Guest blog post by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It (the first two volumes of which have appeared; the third will appear this spring).
What is the proper way for Americans to express political opposition to an ongoing war? How can the party out of power maintain its own identity without appearing disloyal? Can party members oppose the conflict itself and still proclaim themselves patriots? These questions pressed themselves on the Federalists during the War of 1812 and the Whigs during the U.S.–Mexican War and have recurred in recent years, but they took on a special urgency for northern Democrats during the Civil War. (Because a political party system never emerged in the Confederacy, opposition to the war in the South developed differently than in the North.) By the fall of 1862 the party had divided into “War” and “Peace” factions. While some War Democrats accepted the necessity of attacking slavery, most remained steadfastly opposed to emancipation and hoped that military success would result in the restoration of the Union “as it was.” The Peace Democrats went further, declaring the war to be a failure and asserting that the Union could be saved only through negotiations with the seceded states. In the aftermath of the Union’s bloody humiliation at Fredericksburg, the Peace Democrats were emboldened to call for an armistice with the Confederacy while they used the Emancipation Proclamation to incite fears in the North about the supposed social, political, and economic threat posed by free blacks.
Just as Democrats condemned Lincoln as a tyrant who violated the Constitution in order to elevate blacks above whites, Republicans excoriated antiwar Democrats, calling them “Copperheads,” venomous snakes that strike without warning. In early 1863 George Templeton Strong, the treasurer of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, lamented the “way the Dirt-Eaters and Copperheads and sympathizers and compromisers are coming out on the surface of society, like ugly petechiæ and vibices, shows that the nation is suffering from a most putrescent state of the national blood.”1 In response to this diagnosis, some Republicans proposed a radical cure: Isaac Funk, a member of the Illinois senate, urged that “these traitors on this floor should be provided with hempen collars. They deserve them. They deserve hanging, I say, the country would be the better of swinging them up.”2 This sentiment was echoed by soldiers who watched the off-year elections for state offices and read Democratic newspapers with increasing dismay and anger. In Pennsylvania the chief justice of the state supreme court, George W. Woodward, denounced emancipation and ruled conscription unconstitutional. A Pennsylvania officer wrote home to warn the Copperheads that if they “inaugurate rebellion in the North, they will find a mighty army of patriots ready to crush them to the earth. Mark that!”3
The draft, as much as emancipation, inspired the ire of antiwar activists. They regarded the resort to conscription, never used in previous American wars, as evidence that Lincoln had lost popular support. Conscription conjured up images of European tyrants who used impressment to build standing armies that oppressed their own citizens. The most vociferous opponent of the draft was Ohio congressman (and future gubernatorial candidate) Clement L. Vallandigham. In a widely-quoted speech in February 1863, Vallandigham argued that the draft was nothing more than “a bill to abrogate the Constitution, the repeal all existing laws, to destroy all rights, to strike down the judiciary, and erect upon the ruins of civil and political liberty a stupendous superstructure of despotism.” And all, in Vallandigham’s view, “to secure freedom to the black man.”4
Vallandigham lost his bid for governor and eventually disappeared from view, but his excesses tarred Democrats with a stain they could not erase. Many Democrats supported the conflict—including Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton—and condemned the rhetoric of the antiwar wing, but Republican charges of treason weakened the party over time. For years after the war, Republicans continued to “wave the bloody shirt,” reminding northern voters of the sacrifices soldiers had made to save the Union despite the disloyalty of Democrats. From 1860 to 1932, only two Democrats—Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson—were elected to the presidency, a stunningly rapid and enduring fall from grace for what had been the dominant party throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Not all the Democrats’ postbellum electoral misfortunes can be blamed on the Copperheads, but the party’s failures in the Civil War revealed the perils that still await political dissenters in wartime.
1 George Templeton Strong: Diary, February 3–5, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (Library of America, forthcoming, 2013).
2 Isaac Funk: Speech in the Illinois State Senate, February 14, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It.
3 George Fisher McFarland to the Warren Mail, April 11, 1863, quoted in Timothy Orr, “‘A Viler Enemy in Our Rear’: Pennsylvania Soldiers Confront the North’s Antiwar Movement,” in The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers, ed. Aaron Sheehan-Dean (University of Kentucky Press, 1997), 180.
4 Clement L. Vallandigham: Speech in Congress, February 23, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It.
(This item is cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)
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