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Illinois Copperheads and the American Civil War

Delores Archaimbault and
Terry A. Barnhart

Copperhead was a pejorative epithet applied to Northern members of the Democratic party, also known as Peace Democrats, who criticized the presidential administration of Abraham Lincoln for its war policies and who sought an armistice with the Confederacy. A loosely-affiliated group, the Copperheads expressed their views on the war in the press, at political conventions, and in state legislatures. Their views struck a responsive chord among like-minded Democrats in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio in the period 1862 to 1864, while their Republican opponents considered their ideas and alleged actions as nothing less than treason. Not all those known as Copperheads supported the doctrine of secession, but as a group they found common cause in their objections to the actions of the Lincoln administration.

It is all too easy to overgeneralize and oversimplify when discussing the Copperheads' origin, beliefs, and motives. The derivation of the name Copperhead itself is uncertain. Some writers believe it referred to the copperhead snake, while others attribute it to the buttons cut from copper coins depicting the goddess of liberty that were worn by many Peace Democrats. It may also have been associated with the copperhead snakes of South Carolina, the hot bed of militant states' rights and secession. At any rate, Copperheads were uniformly depicted in Northern newspapers as copperhead snakes who wanted to make peace with the Confederacy at any price and on any terms.

But Copperhead views and objectives were often quite different from those attributed to them by Republican politicians and newspapers. Still there is little question as to why they so aggressively opposed the war.


Opposition to the war in some areas of Illinois arose over worsening economic conditions. The loss of Southern markets and the closure of the Mississippi River in 1861 lowered grain prices, and a bank panic occurred among Midwestern banks that based their paper money upon Southern bonds. Only 17 out of 112 banks in Illinois survived the creation of the Confederacy. The economic downturn in agriculture and banking also resulted in a commercial recession, which increased the number of those who opposed the war and criticized the Lincoln administration. Illinois' "Copperhead Legislature" of 1863 is a case in point. Much of the discontent expressed in the Illinois legislature of 1863 centered around economic grievances against railroads and the operators of grain elevators, anticipating the agrarian concerns that emerged as the Grange Movement of the 1870s. In the face of economic hardships, opposing the war for some Illinoisans was less a matter of disloyalty and more a bread-and-butter issue.

Economic issues, however, were not the only source of discontent. Existing political differences and partisan spirit in Illinois were greatly exacerbated by the Civil War. Illinoisans were not of one mind as to how the war should be conducted, nor was there consensus in all quarters if it could or should be won. Those differences became manifest when delegates convened the Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1862. Proponents of a new state constitution argued that the Constitution of 1848 was no longer adequate for a state whose population had doubled by 1860 and that paid its government officials at rates no longer considered adequate. The proposed convention had been approved by voters in 1860 and delegates were elected the following year.

Democrats controlled the convention and opted to draft a partisan document. With Samuel Buckmaster presiding over the convention, Democrats did all they could to


Camp Yates 1863

oppose the Republican party and Governor Richard Yates. The Democratic delegates conducted investigations into army appointments and purchases in an attempt to embarrass Yates, tried to strip the governor of military authority, proposed reducing his four-year term to two years, and shamelessly gerrymandered the boundaries of state legislative and congressional districts in their favor. The blatantly partisan nature of the delegates' actions and views at the convention doomed the so-called "Copperhead Constitution" of 1862. Illinois voters rejected the proposed constitution in a special June election by a margin of 24,515 votes.

Many of the Democrats at the Illinois constitutional convention were accused by Republicans of being members of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret political society that allegedly conspired against the Union. Joseph K. C. Forrest, the Springfield correspondent of the Chicago Daily Tribune and a Republican crony of Governor Yates, made the charge in an effort to discredit the governor's Democratic critics. The Tribune even suggested that treason might be afoot. The Democratic delegates at the convention flatly denied the charges. A special bipartisan committee was appointed to investigate the matter. The committee found no evidence of the Golden Circle's existence in Illinois; Forrest admitted that his story was based upon rumor and unsubstantiated reports. Nonetheless, rumors about the Knights of the Golden Circle continued to swirl through Republican papers, which attempted to link the group with the "Copperhead Constitution."

The political contest between Illinois Democrats and Republicans continued in the fall election campaign of 1862. The upsurge in anti-administration sentiment in Illinois sent a Democratic majority to the state legislature in 1863. This was Illinois' so called "Copperhead Legislature." Governor Yates and the Lincoln administration were challenged on almost every front by the new Democratic legislature. The House of Representatives proposed that all spending for the war effort and the appointment of officers be assigned to a three-member commission. The House also aired a list of grievances against the president and the governor and brought forward the names of prominent Peace Democrats to serve as five of the six Illinois commissioners to a proposed peace convention at Louisville, Kentucky. Only the death of a Democratic senator (the Democrats held a slim 13 to 12 majority over Republicans in the Senate), prevented the Senate from taking similar action.

Tensions ran high on both sides of the aisle through the better part of 1863 before Governor Yates dissolved the legislature on a technicality. The Illinois Constitution authorized the governor to prorogue the legislature if the two houses could not agree on adjournment. So ended Illinois' "Copperhead Legislature" of 1863; not without protest, but without effective recourse against the governor's bold action. The stymied Democrats also seemed helpless to refute renewed accusations about the illusive Knights of the Golden Circle. Chicago Daily Tribune correspondent Forrest connected the Democratic-controlled legislature with the Golden Circle as he had with the state constitutional convention of the previous year. Forrest reported that the secret society was plotting the establishment of a "Northwest Confederacy" and hoped to drive Lincoln from office. The Illinois State Register at Springfield, a Democratic paper, was reported to be its official organ. That charge was quickly denied by the paper's editor. It would not be the last time that unsubstantiated claims about the activities of secret Copperhead societies would make their appearance in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

Despite these political setbacks, Illinois Peace Democrats continued to dissent from the policies of the government regarding the war. At a large gathering held at Camp Yates outside of Springfield in 1863, Peace Democrats renewed their call for peace without victory. Among them were some of the most prominent citizens of the state, including civilians who had been released from Union military prisons. Those present affirmed their loyalty to the federal Constitution in peace and in war, pledged themselves to upholding the law, and squarely charged the Lincoln administration with undermining the Bill of Rights. They called for the return of the former Ohio Congressmen Clement Laird Vallandigham, whom Lincoln had arrested and banished to the Confederacy for publicly expressing sympathetic views toward the Southern cause. They also expressed their outrage over the arrest of William H. Carlin, son of a former Illinois governor, who denounced the government's use of martial law in certain areas of the North, and condemned


Governor Yates' proroguing of the state legislature as unconstitutional. The speakers on that occasion also rejected the legitimacy of secession, thus refuting the charge that all Peace Democrats or Copperheads were secessionists at heart. They desired a peaceful restoration of the South to the Union and called for a national peace conference toward that end. The soldiers who had served the Union cause could take pride in their service, but the war had to end short of victory.

What so many Northern Democrats decried as misrule and anarchy was the arbitrary arrest and trial of civilians by military authorities. The contest between civilian courts and military tribunals also occurred in Illinois. Circuit Judge Charles H. Constable of Mount Carmel, a Democrat, released four deserters who had been arrested by army sergeants acting on the orders of Colonel Henry H. Carrington, commander of the Indiana Military District. Constable argued that the army had no authority to arrest deserters from Indiana within the sovereign state of Illinois. Outraged by the judge's action, Carrington led a detachment of Indiana cavalry into Marshall, Illinois, in March 1863. There he arrested Judge Constable, who was then trying the two army sergeants on the charge of kidnapping. A federal judge ordered Constable's release on the.grounds that Carrington's cavalry had no authority to hunt deserters outside of Indiana, thus supporting Constable's earlier opinion. Constable's actions in this incident and his subsequent release from federal custody was something of a cause celebre among Illinois Peace Democrats.



Desertion from the Union Army and attempts to capture deserters also became a source of dissension on the Illinois home front. Opponents of the war often encouraged desertion, while the army's efforts to arrest deserters in southern Illinois sometimes met with civilian resistance. Deserters were concealed, and armed mobs often greeted their would-be captors. Mandatory enlistment under the Conscription Act of 1863 was extremely unpopular in Charleston, Jacksonville, and Vandalia. An armed mob drove Union officers in charge of enlistment from various parts of Fulton County in protest of the conscription law. The officers were actually attacked, and at least two fatal shootings were reported. Another mob at Olney threatened to burn the town if the local enrollment lists were not surrendered. In Union County, a guerrilla band assaulted Unionists and destroyed their property. Confederate sympathizers in southern Illinois sometimes practiced intimidation tactics, beating and shooting those who supported the Union war effort. Such vigilantism was practiced by both sides. One regiment largely comprised of soldiers from southern Illinois was arrested and placed under guard at Holly Springs, Mississippi, in March 1863 because so many had deserted and the remainder was fraternizing with the enemy. It has been estimated that in a five-month period, eight hundred deserters were arrested in Perry, Saline, Jackson, and Williamson counties and two thousand for Illinois as a whole. Such desertions and civil disturbance clearly indicate the unpopularity of the war in some sections of the state.

Especially unpopular in some areas of Illinois was the Emancipation Proclamation. Very few Illinoisans had enlisted in the army in 1861 to end slavery. The conflict ostensibly began as a war to save the Union, even though the issue of slavery cast a shadow over the decade of crises leading to secession and conflict. News of the preliminary


Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 was received with hostilities in several sections of the North and within some quarters of the Union Army. Union troops from western and southern Illinois were among them, reflecting attitudes toward slavery and African-Americans that were transplanted in these areas by migration from the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It should be remembered that in 1818 many Illinoisans favored repeal of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787's ban on slavery in the Northwest Territory and its future states. Although the movement to introduce slavery into Illinois was unsuccessful, the cultural origins of Illinoisans continued to condition their attitudes on questions of race. Slavery was as abhorrent to most Illinoisans as it was to other residents of the "free Northwest," yet there were communities where the majority opinion ran the other way.

Many Illinoisans were not prepared to grant African-Americans, whether enslaved or free, equal rights under the law. Copperheads had no desire to extend the benefits of American citizenship to African-Americans in their exclusionary concern over the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In denouncing the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, they uttered racist attitudes that would continue to trouble race relations in the Midwest for years to come. Abolitionists were sometimes more detested than slaveholders.

Opposition to the proclamation was also present in Coles County and in northwestern Illinois, although by no means were people in those areas of one mind. Anti-emancipation sentiments were more common in some Illinois counties than in others, and often opinions differed within a given county. The views of individuals in a particular locality largely correlated with the sources of migration to those areas. Those of Southern extraction were more likely to oppose emancipation, while those from New England tended to be for it. Copperhead activity in McDonough County, for example, was significant after 1863, but comparatively insignificant in neighboring Warren County. Similarly, a company within the 34th Illinois Regiment recruited from Randolph County in southern Illinois was anti-Lincoln. Other companies of the 34th, however, supported Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. Clearly, Illinois was a house divided on the issue of slavery. On balance, more Illinoisans favored emancipation than opposed it.

Attitudes toward the South and suspected Southern sympathizers hardened in 1864, when the prospect of a Union victory was clearly in sight. Soldiers on leave often demonstrated intolerance and outright enmity toward those suspected of being sympathetic to the Confederacy or critical of the government. Violence erupted in 1864 at Charleston, Illinois, a center of Copperhead sentiment. Six soldiers and three civilians were killed; another four soldiers and eight civilians were wounded in a riot on the courthouse square. Violence subsided when a detachment of federal troops arrived from Mattoon. Fifteen Copperheads were subsequently arrested, and all were turned over to civilian authorities by Lincoln's order. Two of the prisoners went to trial and were acquitted. The Charleston Riot, however, appears to have resulted more from personal animosities, taunting, and too much corn whiskey than from a deliberate conspiracy

Standing in Line


or a spontaneous outbreak over strictly defined issues. Several indictments for murder were later issued, but no convictions were ever handed down. The trials could have been continued for years, but most Illinoisans, like Americans as a whole, were anxious to put the war behind them as quickly as possible after Appomattox.

Governor Richard Yates
Governor Richard Yates

Meanwhile, rumors about Copperhead conspiracies were again making the rounds. Governor Richard Yates, seeking re-election in 1864, resumed his collaboration with the Springfield correspondent of the Chicago Tribune in spreading those tales in an attempt to further discredit his Democratic opponents. The result was the "Camp Douglas Conspiracy," which asserted that Copperheads were planning to liberate 8,000 Confederate prisoners incarcerated at Camp Douglas near Chicago. Chicago was to be sacked and burned, the war carried to other Midwestern cities, and a Northwest Confederacy created. When rumors spread that Governor Yates was arming Union Leagues, Charles Walsh, an Irish-American Democrat implicated in the alleged Chicago conspiracy, began to gather muskets and revolvers in order to protect the polls. Walsh was arrested, the arms in his basement confiscated, and the existence of the "Camp Douglas Conspiracy" exposed in the Chicago Daily Tribune. Walsh and seven of his supposed cohorts were sent to Cincinnati, tried for treason by a military tribunal, found guilty, and sentenced to five years in prisonóbut with the recommendation that Walsh be pardoned.

Historians have been divided in their treatments of the Copperheads. Some have portrayed the Copperheads as willful obstructionists and conspirators, much as their detractors had during the Civil War. Other investigators, by contrast, see them as conservative and highly partisan dissenters whose often misguided actions fell short of treason. The thrust of recent scholarship supports the latter interpretation. Whatever the verdict on the Copperheads, the controversies that swirled about them defined the limits of dissent in the North during the Civil War. The larger questions they raised about the protection of civil liberties during times of civil strife, the relationship between rights and responsibilities, and the meaning of the United States Constitution are still of interest to historians and legal scholars. The history of the Illinois Copperheads is also a vivid reminder to all of the passion and intolerance that occurred in that crisis and the personal consequences of taking a stand.

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