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Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North

By Jennifer L. Weber, Oxford University Press, 2006, 304 pages, $28.

President Lincoln and his generals had more to fear than Confederate firepower during the Civil War. Lincoln was just as afraid of what he called “the fire in the rear”—political sniping from Peace Democrats who favored a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Jennifer Weber, a former pupil of James McPherson at Princeton and now a history professor at the University of Kansas, has written an accessible, thoroughly researched and valuable examination of one of the most visible and outspoken Northern political groups to oppose Lincoln, the Copperheads. The popularity of the president’s critics rose and fell in inverse proportion to the Union’s battlefield performance. Federal victories tended to keep the Copperheads quiet, while defeats were followed by howls of criticism.

Weber explores how elements within the Democratic Party had advocated negotiation over coercion from the very beginning of the secession crisis. After the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Copperhead voices were drowned out by waves of patriotism and martial optimism. That initial enthusiasm would be potent, but it would also prove to be short-lived.

Copperhead influence was especially strong in the West (the modern Midwest), an area of the country that had close ties of kinship and commerce to the South. Copperheads also shared a belief in the “strict construction” of the Constitution that emphasized states’ rights and viewed federal power with Jeffersonian suspicion. Thus, when Lincoln began the war without congressional authorization, Peace Democrats began a four-year attack on the president’s usurpations of power, violations of civil liberties and misuse of military courts.

Indeed, Weber notes, Lincoln occasionally gave the Copperheads reason to criticize him. Citing “military necessity” and the need to preserve the Union, the president suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the first month of the war, and later restricted free speech by arresting those who spoke out against military conscription and other wartime policies. However, Lincoln’s handling of his most famous Copperhead critic, Ohio Representative Clement L. Vallandigham, offers a case in point of how well he was able to manage the political complexities of the war.

After Vallandigham lost reelection to Congress, he returned to a hero’s welcome in his hometown of Dayton. Union General Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the Army of Ohio, was not amused. Angered by Vallandigham’s criticisms of the draft and his commander in chief, Burnside issued General Order No. 38 on April 13, 1863, stating that “Treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated[.]”

Vallandigham refused to take the hint. On May 1, he made a speech that eviscerated Lincoln for misleading the public, taking the North into a war to preserve the Union, but then waging it for abolitionism. He also lashed out at Burnside for General Order No. 38, describing it as a clear violation of the First Amendment.

A provoked Burnside, before checking with his superiors, sent 150 soldiers to arrest Vallandigham, throwing him into a Cincinnati jail. Burnside then imposed martial law and put the former congressman in front of a military tribunal, which sentenced him to federal prison. Vallandigham began describing himself as a martyr persecuted for exercising his Constitutional rights. The situation was, to say the least, a potential disaster for Lincoln.

Weber skillfully describes what the president did next, a reaction that blended his profound understanding of politics with a perverse sense of humor. Unwilling either to release the Ohio Copperhead and let his general lose face or keep Vallandigham in jail and make him into a martyred hero, Lincoln decided to hand him over to the Confederates. They refused the favor, however. “The Yankees took care of the problem,” Weber writes, “by dumping Vallandigham and his valise near a rebel picket.” Ostracized by the Confederates, Vallandigham “escaped” to Canada (Weber doesn’t say whether Lincoln loaned him a getaway horse).

Vallandigham was far from finished, though. Safe in Windsor, Ontario, he ran for the governorship of Ohio but lost. Later he sneaked back into the United States, but Lincoln decided to leave him alone, and the outspoken Copperhead helped write the Democratic Party’s platform for the 1864 election. Vallandigham called the war a failure and demanded a negotiated peace with the Confederacy. For Democratic nominee George B. McClellan, this “peace plank” was an albatross around his neck, especially after a series of Union victories on the battlefield in the months before the general election.

Weber points to a major weakness of the Peace Democrats: Nobody knew what kind of peace they wanted. Would they cease hostilities and recognize an independent Confederacy? Would they welcome the Confederate states back into the Union? And what about slavery? Nobody really knew, and the Copperheads weren’t organized enough to speak with a single voice.

Weber has written an important study that sheds new light on the skillful ways in which Lincoln handled his political opponents. She also provides readers with a long overdue three-dimensional portrait of who the Copperheads were, what they believed and why they ultimately failed.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.