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

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?


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 Copperhead Party, 1863

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.

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?

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?

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 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?

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?

Selected Sources

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