched a firestorm of protest rise throughout the North in an 1860s media frenzy. Free speech and the right to a fair, civilian trial were the crucial issues. The level of anger surprised the president, who thought the punishment fit the crime.
Early in the war, Lincoln had clashed with Roger Taney, chief justice of the Supreme Court, over the president’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Having won that battle in the court of public opinion by arguing the Constitution allowed such suspension when rebellion threatened the public safety, Lincoln had no intention of backing down now. He viewed Vallandigham’s actions as extreme. In answer to critics, Lincoln said that civilian courts were ill-prepared to deal with wartime matters and that it was entirely appropriate for a military court to try Vallandigham because he had warred upon the military, thereby giving it constitutional jurisdiction. Further, Lincoln suggested that he had no choice, it being incongruous that he “must shoot a simpleminded soldier boy, who deserts, while he must not touch a hair of the wily agitator who induces him to desert. I think…to silence the agitator, and save the boy, is not only constitutional, but…a great mercy.”
From his cell, Vallandigham continued to evoke sympathy with a smuggled-out message. “I am here,” he wrote, “in a military bastille for no other offense than my political opinions, and the defense of them, and of the rights of the people, and your Constitutional liberties.”
Lincoln was confident he was on solid ground, but recognized that he did not need this distraction. A jailed Vallandigham was more of a nuisance than a free one. In typical fashion, the president exercised shrewd judgment. He commuted the sentence in late May, but ordered the dangerous Copperhead banished to Southern lines. This solution surely deflated Vallandigham’s mood. It denied him a degree of martyrdom and created the perception that his cause was associated with the enemy.
The Confederate government, perhaps suspicious of Vallandigham’s motives, likely felt relief when the exiled politician quickly ran the blockade and escaped to Bermuda. He made his way to Canada to resume his quest for governor. In absentia, he campaigned from Windsor, securing his party’s nomination in Columbus that summer. The Democratic convention culminated on the east terrace of the state Capitol, where the missing nominee won endorsement by acclamation. It proved to be his finest hour and was the high tide of the Copperhead movement. Subsequent Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July all but overwhelmed the peace platform. Vallandigham lost the October 1863 election by a landslide, capturing just 39 percent of the vote.
Capital city newspapers made no attempt to hide their politics. The Columbus Daily Express called Vallandigham a “notorious, infamous traitor convict.” Its post-election coverage summarized the importance of the vote. “The issue involved was nothing short of the question whether the people of Ohio array themselves with our brothers and our sons who have gone into the field for the defense and maintenance of the government, or with those arrayed in arms against them.” It further wondered how anyone could vote the Copperhead ticket, editorializing that “many an innocent boy will in after years have to encounter the hateful stigma, that his father, when his country’s life was imperiled, ranged himself with the side of the enemy.”
The Columbus Crisis offered a different view, quoting the loser’s concession speech to supporters: “You are beaten; but a nobler battle for constitutional liberty and free popular government never was fought by any people.” The paper’s editor, crusty Sam Medary, speculated that Republicans imported men from out of state and bought votes. Such alleged vote fraud led him to write of their loss: “Such a defeat is worth a thousand ill-gotten victories, with death and dishonor in their slimy wake.”
Whether such charges had any merit, one thing is certain: Union soldiers voting absentee ballots contributed to the margin of victory. The Ohio Volunteer Infantry, attached to the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee under future President James Garfield, cast its lot overwhelmingly with the Republican candidate, John Brough, and by inference Lincoln. Brough took 9,494 votes, Vallandigham just 252. The 55th Ohio Regiment provided an even greater percentage. All 296 votes cast went to the victor.
Bowed but unbroken, like pesky gnats Copperheads persisted to press their cause. With the 1864 presidential election approaching, Vallandigham returned to the United States in June behind a false beard and mustache and with a pillow stuffed up his shirt. The disguise was unnecessary. Lincoln chose to ignore the former exile. Vallandigham delivered the Democratic convention’s keynote address and, with his cohorts, helped nominate George McClellan—who had resigned his army commission following his dismissal after Antietam—as the party’s candidate to challenge Lincoln. But they also saddled McClellan with a platform he could not support, one that called for the immediate cessation of hostilities. While no admirer of Lincoln, the former general did agree with the president that a compromised peace was unacceptable—only by defeating the South could the Union be restored. With a growing public belief that the war had finally turned against the South, McClellan had little real chance. He lost the general election 55 to 45 percent. Lincoln’s dominance in the electoral college, 212 to 21, reflected the country’s mood to prosecute the war to its inevitable, victorious conclusion.
The steam had finally left the Copperhead movement as a formidable political force. Vallandigham, despite several future attempts, never held another elective office. He quickly faded from the national scene, only to resurface at state conventions. By 1868, recognizing political reality, the one-time radical urged his party to renounce its earlier platform, refuting the tag so often attached to his name, “disunionist.”
The Fall of Vallandigham and Burnside
For his own part, Burnside had continued his crusade against what he considered seditious newspapers, including the influential Times month after he arrested Vallandigham. Prominent Illinois Republicans and friends of Lincoln believed Burnside had finally gone too far. They strongly advised the president. He ordered it shut down just one Chicago to revoke the closure to prevent a threatened retaliatory strike by Copperheads against the favored Chicago Tribune. Although sometimes loyal to a fault, by this time Lincoln had grown tired of Burnside’s rash judgments. He viewed his own response a necessary but painful comment on the general’s competency.
Remarkably, Burnside had yet to hit bottom. Within a year, Lincoln had appointed General Ulysses S. Grant to command all Northern armies. Grant’s consistent performance in the war’s Western theater along the Mississippi River had impressed the president. Here was the soldier Abraham Lincoln had long sought to wrestle Robert E. Lee into submission. Grant brought Burnside back East to participate in the 1864 battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Petersburg. There, Burnside’s battlefield acumen again proved wanting when he championed a poorly executed attempt to mine beneath Southern lines. Known as the Battle of the Crater, the resulting 4,000 Union casualties led Grant to call it “the saddest affair I have had to witness” in the war.
Faced with mounting pressure, Burnside gracefully resigned. But fortune showed its fickleness soon after, as the former military man embarked on a successful political career. In what must have been cruel irony for his one-time nemesis, Vallandigham, Rhode Island elected Burnside its governor in 1866. He would later rise to greater heights in the U.S. Senate; he died during his second term in 1881.
Vallandigham’s postwar career held no such laurels. As a final ignominy, while serving as defense counsel in an 1871 murder trial in Lebanon, Ohio, he shot himself in a bizarre accident. Attempting to demonstrate how the victim might have inflicted his own wound, the lawyer mistakenly grabbed a loaded pistol from two that rested on a table. Believing he had the empty gun, Vallandigham carelessly sent a bullet into the right side of his abdomen. “My God, I’ve shot myself!” he cried in shock. He lingered through the night in great pain and died the next morning. Four days later in Dayton, a two-mile long procession followed the funeral cortege as it passed public buildings draped in black mourning cloth.
In its obituary, The New York Times said: “Vallandigham was essentially and entirely an ‘agitator,’ and was never as happy as when on the top wave of political excitement. His brilliant intellect, polished manners, extended attainments and social and professional relations were all calculated to place Mr. Vallandigham among the foremost of contemporary American men. That he failed of winning that enviable position was due to the fatal error that made him, when his country most needed friends, one of her most active and influential enemies.”