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  • Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North
  • Melinda Lawson
Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. By Jennifer L. Weber . ( New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. 304. Cloth, $28.00.)

For over thirty years, historian Frank Klement dedicated his career to telling the story of the Copperheads—the antiwar protesters of the Civil War North. [End Page 94] In Klement's view, the Copperheads had long been maligned as villains in the political drama of the northern homefront—antagonists imperiling Lincoln's struggle to save the Union. But, Klement argued, historians had subscribed too readily to a perspective crafted by contemporary Republican leaders. In truth, many of the Copperheads had expressed legitimate regional economic and political concerns, and the conspirators among them were a fringe group of ragtag bumblers. The Civil War Copperheads had never posed a serious threat to the Union.

Weber's lively new book challenges Klement's version of the Copperhead saga. Focusing her lens not on isolated attempts to overthrow the government but on the widespread nature of northern discontent, she finds a much larger threat than historians have supposed. In fact, Republicans who worried about the "fire in the rear" were not so far off: "Copperheads, it turns out, were not a part of a fringe movement but a broad faction that divided many neighborhoods and threatened to undermine Lincoln's war effort" (11).

Weber traces the actions of three groups—politicians, the military, and civilians—through three distinct stages of Copperhead activity. Immediately after the attack at Fort Sumter, a core of antiwar dissenters coalesced. Early Copperhead leaders found support among northerners with southern origins, German and Irish immigrants, constitutional strict constructionists, and white supremacists. Perceived violations of civil liberties, increased financial hardships, and McClellan's seemingly endless delays exacerbated Copperhead unhappiness. Weber is at her best as she describes the "neighbors' war" that erupted as tensions between those who supported the war effort and those who opposed it exploded in fist fights, random shootings, mob violence, and threats of assassination.

Fueled by military stalemates, the Militia Act, and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the second phase of the antiwar movement began in the fall of 1862. Democrats who had been reluctant to challenge a wartime president joined the ranks of dissenters. Copperhead support swelled as emancipation turned war into revolution and conscription extended the reach of the federal government into the homes of individual Americans. In response, antiwar violence and reports of conspiracies escalated. While Klement dismissed these reports as products of an overactive and instrumental Republican imagination, Weber disagrees: "These reports were so prevalent, and came from so many different parts of the country, that it is nearly impossible to believe that something was not afoot. . . . These reports were not for public consumption, and the authors had nothing to gain [End Page 95] from them politically" (147–48). Such widespread disruptions impeded the administration's ability to conduct the war: "Their relentless and often ad hominem attacks helped to erode public confidence in Lincoln's government . . . (and) impinged on military strength at the front" (216).

The third and final phase of the growth of the Copperheads began with the escalating casualties of Grant's Virginia campaign. The incomprehensible suffering of the soldiers' war led to widespread vilification of Grant, and many War Democrats and even Republicans abandoned their support for the administration and moved into the Copperhead camp. Motivated chiefly by the spiraling loss of life, this last group of antiwar dissenters returned quickly to the side of the administration when military victories during the summer of 1864 signaled a turning point for the Union.

Weber's decision to focus on the "trinity" of politicians, soldiers, and the northern public has merit (10–11). It allows her to highlight interactions that previously have been neglected: throughout the book, for example, she emphasizes the agency of the Union soldiers. Their letters home to their families, along with their battlefield failures and victories, she argues, shaped more than any other single force the reception and fate of the antiwar movement. But this approach has drawbacks as well: Weber neglects the diversity and...


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