Governor Yates and the Copperheads


Richard Yates, Governor of Illinois from 1861-1865, was a formidable man, as demonstrated by the fact that during his term of office Illinois sent off a quarter of a million men to fight for the Union, the third most of all the States, in spite of the fact that copperhead sentiment was rife in southern Illinois throughout the War.

Born in Warsaw, Kentucky in 1815,  Yates moved with his family to Illinois in 1831.  A college graduate at a time when such was a rare accomplishment on the frontier, Yates began practicing law in Jacksonville, Illinois in 1837.  An anti-slavery Whig, Yates served in both the Illinois House and in Congress.

Elected the second Republican governor of Illinois, Yates’ term in office was dominated by the Civil War.  Hard times came to Illinois with the coming of the Civil War and the blocking of trade through Confederate controlled New Orleans.  Only 17 of 112 Illinois banks survived the creation of the Confederacy.  The deep economic recession gave impetus to the Democrats gaining control of the Constitutional Covnvention of 1862, which produced a document that limited the governor to a term of two years and gerrymandered electoral districts in favor of Democrats.  The Democrats overplayed their hand however, and the Copperhead Constitution of 1862 was rejected by the voters at the ballot box in a special June election held in 1862. 

Bad War news gave the Democrats control of the Illinois legislature in the fall elections of 1862 and the election of a Copperhead controlled legislature.  The new legislature proposed that all War spending go through a three man commission, condemned Yates and Lincoln for alleged violations of civil rights and proposed the names of Illinois delegates to a “peace convention” in Louisville, Kentucky.  Yates prorogued the legislature when the death of a Democrat state senator returned the Illinois Senate to Republican control, Yates basing his action on a provision in the state constitution giving the governor authority to adjourn the legislature if the two legislative chambers could not agree on adjournment.  Yates would keep the legislature adjourned until after the Republicans gained overwhelming majorities in the legislature in the elections of 1864.

Yates and the Democrats would continue to clash even without the legislature being in session, with continual calls by the Democrats for the ending of the War and the peaceful re-establishment of the Union.  (How such a peaceful reunion was to be accomplished, “peace” Democrats, other than calling for a national peace convention, tended to be a bit vague on.)  Draft riots occurred in towns throughout central and southern Illinois, with one clash in 1864 in Charleston between Democrat copperheads and Republican Unionists leaving six soldiers and three civilians dead.  Desertions among Illinois units from southern Illinois were rife, and guerilla warfare against Union sympathizers was waged in Union county and other parts of southern Illinois.

Through it all Yates remained in firm control of the State and made certain that Illinois remained committed to the Union.  In the fall of 1864 a Republican legislature was elected along with a new Republican governor, Richard J. Oglesby.  Yates went to the Senate after his term as governor and died in 1873.  He is widely regarded as one of the most capable of the Union war governors.

Published in: on June 21, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. another man for the job at just the right time. LORD we need some of these in our age, please. Amen.

    • I join in your prayer Dennis!

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