Copperheads

Updated: November 25, 2010

A majority of Northerners supported the Union war effort, yet a sizable and vocal minority opposed the conflict. Most of the opponents, the Copperheads, preferred a peaceful resolution to the war, with some of these people even calling on the North simply to leave the seceded Confederate states alone.

During the American Civil War, people who opposed Northern attempts to subdue the South militarily usually referred to themselves as Peace Democrats, while their opponents nicknamed them Copperheads after the venomous snake.

A majority of Northerners supported the Union war effort, yet a sizable and vocal minority opposed the conflict. Most of the opponents, the Copperheads, preferred a peaceful resolution to the war, with some of these people even calling on the North simply to leave the seceded Confederate states alone. There were numerous reasons why the Peace Democrats opposed the Union war effort. Many Copperheads were former residents of and had family members still living in seceded states. They feared that Northern military efforts would harm their loved ones who remained in the South. Other Peace Democrats feared that President Abraham Lincoln intended to free the slaves in the South. If Copperheads had slave-owning family members still in the South, their relatives stood to lose sizable amounts of wealth if the federal government ended slavery. Many Peace Democrats without slave-owning relatives in the South also feared slavery’s termination. These opponents believed large numbers of freed slaves would relocate from the South to the North, causing job loss for whites and a decline in property values wherever the freed African Americans settled. Other Peace Democrats objected to President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, including the right to be charged with a crime and the right to a speedy trial, while those with economic ties to the South, feared that their businesses would suffer while the Civil War raged. To identify themselves, Copperheads commonly wore copper coins as badges on their clothing

In Ohio, numerous people supported the Peace Democrat cause. The leading Ohio Copperhead was Clement Vallandigham, a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1857 to 1863. Union authorities knew of Vallandigham’s anti-war position and did all in their power to silence this critic. In April 1863, the commander of the Department of Ohio, Ambrose Burnside, issued General Order No. 38. This order stated:

The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried. . .or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department.

Burnside hoped to silence war opponents, including Vallandigham, with this order. While the order stated that deportation of Copperheads to the Confederate States of America was the most likely punishment, Burnside commented that death might be a suitable punishment in extreme cases of disloyalty.

Seeking additional supporters for their cause, Peace Democrats continued to hold rallies in Ohio. One such rally occurred on May 1, 1863 in Mount Vernon, Ohio. At this gathering, Ohio’s leading Peace Democrats, including Vallandigham, urged attendees to denounce the Union war effort and to protest against General Order No. 38. In reference to the order, Vallandigham purportedly stated that he "despised it, spit upon it, trampled it under his feet."

At least two Union officers attended the rally, and they quickly informed General Burnside of Vallandigham’s statements. Burnside immediately dispatched soldiers to arrest the Copperhead. The men apprehended Vallandigham in Dayton, Ohio, this Peace Democrat’s home city. Authorities transported him to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Burnside’s headquarters was located and where Vallandigham would stand trial before a military tribunal.

Military prosecutors charged Vallandigham with violating General Orders No. 38, accusing the Copperhead of:

Publicly expressing, in violation of General Orders No. 38, from Head-quarters Department of Ohio, 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.

Throughout the trial, the Peace Democrat and his attorney, George Pugh, never denied that Vallandigham had violated General Order No. 38. Instead, the two men claimed that the military tribunal did not have jurisdiction in this case. The military court rejected the defendant’s arguments, finding Vallandigham guilty and sentencing him to federal prison until the Civil War’s conclusion. Vallandigham attempted to appeal the ruling in United States Circuit Court, but the presiding judge, Humphrey Leavitt, ruled in favor of the military, stating that, during times of war and civil unrest, that the federal government could legally expand its powers to ensure victory.

Fortunately for Vallandigham, President Abraham Lincoln commuted the Peace Democrat’s sentence. Rather than imprisoning Vallandigham, Lincoln ordered him to live in exile in the Confederacy. Military authorities escorted Vallandigham to Confederate lines on May 25, 1863, carrying out President Lincoln’s decision. Vallandigham only remained in the Confederate States of America for a short time period, moving to Canada in June 1863. In Canada, Vallandigham ran for election as Ohio’s governor, but he was easily defeated by Unionist Party candidate John Brough. In violation of his punishment, Vallandigham returned to the North, settling in Ohio, in early 1864.

Upon returning to Ohio, Vallandigham became the supreme commander of the Order of American Knights, which was also known as the Sons of Liberty. The Sons of Liberty were a more radical group of Peace Democrats. They sought to hamper the Northern war effort by any means possible, including utilizing violence. Ohio officials claimed that as many as one hundred thousand Peace Democrats belonged to this organization in Ohio alone, but most scholars believe that authorities greatly exaggerated the actual number.

One Sons of Liberty plot involved freeing Southern inmates at the Union’s Johnson’s Island prison camp on Lake Erie. Sons of Liberty members hoped to capture the Michigan, a Northern gunboat operating on Lake Erie near Sandusky, Ohio. Using the ship, the plotters intended to sail to Johnson’s Island and to rescue the Southern prisoners of war. These now released prisoners were to become the basis of a new Confederate army that would operate on Northern soil. Union spies infiltrated the Sons of Liberty, alerting Northern authorities to the plot. Officials arrested Charles Cole, the ringleader, before he could put his plot in motion.

While most Northerners supported the Union war effort, Copperheads were a sizable and a vocal minority. Their actions prompted much concern among Northern officials during the war’s first years. By late 1864 however, Union military victories and the nearing end of the conflict caused most Northerners to rally behind President Lincoln and the Northern war effort. The more violent actions of radical Copperheads, including the Sons of Liberty, also caused Peace Democrats increasingly to unite with the federal government.

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"Copperheads," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 27 Jul 2017 <http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=37>

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"Copperheads." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved July 27, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=37

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Clement Vallandigham

Clement Vallandigham, Copperhead leader

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