For years, I have heard stories about a group of people who lived along the Mason Dixon Line that were opposed to the Civil War. This topic is a forgotten aspect that played a major role in politics in several Maryland and Pennsylvania towns in this region. Maryland is known as a border state and it is common knowledge that the state was split in their loyalties. However, did you know that Pennsylvania was just the same? There were several men who took up arms for the Confederacy from Pennsylvania. Some sources state that almost 2,000 men fought in the Confederate army. As the Civil War progressed, many Pennsylvania Democrats were split, and as a result their party became split as well. Some men supported the war while others did not, those that did not became known as a Copperhead.
In 1862, once it became known that the Civil War would give way to freedom for African Americans, a race war was inevitable. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln announced a formal emancipation of all slaves within the Confederate States that did not return to Union control by January 1, 1863. Many white citizens as well as immigrants in Maryland and Pennsylvania feared that their employer would replace them with the freed African Americans, paying them at a lower pay rate. The war was unpopular, and as a result many people rose up against the drafts. Most citizens just wanted peace with the southern states. They felt that a war wasn’t worth the lives that would be expended and they did not want new laws being enforced to pay for the war debt. By the Spring of 1863, many Franklin County, Pennsylvania papers gave birth to the Anti-war men known as the Copperheads.
Most Civil War buffs have heard the term “Copperhead,” but do they really understand who these men were? Looking up the definition of a Copperhead during the time of the American Civil War, the term was dubbed as a vocal group of Democrats in the Northern United States who opposed the Civil War, wanting an immediate peace settlement with the Confederate States of America. Copperheads were sometimes identified by a copper cent with the Goddess of Liberty cut out and displayed as a badge upon their coat lapel.
Most of the newspaper accounts cited in this article are from Franklin County, Pennsylvania, which borders Northern Maryland cities such as Hagerstown, and within 15 miles of Emmitsburg. Even though these sources are directly related to Pennsylvania, the same sentiments were expressed in the bordering Maryland towns.
The term Copperhead was first reported in Waynesboro in the Waynesboro Village Record on March 13, 1863. The Waynesboro Village Record ran an article comparing the 1863 Copperhead to that of the 1814 Copperhead. “Comparing them to the Federalists who convened the infamous Hartford Convention, the article declares that copperheadism of today is the offshoot of copperheadism of 1812-14.” But, it adds, “Just as the Federalists were dealt a stunning blow as a consequence of their actions following the U. S. victory over the British, a similar result will befall the latest generation, which will be visited with the scorn and damnation of not only all American freemen, but by the lovers of freedom throughout the world as well.”
Another story from March 13th was reported about the distribution of a pamphlet that was reported as a “Treasonable Document.” This article read: “It is reported that several local, prominent copperheads are involved in a scheme to distribute pamphlets containing a speech recently delivered by “the Ohio traitor, Vallandigam.” Despite the fact that Vallandigam was threatened with violence in his own state for his pro-southern views, the piece sardonically notes, for some reason, parties in Franklin County applaud the villain and seek to give him notoriety by disseminating his treasonable documents among the people.”
In March of 1863, the Copperheads were victorious during the township elections. The Valley Spirit on March 25th, 1863 reported that “During the Spring elections Franklin county is now largely Democratic beyond the peradventure of a doubt. It is an old saying, that the first thunder of the season awakes the snakes, and it must have been the late storm that stirred out the “copperheads” on Friday last. For out they came, though the day was scarcely warm enough for them, and like the Serpent that Aaron cast down before Pharaoh, they very quietly went to work and devoured all the little poisonous snakes that were hissing out their venom around them. Stand firm, Democrats, be moderate, patient, long-suffering, stick together, and the story of Aaron’s big snake won’t be a circumstance to the way the “blacksnakes” and “blowers” will disappear before next fall.”
In another article entitled “Union or Loyal League” excerpts from the article reveal “They’ll keep the damned copperheads in their places, so this is the object of the organization, is it? They alone are to decide who are “copperheads,” and “copperheads” are to be “kept in their places” that is, in other words, to be prevented from expressing their opinions by voice or through the ballot box. Well, let the issue come; the sooner it is met the better. Such is the movement now being inaugurated in Pennsylvania.”
On March 27th, 1863, the Copperheads made the Waynesboro Village Record. It was reported that on two occasions rebel sympathizers met on the streets after dark and celebrated to honor Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and the Southern Cause, however the Copperheads were growing bolder. Another article in the paper stated that the Copperheads did not speak out against the use of African Americans in the Confederate army where blacks and whites would fight/work side by side even though they were opposed to African American men enlisting in segregated regiments of the Union army.
On April 1st, 1863, the Valley Spirit reported that the Democratic majority outweighed the Republicans in victories across the Commonwealth. However, when it came to the Democratic Copperhead and the radical Republication known as a Blacksnake, it was stated that a “copperhead is fearless, independent, and brave, while black snakes are cowardly, hissing, and thieving.”
Soon politics in the local papers began a political war with words. On April 3rd, 1863, the Waynesboro Village Record reported: “The focus of the piece is on the newspaper’s claim to political impartiality, which, they admit, has been called into question lately by local copperheads. It is a high crime in their estimation for a paper neutral in politics to denounce traitors of the Vallandigham stripe North, and thus advocate the cause of the Union and true democracy. They call this partiality, abuse of the democratic party, etc. It will be impossible for us to contend with present prices successfully, with the lying “copperheads” resorting to every means in their power.”
As the war with words stormed throughout the papers, the Waynesboro Village Record on April 14, 1863 reported that “The editors denounce the mounting criticism of Union Leagues made by copperhead newspapers, which contend that the organization is extremely partisan. Copperhead papers every where (says the Hanover Spectator) are making bitter and malignant attacks upon the Union Leagues and charge among other things that they are secret oath bound associations intended to suppress public sentiment by the sword and bayonet.”
On April 17th, 1863, the Waynesboro Village Record ran an article: “A Copperhead Corns Pinched.” It was a rebuttal to an article that appeared in the Chambersburg Valley Spirit, assailing one of the Record’s correspondents. The controversy was sparked by the views that disloyal northerners should be “strung up to the telegraph poles along the railroad.”
As the Copperheads’ reputation grew, so did the editorials in the papers. During the Union Loyal League Meeting held in May it was reported by the Waynesboro Village Record that “the organizational meeting for local chapter of the Union League went off smoothly with the exception of the expected interruptions of several copperheads who, like “slimy reptiles,” milled about the hall “bellowing” throughout the evening. The man who asserts that nobody is disloyal in the loyal states must be one of two things, a fool or full-fledged traitor. Who tore down under cover of darkness, in Waynesboro, months ago, the American flag? Were they loyal hands?”
Franklin County Copperheads would soon be at unease as their leader was arrested. Ohio Representative Clement Laird Vallandigham was the Copperhead faction of anti-war Democrats and was a vigorous supporter of constitutional states’ rights. He did not believe in supporting a war to end slavery, which he felt would lead to the enfranchisement of the African American people. He was arrested by the Union Provost because he had violated an army order against the public expression of sympathy for the Confederate States. He was ordered to be confined for the duration of the Civil War. However, on the order of President Lincoln, Vallandigham “the Copperhead traitor” was instead sent to the enemy lines.”
On May 22nd, it was reported “The arrest of Vallandigham has sparked considerable unrest among copperheads, even in Waynesboro. Some of his supporters proposed having a rally in town to voice their displeasure with the arrest, but opted not to because it was deemed inexpedient at this time.” A week later the Waynesboro Village Record on May 29, 1863, reported “The Original Copperhead, Utilizing an extract from an address given by Benedict Arnold to validate its claim, the piece casts copperheads as the heirs to his legacy of shame.”
Upon returning to Pennsylvania, Company B of the 126th Pennsylvania had their flag inscribed “Copperheads Beware.” Unknown to the soldiers at the time, the flag was soon adopted by the Fulton Union League.
While, disarray was all surrounding the arrest of Vallandigham, the Waynesboro Village Record on June 05, 1863, reported that another demonstration was made by the Copperheads at the Waynesboro Square voicing their support to Jefferson Davis and Vallandigham “who, it appears, has become their “pet.”
On June 12th, 1863, just days before the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, the Waynesboro Village Record reported that close to 2,000 clergymen in France and England have united to condemn the “Slave Aristocracy.” The religious leaders assert that the Confederacy, based as it is on slavery, “is at war with Christianity.” In fact, proclaims the piece, outside of the South, with the exception of northern copperheads, this sentiment “is the view of the Christian world.”
Another article in the same edition read “it is quite easy to determine the motives underlying copperheads’ support for the Confederacy: naked self-interest. Proponents of the southern cause in New York advocate “peace at any cost” because they “lost the Southern trade” as a consequence of the war. Similarly, supporters of the rebel cause in Illinois are spurred primarily by the drop in the price of corn occasioned by the onset of the conflict.” These malcontents, the article declares, would rather “break up the nation” than sacrifice their own personal economic interests.
With the introduction of new publications in Philadelphia, the Copperheads were given the opportunity to reach a broader audience with their political statement. However, several anti-Copperhead supporters stated that the new publications “Expresses sentiments so treasonable, that a man would have to be a bold, bonified traitor to endorse such opinions.” In New York, an elderly gentleman was heckled and dragged from the stage at a copperhead meeting because he asserted that South Carolina started the war.
Soon the Copperheads would be tested in Waynesboro and the surrounding areas as Confederate soldiers would embark upon their town. Many Copperheads had long anticipated this moment, thinking that their support of the Confederate cause would be warmly received by the soldiers. This turned out to be the exact opposite; in fact many Copperheads were shunned by the Confederate soldiers. Many area newspapers headlined the “Rebels Snub the Copperheads”. Pennsylvania residents were treated poorly by the Confederate soldiers such as one case where a Confederate soldier threatened harm to a woman if she did not cut down a Liberty pole. This was according to reporters “one of the most ‘malignant copperheads’ in town.”
As Confederate Albert Jenkins and his cavalry brigade made their way northward into Pennsylvania, several Copperheads were surprised to see that the Confederate general refused to shake their hands. In one case Jenkins was reported as saying “Lincoln ought to have hung you and the rest of the Copperheads long ago. We would not tolerate such men in the Southern Confederacy. We respect those who are against us in the North much more than the Copperheads.” Many Confederate soldiers voiced their opinions to the Copperheads telling them that if they truly supported the South, they should pick up a musket and join the fight. This stunned the Copperheads to their core.
Soon, in July, violence began in New York by the Copperheads when they resisted the draft. The Copperheads were blamed for hanging men from lamp posts as well as trying to start another riot. Many papers criticized the inconstancy of the Copperheads. “To opponents of black enlistment, Copperheads declare a “white man’s war.” To government calls for white enlistments, Copperheads cry “black man’s war.” To opponents of black enlistment, Copperheads charge racial inequality.”
In Kentucky, it was reported that “contempt for the Copperheads who have little respect for the Union soldiers who fight to preserve the Union. The author sees little difference between the rebels and the Copperheads.” In Tennessee, the Knoxville Register states that “consideration of those Germans here and elsewhere, who have been led, against their better judgment and the tradition of their Faderland, by copperhead demagogues, to sympathize with the rebels, or at least to place themselves in an attitude of opposition to the administration of the United States Government. We think that with this knowledge of what the rebels think of the Germans and how they purpose to treat them, any German who still blindly follows their Copperhead leaders, is utterly destitute of self-respect and of brotherly feeling for the gallant Germans in our army”
In the Franklin Repository published on August 5, 1863 “The Fulton Democrat, edited by the member of the Democratic State Committee for this district, seems exceedingly ambitious to get up a small draft riot in Fulton County. In a late issue an editorial review of the conscription bill thus apologizes for the copperhead thieves and murderers of New York.”
As the Copperheads’ reputation grows they will soon be attacked by their words, actions and political stand regarding several key issues of the day. Many articles in the local Franklin County papers state that African Americans are superior to the Copperheads. Other headlines state that the Copperheads were whispering into the ears of people stating the Government is neglecting the people. Eventually other Democrats began leaving the party.
The Union ticket even tried to influence women. On September 30th, 1863, the Franklin Repository stated “To the young women we would say, that if after trying all their persuasive eloquence on their suitors they prove to be incorrigible Copperheads, give them the mitten at once. Don’t waste a smile on a fellow who refuses either by bullet or ballot to help put down the rebellion. Make these bucks face the Union music square, or go under!”
President Lincoln issued a proclamation that was published in the New York Tribune, “How good a work the President has done for the army and the nation, by his timely interposition between the Copperheads and their cherished object, of defeating the draft and so preventing the reinforcement of the army, when he issued his recent proclamation suspending the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus in certain cases. The schemes of the conspirators of copperheadism have been brought to naught.”
In Waynesboro, Major B. M. Morrow of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Cavalry responded to accusations that he and his soldiers disrupted a Union meeting previously reported in the Franklin Repository. Major Morrow stated “As for the term of Copperhead applied to me. I care not, as my attachment to the army for more than two years will give the lie to that.”
While the papers kept fueling the intense political fire regarding Copperheads, this one article is, at the very least, comical. On October 7, 1863, the Franklin Repository wrote “John M. Cooper, formerly of the Spirit, is a Copperhead working as a clerk in Harrisburg and assessing mortgages for the county.” The Repository jokes that in order for the county to avoid paying its taxes, Cooper should recommend inviting the rebels to come and visit in order to destroy their property, thus eliminating the need to pay taxes.
In late October it was reported that the rebel invasion brought an increased influence to Copperheads who encouraged local citizens to vote against Governor Curtin because the state government was slow in its compensation to the invaded areas. The Copperheads wanted Democrat George Woodward to gain control of Pennsylvania. By the elections of 1863, it was reported that the Copperheads unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the representatives from several states from voting. To make matters worse, all the Pennsylvania Copperheads voted against offering any encouragement for the enlistment of African Americans. During this period many Pennsylvania news editors wanted a “conscription bill that will “gobble up” a due share of the whining, cowardly, copperheads.” Even the papers stated that many Union soldiers who deserted from the ranks of the army were aided by the Copperheads.
As the Spring of 1864 was winding down, the papers continued to wage war against the Copperheads and “their decisive discomfiture in November” by running several columns in the papers for the Lincoln and Johnson ticket. With this new ad campaign, “A sardonic celebration of the new “marriage” between Copperheads and radicals, joined together by their mutual hatred of Lincoln.” The Copperheads would loose that cause when Lincoln was reelected as the President of the United States.
Until the close of the war and even during reconstruction, the Copperheads were still viewed as traitors to the Union, and as a result the Republicans held the public’s support up to the Great Depression. The term Copperhead would soon fade away as a footnote in history as the nation was coming together as one.