In the spring and summer of 1863, the Copperhead paper urged its Irish working-class readers to pursue armed resistance to the draft passed by Congress earlier in the year. When the draft began in the City, working-class whites, largely Irish, responded in violent riots July 13 to 16, lynching, beating, and hacking to death more than 100 black New Yorkers and burning down black-owned businesses and institutions, including an orphanage for 233 black children.
The Copperheads were a vocal faction of Democrats located in the Northern United States of the Union who opposed the American Civil War, wanting an immediate peace settlement with the Confederates. The Republicans believed Northern Democrats’ goal of restoring the Union with slavery was naive and impractical, for the Confederates refused to consider giving up their independence. Republicans started calling antiwar Democrats “Copperheads”, likening them to the venomous snake. The Democrats accepted the label, reinterpreting the copper “head” as the likeness of Liberty, which they cut from copper pennies and proudly wore as badges
They comprised the more extreme wing of the “Northern Democrats” and were often informally called “Butternuts” (for the color of the Confederate uniforms). Two of the more famous Copperheads were Democratic congressmen from Ohio: Clement L. Vallandigham and Alexander Long. Republican prosecutors accused some leaders of treason in a series of trials in 1864.
Copperheadism was a highly contentious, grassroots movement, strongest in the area just north of the Ohio River, as well as some urban ethnic wards. Some historians have argued it represented a traditionalistic element alarmed at the rapid modernization of society sponsored by the Republican Party, and looked back to Jacksonian Democracy for inspiration. Weber (2006) argues that the Copperheads damaged the Union war effort by fighting the draft, encouraging desertion, and forming conspiracies, but other historians say the draft was in disrepute and that the Republicans greatly exaggerated the conspiracies for partisan reasons. Historians agree that the Copperheads’ goal of restoring the Union with slavery was naive and impractical, for the Confederates refused to consider giving up their independence. The Copperheads became a major target of the Union (Republican) party in the 1864 presidential election. Copperhead support increased when Union armies were doing poorly, and decreased when they won great victories. After the fall of Atlanta in September 1864, military success seemed assured, and Copperheadism collapsed
the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Copperheads nominally favored the Union and strongly opposed the war, for which they blamed abolitionists, and they demanded immediate peace and resisted draft laws. They wanted President Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans ousted from power, seeing the president as a tyrant destroying American republican values with despotic and arbitrary actions.
Some Copperheads tried to persuade Union soldiers to desert. They talked 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.
The Copperheads had numerous important newspapers, but the editors never formed an 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 paper in New York City. Reflecting Irish opinion, it supported the war until 1863 before becoming a Copperhead organ. In the spring and summer of 1863, the paper urged its Irish working-class readers to pursue armed resistance to the draft passed by Congress earlier in the year. When the draft began in the City, working-class whites, largely Irish, responded in violent riots July 13 to 16, lynching, beating, and hacking to death more than 100 black New Yorkers and burning down black-owned businesses and institutions, including an orphanage for 233 black children. On August 19, 1864, John Mullaly was arrested for inciting resistance to the draft.
Even in an era of extremely partisan journalism, Copperhead newspapers were remarkable for their angry rhetoric. Wisconsin newspaper editor Marcus M. Pomeroy of the La Crosse Democrat called Lincoln “Fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism” and a “worse tyrant and more inhuman butcher than has existed since the days of Nero … The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor and murderer … And if he is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good.”
The Copperheads sometimes talked of violent resistance, and in some cases started to organize. They never actually made an organized attack, however. As war opponents, Copperheads were suspected of disloyalty, and their leaders were sometimes arrested and held for months in military prisons without trial. One famous example was General Ambrose Burnside’s 1863 General Order Number 38, issued in Ohio, which made it an offence (to be tried in military court) to criticize the war in any way. The order was used to arrest Ohio congressman Clement L. Vallandigham when he criticized the order itself. Lincoln, however, commuted his sentence while requiring his exile to the Confederacy.
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 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. In spite of this Copperhead setback, tensions remained high. The Charleston Riot took place in Illinois in March 1864. Indiana Republicans then 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.
Most Copperheads actively participated in politics. On May 1, 1863, former Congressman Vallandigham declared 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 lost after an intense battle. He operated behind the scenes at the 1864 Democratic convention in Chicago. This convention adopted a largely Copperhead platform, but chose a pro war presidential candidate, George B. McClellan. The contradiction severely weakened the party’s chances to defeat
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.
Copperheads, coined the slogan: “To maintain the Constitution as it is, and to restore the Union as it was.”