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As an embattled Lincoln faced grim re-election prospects, Confederate leaders plotted with Copperhead Democrats in the North to poison the race.

In early 1864, as the Civil War dragged into its fourth bloody year, the embattled Confederacy faced its greatest challenge—an all-out Federal military offensive on all fronts, aimed at striking a knockout blow. To survive, Confederate leaders sought to turn the tables by carrying the conflict, politically as well as militarily, into the North.

With Robert E. Lee matching wits with Ulysses S. Grant as the Union general began his Overland Campaign against Richmond, and Joseph E. Johnston digging in to check William T. Sherman’s drive for Atlanta, the Southerners knew they somehow needed to hold on long enough to help the Democrats defeat President Abraham Lincoln in the November election. If that happened, they argued, the Northern people would be so sick of the war and its awful death toll they would agree to an armistice that would produce a compromise peace and halt the bloodshed.

In a January 4 letter to President Jefferson Davis, Georgia Senator Herschel V. Johnson—the vice-presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket that lost to Lincoln in 1860—proposed a novel idea: “Would it not be wise to have a secret agent in Canada who…might aid in stimulating and organizing more efficiently the opposition and securing influence that would result in the withdrawal of the Northwestern states from the Union?”

Confederate leaders were encouraged by reports that thousands in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio had turned against the war, and some powerful Democratic politicians were even talking about pulling their states out of the Union and allying them with the South. Heeding Johnson’s counsel, Davis decided to encourage this movement by sending arms and money to subversive groups already engaged in sabotaging the Union war effort.

On March 16 Captain Thomas Henry Hines, a Kentucky cavalryman who had ridden with Rebel raider John Hunt Morgan, was sent to confer with leaders in Canada who were “friendly or attached to the cause of the Confederacy, or who may be advocates of peace.”Hines’ orders were to arm and mobilize antiwar forces in the Northwest into an army capable of attacking Federal prisons in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, to free as many as 50,000 Confederate soldiers held there. Hines was authorized to lead his freed veterans in “any fair and appropriate enterprises of war against our enemies,” but was warned not to do anything to violate Canada’s neutrality stance.

The Confederate Congress, optimistic that a sustained strategy of subversion and sabotage would galvanize Northern Democratic politicians who opposed Lincoln and the war, approved $5 million for a political mission to Canada. After his first choice for the mission—Alexander Hugh Holmes Stuart of Virginia—turned him down, Davis called on Jacob Thompson, a rich Mississippian. Thompson, the former U.S. secretary of the interior, had angrily resigned his post in January 1861 when President James Buchanan secretly ordered the steamer Star of the West to supply beleaguered Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. When the war began, Thompson turned his allegiances to the Confederacy.

Thompson would partner with former Alabama Senator Clement C. Clay Jr. and J.P. Holcombe, a Virginian who, like Hines, was working to repatriate escaped Confederate prisoners in Canada. Davis made it clear to Thompson, however, that the Canadian government could not find out about any enterprises he conducted north of the border.

In early June, Thompson and Hines met in Windsor, Ontario, with Clement Laird Vallandigham, a former congressman from Ohio known as a “Copperhead”—a Democrat with Southern sympathies. Vallandigham was well-known for his disdain for “King Lincoln,” and had been sentenced to prison by a military court in 1863 for making violent antiwar speeches. But Lincoln instead exiled Vallandigham to the Confederacy, where he now fervently encouraged his Southern hosts to keep up their war effort until the Democrats could defeat Lincoln in the upcoming election.

Vallandigham was grand commander of the Sons of Liberty, a group formerly known as the Knights of the Golden Circle. He was confident that if the Sons of Liberty were properly financed and organized, it could help usurp power in the state houses in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Impressed, Thompson poured out a stream of Confederate gold to buy weapons and prepare for the revolution.

“The belief was entertained and freely expressed that, by a vigorous and concerted movement, [those states] could be seized and held, and Kentucky and Missouri could easily be lifted from their prostrate condition,” Thompson reported to Richmond, “and this, in sixty days, would end the war.”

Equally optimistic, Hines told the War Department that his group of escaped Confederate prisoners in Canada, backed by the Sons of Liberty, would free the Rebel captives at Camp Douglas in Chicago as well as the prisons in Rock Island, Ill., and Indianapolis. Hines said he dreamed of leading an army nearly as large as the one commanded by Robert E. Lee, still engaged against Grant outside Richmond. In theory, he added, this new Rebel force could provide a “fire in the rear” of General Sherman in the hills of north Georgia.

As Grant’s advance stalled and the terrible Union toll of dead and wounded rose to about 50,000, despair surged throughout the North. Many Americans who had loyally supported the war for three long years now feared Sherman would remain bogged down and the death count would steadily rise. Lincoln spoke grimly of carrying on the war for three more years, if necessary.

Echoing the sentiments of many Northerners fed up with the war, writer James Gilmore opined, “There must be some way to end this wretched business. Tell us what it is and be it armistice, concession, compromise, anything whatever, we will welcome it as long as it terminates the suicidal war.”

Swelling cries for peace implied that Lincoln had become so unpopular he was ripe for defeat, as long as the Copperheads could prove they could achieve peace by making a pact of some sort with the Confederacy. Democratic politicians in the Northwest, heretofore inclined to try a revolt, cooled off and began to talk of a political solution. That displeased Thompson, who persisted in trying to stir up a rebellion. Other Confederates in Canada, meanwhile, took another tack, wooing Northern Democrats with hints that the Southern states might return to the Union if assured of an armistice and that their rights would be safeguarded.

One notable Confederate agent was George Nicholas Sanders, a master manipulator behind the scenes in prewar Democratic politics. He had rushed back from a European mission to volunteer his talents in various schemes intended to hoodwink the Democrats. Sanders insisted Thompson’s revolt could never succeed, but he was confident that if the Confederates pulled the right wires they could control the platform at the Democrats’ national convention in Chicago.

In July, Sanders persuaded New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley and “Colorado” Jewett, a peace advocate, that the Confederate commissioners in Canada were authorized to discuss a peace agreement with Lincoln. The president did not believe Sanders’ assertion, but sent Greeley as his envoy anyway, to learn more. Greeley, in turn, gave the Confederates the false impression that Lincoln would discuss with them various options for ending the war. What Greeley didn’t tell them was that Lincoln insisted upon Confederate surrender.

When the Rebels discovered the truth, they erupted that they had never claimed to have the authority to make peace, and charged they had been double-crossed. Lincoln fired back with a curt manifesto “to whom it may concern,” that he would receive “any proposition which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole Union, and the abandonment of slavery,” one that came with the authority “that can control the armies now at war against the United States.”

The whole affair became an embarrassing fiasco to Greeley and Lincoln, and the wily Sanders claimed victory by saying that Lincoln had declared, in his non-negotiable terms of peace, he was demanding “the end of slavery.” That enabled delighted Democrats to crow that to free the slaves Lincoln would carry on the bloodshed for years.

Sanders and the Confederate commissioners encouraged certain Copperhead politicians to visit the resorts on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and discuss how the Democrats could regain the White House by advocating a compromise peace. Thompson took great pains to protect the names of the Democrats involved, since they risked their reputations by consorting with enemy agents in wartime. “Indeed,” he told Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, “I have so many papers in my possession which in the hands of the enemy, would utterly ruin and destroy very many of the prominent men of the North.”

The names of several Democrats enticed into the Rebels’ web, however, appeared in the newspapers: Governor Horatio Seymour of New York; Dean Richmond, the New York State Democratic chairman; former Senator George Pugh and Congressman George Pendleton, both of Ohio and both close to Vallandigham. Richmond, in fact, was quoted by one paper as declaring, “The fighting must be stopped.”

In a report to his superiors, J.P. Holcombe said he had seen—repeatedly in some cases—former New York Governor Washington Hunt; Senator Charles R. Buckalew and former Secretary of State Jeremiah Black, both of Pennsylvania; former Governor and Senator John B. Weller of California; former Mayor Fernando Wood of New York; Washington McLean, publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer; Judge Joshua Bullitt of Kentucky and Colonel John G. Walker of Indiana, leaders of the Sons of Liberty.

As news of the intrigues in Canada leaked, Republicans expressed horror that leaders of an American political party were unpatriotic enough to confer with enemy agents in a foreign country during wartime. They were outraged at plots to oust the president of the United States and at considerations of a compromise peace rather than a Union victory.

“Do these peace-mongers who go to Canada to see how much they can get for selling out their country reflect that they expose themselves, on returning, to arrest as spies for holding correspondence with a public enemy?” one newspaper blared.

True, the Democrats risked punishment for consorting with the enemy during wartime, if the Lincoln administration chose to wield its power against them. The Vallandigham case had already roused the Democrats to a chorus of outrage. Many who had openly opposed the war had been thrown into prison for months without formal charges or trials. Others had refrained from opposition to avoid joining them in jail.

Still, Democrats believed this was a golden opportunity to present themselves as the “peace party” that could entice the Confederates into a compromise that would end the bloodshed and, thus, beat Lincoln. They asked the Confederate commissioners to state their terms for returning their states to the Union. These terms would be reflected in the party’s platform at the national convention in Chicago.

The Rebel agents had to say they had no authority to accept any terms short of Southern independence, for Jefferson Davis would not accept anything less. But there were ways of wording the platform to promise the one thing the Southerners wanted more than anything else: an armistice that would halt the bloodbath for six months or more.

Clay, who knew many of the visiting politicians as old friends from his time as a U.S. senator, told them, “I think the South will agree to an armistice of six more months and to a treaty of amity and commerce…and possibly an alliance…both defensive and offensive.”

Under the headline, “The Great Conspiracy, the Rebels in Canada,” the Philadelphia Press reported that the Confederate agents were “ready for a peace movement that should put a final stop to the war” under “any terms that would not be too humiliating.”

The New York Times reported the Confederate commissioners had drafted a proposition to the Democrats for a restoration of the Union with “the old doctrine of state rights recognized in reconstructing the Union.” If the Democrats should win the presidency on this basis, the Times warned, “the army and the conduct of the war would be for four years in the hands of men to whom this war is detestable and the army is a nuisance, and the Union a doubtful good. It is to help bring about this desirable consummation that Messrs. Sanders and Co. have offered to negotiate.”

Editor James Gordon Bennett surmised in his New York Herald that the first design of the “conspirators” in Canada was “the overthrow of the present federal administration.”

Lincoln somehow obtained a copy of a proposed Democratic platform prepared by Clay. In late July the president wrote a memorandum showing he was keenly aware of the dark intrigue going on between the Copperheads and their Southern friends:

“Hon. Clement C. Clay, one of the Confederate gentlemen who recently at Niagara Falls, in a letter to Mr. Greeley, declared that they were not empowered to negotiate for peace, but that they were, however, in the confidential employment of their Government, has prepared a platform and an Address to be adopted by the Democrats at the Chicago convention, the preparing of these, and conferring with the Democratic leaders in regard to the same, being in the confidential employment of their government, in which he and his confreres are engaged.”

The plans, Lincoln noted, included a plank saying “The war to be further prosecuted only to restore the Union as it was, and only in such manner that no further detriment to slave property shall be effected.”

“The convention may not literally adopt Mr. Clay’s Platform and Address,” Lincoln wrote, “but we predict it will do so substantially. We shall see.”

By mid-August the public’s cries for peace had reached such a crescendo that Lincoln despaired of re-election. Fellow Republicans told him he would surely lose New York and Pennsylvania; one said he could not carry more than three states. A secret cabal inside his own party plotted to dump him from the ticket and substitute a general, preferably Grant, or even that incompetent bungler Benjamin F. Butler.

Amid these signs of certain victory, the Democrats convened at Chicago on August 29 to nominate General George B. McClellan for president. They hailed him for defeating General Lee in the Battle of Antietam and said he had been removed from command because he was a Democrat who would not wage a brutal war to crush the South and free the slaves. “By God, McClellan shall be nominated,” declared Dean Richmond, “and this damned war must be stopped!”

Eastern financiers and railroad executives, including Richmond, August Belmont and S.L.M. Barlow, pushed through McClellan’s victory on the first ballot. But they could not stop the demand of most delegates for a platform clearly pledging “peace.” The antiwar Copperheads really would have preferred to nominate Vallandigham for president, but they settled for his bosom friend, Ohio Congressman George Pendleton, for vice president. Both men had consistently opposed the war from the first day.

Vallandigham rammed through a platform declaring Lincoln’s war a failure and promising “a cessation of hostilities,” or an armistice—the main thing the Confederates wanted. In essence, as Lincoln had predicted, the platform followed the main lines of those that had been drafted earlier during those chummy chats between Democrats and Confederate agents in Canada.

Proof of the Southerners’ joy over the Democrats’ actions at Chicago is in a letter written by Clay to Secretary of State Benjamin on September 12, after he received encouraging firsthand reports from friends who had stopped by his Canadian retreat on their way home from the convention.

In nominating McClellan, Clay’s Democratic friends assured him: ,“Peace may be made with him on terms you may accept. He is committed to the platform to cease hostilities and to try negotiation. That is a great concession from him and the War Democracy. An armistice will inevitably result in peace. The war cannot be renewed, once stopped, even for a short time.

“The platform means peace, unconditionally. Vallandigham and Weller framed it. McClellan will be under the control of the true peace men. Horatio or [Thomas] Seymour is to be Secretary of State, Vallandigham Secretary of War. McClellan is privately pledged to make peace even at the expense of separation, if the South cannot be induced to reconstruction [of] any common government.”

In a letter to Colonel L.V. Bogy in St. Louis, written August 24 at the Metropolitan Hotel in New York, James Harrison revealed, “I had an interview today with Gen. McClellan with a view of ascertaining his status on the peace question. He is a strong peace man, but still wishes to see the Union preserved. His own words are: ‘If I should be elected, I will recommend an immediate armistice, and a call for a convention of all the states, and insist upon exhausting all and every means to procure peace without further bloodshed and shall not wait for the call to come from the other side, but that we should make the call first.’”

But the Eastern financiers who had railroaded McClellan’s nomination through the convention were horrified by the “war failure” plank and the call for a “cessation of hostilities.” They insisted McClellan repudiate that plank and, after agonizing for a long time, he did so in his statement accepting the nomination. George Nicholas Sanders denounced McClellan for writing such “an arrogant, war-spitting letter” that wrecked all the Confederate agents’ carefully crafted plans for locking the general into the “peace” platform.

Likewise, the Confederates’ plans for carrying the war into the North by freeing thousands of soldiers in raids on prisons led to one disappointment after another. The militant chieftains of the Sons of Liberty had men ready to attack the Camp Morton prison in Indianapolis in mid-August and overthrow—possibly even kill—Governor Oliver P. Morton. Unknown to the plotters, however, a meek-looking Federal spy named Felix Stidger had wormed his way into the inner circles of the Sons of Liberty by posing as a Southern peace man, and Harrison Dodd, head of the Indiana organization, confided to him all the plans for the revolution. Stidger tipped off authorities, and leaders of the subversive outfit were arrested in Kentucky and Indiana. Democratic party moguls in Indiana ordered the Camp Morton raid called off, and a Federal raid uncovered stacks of guns and ammunition stored in Indianapolis for the great uprising.

On the eve of the Democratic convention, Captain Hines brought 70 Confederate ex-prisoners from Canada to Chicago to lead hundreds of Sons of Liberty in an attack on Camp Douglas. But the Sons of Liberty were frightened by reports of more guards and weapons at the camp, so they refused to risk an assault. Disgusted by their cowardice, Hines called off the raid. An attempt to free Confederate officers imprisoned on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, near Sandusky, Ohio, also fizzled when the crew of the assault ship mutinied.

A few days after the Democrats nominated McClellan, The New York Times assailed him in an editorial titled “McClellan’s Military Adventures—Treasonable Intrigues with Our Foreign Enemies.” Choosing McClellan, the newspaper charged, marked the formal climax of a dark intrigue certain powerful men had begun in 1861 and carefully brought to fruition to carry out their antiwar schemes. “McClellan was chosen by the ‘conservatives’ as their champion three years ago when they were actually seeking by every means in their power not to bring the war to a successful issue but to stop it altogether at any cost,” it said. “They were determined to have unconditional peace if they could and were engaged in treasonable intrigues to procure it.”

On September 3 Secretary of State William Henry Seward gave neighbors in Auburn, N.Y., the news from General Sherman: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” Then he launched into a lawyers’ brief, proving point by point the dark intrigue between the Confederates and their friends, the Democrats, to defeat Lincoln and stop the war, not win it.

He quoted a London Times dispatch of August 8 noting Clifton House on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls “has become a centre of negotiations between the northern friends of peace and southern agents which propose a withdrawal of differences from the arbitrament of the sword.”

Politicians who had turned on Lincoln in August began climbing back aboard in September. Those who conspired to dump the president had to give up. Horace Greeley, who had claimed Lincoln was “already beaten,” changed his tune in the Tribune. Senator Zachariah Chandler, a radical Lincoln critic, arranged a deal whereby Montgomery Blair would resign as postmaster general and General John Charles Frémont, a third party presidential candidate, would withdraw.

Besides assailing McClellan as the tool of Copperhead peace men and the Confederates, the Republicans assailed his running mate, Pendleton, as a worse antiwar figure than his friend Vallandigham. They portrayed Pendleton as a bogeyman who could actually move into the White House in case of McClellan’s death in office. The villain would have the power to disband the army and stop the war!

Alarmed by the aborted August uprising in Indiana, Governor Morton and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton agreed on drastic measures “to strike terror into the hearts of the conspirators” and to smear the Democrats generally with the paintbrush of treason. Accordingly, the accused ringleaders were rushed before a military commission in Indiana in the first of the “treason” trials. Dodd listened in stunned disbelief as his supposed friend, Felix Stidger, revealed all the revolutionary plans that the Indiana Sons of Liberty grand commander had confided to him.

Early on October 7, Dodd escaped by sliding down a rope, conveniently provided by friends on the outside, and slipped across the border into Canada. Naturally, Republicans called Dodd’s mysterious departure a confession of guilt. Morton won re-election by 22,000 votes.

The Republicans gleefully seized upon testimony tying Democrats to the “treason” plots and made it a central feature of their national campaign. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt concocted an unofficial “report” on the secret orders, accusing them of plotting civil war in the North. Republicans then spread the Holt Report in pamphlets, and loyal newspapers splattered it across their front pages.

Democrats vainly protested their innocence and insisted Holt’s report was a partisan electioneering device, a mishmash of a few truths, half-truths, fiction and outright lies.

The Lincoln administration used its wartime powers to guarantee secessionists and their Northern allies would not take over the government and impose a peace favorable to the South. The War Department became the great engine for Lincoln’s success; one biographer asserts that Stanton carried the election by dispatching troops and Federal marshals to quell schemes for Election Day violence in several cities.

Butler dispatched 10,000 troops to New York to prevent recurrence of the infamous draft riots of 1863. Hines concocted a new plot to free Camp Douglas prisoners with a small army of bushwhackers from southern Illinois. But camp commander Colonel B.J. Sweet found out about the scheme from a loose-talking Confederate and arrested the ringleaders just before election eve (Hines got away).

Lincoln scored an extraordinary victory, winning reelection with 2.2 million popular votes and 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 1.8 million and 21. The former general carried only three states: New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky.

The Republicans also retook the legislatures in Indiana and Illinois, which they had lost in 1862, and increased their control of both houses of Congress. The Democrats were left with only one Northern governor: Joe Parker of New Jersey.

Lincoln had made a prudent move by refusing to re-arrest Vallandigham when he returned from Canada. The president figured correctly that the eloquent Copperhead would create division among Democrats. Vallandigham left his party with a legacy that doomed it to defeats for a generation.

William Henry Seward, that wily old politician, reasoned that “no party can survive an opposition to a war.” He predicted that the Democrats “will be trying to forget years hence that they ever opposed” the Civil War.


This article was adapted from Frank Van Der Linden’s 2008 book The Dark Intrigue: The True Story of a Civil War Conspiracy.

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here