- Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North
Jennifer Weber finds three groups of men who were likely to be Copperheads, first men who were from the South or whose parents emigrated from the South; German and Irish immigrants, especially Catholics; and believers in a strict constitutional construction. This is the pool from which came the most intense northern opposition to the policies of the Lincoln administration during the Civil War. The main contribution of this book is to demonstrate that the Copperheads were in fact a danger to the Northern war effort. [End Page 1243] Weber thus challenges Frank Klement's arguments that depicted the group as less than dangerous, more a concoction of the Republican administration for political purposes. Weber recognizes the political element in this, but provides many illustrations of instances where opposition to the war produced riots, gunfire, arson, and organized plots to disrupt, especially the draft. And she notes that reports of Copperhead activity very often come from private correspondence where the writers had no interest or little interest in supporting Republican political repression. (Although it is possible that these people were reacting to Republican propaganda in their private writings.)
She also notes the importance of soldier attitudes and soldier politics in the response of the nation to Copperhead activities. Frequently the men who were fighting in the field felt as much hatred toward the peace faction behind their lines as they did toward the men who were trying to kill them. Given the respect that soldiers had in the nation their opposition undermined Copperhead power.
The Copperhead argument was comprised of several parts. Most powerful was racism that grew enormously when efforts were made to recruit black soldiers or to grant blacks any rights that white men needed to respect. The party even made up a new word, "miscegenation," to frighten northern voters. In addition, Copperheads claimed in newspapers and from hundreds of platforms that the Lincoln administration was a dictatorship trampling on the Constitution to achieve partisan ends. This led to the idea that it was Lincoln's administration that was destroying the Union that the founders had created. By contrast southern leaders were portrayed as actually defending the Constitution.
Much of this argument rested upon the belief, ironically shared by Lincoln, that there were many Unionists in the South who would rejoin the nation if only they could be secure in the belief that Republicans respected the Constitution as articulated in the Dred Scott opinion of the Supreme Court.
The power of the Copperheads ebbed and flowed according to events on the battlefield. When the Union army was winning, the voting populace turned down Copperhead claims. When it was losing, Copperheads appeared more attractive in their arguments that peace should be the first item on the nation's agenda. They were especially inflamed when Lincoln called for drafting more and more young men to fight the war. The need for the draft demonstrated to men like Clement Vallandigham that the war was unwinnable and that young men were dying simply to aggrandize the power of the Republicans.
By the summer of 1864 it appeared as if the Lincoln administration would not be reelected. His party was divided and his army was stymied in the Wilderness and before Atlanta. But when Sherman took Atlanta the election swung to Lincoln and Copperhead hopes decayed. After the conflict there were few Northerners who could happily claim in public that they had been Copperheads.
This is fine narrative history. Despite a few annoying colloquialisms, "ratted out," "down in flames," "dead on," the book is well written. We will [End Page 1244] never know for sure, of course, how dangerous Copperheads were, but Weber has made us more suspicious of their power. But something that she has not done suggests the power of stories to propel author and reader along, forgetting to pause for alternate, because more analytical, presentations of the past...