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History Spotlight: Who Were the Copperheads?

Created on 21 June 2012


As we near the end of filming for Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead, I thought it best to explain just what exactly a Copperhead is, because this is going to be a film dealing with a portion of the Civil War that has never been tackled on film, and a nearly forgotten part of our American history in itself. We have all seen the battlefields and men dying, and even the politics behind it, and why certain things happened the way they did, but what of the anti-war movement in the north, yes, the north, of all places?

There are many people out there, probably including some Civil War buffs themselves that did not even know a sentiment like that even existed. A “Copperhead” was the nickname of a group of Peace Democrats who lived up north that were in opposition to Republican President Abraham Lincoln and the war effort. Some felt that the southern states had a right to secede while others just wanted to force a truce with the rebellious states in order to end the most costly war in American history. In going against Lincoln, many northern patriots looked at them as traitors, and called them a derisive term for back then, snakes, specifically, Copperheads. At first, this terminology was seen as insulting, but then the Peace Democrats decided to flaunt their new nickname, many wearing copper pins or pennies sewn on to their jackets and clothing. For a more in-depth look at this movement, Patricia Faust in the Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War writes:

Although the Democratic Party had broken apart in 1860, during the secession crisis, Democrats in the North were generally more conciliatory toward the South than were Republicans…A majority of Peace Democrats supported war to save the Union, but a strong and active minority asserted that the Republicans had provoked the South into secession; that the Republicans were waging the war in order to establish their own domination, suppress civil and states’ rights, and impose “racial equality”; and that military means had failed and would never restore the Union.

Peace Democrats were most numerous in the Midwest, a region that had traditionally distrusted the Northeast, where the Republican Party was strongest, and that had economic and cultural ties with the South. The Lincoln administration’s arbitrary treatment of dissenters caused great bitterness there. Above all, anti-abolitionist Midwesterners feared that emancipation would result in a great migration of blacks into their states. As was true of the Democratic Party as a whole, the influence of Peace Democrats varied with the fortunes of war. When things were going badly for the Union on the battlefield, larger numbers of people were willing to entertain the notion of making peace with the Confederacy. When things were going well, Peace Democrats could more easily be dismissed as defeatists. But no matter how the war progressed, Peace Democrats constantly had to defend themselves against charges of disloyalty. Revelations that a few had ties with secret organizations such as the Knights of the Golden Circle helped smear the rest.

The most prominent Copperhead leader was Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, who headed the secret antiwar organization known as the Sons of Liberty. At the Democratic convention of 1864, where the influence of Peace Democrats reached its high point,  Vallandigham persuaded the party to adopt a platform branding the war a failure, and some extreme Copperheads plotted armed uprisings. However, the Democratic presidential candidate, George B. McClellan, repudiated the Vallandigham platform, and victories by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and Phillip H. Sheridan assured Lincoln’s reelection, and the plots came to nothing. With the conclusion of the war in 1865 the Peace Democrats were thoroughly discredited. Most Northerners believed, not without reason, that Peace Democrats had prolonged war by encouraging the South to continue fighting in the hope that the North would abandon the struggle.

The Copperheads were also featured in many political cartoons, most of them unflattering. One of the most famous ones is pictured at the beginning of this article. According to the website, Son of the South:
This cartoon features an image of Uncle Sam and a Copperhead.  The Copperheads were a group of “Peace Democrats” in the Civil War, and they argued strongly to negotiate with the South and end the war. During 1863, the war was not going well for the North, and the Copperheads became vicious in their attacks on Mr. Lincoln. This satirical image shows the Copperheads trying to sell “Peace Soup”, “Humble Pie”, “Cooked Goose”, and “Evil Spirits”.

The cartoon shows, however, that the Copperhead is having to close his shop; apparently, no one is willing to buy his wares anymore. This cartoon came out shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Fall of Vicksburg, both enormous victories for the Union Armies. With these victories, public opinion turned decidedly against the Copperheads, and in support of the continued prosecution of the War.  The public decided that victory was the only acceptable outcome of the war.  The following year, President Abraham Lincoln was re-elected, and the Copperhead candidate George McClellan was defeated. In this cartoon, Uncle Sam is referred to as “Uncle Samuel”, which was not unusual during the Civil War.

So, there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: controversial group of citizens known as the Copperheads. As I have written about extensively on my blog, in regards to political correctness and the Civil War, or any general portrayal of history, I must say that this medium too is going to catch a lot of people off guard, because this story is going to show northerners who are not necessarily in love with Abraham Lincoln, a President I find to be truly fascinating, yet highly overrated. To be anti-union or anti-Lincoln in this present day is to almost be un-American, which is extremely unfair, and it is time that people knew the whole story.