Treason or Loyal Opposition? The Copperheads and Dissent during the Civil War

Rachel Rooney and Margaret Storey

What are the boundaries of treason in times of war? Were the Copperheads traitors or merely exercising the right to criticize the government? To what extent did federal power increase during the Civil War? Was this expansion of power justified? Was it constitutional?

Introduction

The following documents offer perspectives on the Northern wing of the Democratic Party, which opposed the Civil War. These Peace Democrats urged an immediate, peaceful settlement with the Confederacy. Many supported slavery and blamed the war on abolitionists. They argued that Southern states had the right to secede and that the federal government’s policies under President Abraham Lincoln violated the Constitution. Republican writers labeled these Democrats Copperheads to suggest that they were poisonous snakes, betraying and endangering the Union. The Democrats accepted the label, reframing it as a reference to the image of Liberty on a copper penny. In some cases, members of the group were arrested for treason, tried, and imprisoned or sent into the Confederate states. Many Copperheads lived in areas along the border between the North and the South, in states such as Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, where Southerners had settled north of the Ohio River. But the movement was also prominent in New York City, where many merchants and workers were heavily dependent on the cotton trade. Copperheads were most popular during times of Union defeat in battle and lost support as the Confederacy fell.

Who Were the Copperheads?

The following documents were both published in New York and indicate the Copperheads’ prominence in that city. The Copperhead Catechism refers to Fernando Wood who was New York City’s mayor, and later, a congressman. Wood was an avowed Copperhead who, in 1861, had urged the city to secede in order to maintain revenues from the cotton trade.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe the characters and symbols in the Harper’s Weeklycartoon. Who do they represent?
  2. Explain the cartoon’s title. How does the title contrast with the image in the cartoon? According to the cartoonist, how are the Copperheads’ attempting to achieve peace?
  3. Examine The Copperhead Catechism. What is a catechism? How is it used?
  4. What are the beliefs of the Copperheads, as outlined in this catechism?
  5. Does the author of this catechism support the Copperhead cause? Explain.

“The Copperhead Party—In Favor of a Vigorous Prosecution of Peace!”

Harper's Weekly. From Harper's Weekly, February 28, 1863.

Image of The Copperhead Party—In Favor of a Vigorous Prosecution of Peace!

Illustration that appeared in “Harper’s Weekly” depicting antiwar Northerners as copperhead snakes.

Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title The Copperhead Party—In Favor of a Vigorous Prosecution of Peace!
Publication Title Harper's Weekly
Short Title The Copperhead Party, 1863
Creator Harper's Weekly
Publication Date February 28, 1863
Pages p. 144
Call Number folio A 5 .392
Location General Collections 2nd floor

The Copperhead Catechism: For the Instruction of Such Politicians as Are of Tender Years

by Sinclair Tousey. 1864.

Image of The Copperhead Catechism: For the Instruction of Such Politicians as Are of Tender Years

“Fernando the Gothamite” refers to Fernando Wood, New York’s mayor and later a congressman, who was a supporter of the Copperhead cause.

Image of The Copperhead Catechism: For the Instruction of Such Politicians as Are of Tender Years
Image of The Copperhead Catechism: For the Instruction of Such Politicians as Are of Tender Years
Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title The Copperhead Catechism: For the Instruction of Such Politicians as Are of Tender Years
Short Title The Copperhead Catechism, 1864
Place of Publication New York
Publisher S. Tousey
Publication Creator Sinclair Tousey
Publication Date 1864
Number of Pages pp. 11–13
Call Number F 834 .187
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Divided Democrats

The Loyal Publication Society was founded in New York and Boston in 1863, during a time when the Union Army had suffered many reverses in the Civil War. The purpose of the society was to bolster public support for the Union effort by disseminating pro-Union news articles and editorials to newspapers around the country.

Questions to Consider

  1. According to the dialogue, what are the Copperhead’s objections to the Civil War?
  2. How do the beliefs of the Copperheads vary from those of traditional Democrats? How are they similar?
  3. This dialogue raises questions about the constitutionality of the war and of Lincoln’s actions. How do the two sides differ with respect to the interpretation of the Constitution?
  4. What actions did Jefferson Davis take that violated the Constitution, according the Jacksonian Democrat?

“Dialogue between an Old-fashioned Jacksonian Democrat and a Copperhead”

William Alexander. From Elements of Discord in Secessia, No. 15, in Pamphlets issued by the Loyal Publication Society, by Loyal Publication Society. 1864.

Image of Dialogue between an Old-fashioned Jacksonian Democrat and a Copperhead

The Loyal Publication Society was founded in New York and Boston in 1863 to bolster public support for the Union effort through news articles and editorials. This dialogue is meant to show division within the Democratic Party.

Image of Dialogue between an Old-fashioned Jacksonian Democrat and a Copperhead
Image of Dialogue between an Old-fashioned Jacksonian Democrat and a Copperhead
Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Dialogue between an Old-fashioned Jacksonian Democrat and a Copperhead
Publication Title Elements of Discord in Secessia, No. 15
Short Title Jacksonian Democrat vs. Copperhead, 1864
Book Title Elements of Discord in Secessia, No. 15, in Pamphlets issued by the Loyal Publication Society
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Edward O. Jenkins
Creator William Alexander
Publication Creator Loyal Publication Society
Publication Date 1864
Pages pp. 13–16
Call Number Dawes J 5834 .528
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Who was a Copperhead?

Lawyer and Wisconsin statesman, Gideon W. Allen, exchanged letters with his future wife, Annie Cox, during the years of 1863–1865, and discussed his political and religious beliefs. Allen lived in Ann Arbor while attending law school. His letters describe the conflicts he faced in school because of his political association with the Copperhead Democrats, as well as his financial struggle to finish his law studies. Later, he discusses his efforts to avoid the draft, as he traveled looking for a suitable position and living place for his soon-to-be new wife.

Questions to Consider

  1. The writer states that “There is no absolute universal right, no absolute universal wrong; and for the simple reason that there is no infallible criterion by which to judge the moral quality of human actions. Right and wrong are in one sense, mere relative terms, and depend entirely upon education…” How does he use this philosophy to support his political position?
  2. The writer states that he “hates slavery,” yet finds fault with fighting a war to end it. What arguments does he make to support this stance?
  3. How does he use the Founding Fathers, patriotism, and the Constitution to support his views?
  4. How does he respond to the counterargument that the war is “God’s will” so that slavery should end?

Letter from Gideon Allen to Annie Cox

Gideon Allen. February 10, 1863.

Image of Letter from Gideon Allen to Annie Cox

Gideon Allen, a lawyer from Wisconsin, wrote this letter to his future wife, Annie Cox, in 1863. Sympathetic to the Copperheads, he wrote of the challenges he faced due to his political beliefs and his efforts to avoid the draft.

Note: The passage starts at the bottom of page 3 and continues through page 7. This is not the complete passage, but includes both beginning and end

Well, I have still room for politics. I hope you did not think me exclusive in argument; my intention was to say simply that there were reasons which lay deeper than those on which Republicans ground their faith; and which in my mind had a controlling influence, and turned my convictions all in the opposite directions. I do not deny the right of any one to think independently; nor will I, because he differs from me, call in question the purity of his motives, or the sincerity of his convictions. There is room in this, as in other things, for good and wise men to differ; and I have no desire to be Procrustean in my views of the matter. Indeed it is from this very fact that I derive one of my favorite, and, as I think, most formidable arguments.

There is no absolute universal right, no absolute universal wrong; and for the simple reason that there is no infallible criterion by which to judge of the moral quality of human actions. Right and wrong are, in one sense, mere relative terms, and depend entirely upon education. …. What is right in one age in motive, may be wrong in another; and especially is this true in political matters. Society must be so constituted as to secure the end of its formation, and in order to do this government must keep pace with the progress of civilization. Hence it often happens that governments, once mild, become harsh and oppressive, and no longer suited to the genius of the people. What was right, and even necessary, in the ruder stages of society, become, as civilization advances, absolutely wrong, unjust, and even intolerable. The history of Christendom is in evidence of this fact. In this world, whatever is truly useful, is right; and however much moralists may speculate, it is policy after all which determines all these questions. Our fathers did not ignore this fact, and, if we are not too degenerate, we may reap the fruits of their wisdom. If it was right to form a union, it was right to employ the only means by which that end could be effected. If it is right to preserve that union, is right to employ the only means by which that end can be effected. Our fathers hated slavery; yet for the sake of union they consented to let it remain. We, the Democratic party–and in this I believe I truly rep[ose?]–[sent?] a large majority of that party, hate slavery; yet for the sake of union we are willing to let it remain, and leave the government as our fathers made it. True if we were to confine our ideas exclusively to the slaves, the intent, or even the effect, of a war upon slavery might be good; but we should take a wider view of the matter, and endeavor to comprehend, not merely its effect upon slavery, but upon the nation and the world. It is a false philanthropy which seeks the good of four millions of negroes, at the expense of the peace and happiness of twenty-five millions of white people. We are not in favor of slavery; but we are in favor of the Union. A union without slavery would be desirable; but the founders of our government could not make such a one; they tried but tried in vain. And have we not sufficient evidence that our efforts will be as fruitless as theirs? I would that they might also be as harmless. Disunion we cannot think of. Our only resort then is a union with slavery. “The Union as it was,” is the only safe, practical, ground for loyal men to occupy. ‘But this would involve a compromise with slavery that “some of all human villainies”.’ Yes, and just here I wish to make the application of my argument. If we will lay aside our prejudices, we cannot doubt that there are men who believe slavery right, and who desire its continuance. We think it wrong, and desire its discontinuance. Now, who is to determine this question of right and wrong? If we were directly, and even remotely, responsible for slavery, it might be a question for us to determine. But such is not the case; we are in nowise responsible for its existence; nor have we any right or power to control it. The whole matter was left, by the founders of our government, exclusively to control of the local authorities. It was only by compromise that the general government, after the expiration of twenty years, was given the power to abolish the foreign slave trade; and this, together with the power to provide for the rendition of fugitives, is the only power conferred upon the government to interfere with slavery. These powers it has exercised, and its authority is at an end. What, then, are we to do? Surely you will not claim that one State has a right to interfere with, and regulate, the affairs of another; that would be subversive of all law and all government. But you may still argue, “Have we not a right, as individuals, to argue the question with them and convince them of their error?” Yes, if they are willing; but we have no right to force them to a discussion; free speech and free discussion is a privilege, and, more properly, a right, and not an obligation. And the fact is, they do not wish to discuss the question; they pretend, and doubtless justly, to understand the matter as well as we, and are not obliged to us for our advice. Well what now? simply mind our own business, and let them alone. And I tell you if we had observed this little piece of advice, we should have avoided all our difficulties, and the peace and prosperity of our nation would have been secure. The curse is upon us: if this be treason, I can’t help it, it is truth–. Plainly, then, this question of the right or wrong of slavery, it is not incumbent upon us to determine, at least, for anybody but ourselves. But we could not be easy; we must interfere; and the present deplorable condition of the country, is the legitimate result of our unjust and unlawful interference in a matter, which in nowise pertained to us. If slavery be a sin, they alone are answerable for it. They are answerable to the same God for their sins, to whom we are for ours; and we have no right, in opposition to law and government, to get ourselves up as the keepers and regulators of their consciences. We must learn to be respectful and tolerent [sic] of the opinions of others, if we would enjoy the fruits of wisdom and the blessings of free government.

Metadata Details
Item Type Letter
Title Letter from Gideon Allen to Annie Cox
Short Title Gideon Allen to Annie Cox, 1863
Creator Gideon Allen
Publication Date February 10, 1863
Call Number Midwest MS Allen Box 1, Folder 3
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Vallandigham Speaks Out Against Lincoln's Policies

Clement Vallandigham was a Democratic congressman from Ohio and leader of the Copperheads. He supported the right of Southern states both to leave the Union and to maintain the institution of slavery. He was a vocal opponent of President Abraham Lincoln and his policies during the Civil War. In May, 1863, Vallandigham delivered a speech in Ohio arguing that the real goal of the war was not to save the Union, but to free the slaves. He was arrested by General Ambrose Burnside for violating General Order No. 38, which established that “The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried … or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department.” Vallandigham was tried and convicted by a military commission and sentenced to prison. Sensing political backlash, Lincoln commuted his sentence and ordered him deported to Confederate Territory. He tried unsuccessfully to challenge the legitimacy of his arrest in a case that went to the Supreme Court (ex parte Vallindigham 1863).

Questions to Consider

  1. What is conscription? What objections does Vallandigham state against the bill?
  2. According to Vallandigham, what is the purpose of the Civil War? What outcome does he predict?
  3. What government policies does Vallandigham speak out against? How does he support his argument?
  4. Are his words seditious?
  5. What kinds of acts could be considered treasonous under General Order 38? Can you envision any conflict between General Order 38 and the Constitution?

“The Conscription Bill. Speech Delivered in the House of Representatives, February 23, 1863”

Clement L. Vallandigham. From The Record of Hon. C.L. Vallandingham on Abolition, The Union, and the Civil War, 1863.

Image of The Conscription Bill. Speech Delivered in the House of Representatives, February 23, 1863

Clement Vallandigham was a Democratic Congressman from Ohio and leader of the Copperheads. He supported the right of southern states to both leave the Union and maintain the institution of slavery.

Image of The Conscription Bill. Speech Delivered in the House of Representatives, February 23, 1863
Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title The Conscription Bill. Speech Delivered in the House of Representatives, February 23, 1863
Publication Title The Record of Hon. C.L. Vallandingham on Abolition, The Union, and the Civil War
Short Title The Conscription Bill. February 23, 1863
Book Title The Record of Hon. C.L. Vallandigham on Abolition, the Union, and the Civil War
Place of Publication Columbus, Ohio
Publisher J. Walter & Co.
Creator Clement L. Vallandigham
Publication Date 1863
Edition 7th ed.
Pages pp. 209–210
Call Number Dawes J 5834 .933
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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The Election of 1864 and the Copperheads

In 1864 Lincoln campaigned for a second term as president. This Campaign Songster provided new lyrics to familiar tunes, or “airs.” It was sold along with pins, badges, photographs, and other campaign paraphernalia. Lincoln’s opponent was Democrat George McClellan, who had served as a major general in the war. McClellan opposed abolition, and criticized Lincoln as radical and divisive. However, he supported the war effort to restore the Union and found himself at odds with his party’s platform, which was written by the Copperhead politician Clement Vallandigham and called for an immediate negotiated settlement.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe Lincoln’s appearance in the cover portrait. How does the portrait reinforce the message conveyed in the songs?
  2. What is the purpose of the Civil War, according to each of the songs?
  3. How is McClellan criticized in “Union and Lincoln”? What did McClellan fail to do?
  4. What central issue of the Civil War is left out of these two songs? Why?

“Preserve the Union”

From Lincoln's Campaign Songster: For the Use of Clubs: Containing All of the Most Popular Songs, by Mason and Company, Philadelphia. 1864.

Image of Preserve the Union

Campaign Songsters attached pro-candidate lyrics with familiar tunes or “airs.” It was sold along with pins, badges, and photographs in support of Lincoln. Democrat George McClellan was Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 presidential election.

Image of Preserve the Union
Image of Preserve the Union
Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Preserve the Union
Publication Title Lincoln Campaign Songster
Short Title Preserve the Union, 1864
Book Title Lincoln's Campaign Songster: For the Use of Clubs: Containing All of the Most Popular Songs
Place of Publication Philadelphia
Publisher Mason & Co.
Publication Creator Mason and Company, Philadelphia
Publication Date 1864
Pages p. 13
Call Number Case Y 274 .5
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Copperheads as Traitors

In the fall of 1864, as Union military forces moved toward decisive victory, several people associated with the Copperheads were accused of plotting to free Confederate prisoners from Camp Douglas in Chicago and to cause havoc in the city. This publication recounts the trial (two men were acquitted, two were convicted and sentenced to prison, one was convicted and sentenced to death) as well as the confession of Mary B. Morris, who was also arrested in the case.

Questions to Consider

  1. How does the cover introduce the conspiracy and trial?
  2. What treasonous acts does Mrs. Morris commit, according to her confession?
  3. What justification does she give for these acts?
  4. What threat do her actions pose to the Union? Should her actions be considered treasonous?

“Confession of Mrs. Norris, B.S., and Her Sentence”

I. Winslow Ayer. From The Great Northwestern Conspiracy in All Its Startling Details, 1865.

Image of Confession of Mrs. Norris, B.S., and Her Sentence

People who were associated with the Copperheads or revealed sympathy for the South could be tried for treason. Even non-violent actions, such as bringing provisions to Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas, were considered disloyal to the Union cause.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Confession of Mrs. Norris, B.S., and Her Sentence
Publication Title The Great Northwestern Conspiracy
Short Title Confession of Mrs. Norris- Copperhead, 1865
Book Title The Great Northwestern Conspiracy in All Its Startling Details
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher Rounds & James
Creator I. Winslow Ayer
Publication Date 1865
Edition 3rd ed.
Pages pp. 98–99
Call Number Case F 83411 .054
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Selected Sources

Jennifer Weber. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North, 2006.

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