Lincoln's Fifth Column
Northern Democrats versus the Great Emancipator.
Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By FRED BARNES
As if Abraham Lincoln didn't have enough distractions while pursuing a war to restore the Union, he also had to worry about what he called "the fire in the rear."
He was speaking metaphorically. The fire was actually a group of Northern Democrats known as Copperheads. They opposed the Civil War, sympathized with the Southern secessionists, were mostly racists themselves, loathed Lincoln, blamed him and not the Southerners for starting the bloody fight, and impeded the war effort in whatever way they could, some of them treasonous or close to it. As a threat to the survival of America as a united country, Lincoln feared them almost as much as he did battlefield defeats at the hands of the Confederates.
The Copperheads didn't choose their name. They thought of themselves as Peace Democrats or true conservatives committed to preserving the Constitution and preventing Lincoln from grabbing too much presidential power. They were dubbed Copperheads in a letter to the editor in the Cincinnati Commercial in 1861 that suggested the term on the basis of Genesis 3:14: "Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life." The name stuck.
Historians haven't paid the Copperheads much attention, and the few who took up the subject have treated them largely as a footnote to the Civil War era. But they mattered, and mattered enormously, and one of the great merits of Jennifer L. Weber's brief history of the Copperheads is that it takes them seriously. So does James M. McPherson, the renowned Civil War scholar at Princeton: "The danger to the Northern war effort posed by Copperhead political activities was far more than a figment of Republican imagination," he writes in his foreword.
What exactly did the Copperheads do? They undermined the war wherever they could, particularly in the areas north of the Ohio River to which Southerners had migrated--Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. When the Confederate marauder John Hunt Morgan rampaged through Indiana and Ohio in 1863, his actions "were so specifically targeted that locals could only surmise that their Copperhead neighbors had briefed his men," Weber writes.
More broadly, the antiwar faction's vituperative opposition hurt the ability of the Union army to carry out the war effectively. The Copperheads' "resistance to conscription and their encouragement of less ideologically minded Americans to dodge the draft or desert the army forced the military to divide its attention and at times send troops home to keep order there," according to Weber. That's how serious the Copperhead problem was.
Initially a splinter group, the Copperheads grew into a powerful political force that dominated the Democratic convention of 1864, wrote the party platform, handpicked one of their own as presidential nominee George McClellan's running mate, and came perilously close to defeating Lincoln's bid for reelection.
They weren't all rubes from what was then the West. Former Connecticut governor Thomas Seymour was a leading Copperhead. Governor Horatio Seymour of New York and Mayor Fernando Wood of New York City were Copperheads. (New York City was an antiwar hotbed.) Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, was a Copperhead. The most famous was the demagogic congressman from Ohio, Clement Vallandigham, who was convicted by a military court for his attacks on Lincoln and the war, and then banished from the country by Lincoln. Vallandigham went to Canada.
The Copperheads grew as a political force in three phases. The first came with secession. They tended to believe the South could legally withdraw from the Union because the Constitution didn't expressly forbid it. When Lincoln suspended habeas corpus as a wartime measure, they became fervent opponents.
"The second phase," Weber writes, "began with the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, and extended into the following spring, when the Union adopted a draft." Racist Northern Democrats--there were many--who had backed the war to maintain the Union joined the opposition when the war became an effort to free the slaves.
The third phase came with the horrendous losses suffered by the Union army in 1864. Not only had Grant's army stalled, it lost 60,000 troops in a single six-week period. Antiwar sentiment reached its height and "thousands of Northerners were clamoring for peace. The Copperheads, with their antiwar stance and harsh criticisms of the president, offered an appealing alternative to Lincoln's stubborn determination to stay the course."