October 13, 1863: Vallandigham Loses Bid for Governor


I have always thought that the Copperhead Movement in the North, those Northerners who believed that war to preserve the Union was wicked and/or futile, had a great deal of potential strength and it is something of a puzzle as to why it did not have a greater impact on the War.  One reason is that the Copperhead political leadership tended to be second raters at best.  A case in point is Clement Vallandigham, a Congressman of Ohio, and most definitely the most famous Copperhead.

Ironically a personal friend of Edwin Stanton before the War, Vallandigham served for one term in the Ohio legislature before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1858, after a disputed election loss in 1856.  Re-elected to the House in 1860, he became famous throughout the nation for his fiery speeches opposing the war policies of the Lincoln administration and condemned what he viewed as the administration’s infringement on civil liberties.  Vallandigham lost a bid for a third term in 1862, the boundaries of his district having changed as a result of redistricting.

Out of office, he continued to denounce the War in widely printed speeches.  That was too much for Major General Ambrose Burnside, who after the debacle of Fredericksburg had been placed in command of the Department of Ohio.  Burnside on April 13, 1863 issued General Order 38 which among its other provisions, stated the following:  The habit of declaring sympathies for the enemy will no longer be tolerated in the department. Persons committing such offences will be at once arrested, with a view to being tried as above stated, or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends.

On May 5, 1863 Burnside had Vallandigham arrested for violation of the General Order.  His case quickly became a cause celebre, Democrats around the nation, not all of them Copperheads, vociferously denounced the arrest.

Lincoln decided to exile Vallandigham to the Confederacy on May 19, 1863.  Once in the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis had Vallandigham briefly guarded as an alien enemy. He had talks with the Confederate government.  In these talks Vallandigham either cautioned against an invasion of the North or spoke in favor of it, the sources differ.  Vallandigham eventually left the Confederacy on a blockade runner, first to Bermuda and then to Canada.

While in Canada, Vallandigham carried on clearly treasonous talks with a representative of the Confederacy about his plans of establishing a Northwest Confederacy of Midwestern states.  This was all moonbeams and unicorn talk as Vallandigham demonstrated next year when he ran in absentia for the governorship of Ohio.  Vallandigham gained the Democrat nomination readily enough, but he went down in flames on election day, losing to War Democrat John Brough, running on a Union fusion ticket of Republicans and War Democrats,  288,374 to 187,492.  Lincoln wired Brough a telegram: “Glory to God in the Highest. Ohio has saved the Nation.”

Vallandigham slipped back into the Union in 1864.  Lincoln, perhaps sensing that after Vallandigham’s crushing defeat at the polls that he was no longer a threat, chose to ignore his return, telling the military to keep an eye on him, but to take no action unless instructed to do so.  Vallandigham attended the Democrat Convention in 1864 as a delegate from Ohio, and received a mixed reception of cheers and boos from the delegates  when his name was mentioned.  After McClellan’s nomination, Vallandigham was named as the future Secretary of War in a McClellan administration.   Vallandigham campaigned for McClellan against Lincoln in the presidential election after in the fall, withdrawing from the campaign trail for a time however, after McClellan attempted to put some distance between himself and the peace platform of the Democrats, an indication of how politically weak the Copperhead Movement ultimately proved to be.

After the War, Vallandigham’s life was anti-climactic.  He unsuccessfully ran for the Senate and the House.  He died in 1871 at the age of 50.  Appearing as defense counsel at a murder trial, he made the classic error of assuming that a gun was unloaded.  While demonstrating to a room full of attorneys how he planned on proving his client’s innocence, he accidentally shot himself in the head.  That sad accident is I think a metaphor for his lack of success in opposing the Civil War.   Lincoln, and the nation, was fortunate that the Copperheads did not have a more formidable champion.

Published in: on October 13, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

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