During the 1850s, American politics splintered along sectional lines because of differing beliefs regarding slavery. Gradually, the Whig Party dissolved, as the Free Soil Party, and later, the Republican Party emerged to replace it in the North. Members of the new parties tended to oppose the practice of human slavery on moral grounds, or they objected to the extension of slavery to the American West for economic reasons. By 1856, the Republican Party had grown so popular that its candidate, John C. Fremont, out-polled Whig candidate Millard Fillmore and finished second in the presidential race to Democrat James Buchanan.
Four years later, the Democratic Party split into three factions—Northern Democrats, Southern Democrats, and Constitutional Unionists. The Democratic rift enabled little-known Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln to win the presidential election with only 39% of the popular vote. Lincoln’s election prompted South Carolina to enact articles of secession on December 24, 1860. Four months later, Southern militia fired on Fort Sumter (April 12, 1861) and the United States plummeted into civil war.
War Democrats, Peace Democrats, and Copperheads
The American Civil War forced members of the Democratic Party to choose allegiances. War Democrats—most of whom lived in the North—supported the war to save the Union. Not all of them, however, solidly supported Republican President Lincoln’s leadership during the conflict.
The remaining members of the Democratic Party in the North comprised a coalition known as Peace Democrats who opposed the war, and/or Lincoln’s leadership, for a variety of reasons. The number of Peace Democrats ebbed and flowed as the war progressed, depending upon Northern battlefield successes and failures, and 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.
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.
Hotbeds of Opposition
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. It did, however, feature several prominent leaders, including Wilbur F. Storey, William Taylor Davidson, and Lewis W. Ross of Illinois; Jesse D. Bright and Daniel W. Voorhees of Indiana; Alexander Long, Edson B. Olds, George Pendleton, Clement Vallandigham, and Joseph W. White of Ohio; Horatio Seymour and Fernando Wood of New York; George W. Woodward and William A. Wallace of Pennsylvania; and Marcus M. Pomeroy of Wisconsin. 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. Born in eastern Ohio on July 29, 1820, Vallandigham served in the Ohio General Assembly (1845-1847) where he agitated for war with Mexico, opposed the Wilmot Proviso (excluding slavery from the territories), and resisted efforts to repeal Ohio’s “Black Laws,” which suppressed the rights of citizens of African descent. In 1856, voters of Ohio’s 3rd District elected Vallandigham to represent them in Congress. Serving from May 25, 1858, to March 3, 1863, he was an ardent supporter of states’ rights and a relentless opponent of abolitionists. After the Civil War began, Vallandigham consistently voted against measures to fund the Union war effort, and he condemned what he considered to be President Lincoln’s abuses of power.
When Vallandigham’s last term in Congress ended, he returned to his home in Dayton, Ohio, where he continued to serve as the preeminent spokesperson for the Peace Democrats. On May 1, 1863, he delivered an inflammatory speech at Mt. Vernon, Ohio, denouncing the war and “King Lincoln.” Four days later, Major General Ambrose, commander of the Department of the Ohio, ordered Vallandigham’s arrest. During the predawn hours of May 5, 1863, Union soldiers raided Vallandigham’s home and spirited him overnight by train to Burnside’s Cincinnati headquarters. There, Burnside imprisoned the former congressman and charged him with expressing public opposition to the war in violation of Burnside’s General Order, No. 38.
On May 6, 1863, Burnside brought Vallandigham before a military tribunal, even though the Copperhead leader was not a member of the military. On May 16, the tribunal found Vallandigham guilty as charged and sentenced him to prison at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor for the rest of the war.
Vallandigham’s arrest, trial, conviction, and sentence spawned a firestorm of criticism and protest in the North. The day after the arrest, a mob ransacked and torched the offices of Dayton’s Republican newspaper, the Dayton Journal. Three days of protests and riots forced Burnside to declare martial law in the area to restore order.
Following the trial, Democratic newspapers denounced Burnside and Lincoln as military despots intent on trampling the Constitutional rights of free speech, peaceful assembly, and trial by jury. Even Republican newspapers such as the New York Daily Tribune and the New York Evening Post challenged the legality of the proceedings.
Rather than let Vallandigham become a martyr to those clamoring for peace, President Lincoln yielded to the pressure. Following a cabinet meeting on May 19, 1863, the president shrewdly announced that he would banish Vallandigham to the Confederacy. On May 26, federal soldiers escorted the Copperhead leader to Tennessee and sent him beyond Union lines.
Vallandigham’s deportation amplified the outrage of Democrats, especially in Ohio. On June 11, 1863, Democrats overwhelmingly nominated the exiled Copperhead for the office of Governor of Ohio. Vallandigham did not remain in the South for long. By mid-summer he traveled to Windsor, Ontario, where he conducted his campaign for governor in absentia.
By the time voters went to the polls on October 13, 1863, Union forces were riding the crest of decisive July victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The turn of battlefield fortunes removed much of the wind from the sails of Peace Democrats. Consequently, Republican candidate John A. Brough (pronounced Bruff) swamped Vallandigham at the ballot box.
Afterward, Vallandigham returned to the United States under heavy disguise. The outcast attended the Ohio Democratic Convention in June 1864, where delegates elected him to attend the party’s national convention. When Vallandigham addressed the 1864 Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, he received a mixed reception. Still, his views on the war were persuasive enough to secure a peace plank in the Democratic platform, much to the chagrin of the party’s presidential candidate George B. McClellan. Blackened by the brushstroke of Vallandigham’s disloyalty, McClellan’s candidacy went down in flames as President Lincoln cruised to reelection in November.
The Copperheads were not the predominant faction of the Democratic Party when the Civil War began. Their influence increased throughout the conflict due, in part, to the following events:
- April 27, 1861: President Lincoln exercised his constitutional powers to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. In the case of Ex parte Merryman, Chief Justice Roger Taney, exercising his authority to hear habeas matters, ruled that Lincoln had no constitutional powers to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Taney’s ruling did not change the president’s decision. Over the course of the next two years, the Lincoln administration and the Army imprisoned nearly 18,000 American citizens without bringing charges against them.
- July 21, 1861: Confederate troops embarrassed the Union forces at the First Battle of Bull Run, inflicting nearly 3,000 casualties on the ill-prepared and overly confident Yankees.
- April 16, 1862: President Lincoln signed an act abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia.
- July 17, 1862: Congress passed the Militia Act empowering President Lincoln to order state governors to draft citizens into state militias to meet federal manpower quotas.
- August 28–30, 1862: Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia routed Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia at the Second Battle of Bull Run, costing the Union over 14,000 soldiers and paving the way for Lee to invade the North.
- September 17, 1862: Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac fought to a draw with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Antietam forcing Robert E. Lee to end his first invasion of the North, but the Yankees lost another 12,400 soldiers.
- December 11–15, 1862: The Army of Northern Virginia repulsed Major General Ambrose Burnside’s attempt to cross the Rappahannock River at the Battle of Fredericksburg, inflicting over 12,500 casualties on the Yankees, including 1,284 dead.
- January 1, 1863: Lincoln used his war powers to issue an executive order abolishing slavery in the states at war with the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation galvanized and reinvigorated Lincoln’s abolitionist supporters, transforming the war from an effort to preserve the Union to a higher moral cause. However, it also soured the outlook of some willing to support a war to save the Union, but not to free Southern slaves.
- March 3, 1863: President Lincoln signed the Enrollment Act which established procedures for implementing federally mandated drafts in Congressional districts that did not meet prescribed quotas for volunteer enlistments during the Civil War. By summer, draft riots broke out in New York City, Boston, Portsmouth (New Hampshire), Rutland (Vermont), Troy (New York), and Wooster (Ohio).
- April 30–May 6, 1863: During a prolonged battle at Chancellorsville, Virginia, Robert E. Lee out-generaled Union Major General Joseph Hooker, inflicting over 17,000 casualties on the Army of the Potomac, including 1,606 dead.
- May 4–June 24, 1864: Union forces suffered an unimaginable number of over 54,926 casualties, including 7,621 dead, during Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign.
- July 30, 1864: Union blunders led to the loss of nearly 3,800 soldiers in just a few hours during the Battle of the Crater outside of Petersburg, Virginia.
- July 11–12, 1864: Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley nearly penetrated Union defenses around Washington, D.C., coming within a whisker of occupying the nation’s capital.
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.
Resolved, That this convention does explicitly declare, as the sense of the American people, that after four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war, during which, under the pretense of a military necessity of war-power higher than the Constitution, the Constitution itself has been disregarded in every part, and public liberty and private right alike trodden down, and the material prosperity of the country essentially impaired, justice, humanity, liberty, and the public welfare demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view of an ultimate convention of the States, or other peaceable means, to the end that, at the earliest practicable moment, peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States.
Despite the peace plank, however, when the time came to select the party’s candidate for president, the War Democrats prevailed. George B. McClellan, former commander of the Army of the Potomac, received the nomination. McClellan was a harsh critic of Lincoln, but he strongly supported the war. Because McClellan never embraced the peace plank, his nomination created an unusual dynamic that hampered the Democrats’ chances of unseating Lincoln.
Despite the Democrats’ mixed message, President Lincoln’s prospects for re-election were bleak as the war wore on and body counts mounted in 1864. His fortunes changed dramatically, however, before the November election because of three battlefield reversals:
- Despite heavy casualties during the Overland Campaign, Ulysses S. Grant’s strategy of relentlessly pursuing Robert E. Lee’s Army of Virginia began to pay dividends. By late June, Grant had Lee’s depleted army bottled up at Petersburg, Virginia. The vaunted Army of Northern Virginia would never again be an offensive threat.
- On September 1, 1864, John Bell Hood’s Confederate forces abandoned Atlanta. Major General William T. Sherman’s Union forces occupied the city the next day, driving a wedge into the heart of the Confederacy.
- One month later, Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Valley drove Jubal Early’s Confederate forces out of the Shenandoah Valley, putting an end to threats of Confederate raids in the North and depriving Lee’s forces at Petersburg of vital food supplies.
The collective effect of these Union successes created renewed hope in the North that the war might soon end. Voters who may have lost enthusiasm for the war or who had lost confidence in Lincoln remained in or returned to the Republican camp. When the results of the November election were tabulated, Lincoln, like Lazarus, arose from the dead and swamped McClellan at the ballot box and in the Electoral College. Following Lincoln’s victory, the Copperheads slipped into obscurity.
Among contemporary students of history, Peace Democrats and Copperheads remain a polarizing group. During the Civil War, Republicans painted them as Southern sympathizers. While some Copperheads undoubtedly supported the Rebel cause, most were probably honorable Americans who opposed the conflict for bona fide reasons. Some were pacifists, others firmly believed in states’ rights, some believed the South had the right to go its own way, still others believed that President Lincoln and the federal government trampled the Constitution and personal freedoms to ensure victory. After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation recast the Civil war as a conflict to end slavery in the minds of many, new followers, who previously supported the war, also joined the ranks of the Peace Democrats.
Following the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination, Radical Republicans bent on revenge cast the Copperheads as traitors. Since then, some historians have depicted them as a loyal opposition, others have described them as unwitting abettors, and still others view them as active conspirators against the Union. Each of these portrayals may be accurate. Because they comprised such a diverse group, their legacy will likely forever remain cloudy.