Copperheads: Lincoln's Northern Opposition During Civil War

Copperheads: Lincoln's Northern Opposition During Civil War

As the Civil War unfolded, President Abraham Lincoln found himself not only at odds with the southern states that had seceded but also with northern Democrats who favored a “negotiated peace” over war.

These northern Democrats–“Peace Democrats” as they were called–drew the ire of Republicans who supported the war. And the Republicans soon began to refer to Peace Democrats as “Copperheads”–a pejorative drawn from the example of a poisonous snake. 

Copperheads were criticized for being friends of the Confederacy as well as slavery. But as Mark M. Boatner III showed in his bibliographic work, The Civil War Dictionary (1959),

the consistent problems Copperheads cited with the Civil War revolved around what they viewed as Lincoln’s violations of the constitution.

Wrote Boatner: “Lincoln assumed strong executive powers in suppressing [anti-war sentiment], including arrests, suppression of the press, suspension of habeas corpus,  and censorship.” 

These things are not points of dispute–they happened. And the Copperheads refused to support the Union’s war effort because of it.

To be clear, this is not to say the Copperheads were not altogether unified on every point. There were some who focused on the slavery issue, but even many of these did so from a constitutional point of reference. They did not think a war against slavery was constitutional and the longer the war went on, the more it appeared to be about slavery rather than about keeping a divided house from falling. 

Copperheads were predominantly in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. As the war carried on into 1862, the voices of dissent in these states grew louder. 

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, the Copperheads were outraged over what they saw as another attempt to act without constitutional authority.  

By the time the proclamation was effectual on January 1, 1863, the Copperheads appeared to be on the rise and the Union’s war effort on the decline. What momentum the South lacked Lincoln feared the Copperheads might possess. He felt himself trapped between two forces, neither of which was friendly. 

Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 brought Lincoln some relief, but it was an uneasy relief. Northerners who had grown weary of the war and Copperheads who had found it unconstitutional from the start were short-fused. With the slightest provocation or perceived constitutional infraction their anger flared to such a degree that Lincoln feared revolt. 

By late summer of 1864 the Copperheads saw their ranks swell with those who supported ending the war. 

Then, with a suddenness only warfare can convey, their momentum was gone. Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman captured Atlanta and burned it to the ground. This was followed by other Union victories, and finally by Lincoln’s re-election in November 1864. 

The war was coming to an end, and so too the Copperheads.

Copperheads are the subject of a new movie by Ron Maxwell, director of the Civil War films Gettysburg and Gods and Generals.  Copperhead opens in select theaters on June 28th.  For more information, please visit the film’s website.

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Follow AWR Hawkins on Twitter @AWRHawkins 


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