Review: Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North

by James Durney on August 21, 2009 · 1 comment

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

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Language: English
  • ISBN: 0195306686

I remember reading in the Sixties that the Viet Nam War was not the most unpopular war in our history.  The article stated that the American Revolution and the Civil War were less popular than Viet Nam.  Caught in that maelstrom with Dad and I on one side and my younger brother on the other, I had difficulty accepting the idea that things could be worse.  Almost forty years later, this book more than proves how correct that statement was.

CopperheadsTheRiseAndFallOfLincolnsOpponentsInTheNorthWeberCivil war is the most heart wrenching type of war.  The combatants are much closer and have no national or natural boundaries to separate them.  Nor do these boundaries limit the differences that caused the war.  This results in divisions’ based not on national boundaries or state lines but within families, making the conflict and the dissent personal and very real.  This fragmentation of families, communities, states and the nation is not on the clean crisp line we see on a map. Thousands of people start the war feeling trapped on the wrong side of an invisible line, not of their making.

Jennifer Weber has written a very impressive history of the Copperhead movement from development to destruction.  This is a scholarly history, documented with footnotes and she clearly states her position and where it differs with prior histories.  However, she has produced a very readable book that is both instructive and fun to read.  This is not a small accomplishment and one that both the historian and casual reader will appreciate.

In 1861 the Democratic Party contained a number of members who were either pro-Southern and/or anti-abolitionists.  They never agreed with going to war, choosing to ignore the South firing on Fort Sumter.  Their position was that the Union of States should not be maintained by force and the war was wrong.  Named the “Peace Democrats”, they were the first opposition to the war.  Public pressure largely silenced their voice but they were strong enough to force several “War Democrats” into the rank of political generals.  Lincoln to ensure bi-partisan support appointed “War Democrats” to counter the voice of the “Peace Democrats” within the party.

At this point, the war was expected to be short, somewhat bloodless and a great adventure.  The battle of Bull Run in August 1861 raised questions about these assumptions.  Additional demands for men to build the armies, money to pay for the war, the disruption of trade routs, shortages and government measures to protect itself from “traitors’ all contributed to destroying these assumptions.  The nail in the coffin was the dead and maimed.  1862 opened with Shiloh and the list of dead grew longer each week.  Battles seemed to vie for the title of bloodiest, each battle worse than the last.  Antietam, took the title in one horrible day that left the country reeling and weeping.

The Copperheads rise to power coincided with the public’s perception of the war.  While a nation wide movement, they were strongest in what was then the mid-west and North-west.  1862 was a building year for them and they did well in the elections electing several of their number governor and to the House of Representatives.  Emancipation was a boon to the Copperheads, allowing them to exploit the racism of nineteenth century America.  Taking the position that Abolitionists forced war on America to free an inferior race that would supplant the white workers, they scored impressive gains with the Irish labors in the large Eastern cities.  Emancipation coupled with the draft created serious armed resistance that produces real problems for the government.  Counties divided and fear gripped many as neighbor turned against neighbor.  Violence toward federal Officials became common and many resigned or refused positions out of fear.

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With the war stalled in 1864 and the causality lists getting longer each day, the Copperhead movement crested.  They managed to capture the Democratic National Convention, inserted a peace at any price plank in the platform and put one of their own on the ticket as vice-president.  The fall of Atlanta, Union victories in the Shenandoah Valley and the soldiers standing firm defeated them.  Just as the public’s perception that the war was not being won, helped the Copperheads.  The perception that the war was being won turned them into traitors and defeated them at the ballot box.

The Democrats paid a high price for identification with the Copperhead movement.  Grover Cleveland’s election as president in 1885 was the next time they would occupy the White House.  After Cleveland, they would have to wait until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson was elected.  The Union soldiers extracted revenge for what they saw as “fire from the rear” and refused to vote Democrat.

The Copperhead movement suffered excess that were as damaging as winning the war.  Excesses in rhetoric, refusal to comprise and working with the enemy all damaged them in the public eyes.  Even the Confederacy came to distrust them.  Several Copperhead cells made plans to launch attacks on government installations, free Confederate POWs or even take their state out of the Union.  All failed, the major reasons being the lack real leadership and members unwilling to risk their lives.  After spending a great deal of money, the CSA listened, encouraged but expected and gave nothing.

The author makes no comparisons between the Civil War, Viet Nam or now.  She has written a very good history of the first major anti-war movement and left it there.  I was unable to read this book and not make comparisons between my family’s experiences during the Viet Nam War and what is happening now.  The lack of comparison in the book, is its’ strongest point.  This allows the reader to draw on their experiences and place them in the history of the Copperhead movement and the American Civil War.  In doing so, we can see how history will repeat itself.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Fred Ray August 21, 2009 at 6:40 pm

One major problem with the Copperheads is that almost nothing written by them survives. No one wrote postwar histories of the movement, which just faded away. Thus it’s very hard to evaluate things like plans to free Confederate prisoners and burn Union property. Were these real plans or just the fevered imagining of the authorities? No one really knows. Previous histories have pretty much dismissed the Copperheads as a minor annoyance, but Weber treats them with the respect I think they deserve.

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