This Establishes Military Despotism

Former Ohio Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham had been tried and convicted by a Federal military tribunal for violating General Order Number 38. This order, issued by Major-General Ambrose Burnside, prohibited anyone from publicly opposing the war in the military Department of the Ohio. Vallandigham, an outspoken opponent of both the war and the Lincoln administration, was sentenced to serve in a military prison at Fort Warren, Massachusetts, for the rest of the war.

Vallandigham’s conviction sparked protests throughout the North. Democrats and even some Republicans expressed outrage that someone could be thrown in prison for simply exercising their freedom of speech, and nearly every member of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet opposed the action. Nevertheless, Lincoln gave Burnside his “kind assurance of support” after learning of Vallandigham’s conviction in a newspaper.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote in his diary, “It was an error on the part of Burnside. All regretted the arrest, but, having been made… until the subject is legitimately before us, and there is a necessity to act, there is no disposition to meddle with the case.”

Former U.S. Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham | Image Credit:

The pro-Democrat New York Atlas declared that “the tyranny of military despotism” displayed by Vallandigham’s conviction proved “the weakness, folly, oppression, mismanagement, and general wickedness of the (administration).” The New York Herald feared that this was only the first of “a series of fatal steps which must terminate at last in bloody anarchy.”

Another Democrat noted that Vallandigham’s vocal opposition to the war was mild compared to then-Congressman Lincoln’s blistering speech in the House of Representatives condemning President James K. Polk’s prosecution of the Mexican-American War in 1849. New York Governor Horatio Seymour, a prominent pro-war Democrat whose support the Lincoln administration needed, issued a statement on the incident:

“The transaction involved a series of offenses against our most sacred rights. It interfered with the freedom of speech; it violated our rights to be secure in our homes against unreasonable searches and seizures; it pronounced sentence without a trial, save one which was a mockery, which insulted as well as wronged. The perpetrators now seek to impose punishment, not for an offense against law, but for a disregard of an invalid order, put forth in utter violation of the principles of civil liberty.

“If this proceeding is approved by the Government and sanctioned by the people, it is not merely a step toward revolution, it is revolution; it will not only lead to military despotism, it establishes military despotism. If it is upheld, our liberties are overthrown. The safety of our persons, the security of our property, will hereafter depend upon the arbitrary wills of such military rulers as may be placed over us, while our constitutional guarantees will be broken down. Even now the Governors and the courts of some of the great Western States have sunk into insignificance before the despotic powers claimed and exercised by military men who have been sent into their borders.”

Losing Seymour seriously jeopardized the administration’s hopes for a political alliance between Republicans and War Democrats.

On the 16th, a protest meeting took place in Albany, New York, headed by New York Central Railroad President Erastus Corning. The attendees consisted mostly of state Democrats supportive of Governor Seymour, and they adopted resolutions calling Vallandigham’s conviction a “blow… against the spirit of our laws and Constitution,” and the end of “the liberty of speech and of the press, the right of trial by jury, the law of evidence, and the privilege of habeas corpus.” The resolutions stated that upholding the conviction would be “a fatal blow at the supremacy of law, and the authority of the State and Federal Constitutions.”

When news of Vallandigham’s conviction reached the South, an official in the Confederate War Department noted, “This only was wanting to demonstrate how utterly that (northern) people have lost every pretence of civil liberty. Shades of John and Samuel Adams! To what have your descendants come?”

The Vallandigham case raised serious questions about whether a civilian could be seized by military force for giving a speech, and whether a military court could override a civilian court by trying and convicting said civilian. Former Senator George H. Pugh of Ohio applied for a writ of habeas corpus on Vallandigham’s behalf, but Judge Humphrey H. Leavitt of the U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of Ohio denied it. Citing the law passed by Congress on March 3 authorizing the president to suspend habeas corpus, Leavitt ruled that the president’s war powers included arresting Vallandigham for incendiary speech and subjecting him to military trial.

Recognizing the political problem with punishing Vallandigham, Lincoln publicly supported his arrest but then commuted his sentence. Lincoln ordered the former congressman to be banished to the Confederacy. Federal cavalry escorted Vallandigham to Tennessee, through the Federal military lines at Murfreesboro, and handed him over to confused Confederate pickets who ultimately took him in.

Meanwhile, protests continued throughout the month. Petitions condemning the “arbitrary arrest, illegal trial, and inhuman imprisonment of Hon. C.L. Vallandigham” circulated in Ohio. New Jersey Governor Joel Parker told an audience in Newark that the conviction and deportation “were arbitrary and illegal acts. The whole proceeding was wrong in principle and dangerous in its tendency.” Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton, a Republican and Lincoln ally, alleged that the president’s actions emboldened “Copperheads” (i.e., Democrats opposed to the war) in his state. Despite such mass indignation, Lincoln refused Burnside’s offer to resign.


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