The Hidden Civil War
by Wood Gray
New York: The Viking Press. 314 pages. $3.75.
Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column
by George Fort Milton
New York: The Vanguard Press. 368 pages. $3.50.
In April 1941, when President Roosevelt called Charles Lindbergh a Copperhead, the newspapers were careful to explain who the Copperheads were. Now for the first time these Civil War fifth-columnists have been made the subject of full-length historical studies for the general reader.
It is clear enough that Lincoln’s Copperheads were more formidable than any that Roosevelt has yet had to face. While there was some dissent throughout the North, it was strategically concentrated in the Midwestern states—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Partly Southern in origin and sympathy, traditionally democratic and agrarian, still concerned, despite Eastern railroads and canals, about their use of the Mississippi Valley as an economic outlet, large numbers of people in this region were bitterly opposed to a war with the South; and their ranks Were swelled by immigrant laborers who hated the thought of competing with free Negroes. Not the least of Lincoln’s troubles was the fact that differences over war policy quickly became a party affair. Opposition to slavery in the territories was the only common principle of the motley Republican crew, and its abandonment—indispensable to any peace with the South—would have meant party suicide, the Ohio Valley Democrats, who felt from the beginning that the war was not of their making, a compromise would have been a staggering political victory.
A general feeling of hostility to the administration and purposes of the war soon flared up into active sabotage. Militant Copperheads organized secret societies to harass the War effort. More openly, through influential newspapers in centers like Chicago, Columbus and Cincinnati, in the forums of the Democratic Party, they argued the merits of a compromise peace. They discouraged enlistments, justified and even subsidized deserters and fought conscription on a number of occasions with armed force. With Confederate agents they plotted in 1864 the overthrow of the Ohio Valley state governments and the establishment of a Northwestern Confederacy which was to break with the Union, unite with the South and dictate terms. But, as Mr. Milton shows, Union counter-espionage agents were able to operate within their ranks with glorious ease, and all their plans for concerted uprisings were abortive
Lincoln was characteristically cautious in dealing with Southern sympathizers. Although he did not let constitutional scruples stand in the way of thousands of arbitrary arrests and the suspension of habeas corpus, he generally permitted the boldest opposition newspapers to circulate, and eyen allowed Clement L. Vallandigham, the leader of the Copperheads, to return to the country after a brief exile and to agitate at will.
More dangerous than their grandiose plots and their sporadic resistance to draft officers, however, was the political ambition revealed in the propaganda of the Copperheads. In its total impact their propaganda effort resembles modern psychological warfare. Plausibly framed, only too often with a substantial basis in fact, their appeals were skillfully directed to the prejudices and fears of the dissident minority. The Confederacy, they insisted, was too powerful to be beaten and had to be appeased. Peace with victory, even if attainable, could result only in an intolerable and unstable union of victors and vanquished. Lincoln was planning a personal dictatorship, and the administration was using its war powers to destroy the Democratic Party. The rank and file of the soldiers were being deceived about the aims of the conflict. The lives of white men were being sacrificed in the interests of Negroes and abolition agitators. Emancipation would inundate the North with blacks and undermine the living standards of white labor. The West had more interests in common with the agrarian South than the capitalistic East, and was already being plundered by Eastern manufacturers and railroad promoters. Continuation of the war would inevitably bring economic disaster to the whole country.
The Copperheads represented a decided minority Northern opinion, but a minority that threatened to become a peace-at-any-price majority as the weary months rolled by without military decision. In the dark winter of 1862 Lincoln confessed to Sumner that he feared “the fire in the rear more than our military chances.” After 1863, when they had ceased to look for a favorable outcome on the battlefield. Confederate leaders hoped that a stalemate would enable a Copperhead-inspired peace faction to carry the presidential election of 1864 and to negotiate a compromise peace. Vallandigham did, in fact, write the Democratic peace platform that year, but loyal Eastern war Democrats did more to choose the candidate, McClellan. Lincoln’s floundering administration was finally saved from political disaster by Sherman’s decisive victories in the field.
Readers of these two studies will be left with surprisingly little feeling of duplication. Dr. Gray’s book is a sober, comprehensive, impressively documented but readable account of the Copperheads in the Midwest, a study drawn against the background of a sharply fluctuating public morale. Mr. Milton’s book, designed with a keener sense for the dramatic, but much less illuminating on the deeper economic and political motivation of the war opposition, stresses the leading personalities on both sides and reports with relish the more spectacular Copperhead plots. But it does not fulfill the promise of its title by any new or extended evaluation of Lincoln’s personal technique in dealing with disloyalty, and its organization is often confusing.
In spite of the obvious analogy to the fifth column today, both authors are loath to draw close historical parallels. And with good reason, for the so-called “repetitions” of history are more apparent than real. There is much to be lost by tarring every war opposition with the same brush, by tossing James Russell Lowell and the elder La Follette into the same limbo with Clement Vallandigham and Charles Lindbergh. Perhaps the best lesson to be learned by consulting our Civil War experience was how not to conduct a conscription system, and that lesson was learned long ago. Some slight comfort may be gained, however, from seeing how rapidly a formidable body of dissent can melt away in the face of military success. Moreover, Lincoln was crippled by a sorry stroke of fate that is not likely to be repeated. His loyal adversary, Stephen A. Douglas, the hero of Midwestern democracy, who stood with composure and held Lincoln’s hat at his inauguration, and who was resolutely in favor of prosecuting the war to a finish, died shortly after its outbreak. Mr. Roosevelt’s erstwhile opponent, still very much alive, now holds his hat on four continents.