Copperheads, Vallandigham, and the Trump Card of Lincoln

On this date of June 12th in 1863, President Lincoln wrote the first of two letters to New York and Ohio Democrats – letters reprinted in hundreds of newspapers and produced into a 500,000-copy pamphlet – discrediting the cause of Clement Vallandigham and the Copperhead faction in the mind and eye of the public. And the soon-to-come battlefield victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg sealed the deal.

There is a new movie coming out on June 28 called “Copperhead.”  It is produced by Ron Maxwell – the guy who produced “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals.”  There was always a desire to do the third of that Shaara trilogy … “The Last Full Measure,” but it is yet to be realized. Financing such a thing is the problem of course, and a loan/eventual repayment controversy in my home area here of Washington County, MD made for no small controversy over a period of years. I read the following in an online interview with Maxwell where he said of the third film, “We certainly hope to someday do it. ‘Copperhead’ has lot of scale and a lot of scope, but it has no battle scenes. Once you have battle scenes, such as the Wilderness campaign, you are talking about a lot of money. Perhaps, if we get lucky with ‘Copperhead,’ and it is a viable, commercial success at the box office, then the odds of making ‘The Last Full Measure’ are greatly enhanced.”  I hope the “Copperhead” film is a success and that the final of the trilogy can be accomplished as well.

Clement Laird Vallandigham

Clement Laird Vallandigham

The Vallandigham affair is a bit complicated, but broadly understanding it will serve as a good basic foundation for enjoying the upcoming film. Let me attempt to put it into bullet points:

  • Clement Vallandigham was an Ohio member of the US House of Representatives, having been elected in 1858 and 1860. He was the leader of the antiwar Peace Democrats – the Copperheads.
  • Vallandigham gave a speech to the House on February 20, 1861 entitled “The Great American Revolution” in which he described the Republican Party as “belligerent” … stating that the country faced the “choice of peaceable disunion upon the one hand, or Union through adjustment and conciliation upon the other.”
  • Vallandigham particularly espoused the themes of Copperhead thinking in a January 14, 1863 speech to the House, along with a speaking tour soon after, upon the end of his term of office. Hoping to achieve the governorship of Ohio that year, he proclaimed that the Lincoln administration was fighting more for abolition than Union. He stated that he could see more barbarism and sin by a thousand times in the continuance of the war and the enslavement of the white race by debt and taxes than could be seen in black slavery.

    General Burnside

    General Burnside

  • General Ambrose Burnside, upon his departure from the Army of the Potomac, had been appointed Commander of the Department of the Ohio. There, he issued General Order Number 38 in April of 1863, warning that the “habit of declaring sympathies for the enemy” would not be tolerated in the Military District of Ohio. On May 1, Vallandigham gave a major speech than again rehearsed the theme about the war being fought not to save the Union but to free the slaves by sacrificing the liberty of all Americans to “King Lincoln” … encouraging desertions and an end to the war. Burnside also suppressed circulation of the Chicago Times.
  • Vallandigham was arrested on May 5th and tried by a military court on May 6 and 7. Lincoln commuted the sentence from imprisonment to expulsion to the Confederacy, where Vallandigham was banished under a flag of truce in to the Confederate  lines in Tennessee. He escaped the Southern states on a blockade-runner and settled for a time in Canada. The Democrats in Ohio nominated him for Governor, though he would ultimately lose the election.
  • The Lincoln letter of June 12, 1863 was one of several such occasions where he would take his case on a particular issue to the American people. The more wily President would refer to Vallandigham as a “wily agitator.”  Lincoln argued well for the merits of his decision and of the guilt of the whacky Ohioan, using one of his colloquialisms by writing, “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, whilst I must not touch the hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?”

Vallandigham actually appeared at the 1864 Democratic Convention. He supported McClellan, but was no asset for the party. After the war, the wily agitator would be unsuccessful in several runs for congress.

Vallandigham would die in 1871 in a way that is so bizarre, one feels like when writing about it that you have to say, “I’m not making this up!”  As a lawyer defending a man for a murder charge against another man in a barroom fight, Vallandigham demonstrated with a quickly drawn pistol that the victim had in fact killed himself. Not realizing the pistol was loaded, he accidentally shot himself fatally in the process – though it did get the guy acquitted!

About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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