150 Years Ago This Week: Taking action against a ‘Copperhead’

May, 1863

South of Vicksburg and across the Mississippi River in Louisiana, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks (he had been defeated several times in the Shenandoah Valley the year before by the late Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson) brought his Federal troops across the river in a heavy rainstorm through Bayou Sara and approached the Confederate stronghold at Port Hudson.

The opposing troops clashed on the Springfield and Plains Store roads. In Washington, President Lincoln conferred with his military and naval commanders about the unsuccessful Union attack on Charleston, S.C.

In Richmond, President Davis wired Gen. Joseph Johnston; his army was outside of Vicksburg and unable to penetrate the Union lines to assist Lt. Gen. John Pemberton in the city: “I am hopeful of the junction of your forces and defeat of the enemy.” To Gen. Pemberton, Mr. Davis wired: “Sympathizing with you for the reverse you sustained.”

In Dayton, Ohio, former Democratic congressman Clement Vallandigham had been arrested and quickly tried by a military tribunal in Cincinnati presided over by the Department of the Ohio commander Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside; he was convicted and imprisoned for sympathizing with the Confederacy and for expressing sentiments against the “cruel and wicked war,” saying that it was an attempt to destroy slavery in order to establish a Republican dictatorship.

Petitions were soon being circulated through the Midwest and the North, protesting the “arbitrary arrest, illegal trial and inhuman imprisonment of Hon. C. L. Vallandigham.” The term “Copperhead” was being used to describe those Peace Democrats who actively came out in support of the Confederacy and ending the war.

Following a month of major military activity, the end of May, 1863 saw both sides enter a period of relative inactivity. In Virginia, the Union army under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker remained near Fredericksburg while Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia rested to the west toward Culpeper.

In Tennessee, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans and his Federal army stayed near Murfreesboro while Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee encamped in Mississippi near Tullahoma. Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Union troops laid siege at Vicksburg and Maj. Gen. Banks’ Federal troops now laid siege to Port Hudson.

President Lincoln anxiously wired Gen. Hooker: “What news?” To Gen. Rosecrans, Lincoln wired: “Have you anything from Grant? Where is Forrest’s Headquarters?” referring to Confederate cavalry commander Nathan B. Forrest. The C.S.S. Chattahoochee accidentally exploded on the Chattahoochee River in Georgia, killing 18 Confederate sailors.

After former Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham had his prison sentence altered by Lincoln through Sec. of War Edwin Stanton to being banished from the United States for his “Copperhead” sentiments, Federal authorities turned over the Peace Democrat congressman to the Confederates in Tennessee.

Out in the far west, in what became Montana, gold was discovered at Alder Gulch, and, despite the war, a gold rush began; the discovery served to relieve the Federals authorities, who feared Confederate threats against California and Colorado gold mines. On May 28, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the first regiment of all black soldiers raised in the North, departed Boston for Hilton Head, S.C.

On Friday, May 29, in Cincinnati, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside (he had led the Union Army of the Potomac to a tremendous defeat at Fredericksburg the previous December and was sacked by Lincoln after the infamous “Mud March” in January) offered the President his resignation as a result of the arrest, conviction and banishment of former Rep. Vallandigham. Lincoln declined to accept the resignation.

Gov. Oliver Morton of Indiana strongly protested the former congressman’s arrest on the grounds that it increased opposition to the war effort in the states bordering the Ohio River. In Newark, N.J., a large meeting of Democrats was held, protesting the earlier arrest and conviction of Mr. Vallandigham.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.