Tuesday, January 08, 2008
There are two stories of the origin of the name for their group, Copperheads. The most popular one was that some members cut the Goddess of Liberty images out of copper pennies and fixed them to the lapels of their coats to identify themselves to each other. The other one was they were described by their Republican opponents as venomous snakes, such as the Copperhead snake.
There was not a single organization called Copperhead, the anti-war opposition actually consisted of several groups:
Knights of the Golden Circle
The Knights of the Golden Circle was an already established group (established in 1854) that wanted to maintain the balance of Slave and Free states. One of their goals was to expand the US into Mexico and the Caribbean in order to keep that balance. The group planned what was called filibustering expeditions to countries like Cuba. They planned to raise and equip a small armed force, invade said country and take over its government, and then turn that country over to the US as a new territory, usually with the aim of creating a Slave state. These plans never got beyond the discussion stage. In 1861, they had some involvement in Kentucky’s secession movement, but beyond that, there was not too much that they were able to do. Actions they did take included resisting the draft and harassing Union patrols looking for deserters. One popular tactic was to entice Union soldiers to desert by providing civilian clothes, maps to safe houses, and train tickets. Not many took up the offer. The group came to an end in 1865 amid allegations that they assisted in the Lincoln Assassination.
Order of American Knights
Established in 1850 by Phineas C. Wright, the Order of American Knights was much feared throughout the Civil War, mostly for imagined reasons. This organization patterned themselves after the Knights of the Golden Circle in their Southern sympathies as well as their tactics. Their base of membership stretched throughout the North, however, their true numbers were inflated. One thing that caught the attention of Union authorities was a meeting held in December, 1863 in Chicago, where they denounced the Lincoln Administration’s activities as unconstitutional and called for the Peace Democrats to prepare to take up arms against a looming dictatorship. The same group met in February, 1864 and, expressing misgivings about Wright’s views and tactics and actually voted to dissolve the organization. Wright himself was arrested and imprisoned for the remainder of the war. He spent the immediate post-war years trying to establish Democrat exile communities in South America.
Sons of Liberty
The Sons of Liberty was a new group to the anti-war movement, conceived in 1863 and was fully formed the following year when the former Order of American Knights was dissolved and their members renamed themselves the Sons of Liberty. This organization is not the same as the Sons of Liberty formed before the American Revolution, although their members probable thought they were. This group was a little more active, organizing themselves into military style formations in response to the Conscription Act of 1863, planning to take over sever state governments in the Northwest and secede from the Union, and to form mutual protection societies for their members. They went so far as to plan (with some help form the Confederacy) to free Confederate prisoners from Camp Douglas, Chicago, IL, arm them, and then seize control of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kentucky. Democratic Party authorities in Illinois found out and demanded they stop. This, coupled with reports from a government detective that had infiltrated the group which was published in several Republican newspapers, ended the plot and the leaders were arrested. They were tried before a military commission, found guilty of inciting insurrection and giving aid and comfort to the CSA, and sentenced to death. One leader, Lambdin Milligan, appealed his conviction on the grounds that a military commission could not try civilians. In a Supreme Court decision known as Ex Parte Milligan, the court overturned the convictions and set them free. At the end of the war, the organization soon fizzled out.
These organizations were at their strongest when Union was prospects were at their lowest. Union defeats on the battle field were usually followed by calls for negotiations with the Confederacy with the aim of just ending the war, even if it meant victory for the South. When 1864 brought Union victory, especially the capture of Atlanta, their calls fell on increasingly deaf ears.
One view that they had was that the war was supposed to be fought strictly for the preservation of the Union. When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, they expressed their view that emancipation was unconstitutional and the aim of the war had been changed to a social one, namely freedom for African-Americans. Their racist views were widely published in various newspapers and proclaimed in speeches.
Another view that had was that President Lincoln was a despot who trampled on the rights of dissenters, closed Democrat newspapers, suspended habeas corpus, and was leading the nation into a military dictatorship. They believed in their hearts that their way of life was being threatened by a Republican controlled Congress. When the Conscription Act was enacted, some of that opposition took form in the New York City Draft Riots.
The most vocal of the dissenters was Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandingham, who was a Supreme Commander of the Sons of Liberty. On 14 January, 1863, he made a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives that not only called the war illegal and immoral, but claimed that it would eventually lead to the secession of the Northwest States.
Later that spring, Major General Ambrose Burnside, at the time commander of the Military District of Ohio, published General Order No. 38, declaring that support for the Confederacy in the district would no longer be tolerated. Vallandingham openly defied the order by making speeches on 5 May, 1863 and was arrested. He was tried with “expressing treasonous sympathy” and sentenced to prison for the duration of the war. Lincoln stepped in the commuted the sentence to banishment to the CSA. He was soon turned over to confederate authorities, but they had no use for him. He soon relocated to Canada, where he could still maintain some sort of activity.
In the Election of 1864, Vallandingham was placed on the ballot as the Peace Democrat candidate for Ohio Governor. He was soon aided in returning to the US, where he aided in the writing of the Peace Plank of the party platform. His views that the war was a failure, however, lost its punch in the light of Union victories as well as their candidate, former Major General George McClellan, rejecting the Peace Platform. Vallandingham even lost in the Ohio Governor’s race. Vallandingham himself met an ignoble end, post-war he had returned to the law profession and, while demonstrating to a friend how the victim was shot, forgot to check that the pistol he was using was loaded, and shot himself.
With the re-election of President Lincoln and the prospect that the war would soon end with total Union victory, the Copperheads soon faded from importance.
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