Copperheads: The Union’s Vital Opposition

The American Civil War divided America in 1861, and still divides Americans to some extent. Though some assert that getting along and going along with a ruling administration’s agenda is best for the country, America’s great strength as a free republic has been channeling many different viewpoints and correcting failures of leadership and ideology.

During the war, Copperheads were a collection of free-state Democrats with various levels opposition to the Republican leadership, President Abraham Lincoln, and the Union war against the Confederacy.

Ohio House member Clement L. Vallandigham was the leading member of the Copperhead faction, and went on a major speaking tour to highlight their philosophical platform in 1863.

Historian James McPherson explained Vallandigham’s outlook in his book, Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief:

The Lincoln administration was not fighting for Union, he charged, but for abolition… The Confederacy could never be conquered; the only trophies of this unconstitutional war were “defeat, debt, taxation, sepulchers… the suspension of habeas corpus, the violation… of freedom of the press and of speech…”

Copperhead numbers included many prominent Democratic leaders, including a former president of the United States.

When President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by assassin John Wilkes Booth many Americans that supported the Union showed their solidarity in mourning and flew the American flag in front of their homes. However, former President Franklin Pierce, a notable Copperhead from Concord, New Hampshire, who had strong anti-war and anti-Lincoln feelings, had been castigated by his neighbors, called a traitor by fellow citizens, and accused of being part of a secret pro-southern, pro-slavery society called the Knights of the Golden Circle.

A crowd appeared in front of Pierce’s house, asking him to make some remarks about Lincoln’s death. Some had been damning the old Democrat for not being patriotic; failing to support the Union and the fallen president.

“Old Hickory of the Granite Hills” as Pierce was sometimes called in homage to the great Democratic patriarch Andrew Jackson, came out of his house and addressed the crowd. The dashing, but aged former president, beaten down in life by the tragic death of his little boy in a train wreck and wracked by the effects of alcoholism, made one last great oration.

A heckler yelled to the former president, “Where is your flag?”

Pierce responded by highlighting the fact that he was a veteran who fought in the Mexican-American War and demonstrated his patriotism on the battlefield.

Pierce said from his front porch:

It is not necessary for me to show my devotion for the Stars and Stripes by any special exhibition, or upon the demand of any man or body of men.  My ancestors followed it through the Revolution… My brothers followed it in the War of 1812; and I left my family, in the Spring of 1847, among you, to follow its fortunes and maintain it upon a foreign soil [in the Mexican War].

Pierce had articulated to the crowd that love of country meant more than love of the president of the government, and that his ultimate loyalty was to the Constitution and fellow citizens. His speech quieted the crowd and he received a number of cheers.

But Democrats were certainly not unanimous in their opposition to the war and many became the most militant pro-Union advocates.

Democrat Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who had been passed over for Pierce in the Democratic primary of the 1852 presidential election, rallied for the Union in the early days of the war. He was a Western man of Jacksonian principles.

Douglas, echoing President Andrew Jackson in the Nullification Crisis that almost broke the union in 1832, was militant in his appeal to Union and victory, famously saying in his last public speech in 1861, “Every man must be for the United States or against it. There can be no neutrals in this war; only patriots and traitors."

Douglas said to a gathering of New Yorkers during the 1860 presidential campaign, “I wish to God that we had an Old Hickory now alive in order that he might hang Northern and Southern traitors on the same gallows!”

When asked in Norfolk, Virginia if he would be loyal to the Union if Lincoln were elected president, Douglas said, “The election of a man to the presidency by the American people, in conformity with the Constitution of the United States, would not justify any attempt at dissolving the glorious confederacy.”

Many Democrats with similar principles to Douglas signed up for the Union Army in enormous numbers.

Instead of weakening the Union, opposition strengthened the cause, it kept politicians reasonably honest and on their toes, put pressure on leaders to secure decisive battlefield victory, and prevented rampant violations of civil liberty on behalf of excessive Republican Radicals.

In fact, it was the failure to develop an organized opposition party that doomed the Confederacy. The excesses of government that were, and have been used to blast Lincoln’s war effort were also adopted in the Confederacy, often going far beyond anything that Lincoln or the Republican majority had done.

Historian Emory M. Thomas wrote in The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865 about the excesses and sacrifice of liberty that occurred under the new Southern government. The Jefferson Davis presidential administration and Congress had passed an unchallenged, highly confiscatory and progressive income tax law that Thomas said “proved onerous.” He also wrote that a few dissenters claimed the law was unconstitutional and that it “probably was.”

Thomas explained how it was that the agricultural South ended up running out of food before bullets:

Using impressed cotton and the congressional authority over blockade running, the supply agencies of the War Department practiced the nearest thing to state socialism to appear in the nineteenth century… The new draft, habeas corpus law, tax levy, currency reduction legislation, and governmental blockade-running monopoly were rather drastic measures.

Without organized dissent, political leaders in the Confederacy made poor, sloppy, or sometimes tyrannical decisions because they had little fear of opposition. These kinds of excesses could be prevented in the vigorous party system of the North.

Copperheads are the subject of a new movie by Ron Maxwell, director of the Civil War films Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. The film demonstrates the home front side of the war, and how issues involving human liberty, the Constitution, and patriotism divided America all the way down to the town and family level. For more information, please visit the film’s website.


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