I had the good fortune to read a fine new book about political dissent in the North during the Civil War. The book, Copperheads: The Rise an Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North, by journalist-turned-academic-historian Jennifer Weber, shines the spotlight on the “Peace Democrats,” who did everything they could to obstruct the Union war effort during the Rebellion. In so doing, she corrects a number of claims that have become part of the conventional wisdom. The historical record aside, what struck me the most were the similarities between the rhetoric and actions of the Copperheads a century and a half ago and Democratic opponents of the Iraq war today.
In contradistinction to the claims of many earlier historians, Weber argues persuasively that the Northern anti-war movement was far from a peripheral phenomenon. Disaffection with the war in the North was widespread, and the influence of the Peace Democrats on the Democratic party was substantial. During the election of 1864, the Copperheads wrote the platform of the Democratic party, and one of their own, Rep. George H. Pendleton of Ohio, was the party’s candidate for vice president. Until Farragut’s victory at Mobile Bay, Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, and Sheridan’s success in driving the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley in the late summer and fall of 1864, hostility toward the war was so profound in the North that Lincoln believed he would lose the election.
Weber demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the actions of the Copperheads materially damaged the ability of the Lincoln administration to prosecute the war. Weber persuasively refutes the view of earlier historians such as the late Frank Klement, who argued that what Lincoln called the Copperhead “fire in the rear” was mostly “a fairy tale,” a “figment of Republican imagination,” made up of “lies, conjecture and political malignancy.” The fact is that Peace Democrats actively interfered with recruiting and encouraged desertion. Indeed, they generated so much opposition to conscription that the Army was forced to divert resources from the battlefield to the hotbeds of Copperhead activity in order to maintain order. Many Copperheads actively supported the Confederate cause, materially as well as rhetorically.
In the long run, the Democratic party was badly hurt by the Copperheads. Their actions radically politicized Union soldiers, turning into stalwart Republicans many who had strongly supported the Democratic party’s opposition to emancipation as a goal of the war. As the Democrats were reminded for many years after the war, the Copperheads had made a powerful enemy of the Union veterans.
Incidentally, other than the review Owens, this is the only other "professional" review I could find. The book came out in October of 2006.
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