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The Copperheads were a vocal group of Democrats in the Northern United States (see also Union (American Civil War)) who opposed the American Civil War, wanting an immediate peace settlement with the Confederates. Republicans started calling anti-war Democrats "Copperheads", likening them to the poisonous snake. The Peace Democrats accepted the label, but for them the copper "head" was the likeness of Liberty, which they cut from copper pennies and proudly wore as badges. [1]

They were also called "Peace Democrats" (although the 13th Edition of The American Pageant makes a distinction between the two, as those termed Copperheads were at the extreme end of the Peace Democrats) and "Butternuts" (for the color of the Confederate uniforms). Perhaps the most famous Copperhead was Ohio's Clement L. Vallandigham.



Scurrilous Copperhead pamphlet from 1864

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Copperheads nominally favored the Union and strongly opposed the war, for which they blamed abolitionists, and they demanded immediate peace and resisted draft laws. They wanted President Lincoln and the Republicans ousted from power, seeing the president as a tyrant who was destroying American republican values with his despotic and arbitrary actions.

Some Copperheads tried to persuade Union soldiers to desert. They talked of helping Confederate prisoners of war seize their camps and escape. They sometimes met with Confederate agents and took money. The Confederacy encouraged their activities whenever possible.[2]


The Copperheads had numerous important newspapers, but the editors never formed an alliance. In Chicago, Wilbur F. Storey made the Chicago Times into Lincoln's most vituperative enemy. The New York Journal of Commerce, originally abolitionist, was sold to owners who became Copperheads, giving them an important voice in the largest city. A typical editor was Edward G. Roddy, owner of the Uniontown, Pennsylvania Genius of Liberty. He was an intensely partisan Democrat who saw black people as an inferior race and Abraham Lincoln as a despot and dunce. Although he supported the war effort in 1861, he blamed abolitionists for prolonging the war and denounced the government as increasingly despotic. By 1864 he was calling for peace at any price.

John Mullaly's Metropolitan Record was the official Catholic paper in New York City. Reflecting Irish opinion, it supported the war until 1863 before becoming a Copperhead organ; the editor was then arrested for draft resistance. Even in an era of extremely partisan journalism, Copperhead newspapers were remarkable for their angry rhetoric. Wisconsin newspaper editor Marcus M. Pomeroy called Lincoln "fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism" and a "worse tyrant and more inhuman butcher than has existed since the days of Nero... The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor and murderer... And if he is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good."

Copperhead resistance[]

File:Clement Vallandigham - Brady-Handy.jpg

Clement Vallandigham, leader of the Copperheads, coined the slogan "To maintain the Constitution as it is, and to restore the Union as it was."

The Copperheads sometimes talked of violent resistance, and in some cases started to organize. They never actually made an organized attack, though. As war opponents, Copperheads were suspected of disloyalty, and their leaders were sometimes arrested and held for months in military prisons without trial — one famous example was General Ambrose Burnside's 1863 General Order Number 38, issued in Ohio, which made it an offence (to be tried in military court) to criticize the war in any way: the order was used to arrest Ohio congressman Clement L. Vallandigham when he criticized the order itself. However, Lincoln commuted his sentence while requiring his banishment to the Confederate states.

Probably the largest Copperhead group was the Knights of the Golden Circle; formed in Ohio in the 1850s, it became politicized in 1861. It reorganized as the Order of American Knights in 1863, and again, early in 1864, as the Order of the Sons of Liberty, with Vallandigham as its commander. One leader, Harrison H. Dodd, advocated violent overthrow of the governments of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri in 1864. Democratic party leaders, and a Federal investigation, thwarted his conspiracy. In spite of this Copperhead setback, tensions remained high. The Charleston Riot took place in Illinois in March 1864. Indiana Republicans then used the sensational revelation of an antiwar Copperhead conspiracy by elements of the Sons of Liberty to discredit Democrats in the 1864 House elections. The military trial of Lambdin P. Milligan and other Sons of Liberty revealed plans to set free the Confederate prisoners held in the state. The culprits were sentenced to hang but the Supreme Court intervened in Ex parte Milligan, saying they should have received civilian trials.

Most Copperheads actively participated in politics. On May 1, 1863, former Congressman Vallandigham declared that the war was being fought not to save the Union but to free the blacks and enslave Southern whites. The Army then arrested him for declaring sympathy for the enemy. He was court-martialed and sentenced to imprisonment, but Lincoln commuted the sentence to banishment behind Confederate lines. The Democrats nevertheless nominated him for governor of Ohio in 1863; he campaigned from Canada but was defeated after an intense battle. He operated behind-the-scenes at the 1864 Democratic convention in Chicago; this convention adopted a largely Copperhead platform, but chose a pro-war presidential candidate, George B. McClellan. The contradiction severely weakened the chances to defeat Lincoln's reelection.

Profile of the average member[]

The sentiments of Copperheads attracted Southerners who had settled north of the Ohio River, the poor, and merchants who had lost profitable Southern trade.[3] Copperheads did well in local and state elections in 1862, especially in New York, and won majorities in the legislatures of Illinois and Indiana.[3] Copperheads were most numerous in border areas, including southern parts of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana (in Missouri, comparable groups were avowed Confederates). The Copperhead coalition included many Irish American Catholics in eastern cities, mill towns and mining camps (especially in the Pennsylvania coal fields). They were also numerous in German Catholic areas of the Midwest, especially Wisconsin.

Historian Kenneth Stampp has captured the Copperhead spirit in his depiction of Congressman Daniel W. Voorhees of Indiana:

There was an earthy quality in Voorhees, "the tall sycamore of the Wabash." On the stump his hot temper, passionate partisanship, and stirring eloquence made an irresistible appeal to the western Democracy [i.e., the Democratic Party]. His bitter cries against protective tariffs and national banks, his intense race prejudice, his suspicion of the eastern Yankee, his devotion to personal liberty, his defense of the Constitution and State's rights faithfully reflected the views of his constituents. Like other Jacksonian agrarians, he resented the political and economic revolution then in progress. Voorhees idealized a way of life which he thought was being destroyed by the current rulers of his country. His bold protests against these dangerous trends made him the idol of the Democracy of the Wabash Valley. [Stampp, p. 211]

See also[]


  1. Thomas, Benjamin P., Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (1952) Southern Illinois University Press paperback edition (2008). p. 377.
  2. William A. Tidwell, April '65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War. Kent State University Press. 1995. pp. 155-20.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "A People & A Nation, A History of the United States" Norton, Katzman, Escot, Chudhacoff, Paterson, & Tuttle, editors, Vol I, Houghton Mifflin Co.: Boston, 2001, LCC# 81-84809, ISBN 0618005536, pp. 393-395.


  • Curry, Richard O. "Copperheadism and Continuity: the Anatomy of a Stereotype" Journal of Negro History (1972) 57(1): 29-36. online at JSTOR at most academic libraries.
  • Curry, Richard O. "The Union as it Was: a Critique of Recent Interpretations of the 'Copperheads.'" Civil War History 1967 13(1): 25-39. Online at JSTOR
  • George, Joseph, Jr. "'Abraham Africanus I': President Lincoln Through the Eyes of a Copperhead Editor." Civil War History 1968 14(3): 226-239. Online via JSTOR.
  • Gray, Wood. The Hidden Civil War: The Story of the Copperheads (1942), emphasizes treasonous activity
  • Klement, Frank L. The Copperheads in the Middle West (1960).
  • Klement, Frank L. The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War (1998)
  • Klement, Frank L. Lincoln's Critics: The Copperheads of the North (1999)
  • Klement, Frank L. Dark Lanterns: Secret Political Societies, Conspiracies, and Treason Trials in the Civil War (1984)
  • Manber, Jeffrey, Dahlstrom, Neil. Lincoln's Wrath: Fierce Mobs, Brilliant Scoundrels and a President's Mission to Destroy the Press (2005)
  • Milton, George F. Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column (1942)
  • Nevins, Allan. The War for the Union (4 vol 1959-1971), the standard scholarly history of wartime politics and society.
  • Silbey, Joel H. A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868 (1977)
  • Stampp, Kenneth M. Indiana Politics during the Civil War (1949)
  • Walsh, Justin E. "To Print the News and Raise Hell: Wilbur F. Storey's Chicago 'Times.'" Journalism Quarterly 1963 40(4): 497-510. online at JSTOR
  • Weber, Jennifer L. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North (2006)
  • Wubben, Hubert H. Civil War Iowa and the Copperhead Movement (1980).

External links[]

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