The Copperheads were a powerful faction of the Democratic party in the North who opposed the American Civil War, wanting an immediate peace settlement with the Confederate States of America knowing that meant independence for the Confederacy and the continuation of slavery. They bitterly opposed the U.S. government under Abraham Lincoln, denouncing him as a tyrant; some collaborated with Confederates and were tried for treason for doing so. Their opponents in the Democratic Party were supporters of the war called War Democrats. The Copperheads battled the War Democrats and usually succeeded in taking control of the Democratic party in most the northern states. After the war, the Republicans for decades ridiculed many Democrats as "Copperheads" even if they were passive during the war.
The name Copperheads was given to them by their opponents the Republican Party, after a hard-to-spot venomous snake. Copperheads reinterpreted this insult as a term of honor, and wore copper liberty-head coins as badges. They were also called "Peace Democrats" and "Butternuts". The most famous Copperhead was Ohio's Clement L. Vallandigham, who was a vehement opponent of President Lincoln's policies. For many years after the war Republicans ridiculed Democratic politicians for taking support from Copperheads who were treasonous during the war.
The Copperheads or Peace Democrats (or "conservatives," as they called themselves) opposed the war and favored an immediate negotiated end to hostilities. They tolerated or favored the continuation of slavery and repeatedly appealed to racist sentiments, warning that emancipation would unleash hordes of free blacks on the North. "The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was," was their mantra. However, the Copperheads never fully admitted that what the Confederates fought so hard for was not a restoration of the Union ante bellum but complete independence. That is, the "Union as it was" was impossible if the Confederacy won.
The Copperheads were deeply imbued with ideals of American republicanism, as articulated by Thomas Jefferson. They interpreted the Constitution narrowly, and, in the long tradition of the Democratic party, they believed that the government, especially at the federal level, possessed only strictly limited power. Echoing the rhetoric of the Revolutionary generation, they "warned against tyranny, executive usurpation, and big government."
During the Civil War (1861-1865), the Copperheads nominally favored the Union but strongly opposed the war, for which they blamed abolitionists, and they demanded immediate peace and resisted draft laws. They wanted Lincoln and the Republicans ousted from power, seeing the president as a tyrant who was destroying American republican values with his despotic and arbitrary actions.
The antiwar movement made little headway until the severe military reverses the Union suffered in 1862. As battlefield defeats and casualties mounted, Northern morale slumped and Copperheads grew more numerous and more vocal in denouncing the Lincoln administration. In Illinois, Peace Democrats tried to push a reactionary anti-modern constitution through a state constitutional convention in 1862, but the Republicans managed to defeat it. However, across the North the Democrats scored major gains in the Congressional and state elections of 1862, primarily because they focused the attacks on the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Lincoln in September. That was their proof that Lincoln was in league with the abolitionists, determined all along to use the war to inflict a social revolution upon the South. Lincoln's general suspension of habeas corpus appeared to confirm the Copperheads' allegation that the administration had no regard for sacred civil liberties in its relentless drive for conquest in an unjust war.
In 1863, rumors, which many Republican editors believed and circulated, alleged that a Copperhead conspiracy proposed to detach states from the Northwest for the Confederate cause, or break open prisoner of war camps that held thousands of Confederates. The existence of such conspiracies is impossible to tell, and no overt actions actually took place. However, heightened Copperhead activity caused a backlash among soldiers, who grew increasingly embittered against dissenters who they believed were killing their comrades by undermining their efforts at the front and prolonging the war.
Some Copperheads tried to persuade Union soldiers to desert, and had some success in southern Illinois. They did talk of helping Confederate prisoners of war seize their camps and escape. They sometimes met with Confederate agents and took money. The Confederacy encouraged their activities whenever possible. Most Democratic Party leaders, however, repelled Confederate advances.
The Copperheads had numerous important newspapers, but the editors never formed any sort of informal alliance. In Chicago, Wilbur F. Storey made the Chicago Times into Lincoln's most vituperative enemy. The New York Journal of Commerce, originally abolitionist, was sold to owners who became Copperheads, giving them an important voice in the largest city. A typical editor was Edward G. Roddy, owner of the Uniontown, Pennsylvania Genius of Liberty. He was an intensely partisan Democrat who saw blacks as an inferior race and Abraham Lincoln as a despot and dunce. Although he supported the war effort in 1861, he blamed abolitionists for prolonging the war and denounced the government as increasingly despotic. By 1864 he was calling for peace at any price.
John Mullaly's Metropolitan Record was the official Catholic newspaper in New York City. Reflecting Irish opinion, it supported the war until 1863 before becoming a Copperhead organ; the editor was then arrested for draft resistance. Even in an era of extremely partisan journalism, Copperhead newspapers were remarkable for their angry rhetoric. "A large majority [of Copperheads]," declared an Ohio editor, "can see no reason why they should be shot for the benefit of niggers and Abolitionists." If "the despot Lincoln" tried to ram abolition and conscription down the throats of white men, "he would meet with the fate he deserves: hung, shot, or burned."
The Copperheads sometimes talked of violent resistance, and in some cases started to organize. They never actually made an organized attack. As war opponents, Copperheads were suspected of disloyalty, and Lincoln often had their leaders arrested and held for months in military prisons without trial. Probably the largest Copperhead group was the Knights of the Golden Circle; formed in Ohio in the 1850s it became politicized in 1861. It reorganized as the Order of American Knights in 1863, and again, early in 1864, as the Order of the Sons of Liberty, with Clement L. Vallandigham as its commander. One leader, Harrison H. Dodd, advocated violent overthrow of the governments of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri in 1864. Democratic party leaders, and a Federal investigation, thwarted his conspiracy. Indiana Republicans used the sensational revelation of an antiwar Copperhead conspiracy by elements of the Sons of Liberty to discredit Democrats in the 1864 House elections. The military trial of Lambdin P. Milligan and other Sons of Liberty revealed plans to set free the Confederate prisoners held in the state. The culprits were sentenced to hang but the Supreme Court intervened in Ex parte Milligan, saying they should have received civilian trials.
When Lincoln enrolled black soldiers by the tens of thousands, racism helped recharge Copperhead rhetoric. Peace activists gained strength in the Democratic party, and Peace Democrats Thomas Seymour in Connecticut, George W. Woodward in Pennsylvania, and Vallandigham in Ohio won their party's nominations for governor. Antiwar sentiment, racial and ethnic animosity, and class antagonism reached a deadly climax in the summer of 1863 in the draft riots in New York City, Milwaukee and elsewhere. On In May 1863, former Congressman Vallandigham declared that the war was being fought not to save the Union but to free the blacks and enslave Southern whites. The Army then arrested him for declaring sympathy for the enemy. He was court-martialed and sentenced to imprisonment, but Lincoln commuted the sentence to banishment behind Confederate lines. The Democrats nevertheless nominated him for governor of Ohio in 1863; he campaigned from Canada. But Vallandigham and the others inspired a Republican counterattack that carried the fall elections for war supporters, including War Democrats. The Republicans renamed their party to the National Union party in 1864 to capitalize on their successful coalition with War Democrats, and names the most prominent War Democrat to the ticket, Andrew Johnson.
Early in 1864, a new group, the Sons of Liberty, partially bankrolled by the Confederate government, began devising plots to seize Union arsenals, liberate Confederate prisoners held at Rock Island, Illinois, capture the federal arsenal at Springfield, Illinois, and spearhead a Northwest rebellion. All their schemes were foiled either by government double agents or by their own leaders' incompetence, and became campaign fodder for Unionist attacks on the Democratic party.
Election of 1864
Vallandigham and other Copperheads operated behind the scenes at the 1864 Democratic convention in Chicago, causing it to adopt a largely Copperhead platform. However, it chose a pro-war presidential candidate, dismissed General George B. McClellan. He promptly rejected the platform, and the contradiction severely weakened their chances to defeat Lincoln's reelection.
In addition, Union military victories brought Northern public opinion behind Lincoln. The Democrats could not effectively defend themselves, and Lincoln and his party won a sweeping landslide with 90% of the electoral vote, 212 to 21.
Profile of the average Copperhead
The sentiments of Copperheads attracted Southerners who had settled north of the Ohio River, social conservatives, poor subsistence farmers, and foes of railroads, banks and monopolies. Copperheads did well in local and state elections in 1862, especially in New York, and won majorities in the legislatures of Illinois and Indiana. Copperheads were most numerous in border areas, including southern parts of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana (in Missouri, comparable groups were avowed Confederates). The Copperhead coalition included many Irish Catholics in eastern cities, mill towns and mining camps (especially in the Pennsylvania coal fields). They were also numerous in German American Catholic areas of the Midwest, especially Wisconsin.
Historian Kenneth Stampp has captured the Copperhead spirit in his depiction of Congressman Daniel W. Voorhees of Indiana:
There was an earthy quality in Voorhees, "the tall sycamore of the Wabash." On the stump his hot temper, passionate partisanship, and stirring eloquence made an irresistible appeal to the western Democracy. His bitter cries against protective tariffs and national banks, his intense race prejudice, his suspicion of the eastern Yankee, his devotion to personal liberty, his defense of the Constitution and state rights faithfully reflected the views of his constituents. Like other Jacksonian agrarians he resented the political and economic revolution then in progress. Voorhees idealized a way of life which he thought was being destroyed by the current rulers of his country. His bold protests against these dangerous trends made him the idol of the Democracy of the Wabash Valley.
Two central questions have run through the historiography of the Copperheads: how serious a threat did they pose to the Union war effort and hence to the nation's survival? And to what extent and with what justification did the Lincoln administration and other Republican officials violate civil liberties to contain the perceived menace? Neither question can be conclusively answered, as the Copperheads often operated secretly, and there were no public-opinion polls in the 1860s.
The first book-length scholarly treatment of the Copperheads appeared in 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In The Hidden Civil War, Wood Gray decried the "defeatism" of the Copperheads; he argued they deliberately served the Confederacy's war aims. Also in 1942, George Fort Milton published Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column, which likewise condemned the traitorous Copperheads and praised Lincoln as a model defender of democracy.
The chief revisionist historians, who generally favor the Copperheads, are Frank L. Klement, who devoted most of his career to debunking the idea that the Copperheads represented any real danger, and Richard O. Curry. Klement and Curry have downplayed the treasonable activities of the Copperheads, arguing that they were traditionalists who fiercely resisted modernization and wanted to return to the old ways. Klement in the 1950s argued that the Copperheads' activities, especially their supposed participation in treasonous anti-Union secret societies, were mostly false inventions by Republican propaganda machines designed to discredit the Democrats at election time. Curry sees Copperheads as poor traditionalists battling against the railroads, banks, and modernization. In his standard history Battle Cry of Freedom, (1988) James M. McPherson asserted that Klement had taken "revision a bit too far. There was some real fire under that smokescreen of Republican propaganda."
Jennifer Weber's Copperheads (2006) agrees more with Wood and Milton than with Klement. She argues first, there was great strength in Northern antiwar sentiment, so that Peace Democrats came close to seizing control of their party in mid-1864. Second, she shoes peace sentiment led to deep divisions and occasional violence across the North. Third, she concludes the peace movement deliberately weakened the Union military effort by undermining enlistment and the operation of the draft. Indeed, Lincoln had to divert combat troops to retake control of New York City from the peace rioters in 1863. Fourth, Weber shows how the attitudes of Union soldiers affected partisan battles back home. The soldiers' rejection of copperheadism and their overwhelming support for Lincoln's reelection in 1864 was decisive in securing the Northern victory and the preservation of the Union. The Copperheads' appeal, she argues, waxed and waned with Union failures and successes in the field.
- Cowden, Joanna D. "The Politics of Dissent: Civil War Democrats in Connecticut," The New England Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Dec., 1983), pp. 538–554 in JSTOR
- Cowden, Joanna D. "Heaven Will Frown on Such a Cause as This": Six Democrats Who Opposed Lincoln's War. (2001) 288 pp; covers Copperheads Thomas Hart Seymour (Connecticut), James Asheton Bayard (Delaware), William Bradford Reed (Pennsylvania), Charles O'Conor (New York) Alexander Long (Ohio), and Clement Vallandigham (Ohio)
- Curry, Richard O. "Copperheadism and Continuity: the Anatomy of a Stereotype" Journal of Negro History (1972) 57(1): 29-36. in JSTOR .
- Curry, Richard O. "The Union as it Was: a Critique of Recent Interpretations of the 'Copperheads.'" Civil War History 1967 13(1): 25-39.
- George, Joseph, Jr. "'Abraham Africanus I': President Lincoln Through the Eyes of a Copperhead Editor." Civil War History 1968 14(3): 226-239.
- Gorge, Joseph, Jr. "'A Catholic Family Newspaper' Views the Lincoln Administration: John Mullaly's Copperhead Weekly." Civil War History 1978 24(2): 112-132.
- Gray, Wood. The Hidden Civil War: The Story of the Copperheads (1942), emphasizes treasonous activity
- Klement, Frank L. The Copperheads in the Middle West (1960).
- Klement, Frank L. The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War (1998)
- Klement, Frank L. Lincoln's Critics: The Copperheads of the North (1999)
- Klement, Frank L. Dark Lanterns: Secret Political Societies, Conspiracies, and Treason Trials in the Civil War (1984)
- Lendt, David L. Demise of the Democracy: The Copperhead Press in Iowa. (1973).
- Lendt, David L. "Iowa and the Copperhead Movement." Annals of Iowa 1970 40(6): 412-426.
- Milton, George F. Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column (1942)
- Nevins, Allan. The War for the Union (4 vol 1959-1971), the standard scholarly history of wartime politics and society.
- Silbey, Joel H. A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868 (1977) online edition
- Stampp, Kenneth M. Indiana Politics during the Civil War (1949) online edition
- Smith, Adam. No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North (2006), excerpt and text search
- Tidwell, William A. April '65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War. (1995).
- Tredway, Gilbert R. Democratic Opposition to the Lincoln Administration in Indiana (1973).
- Walsh, Justin E. "To Print the News and Raise Hell: Wilbur F. Storey's Chicago 'Times.'" Journalism Quarterly 1963 40(4): 497-510. online at JSTOR
- Weber, Jennifer L. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North (2006), the standard history excerpt and text search
- reviewed in Charles W. Calhoun, "The Fire in the Rear," Reviews in American History, Volume 35, Number 4, December 2007, pp. 530–537 in Project MUSE
- Wertheim, Lewis J. "The Indianapolis Treason Trials, the Elections of 1864 and the Power of the Partisan Press." Indiana Magazine of History 1989 85(3): 236-250.
- Wubben, Hubert H. Civil War Iowa and the Copperhead Movement (1980).
- Tidwell, 1995. pp. 155-20.
- quoted in James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. 1988 p 560
- Klement (1960)
- Klement (1998)
- Stampp, Indiana Politics during the Civil War (1949) p. 211
- Charles W. Calhoun, "The Fire in the Rear," Reviews in American History 35.4 (2007) 530-537 online at Project Muse