Treason or Loyal Opposition? The Copperheads and Dissent during the Civil War

“The Copperhead Plan for Subjugating the South”

Were the Copperheads traitors or merely exercising the right to criticize the government? To what extent did federal power increase during the Civil War?

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 08.31.2017, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.


The following documents offer perspectives on the Northern wing of the Democratic Party, which opposed the Civil War. These Peace Democrats urged an immediate, peaceful settlement with the Confederacy. Many supported slavery and blamed the war on abolitionists. They argued that Southern states had the right to secede and that the federal government’s policies under President Abraham Lincoln violated the Constitution. Republican writers labeled these Democrats Copperheads to suggest that they were poisonous snakes, betraying and endangering the Union. The Democrats accepted the label, reframing it as a reference to the image of Liberty on a copper penny. In some cases, members of the group were arrested for treason, tried, and imprisoned or sent into the Confederate states. Many Copperheads lived in areas along the border between the North and the South, in states such as Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, where Southerners had settled north of the Ohio River. But the movement was also prominent in New York City, where many merchants and workers were heavily dependent on the cotton trade. Copperheads were most popular during times of Union defeat in battle and lost support as the Confederacy fell.

Who Were the Copperheads?

“The Copperhead Party—In Favor of a Vigorous Prosecution of Peace!”: Illustration that appeared in “Harper’s Weekly” depicting antiwar Northerners as copperhead snakes. / From Harper’s Weekly, February 28, 1863
The Copperhead Catechism: For the Instruction of Such Politicians as Are of Tender Years: “Fernando the Gothamite” refers to Fernando Wood, New York’s mayor and later a congressman, who was a supporter of the Copperhead cause. / Sinclair Tousey. 1864

The following documents were both published in New York and indicate the Copperheads’ prominence in that city. The Copperhead Catechism refers to Fernando Wood who was New York City’s mayor, and later, a congressman. Wood was an avowed Copperhead who, in 1861, had urged the city to secede in order to maintain revenues from the cotton trade.

Divided Democrats

“Dialogue between an Old-fashioned Jacksonian Democrat and a Copperhead”: The Loyal Publication Society was founded in New York and Boston in 1863 to bolster public support for the Union effort through news articles and editorials. This dialogue is meant to show division within the Democratic Party. / William Alexander. From Elements of Discord in Secessia, No. 15, in Pamphlets issued by the Loyal Publication Society, by Loyal Publication Society. 1864

The Loyal Publication Society was founded in New York and Boston in 1863, during a time when the Union Army had suffered many reverses in the Civil War. The purpose of the society was to bolster public support for the Union effort by disseminating pro-Union news articles and editorials to newspapers around the country.

Who Was a Copperhead?

Gideon Allen, a lawyer from Wisconsin, wrote this letter to his future wife, Annie Cox, in 1863. Sympathetic to the Copperheads, he wrote of the challenges he faced due to his political beliefs and his efforts to avoid the draft. / Gideon Allen. February 10, 1863

Lawyer and Wisconsin statesman, Gideon W. Allen, exchanged letters with his future wife, Annie Cox, during the years of 1863–1865, and discussed his political and religious beliefs. Allen lived in Ann Arbor while attending law school. His letters describe the conflicts he faced in school because of his political association with the Copperhead Democrats, as well as his financial struggle to finish his law studies. Later, he discusses his efforts to avoid the draft, as he traveled looking for a suitable position and living place for his soon-to-be new wife.

Vallandigham Speaks Out Against Lincoln’s Policies

Clement Vallandigham was a Democratic Congressman from Ohio and leader of the Copperheads. He supported the right of southern states to both leave the Union and maintain the institution of slavery. / Clement L. Vallandigham. From The Record of Hon. C.L. Vallandingham on Abolition, The Union, and the Civil War, 1863

Clement Vallandigham was a Democratic congressman from Ohio and leader of the Copperheads. He supported the right of Southern states both to leave the Union and to maintain the institution of slavery. He was a vocal opponent of President Abraham Lincoln and his policies during the Civil War. In May, 1863, Vallandigham delivered a speech in Ohio arguing that the real goal of the war was not to save the Union, but to free the slaves. He was arrested by General Ambrose Burnside for violating General Order No. 38, which established that “The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried … or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department.” Vallandigham was tried and convicted by a military commission and sentenced to prison. Sensing political backlash, Lincoln commuted his sentence and ordered him deported to Confederate Territory. He tried unsuccessfully to challenge the legitimacy of his arrest in a case that went to the Supreme Court (ex parte Vallindigham 1863).

The Election of 1864 and the Copperheads

“Preserve the Union”: Campaign Songsters attached pro-candidate lyrics with familiar tunes or “airs.” It was sold along with pins, badges, and photographs in support of Lincoln. Democrat George McClellan was Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 presidential election. / From Lincoln’s Campaign Songster: For the Use of Clubs: Containing All of the Most Popular Songs, by Mason and Company, Philadelphia. 1864

In 1864 Lincoln campaigned for a second term as president. This Campaign Songster provided new lyrics to familiar tunes, or “airs.” It was sold along with pins, badges, photographs, and other campaign paraphernalia. Lincoln’s opponent was Democrat George McClellan, who had served as a major general in the war. McClellan opposed abolition, and criticized Lincoln as radical and divisive. However, he supported the war effort to restore the Union and found himself at odds with his party’s platform, which was written by the Copperhead politician Clement Vallandigham and called for an immediate negotiated settlement.

Copperheads as Traitors

“Confession of Mrs. Norris, B.S., and Her Sentence”: People who were associated with the Copperheads or revealed sympathy for the South could be tried for treason. Even non-violent actions, such as bringing provisions to Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas, were considered disloyal to the Union cause. / I. Winslow Ayer. From The Great Northwestern Conspiracy in All Its Startling Details, 1865

In the fall of 1864, as Union military forces moved toward decisive victory, several people associated with the Copperheads were accused of plotting to free Confederate prisoners from Camp Douglas in Chicago and to cause havoc in the city. This publication recounts the trial (two men were acquitted, two were convicted and sentenced to prison, one was convicted and sentenced to death) as well as the confession of Mary B. Morris, who was also arrested in the case.

Selected Sources

Jennifer Weber. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North, 2006.

By Rachel Rooney and Margaret Storey