COPPERHEADS. Originally, a label used about 1840 in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, to designate the Democratic followers of Andrew Beaumont who opposed the Democratic faction led by Hendrick B. Wright. On 20 July 1861, the term "Copperhead" appeared in the New York Tribune and within a year was widely employed to describe pejoratively both Democrats sympathetic to the South and all Democrats opposed to the war policy of President Abraham Lincoln. Literally, the word denotes a poisonous snake. Strongest in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, the Copperheads, sometimes known as Butternuts or Peace Democrats, particularly objected to the Emancipation Proclamation because they completely rejected the idea of black equality and feared an influx of freed blacks into the northern states. Having fled Europe to avoid mandatory military service, some German-American and Irish-American Democrats vigorously objected to the military draft and engaged in antidraft riots in several northern cities, notably in New York City (see New York City Draft Riots).
Generally branded by Republicans as traitorous, most Copperheads defined themselves as a patriotic, loyal opposition that advocated a union restored by negotiation rather than war. They denounced military arrests, conscription, emancipation, and other controversial war measures as unconstitutional attacks by a tyrannical president on the civil liberties of American citizens. Copperhead leaders included Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, Alexander Long of Cincinnati, Fernando Wood of New York, and Benjamin G. Harris of Maryland. Prominent newspapers supporting the Copperheads were the Columbus Crisis (Ohio), the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the Chicago Times.
Harassed by Union supporters and the military, Copperheads created secret societies. The Knights of the Golden Circle borrowed the name and ritual of a southern rights organization. By 1863, this organization was known as the Order of American Knights. In May 1863, the military arrest and court martial of Vallandigham for alleged disloyal statements embarrassed the Lincoln administration. Although they condemned Lincoln's policies, Copperheads, in July 1863, demonstrated their lack of sympathy for the Confederates by joining unionists in defending Indiana and Ohio during Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan's raid.
In 1864, Vallandigham, then supreme commander of the Copperhead Order of Sons of Liberty, counseled his supporters against treason and violence. In that year, however, extremists of his order were charged with plotting the formation of a "Northwestern Confederacy," and planning the release of Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas near Chicago and elsewhere. The plot was uncovered before any overt acts took place, and members of the Sons of Liberty were tried for treason before a military court in Indiana. Three of those tried, including the Democratic politician Lambdin Milligan, were condemned to death. In its landmark decision in Ex Parte Milligan, the Supreme Court declared that the men should have been tried in Indiana's civil courts and freed them.
By 1864 Democrats hoped to elect a new president. Copperheads were able to control the party's national platform, including a plank written by Vallandigham pronouncing the war a failure and demanding peace on the basis of a restored federal union. Democratic presidential candidate George McClellan, however, rejected this plank. Crucial Union battle victories and Lincoln's reelection helped discredit the Copperheads. After the war Democrats at the national, state, and local levels gradually overcame recurrent Republican charges that their party had supported the South, secession, and treason.
Klement, Frank L. The Copperheads in the Middle West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Silbey, Joel H. A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860–1868. New York: Norton, 1977.
cop·per·head / ˈkäpərˌhed/ • n. any of a number of stout-bodied venomous snakes with coppery-pink or reddish-brown coloration, in particular a North American pit viper (Agkistrodon contortrix).