Not snakes, but ‘Peace Democrats’: Copperheads explained

Public excitement and interest continues to gain as Rappahannock County film director Ron Maxwell’s latest film, “Copperhead” is due for national release at the end of June. Both advanced screenings – in Winchester in early June and in Warrenton on June 25 – were near sellouts.

The film also has an advanced screening at the State Theatre in Culpeper tomorrow night (Friday, June 28). There seems to be some confusion among the public about what the name of the film means, and its importance in the sesquicentennial (150th) observance of this country’s greatest conflict, 1861-1865. It has nothing at all to do with venomous snakes.

Prominent Copperhead leader, and former Ohio congressman, Clement L. Vallandigham.
Prominent Copperhead leader, and former Ohio congressman, Clement L. Vallandigham.

Although the Democratic party had split in 1860, during the secession crisis Democrats in the North were generally more conciliatory towards the South than the Republicans. These Democrats called themselves Peace Democrats; their opponents called them “Copperheads” because many wore copper pennies as identifying badges.

A majority of the Peace Democrats supported a war to save the Union, but a strong and active minority asserted that the Republicans had provoked the South into secession and that the Republicans were waging the war in order to establish their own dominion, suppress civil and states’ rights and impose “racial equality.” They believed that military means had failed and would never restore the Union.

Peace Democrats were most numerous in the Midwest, a region that 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. Anti-abolitionist Midwesterners feared that emancipation would result in a great migration of freed slaves into their states.

The influence of the Peace Democrats varied with the fortunes of the war. When things went badly for the Union on the battlefield – which was certainly true in 1862 and early 1863 – large numbers were willing to make peace with the Confederacy. When things for the North went well on the battlefield, Peace Democrats were dismissed as defeatists.

No matter how the war progressed, Peace Democrats constantly had to defend themselves against charges of disloyalty: News that a few had ties to secret organizations such as the Knights of the Golden Circle smeared the Peace Democrats as a whole.

The most prominent Copperhead leader was former Ohio congressman Clement L. Vallandigham, recently featured in the “150 Years Ago This Week” column in this newspaper. He led a secret anti-war society called The Sons of Liberty, and, after a military trial in Cincinnati in May, 1863, was banished from the Union and escorted beyond the Confederate lines to Tennessee.

From there, the Confederate government ordered him to Wilmington, N.C., and then banished him from the Confederacy. He went to Bermuda and then north to Ontario in July, where he conducted his campaign for Ohio’s governor, having been previously nominated for the post by fellow Ohio Democrats. He was ultimately defeated by only 100,000 votes in October, 1863.

In June, 1864, Vallandigham entered the U.S. in disguise and settled in his former home in Ohio, where he actively worked to set up a Peace Democrat platform at the 1864 Democratic national convention. At that convention, where the influence of the Peace Democrats reached its highest point, Vallandigham persuaded the party to adopt a platform branding the war a failure, and some extreme Copperheads plotted armed uprisings.

However, the Democratic candidate, former Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, repudiated the Peace Democrats’ platform, and Union victories on the battlefield in 1864, as well as support from the common soldiers voting in the field for the Lincoln administration, assured Lincoln’s re-election.

Vallandigham’s earlier statements that he did not care to live in a country where Lincoln was president, made after being banished from the North in 1863, inspired Edward Everett Hale’s short-story (and wartime allegory),“The Man Without a Country,” which first appeared in The Atlantic in December, 1863.

With the conclusion of the war in 1865, the Peace Democrats were thoroughly discredited. Most Northerners believed that the Peace Democrats had prolonged the war by encouraging the South to continue fighting in the hopes that the North would abandon the struggle.

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.