Copperheads (politics)

Copperheads (politics)

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The Copperheads were a vocal group of Democrats
History of the United States Democratic Party
The history of the Democratic Party of the United States is an account of the oldest political party in the United States and arguably the oldest democratic party in the world....

 in the Northern United States
Northern United States
Northern United States, also sometimes the North, may refer to:* A particular grouping of states or regions of the United States of America. The United States Census Bureau divides some of the northernmost United States into the Midwest Region and the Northeast Region...

 (see also Union (American Civil War)
Union (American Civil War)
During the American Civil War, the Union was a name used to refer to the federal government of the United States, which was supported by the twenty free states and five border slave states. It was opposed by 11 southern slave states that had declared a secession to join together to form the...

) who opposed the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

, wanting an immediate peace settlement with the Confederates
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

. Republicans started calling anti-war Democrats "Copperheads," likening them to the venomous snake. The Peace Democrats accepted the label, but for them the copper "head" was the likeness of Liberty, which they cut from copper pennies and proudly wore as badges.

They comprised the more extreme wing of the "Peace Democrats" and were often informally called "Butternuts" (for the color of the Confederate uniforms). The most famous Copperhead was Ohio's Clement L. Vallandigham
Clement Vallandigham
Clement Laird Vallandigham was an Ohio resident of the Copperhead faction of anti-war Democrats during the American Civil War. He served two terms in the United States House of Representatives.-Biography:...

, a Congressman and leader of the Democratic Party. Republican prosecutors accused some leaders of treason in a series of trials in 1864.

Copperheadism was a highly contentious grassroots movement, strongest in the area just north of the Ohio River, as well as some urban ethnic wards. Some historians have argued that it represented a traditionalistic element alarmed at the rapid modernization of society sponsored by the Republican Party, and looked back to Jacksonian Democracy
Jacksonian democracy
Jacksonian democracy is the political movement toward greater democracy for the common man typified by American politician Andrew Jackson and his supporters. Jackson's policies followed the era of Jeffersonian democracy which dominated the previous political era. The Democratic-Republican Party of...

 for inspiration. Weber (2006) argues that the Copperheads damaged the Union war effort by fighting the draft, encouraging desertion, and forming conspiracies, but other historians say the draft was in disrepute and that the Republicans greatly exaggerated the conspiracies for partisan reasons. Historians agree that the Copperheads' goal of negotiating a peace and restoring the Union with slavery was naive and impractical, for the Confederates refused to consider giving up their independence. Copperheadism was a major issue in the 1864 presidential election; its strength waxed when Union armies were doing poorly, and waned when they won great victories. After the fall of Atlanta in September 1864 military success seemed assured, and Copperheadism collapsed.

Agenda



During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Copperheads nominally favored the Union and strongly opposed the war, for which they blamed abolitionists
Abolitionism
Abolitionism is a movement to end slavery.In western Europe and the Americas abolitionism was a movement to end the slave trade and set slaves free. At the behest of Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas who was shocked at the treatment of natives in the New World, Spain enacted the first...

, and they demanded immediate peace and resisted draft laws
Conscription in the United States
Conscription in the United States has been employed several times, usually during war but also during the nominal peace of the Cold War...

. They wanted President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 and the Republicans ousted from power, seeing the president as a tyrant who was destroying American republican
Republicanism in the United States
Republicanism is the political value system that has been a major part of American civic thought since the American Revolution. It stresses liberty and inalienable rights as central values, makes the people as a whole sovereign, supports activist government to promote the common good, rejects...

 values with his despotic and arbitrary actions.

Some Copperheads tried to persuade Union soldiers
Union Army
The Union Army was the land force that fought for the Union during the American Civil War. It was also known as the Federal Army, the U.S. Army, the Northern Army and the National Army...

 to desert. They talked of helping Confederate prisoners of war
Prisoner of war
A prisoner of war or enemy prisoner of war is a person, whether civilian or combatant, who is held in custody by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict...

 seize their camps and escape. They sometimes met with Confederate agents and took money. The Confederacy encouraged their activities whenever possible.

Newspapers


The Copperheads had numerous important newspapers, but the editors never formed an alliance. In Chicago, Wilbur F. Storey made the Chicago Times
Chicago Times
The Chicago Times was a newspaper in Chicago from 1854 to 1895 when it merged with the Chicago Herald.The Times was founded in 1854, by James W. Sheahan, with the backing of Stephen Douglas, and was identified as a pro-slavery newspaper. In 1861, after the paper was purchased by Wilbur F...

into Lincoln's most vituperative enemy. The New York Journal of Commerce, originally abolitionist, was sold to owners who became Copperheads, giving them an important voice in the largest city. A typical editor was Edward G. Roddy, owner of the Uniontown, Pennsylvania
Uniontown, Pennsylvania
Uniontown is a city in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh and part of the Pittsburgh Metro Area. Population in 1900, 7,344; in 1910, 13,344; in 1920, 15,692; and in 1940, 21,819. The population was 10,372 at the 2010 census...

 Genius of Liberty. He was an intensely partisan Democrat who saw blacks as an inferior race and Abraham Lincoln as a despot and dunce. Although he supported the war effort in 1861, he blamed abolitionists for prolonging the war and denounced the government as increasingly despotic. By 1864 he was calling for peace at any price.

John Mullaly's Metropolitan Record was the official Catholic
Roman Catholicism in the United States
The Catholic Church in the United States is part of the worldwide Catholic Church, the Christian Church in full communion with the Pope. With more than 68.5 registered million members, it is the largest single religious denomination in the United States, comprising about 22 percent of the population...

 paper in New York City. Reflecting Irish
Irish American
Irish Americans are citizens of the United States who can trace their ancestry to Ireland. A total of 36,278,332 Americans—estimated at 11.9% of the total population—reported Irish ancestry in the 2008 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau...

 opinion, it supported the war until 1863 before becoming a Copperhead organ; the editor was then arrested for draft resistance. Even in an era of extremely partisan journalism, Copperhead newspapers were remarkable for their angry rhetoric. Wisconsin newspaper editor Marcus M. Pomeroy called Lincoln:
"Fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism" and a "worse tyrant and more inhuman butcher than has existed since the days of Nero
Nero
Nero , was Roman Emperor from 54 to 68, and the last in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius to become his heir and successor, and succeeded to the throne in 54 following Claudius' death....

.... The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor and murderer.... And if he is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good."

Copperhead resistance



The Copperheads sometimes talked of violent resistance, and in some cases started to organize. They never actually made an organized attack, however. As war opponents, Copperheads were suspected of disloyalty, and their leaders were sometimes arrested and held for months in military prisons without trial. One famous example was General Ambrose Burnside
Ambrose Burnside
Ambrose Everett Burnside was an American soldier, railroad executive, inventor, industrialist, and politician from Rhode Island, serving as governor and a U.S. Senator...

's 1863 General Order Number 38
General Order Number 38
General Order Number 38 was issued by American Union general Ambrose Burnside on April 13, 1863, during the American Civil War, while Burnside commanded the Department of the Ohio...

, issued in Ohio, which made it an offence (to be tried in military court) to criticize the war in any way. The order was used to arrest Ohio congressman Clement L. Vallandigham
Clement Vallandigham
Clement Laird Vallandigham was an Ohio resident of the Copperhead faction of anti-war Democrats during the American Civil War. He served two terms in the United States House of Representatives.-Biography:...

 when he criticized the order itself. Lincoln, however, commuted his sentence while requiring his exile to the Confederacy.

Probably the largest Copperhead group was the Knights of the Golden Circle
Knights of the Golden Circle
The Knights of the Golden Circle was a secret society. Some researchers believe the objective of the KGC was to prepare the way for annexation of a golden circle of territories in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean for inclusion in the United States as slave states...

; formed in Ohio in the 1850s, it became politicized in 1861. It reorganized as the Order of American Knights in 1863, and again, early in 1864, as the Order of the Sons of Liberty, with Vallandigham as its commander. One leader, Harrison H. Dodd
Harrison H. Dodd
Harrison H. Dodd was a founder of the 1860s-era Sons of Liberty, whose goal was to thwart the war effort of Abraham Lincoln while remaining citizens of the United States....

, advocated violent overthrow of the governments of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri in 1864. Democratic party leaders, and a Federal investigation, thwarted his conspiracy. In spite of this Copperhead setback, tensions remained high. The Charleston Riot
Charleston Riot
The Charleston Riot occurred on March 28, 1864, in Charleston, Illinois, after Union soldiers and local Republicans clashed with local insurgents known as Copperheads. By the time the riot had subsided, nine were dead and twelve had been wounded.-Copperheads:...

 took place in Illinois in March 1864. Indiana Republicans then used the sensational revelation of an antiwar Copperhead conspiracy by elements of the Sons of Liberty to discredit Democrats in the 1864 House elections
United States House election, 1864
Elections to the United States House of Representatives were held in 1864 to elect Representatives to the 39th United States Congress. The election coincided with the presidential election of 1864, in which President Abraham Lincoln was re-elected....

. The military trial of Lambdin P. Milligan
Lambdin P. Milligan
Lambdin Purdy Milligan was a lawyer, farmer, and a leader of the Knights of the Golden Circle during the American Civil War. In 1864, he was unlawfully given a capital sentence, and later set free by the United States Supreme Court, setting a precedent later named after him: Ex parte Milligan...

 and other Sons of Liberty revealed plans to set free the Confederate prisoners held in the state. The culprits were sentenced to hang but the Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 intervened in Ex parte Milligan
Ex parte Milligan
Ex parte Milligan, , was a United States Supreme Court case that ruled that the application of military tribunals to citizens when civilian courts are still operating is unconstitutional. It was also controversial because it was one of the first cases after the end of the American Civil...

, saying they should have received civilian trials.

Most Copperheads actively participated in politics. On May 1, 1863, former Congressman Vallandigham declared that the war was being fought not to save the Union but to free the blacks and enslave Southern whites. The Army then arrested him for declaring sympathy for the enemy. He was court-martial
Court-martial
A court-martial is a military court. A court-martial is empowered to determine the guilt of members of the armed forces subject to military law, and, if the defendant is found guilty, to decide upon punishment.Most militaries maintain a court-martial system to try cases in which a breach of...

ed and sentenced to imprisonment, but Lincoln commuted the sentence
Commutation of sentence
Commutation of sentence involves the reduction of legal penalties, especially in terms of imprisonment. Unlike a pardon, a commutation does not nullify the conviction and is often conditional. Clemency is a similar term, meaning the lessening of the penalty of the crime without forgiving the crime...

 to banishment behind Confederate lines. The Democrats nevertheless nominated him for governor of Ohio in 1863; he campaigned from Canada but lost after an intense battle. He operated behind the scenes at the 1864 Democratic convention
1864 Democratic National Convention
The 1864 Democratic National Convention was held at The Amphitheatre in Chicago, Illinois. The Convention nominated General George B. McClellan for the Presidency, and Representative George H. Pendleton for the Vice-Presidency. McClellan, age 37 at the time of the convention and Pendleton, age 39,...

 in Chicago. This convention adopted a largely Copperhead platform, but chose a pro-war presidential candidate, George B. McClellan
George B. McClellan
George Brinton McClellan was a major general during the American Civil War. He organized the famous Army of the Potomac and served briefly as the general-in-chief of the Union Army. Early in the war, McClellan played an important role in raising a well-trained and organized army for the Union...

. The contradiction severely weakened the party's chances to defeat Lincoln's reelection.

Profile of the average member


The values of the Copperheads reflected the Jacksonian democracy
Jacksonian democracy
Jacksonian democracy is the political movement toward greater democracy for the common man typified by American politician Andrew Jackson and his supporters. Jackson's policies followed the era of Jeffersonian democracy which dominated the previous political era. The Democratic-Republican Party of...

 of an earlier agrarian society. The Copperhead movement attracted Southerners who had settled north of the Ohio River
Ohio River
The Ohio River is the largest tributary, by volume, of the Mississippi River. At the confluence, the Ohio is even bigger than the Mississippi and, thus, is hydrologically the main stream of the whole river system, including the Allegheny River further upstream...

, the poor, and merchants who had lost profitable Southern trade. Copperheads did well in local and state elections in 1862, especially in New York, and won majorities in the legislatures of Illinois and Indiana. They were most numerous in border areas, including southern parts of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana (in Missouri, comparable groups were avowed Confederates). The Copperhead coalition included many Irish American
Irish American
Irish Americans are citizens of the United States who can trace their ancestry to Ireland. A total of 36,278,332 Americans—estimated at 11.9% of the total population—reported Irish ancestry in the 2008 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau...

 Catholics in eastern cities, mill towns, and mining camps (especially in the Pennsylvania coal fields). They were also numerous in German
German American
German Americans are citizens of the United States of German ancestry and comprise about 51 million people, or 17% of the U.S. population, the country's largest self-reported ancestral group...

 Catholic areas of the Midwest
Midwestern United States
The Midwestern United States is one of the four U.S. geographic regions defined by the United States Census Bureau, providing an official definition of the American Midwest....

, especially Wisconsin

Historian Kenneth Stampp has captured the Copperhead spirit in his depiction of Congressman Daniel W. Voorhees
Daniel W. Voorhees
Daniel Wolsey Voorhees was a lawyer and United States Senator from Indiana, who was leader of the Democratic party and an anti-war Copperhead during the American Civil War.-Biography:...

 of Indiana:

Historiography


Two central questions have run through the historiography of the Copperheads: How serious a threat did they pose to the Union war effort and hence to the nation's survival? And to what extent and with what justification did the Lincoln administration and other Republican officials violate civil liberties to contain the perceived menace?

The first book-length scholarly treatment of the Copperheads appeared in 1942. In The Hidden Civil War, Wood Gray decried the "defeatism" of the Copperheads. He argued they deliberately served the Confederacy's war aims. Also in 1942, George Fort Milton published Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column, which likewise condemned the traitorous Copperheads and praised Lincoln as a model defender of democracy.

Gilbert R. Tredway
Gilbert R. Tredway
Gilbert Riley Tredway is a retired historian from Indiana and Kentucky, who has authored two books relating to the American Civil War.-Early years, military, education:...

, a retired historian at Campbellsville University
Campbellsville University
Campbellsville University, also known as CU, is a private university in Campbellsville, Kentucky, the seat of Taylor County. Founded as Russell Creek Academy, a Baptist institution, the university currently enrolls more than 3,000 students and is open to students of all denominations...

 in Campbellsville
Campbellsville, Kentucky
Campbellsville is a city in Taylor County, Kentucky, United States. The population within city limits was 10,498 at the 2000 census. It is the county seat of Taylor County, and the home of Campbellsville University...

, Kentucky
Kentucky
The Commonwealth of Kentucky is a state located in the East Central United States of America. As classified by the United States Census Bureau, Kentucky is a Southern state, more specifically in the East South Central region. Kentucky is one of four U.S. states constituted as a commonwealth...

, in his 1973 study Democratic Opposition to the Lincoln Administration in Indiana found that most Indiana Democrats were loyal to the Union and desired national reunification. He documents Democratic counties in Indiana having outperforming Republican counties in the recruitment of soldiers. Tredway found that Copperhead sentiment was uncommon among the rank-and-file Democrats in Indiana.

The chief revisionist historians, who generally favor the Copperheads, are Richard O. Curry and Frank L. Klement, who devoted most of his career to debunking the idea that the Copperheads represented danger to the Union. Klement and Curry have downplayed the treasonable activities of the Copperheads, arguing that they were traditionalists who fiercely resisted modernization and wanted to return to the old ways.
Klement argued in the 1950s that the Copperheads' activities, especially their supposed participation in treasonous anti-Union secret societies, were mostly false inventions by Republican propaganda machines designed to discredit the Democrats at election time. Curry sees Copperheads as poor traditionalists battling against the railroads, banks, and modernization. In his standard history Battle Cry of Freedom, (1988) James M. McPherson asserted that Klement had taken "revision a bit too far. There was some real fire under that smokescreen of Republican propaganda."

Jennifer Weber's Copperheads (2006) agrees more with Wood and Milton than with Klement. She argues that first, Northern antiwar sentiment was strong, so strong that Peace Democrats came close to seizing control of their party in mid-1864. Second, she shows that peace sentiment led to deep divisions and occasional violence across the North. Third, Weber concludes that the peace movement deliberately weakened the Union military effort by undermining both enlistment and the operation of the draft. Indeed, in 1863 Lincoln had to divert combat troops to retake control of New York City from the peace rioters. Fourth, Weber shows how the attitudes of Union soldiers affected partisan battles back home. The soldiers' rejection of Copperheadism and their overwhelming support for Lincoln's reelection in 1864 was decisive in securing the Northern victory and the preservation of the Union. The Copperheads' appeal, she argues, waxed and waned with Union failures and successes in the field.

See also

  • Doughface
    Doughface
    The term doughface originally referred to an actual mask made of dough, but came to be used in a disparaging context for someone, especially a politician, who is perceived to be pliable and moldable...

  • American election campaigns in the 19th century
    American election campaigns in the 19th Century
    In the 19th century, a number of new methods for conducting American Election Campaigns developed in the United States. For the most part the techniques were original, not copied from Europe or anywhere else...

  • Opposition to the American Civil War
    Opposition to the American Civil War
    Popular opposition to the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, was widespread. Although there had been many attempts at compromise prior to the outbreak of war, there were those who felt it could still be ended peacefully or did not believe it should have occurred in the first place...

  • Knights of the Golden Circle
    Knights of the Golden Circle
    The Knights of the Golden Circle was a secret society. Some researchers believe the objective of the KGC was to prepare the way for annexation of a golden circle of territories in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean for inclusion in the United States as slave states...

  • Red Strings
    Red Strings
    The Red Strings were a group in the Southern United States during the American Civil War. They favored peace, an end to the Confederacy, and a return to the Union...

  • Letter to Mrs. Bixby
    Letter to Mrs. Bixby
    The Bixby letter is a letter sent from the United States President Abraham Lincoln to a bereaved mother of five sons who were thought to have died while fighting for the Union in the American Civil War. The brief, consoling message was written in November 1864 to Lydia Bixby, a widow living in...


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