Numerous Northerners opposed the Civil War. Most opponents usually utilized peaceful forms of protest to object to the war and referred to themselves as Peace Democrats, while their opponents nicknamed them Copperheads after the venomous snake. There were numerous reasons why the Peace Democrats opposed the Union war effort.
During the American Civil War, the Order of American Knights, also known as the Sons of Liberty, was a secret organization of Northerners that opposed Union attempts to subdue the South militarily and that sought to assist the South by any possible means.
Numerous Northerners opposed the Civil War. Most opponents usually utilized peaceful forms of protest to object to the war and referred to themselves as Peace Democrats, while their opponents nicknamed them Copperheads after the venomous snake. 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.
The Order of American Knights eventually formed in the North to protest the Union war effort. Most of this group’s members were originally Peace Democrats, but as the Civil War continued and Southern victory became less likely, they adopted a more radical approach, including violence and sabotage, to protest the conflict. During the Civil War, Ohio authorities claimed that between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand Ohioans belonged to the Order of American Knights. Today, most scholars believe that significantly fewer Ohioans belonged to this group.
Ohioan Clement Vallandigham, a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1857 to 1863, won election as the supreme commander of the Order of American Knights in February 1864. One of the more radical Sons of Liberty plots 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, especially those of the more extremist Order of American Knights, 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.