The Copperheads…I’m sure you’ve heard of them. They have been called “Southern sympathizers,” traitors…accused of aiding and abetting the Southern cause. But were they really Southern sympathizers?
No, they were not. They were a faction of the Democratic Party, in the north, that pushed for a peaceful solution to the war. They were led by New York Governor Horatio Seymour in the east and in the west, by Clement Vallandingham, Congressman from Ohio. Both were ardent Unionists.
Copperheads opposed secession, conscription, the destruction of civil rights by Lincoln through arrests without due process, and were proponents of states rights. They opposed the Emancipation Proclamation mainly because they feared an influx of freed blacks and escaped slaves into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, which bordered the slaveholding states. (Fred Balhut, “Copperheads and the War between the States” also Wood Gray, “The Hidden Civil War: The Story of the Copperheads”)
Vallandingham was probably the most famous of the Copperheads. He was a pain to Lincoln for about two years. From the floor in Congress, he criticized Lincoln’s war policies and even introduced a bill to put Lincoln in prison for making illegal arrests. His view were printed in several newspapers, however, Lincoln shut them down. This did not stop Vallandigham. He commenced a speaking tour.
Vallandigham’s problems with Lincoln began in earnest when he left Washington D.C. and came back to Ohio to run for governor. He criticized the war calling it a “bloody and costly failure”, and made reference to Fredericksburg, where the Union was soundly beaten. With speeches like this, enlistments to the Union decreased and desertions increased….so did the attacks on Vallandigham with effigies of him being hung, and burned.
Now, the military commander of that district was none other than General Ambrose Burnside, whose tactics were partially responsible for the Union defeat at Fredericksburg. He seems to have been sensitive about that subject, and Vallandigham’s reference, and apparently went after Vallandigham with his General Order 38, “All persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country will be tried as spies or traitors and, if convicted will suffer death.” Burnside followed up with the statement that, “the habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this department.” Vallandingham, apparently unbothered by Burnside, tore up a copy of the order saying, “I have the most supreme contempt for General Order no. 38…I have the most supreme contempt for King Lincoln.”
This apparently did not sit well with General Burnside as shortly thereafter, Union soldiers battered down the door to Vallandigham’s home, took him into custody, transported him to Cincinnati for trial and where a military tribunal could quickly convene, convict him, and put an end to his anti-Lincoln and anti-war speeches.
On May 6th of that year, the military court was convened and Vallandigham was brought before the sham court. His defense was the 1st Amendment, his right to freedom of speech. He asserted his loyalty to the Union, the Constitution, and to liberty, but to no avail. The court quickly convicted him and he was sentenced to prison for the duration of the war.
We can never know for sure, but Vallandigham’s trial and subsequent conviction may have been in part due to US Secretary of State Seward’s ability to shut down newspapers, lock people up without due process, and silence any opposition to the Lincoln administration and its policies, all with Lincoln’s blessing. Once while speaking with the British ambassador, Seward bragged about being more powerful than the Queen, “My Lord, I can touch a bell on my right hand, and order the arrest of a citizen of Ohio (possibly Vallandigham); I can touch the bell again and order the imprisonment of a citizen of New York; and no power on earth, except that of the President, can release them. Can the Queen of England do so much?”
At the written order of Lincoln, Vallandigham was banished from the United States, not for treason, for being a Southern sympathizer, but for simply exercising his 1st Amendment rights, calling for peace and an end to the war. So….who committed the crime here? Vallandigham, or the United States?
As always, thank you for reading. I hope you share this and especially, share it with your children so that they may know the truth.