Clement Vallandigham, Portrait

Ohio Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham was the most notable leader of the Peace Democrats (aka Copperheads) who opposed the American Civil War. Library of Congress

Peace Democrats (aka Copperheads) - Facts

1860 - 1865

Key facts about Peace Democrats, aka Copperheads, a faction of the Democratic Party who opposed the American Civil War and President Lincoln's leadership during the conflict.

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  • During the American Civil War, the Democratic Party split into two main factions: War Democrats and Peace Democrats
  • Peace Democrats opposed the Civil War and/or President Lincoln’s leadership during the conflict.
  • The number of Peace Democrats ebbed and flowed as the war progressed, depending upon Northern battlefield successes and failures, and President Lincoln’s actions as commander-in-chief.
  • Republicans who supported the war to save the Union, as well as their president, often referred to Peace Democrats as Copperheads—probably a reference to the poisonous species of snake predominant in the Eastern United States.
  • Early Copperheads were Northern members of the Democratic Party who shared one or more of the following characteristics:
    • They sympathized with the South because they had once lived there or had family members who lived there.
    • They believed southern states had the constitutional right to leave the Union if they chose.
    • They did not believe that the secession of southern states was worth fighting for.
  • As the war progressed, more people joined the Copperhead ranks for different reasons. Among that group were:
    • People who believed that Lincoln exceeded his presidential authority by approving the imprisonment of war protesters without access to the writ of habeas corpus.
    • People who criticized Lincoln’s military decisions as commander-in-chief.
    • People who believed that Lincoln exceeded his constitutional authority by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
    • People who initially favored fighting to save the Union, but opposed fighting to end slavery.
    • Miners, industrial workers, and immigrants who feared economic competition from freedmen if the North won the war.
    • Merchants who lost profitable Southern trade during the war.
    • Racists and bigots who opposed the extension of citizenship and equal rights to freedmen if the North won the war.
    • People who opposed the draft.
    • People who gradually tired of the carnage as the death toll escalated during the conflict’s last years.
  • Pockets of opposition to the Civil War and President Lincoln’s leadership extended throughout the North. Their numbers were highest, however, in midwestern border states, such as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.
  • Because the Copperhead alliance comprised a diverse group of people who opposed the Civil War or President Lincoln for many reasons, it tended to be a loosely organized grassroots movement.
  • Many Copperhead leaders were prominent newspaper publishers and politicians, some of whom were state governors or served in the U.S. Congress before, during, and after the Civil War.
  • The most notable Copperhead leader was Clement Vallandigham, a congressman from Ohio.
  • The Copperheads were not the predominant faction of the Democratic Party when the Civil War began.
  • Gradually, losses of personal freedom, and the specter of forced military service, coupled with continually growing casualty totals with no end in sight, created a war-weariness in the North that heightened the influence of the Copperheads, especially within the ranks of the Democratic Party.
  • When the party held its national convention from August 29–31, 1864, in Chicago, Illinois, Peace Democrats held enough sway to force a plank into the party platform calling for the immediate end of the war.
  • When the Union armies began to prevail toward the end of the war, voters who may have lost enthusiasm for the war or who had lost confidence in Lincoln remained in or returned to the Republican camp and elected President Lincoln for a second term.
  • Among contemporary students of history, Peace Democrats and Copperheads remain a polarizing group.
  • Following the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination, Radical Republicans bent on revenge cast the Copperheads as traitors.
  • Some later historians have depicted Peace Democrats as a loyal opposition, others have described them as unwitting abettors, and still others view them as active conspirators against the Union.
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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Peace Democrats (aka Copperheads) - Facts
  • Coverage 1860 - 1865
  • Author
  • Keywords Peace Democrats, Copperheads, vallandigham
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date August 1, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 26, 2021
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