April 13, 1863 – Calls for peace grew louder in the North, especially among Democrats known as “Copperheads.” The military responded with draconian orders against civilian protest.
The military Department of the Ohio, which included the region west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio River, was heavily populated by Copperheads, or northerners who opposed the war. Their nickname was derived from their practice of wearing copper pennies in their lapels. Copperheads were also known as “Peace Democrats” or “Butternuts” for the color of some Confederate uniforms.
Copperheads owned many influential newspapers such as the Chicago Times, the New York Journal of Commerce, and the Metropolitan Record, the official Catholic newspaper in New York City. They often used these newspapers to publish articles criticizing the Lincoln administration, the war, and emancipation.
Copperheads often held massive rallies to oppose the Lincoln administration’s disregard for civil liberties; some even supported Federal defeat in the war. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio, sought to silence the Copperheads by issuing General Order No. 38:
“That, hereafter, all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country will be tried as spies or traitors, and, if convicted, will suffer death. The habit of declaring sympathies for the enemy will no longer be tolerated in this department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested, with a view to being tried as above stated, or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be distinctly understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department.”
Burnside’s order was based on President Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, which sanctioned arresting suspected Copperheads and holding them in military prisons without trial. While Burnside hoped to stop opposition, he actually galvanized the opposition into taking more forceful action against the war.
In contrast, Republicans and Unionists encouraged supporters to join the various “Union Leagues” forming throughout the North. The Union League of America (ULA) had been formed in 1862 to instill patriotism and offset the growing dissent among northerners. By this month, pro-Republican editor Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune claimed there were more than 75,000 Union League members in Illinois alone.
The Union Leagues had secret rituals, oaths, and signals, and they were often financed by the Republican Party. In turn, they worked to persuade voters to support Republican candidates and policies. Copperheads accused them of brainwashing the public and joked that “ULA” stood for “Uncle Lincoln’s Asses.”
The Copperhead influence was put to the test in state elections held this month. In Connecticut, former Governor Thomas H. Seymour, a Copperhead sympathizer, challenged the incumbent, William A. Buckingham, on a platform opposed to suppression of civil liberties, emancipation, and conscription. New Hampshire Democrats also nominated a Copperhead sympathizer for governor.
Lincoln arranged for Republican political boss Thurlow Weed to raise $15,000 among New York financiers to back Republican campaigns in both states, as well as Rhode Island. The War Department also gave furloughs to troops from these states so they could go home and vote, ostensibly for Republicans. Consequently, the Republicans won all three states, but not by landslides. Buckingham won only 52 percent of the vote, and only the presence of a third-party War Democrat tipped the New Hampshire election to the Republican candidate.
The Copperhead influence would become stronger as people gradually tired of the ongoing war.
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