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Main Ideas
Political ideology played a distinct role in the dissension of Illinois Copperheads, but economic, cultural, and religious factors often influenced their political loyalties. An economic decline in both Illinois agriculture and the banking industry cut into the pockets of some Illinois citizens, prompting a protest for peace with the Confederacy. Many Illinoisans had originally supported the war because they believed its purpose was to save the Union, not specifically to emancipate the slaves. Some, especially immigrants, feared labor competition with freed slaves; others held racist views. To those averse to the freeing of slaves and to the prohibitive costs of a protracted war, mandatory conscription seemed a breach of their civil liberties.

The larger questions about the protection of civil liberties during times of civil strife, the relationship between rights and responsibilities, and the meaning of the U.S.


Constitution are still pertinent today and are an integral part of this lesson.

Connection with the Curriculum
This material could be used to teach Illinois history, government, and U.S. history. The "Extending the Lesson" section contains ideas for the materials' use in language arts or writing courses.

Teaching Level
Grades 9-12

Materials for Each Student

• A copy of this article's content portion

• Copies of the handouts

Objectives for Each Student

• Explore the possible conflicts arising when individual needs clash with civic responsibilities.

• Cite instances of personal biases and faulty reasoning in political arguments.

• Examine connections between political events and social reaction.

• Compare and analyze historical data.


Opening the Lesson
• Have the students read the article. Ask the students to think of instances today when civil responsibilities clash with individual needs and desires. Tell them to watch for newspaper and magazine articles that cover stories depicting similar conflicts.

• Work through the activities with the students.

Developing the Lesson
• Activity 1 allows the students to examine and analyze excerpts from a primary source. Be sure to point out to the students that the manner in which the journalist reports the information may be biased. Note, too, that even a civil servant—a sheriff—participated in the violence against the Union soldiers.

• The poems of Activity 2 offer an example of another medium through which political views were often expressed. The poems should be read aloud to be sure that all students understand the provincial language.

• Activity 3 is designed to generate discussion and critical thought rather than any right answers. You may wish to assign the questions as homework since they call for both analysis and synthesis of the excerpts. In question 2 the student must find instances of the Jacksonville writer's undeveloped argument since; for example, he does not address the fact that the opposition may win at the ballot box, nor does he consider what limits obedience puts upon his independence. In question 3 the student must consider the idealism of both Emerson's views as well as the Democrats. Both lines of reasoning may seem vague and contradictory, which underscores the complications of putting idealistic notions into practice.

• Activity 4 may be extended into a role-playing group activity. Divide the class into groups of four. Each group represents one family and offers positive and negative reactions to the continuation of the war based upon their individual situations. One member of each group should act as recorder. As each group delivers its defense of its views, other members of the class may wish to counter with alternative opinions.

Concluding the Lesson
• Discuss the key points of the lesson with the students.

Extending the Lesson
• Construct a bulletin board of newspaper or magazine clippings pertinent to the lesson's theme. You might encourage student creations of political poems or cartoons and add these to the bulletin board.

• Assign research and reports on related topics such as Farming on the Illinois Prairie during the Civil War Years; Necessities of Life on the Illinois Prairie: Food, Clothing, Housing, and Animals; Social and Religious Life in Illinois During the 1860s; and Politics of the Illinois Immigrant During the Civil War.

• The lesson may be extended into the language arts classroom. As per the bulletin board suggestion, you may wish to engage the students in writing


political poems. You might also assign Irene Hunt's Across Five Aprils in conjunction with the social studies activities of this lesson. Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," from Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, also complements this lesson well. In addition, aspects of Bierce's own life story make interesting study in conjunction with this lesson's theme.

Assessing the Lesson
•Ask one-third of the students to write a persuasive essay defending the Copperhead's position that the war should be halted, using economic, political, cultural, and religious reasons as support. Ask one-third to write a persuasive essay defending the Union's position that the war should continue, using economic, cultural, political, and religious reasons as support. Ask one-third to write an essay from the viewpoint of a slave who has received word that a group of individuals known as Copperheads wish to end the war without abolition of slavery. The latter group might use the slave's circumstances as support and counter Copperhead reasoning by comparison and contrast. (Or, rather than dividing the class, let each student choose.) Essays may be assigned as homework.

Follow up the activity by having the students consider how the United States might be today—geographically, politically, culturally, racially—if the Copperheads had gained enough support to stop the war without the South's surrender.



Activity 1

The following account of the Charleston Riot is from an extra edition of the Charleston Plain Dealer (March 31, 1864). The editor, and presumably the author of this source, is E. F. Crittenden, who was among those who provided for the "common defense" of Charleston after the incident occurred.


Charleston, Illinois, Thursday, March 31, 1864
E. F. Crittenden, Editor

SHOCKING OCCURRENCE. A Dreadful Fight Between
Copperheads and Soldiers
Seven Persons Killed - Eight Severely Wounded
Charleston, Monday, 9 P.M.

This afternoon a dreadful affair took place in our town, the most shocking in its details, that has ever occurred in our part of the State. Early in the morning, squads of Copperheads came in town, from various directions, and, as the sequel will show, armed and determined upon summary vengeance upon our soldiers. During the day premonitions of the coming trouble were too evident.—Some of the soldiers, about to return to their regiments, were somewhat excited by liquor, and consequently rather boisterous, but not belligerent—were more disposed for fun than fight. About four o'clock, a soldier, OLIVER SALLEE, stepped up to NELSON WELLS, who has been regarded as the leader of the Copperheads in this county, and placing his hand good-naturedly against him, playfully asked him if there were any Copperheads in town! WELLS replied, "Yes, God d—n you, I am one!" and drawing his revolver shot at SALLEE, but missed him. In an instant SALLEE was shot from another direction, and fell, but raising himself up, he fired at WELLS, the ball taking effect in his vitals .... [Fighting continued throughout the afternoon and arrests were made of civilians who had fired upon the soldiers.].. .Mr. JOHN COOPER, from Saulisbury, was captured, and brought in as a prisoner by Mr. W. A. NOE, and a soldier.... When the Copperheads were halted near Mrs. Dickson's, he was heard to say that as they now had no leader, he was ready to lead them back and kill the d——d soldiers and burn the town, or die in the attempt; and at various places he was heard to threaten to cut out the hearts of the "d——d Abolitionists," and used kindred expression ....


Activity 1 - continued

Analyzing Sources

Tuesday Morning, 11:30 a.m.

[The search for Copperheads continues]

Col. Brooks' squad, going through the O'Hair settlement [J. H. O'HAIR, Sheriff of Coles County], re-captured Levi Freisner and also the guard of Butternuts place over him, six or eight in all. [Butternut was a term applied to Confederate soldiers and those in the North who were sympathetic to the Confederacy, i.e. another name for Copperheads.] It is said that the "enemy" are now gathered two or three hundred strong, under J. H. O'Hair, at Golliday's Mill, some ten miles north-east from here. Whether this be so, or not, we are unable to say .... There are now some forty prisoners [sic], guerillas and citizens of 'constitutional' or doubtful loyalty, under arrest, and more bring arrested.

Thursday, Noon, March 31

The Copperheads are said to be gathering from several Counties, and moving to some place of concentration, probably in the north-east portion of this country.—Already several hundred are gathered at Donaker's Point, under command of "Colonel" J. H. O'Hair. Whether this concentration is for the purpose of offensive or deffensive [sic] movements, we cannot tell—probably the latter, however.... Last night several hundred soldiers, from Indianapolis, passed through here for Mattoon, where serious disturbance was threatened, and who, with other, will be ready for operations anywhere.

The people here are much excited; no business is being done, and all are preparing for safety and peace. The cooperation of citizens and soldiers will forever put an end to such Copperhead outrages here ... Men, who have apparently been unmoved in these Copperhead outrages, are now decided—many FOR US; some AGAINST US ....

As we have been obliged to be a "minute-man" during the day, and do a full share of guard duty at night, ever since Monday, for the common defense ....


  1. The author of this account identifies himself as a participant in this event, stating that he was a "minute-man" by day and a guard at night for "the common defense" of the community. Where do his sympathies lie? Do you think he is an even-handed reporter of this event? Why?

  2. It is reported that armed "squads of Copperheads," estimated to number from 100 to 150, were "determined upon summary vengeance upon our soldiers." Vengeance for what?

  3. Does the violence reported in this incident appear to be a spontaneous outbreak or a planned conspiracy? What causes might be assigned to this event?

  4. One of the Copperhead leaders reportedly threatened "to cut out the hearts of the "'d——d Abolitionists.'" Why were abolitionists so detested by some Illinoisans?

  5. Copperheads were sometimes referred to as "Butternuts," as they are at one point in this account. What is the origin of this term and what did it mean?

  6. Some forty persons of "'constitutional'" or "doubtful loyalty" were reported to be under arrest. What does the reference to the Constitution imply?

  7. What role did rumor play in this affair?

  8. J. H. O'Hair, Sheriff of Coles County, is said to have fired three times at the soldiers. What does this say about the deep divisions about the war that existed in this community?


Activity 2

from a poem published in Vanity Fair entitled


The traitor! the sneak! say, what fate shall await him,
Who forgets his fair land, and who spits on her fame?
Let no woman love him! Let honest men hate him!
Let his children refuse to be known by his name!
In the hour of our sorrow all recreant we found him,—
In the hour of his woe may he sign for a friend!
Let his conscience upbraid, let his memory hound him,
And no man take note of the Copperhead's end!

from a poem published in Harper's Weekly entitled


Resolved,—This nation's goin' tu reuin,—
Old Abram Lincoln's baound tu strand it.
Thare's sum awlfired mischief brewin',
We Dimmykrats can't no way stand it!
We make a vaow, from this time forth
Tu stop awl warfare in the North.

Tharefore we form a resolushun
Tu make all Lincoln's auders void;
Tu put his ginerals to konfushun,
So thet aour own sha'n't be annoyed;
And fortify aour strong position,
By firing guns on abbolition.


Activity 2 - continued

  1. The speakers of the poems are obvious rivals. According to the speaker of "Song of the Copperhead," what crime has the Copperhead committed? Based upon what the speaker of "The 'Peace Democracy'" says, does the Copperhead seem to be guilty of the charge?

  2. From your reading of the article at the start of this section, what might be the reasons why the speaker of "The 'Peace Democracy'" wants to stop all warfare in the North? How did Peace Democrats believe that the Lincoln administration was undermining the Bill of Rights?

  3. Think about what the authors of the poems might have been like. List some characteristics for each, based upon what they say and the language and manner in which they say it.


Activity 3

The excerpts below express views about individual rights and responsibilities.

Read each and answer the questions that follow.

William Cullen Bryant writes of Copperheadism in the Evening Post,
June 25, 1861

A peace purchased by receding from the policy of emancipation will be but a hollow truce, in the womb of which would lurk other insurrections and rebellions, ready to break out in civil war whenever an occasion like that of 1861 should arise. Suffer the rebel states to return to the Union and the right of slavery acknowledged, and you proclaim to them that they can at any time rebel at their good pleasure, and, if successful in their revolt, take their old place in the Union until a more auspicious moment shall arrive for forming a new confederacy.

published in the Daily Illinois Register
The Draft of the Ninth District-Democratic Loyalty
Jacksonville, Dec. 30, 1863

Stigmatized before the beginning of the war by their present political opponents as "Union savers". .., they are today branded as "disunionists" by the same short-sighted set.... They have seen the best generals slaughtered .... They have seen battle-fields turned into slaughter pens for their brothers and sons .... They have seen men attempt to transform themselves into principles—a president into a "government," in order that for a while the rebuke of the ballot-box might be checked. They have seen their leaders imprisoned and banished, because they advocated the principles upon which the theory of our government rests.

"Our country, right or wrong," should be the motto of our party without conditions;... Divine goodness will soon be pleased to permit us to right it through the ballot-box.

Such, if I mistake not, are the sentiments of the democracy of this district, and we, with the democracy of the state, will ever be governed by the noble sentiment, "Loyal, but free; obedient, but independent."

from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Journal, 1861

The war goes on educating us to a trust in the simplicities, and to see the bankruptcy of all narrow views. The favorite pet policy of a district, the epicier party of Boston or New York, is met by a conflicting epicier party in Philadelphia, another in Cincinnati, others in Chicago and St. Louis, so that we are forced still to grope deeper for something catholic and universal, wholesome for all. Thus war for the Union is broader than any State policy, or Tariff, or Maritime, or Agricultural, or Mining interest. Each of these neutralizes the other.

But to me the first advantage of the war is the favorable moment it has made for the cutting out of our cancerous slavery. Better that war and defeats continue, until we have come to that amputation.

.. . The difficulty with the young men is not their opinion and its consequences, not that they are Copperheads, but that they lack idealism. A man for success must not be pure idealist—then he will practically fail; but he must have ideas, he must obey ideas or he is a brute.


Activity 3

  1. Both Bryant and Emerson advocate continuing the war. Explain why they oppose ending the war. Though both oppose slavery, in what ways do their opinions differ from one another?

  2. According to your reading of the article at the start of this section, how did the Peace Democrats use the ballot-box to try to right what they perceived as the wrongs of their state and federal administrations? In the excerpt above, the Jacksonville writer feels that Democrats like himself can be "loyal, but free; obedient, but independent." What important points has his reasoning overlooked that weaken his argument for remaining free but loyal?

  3. Emerson complains that young Copperheads lack idealism. Does the Jacksonville Democrat seem to lack idealism? What might be the "catholic" and "universal" view that Emerson advocates over narrower views?

  4. The Jacksonville Democrat calls his critics short-sighted. In what ways are his views also short-sighted? Do you think he has considered Bryant's argument?

  5. Can you think of any recent issue or problem that demonstrates the difficulties of protecting a group's civil liberties when doing so conflicts with the needs of the government or another group?


Activity 4

1861 - Closure of Mississippi River: loss of southern markets; lower grain prices
- Bank panic: 95 of 112 banks close; commercial recession

1862 - Illinois Constitutional Convention
- Many convention Democrats accused of being members of Knights of the Golden Circle
- June— Constitution rejected
- September—News of preliminary Emancipation Proclamation stirs hostilities

1863 - Democrat majority in state legislature
- "Copperhead Legislature" accuses railroad and grain elevator operators of profiteering
- Illinois House proposes peace convention be sent to Louisville, Kentucky
- Gathering at Camp Yates calls for peace without victory, lists grievances
- Mandatory Conscription Act passed
- March—deserters released in Marshall, Illinois
- Mob protests in some south-central Illinois counties

1864 - Prospects of Union victory
- Charleston Riot
- Governor Yates seeks re-election; propaganda campaign
- Fear of so-called "Camp Douglas Conspiracy"

Look at the map and read the family composites on the following page. Refer to the article and the chronology above to help you make assumptions about which of the families might have supported the Peace Democrats and Copperheads and which might have been for the Union. Jot down responses to the questions below for each family to help you form theories.

  1. Based upon how this family makes a living, what economic factors of the time might have affected the family?

  2. How might economic needs of the family have influenced their political views?

  3. Consider the make-up of the family. In what ways might the needs of the war have conflicted with the needs of this Illinois family?

  4. Can you think of other factors that might have affected the family's sentiments about a continued war?


Activity 4 - continued

Four Fictional Illinois Families of the Civil War Era


  1. Patrick O'Connell and his wife Colleen came from Ireland and settled in LaSalle, Illinois, during the 1840s. They have four sons: Eric, age 15; Kelly, age 10; James, age 9; and John, age 5. Mr. O'Connell worked as a laborer on the construction of the Illinois- Michigan Canal. He now keeps busy working on the docks loading and unloading meat, grain, and coal.

  2. In June 1849, two German immigrants, Gustavus Mauer and his wife Helga made their home in Belleville, Illinois. They have since had six children, of which three survive: Olga, age 10; Ingrid, age 7; and Karl, age two. Mr. Mauer works at a meat-packing plant where he makes $20-25 a month, but he and his wife also raise grain, chickens, and livestock on their small farm.

  3. John O'Malley is the sheriff of Charleston, Illinois. He and his wife Mary are of Scotch-Irish descent. They moved to Charleston several years ago from Louisville, Kentucky. They have three children: Shawn, age 18; Eric, age 17; and Bridgette, age 12.

  4. David and Elizabeth Chalmers lived in Albion, Illinois, all their lives. Their ancestors moved to the area in the nineteenth century. Elizabeth died six years ago. The children help with raising grain and livestock on their large farm: Daffney, age 14; Nevel, age 12; Ian, age 11; Arthur, age 9; Sarah, age 6. They have hired hands to assist them. An older son, Charles, is fighting for the Union.

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