From the Archives: Copperheads

Sometimes life makes it impossible to write blog posts on a dependable basis.  This is one of the those times.  For the next little while, I’m going to run pieces from September and October five or six years past.  I hope you enjoy them, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.

First up, this piece from October, 2015:

Copperheads, aka Peace Democrats

When we write the history of national conflicts, we tend to assume that “our” side stood united in monolithic opposition to “them”. It’s a simple and enjoyable version of history, but it simply isn’t true. Sympathizers with the “other side”* are a fact of war. Sometimes they engage in fifth column activities.** Sometimes they simply gather with like-minded folk and grumble into their martini glasses. Sometimes, if they live in a place with freedom of speech, they are vocal in their objections and express them through established public channels. There were Nazi sympathizers in Britain and the United States in World War II. There were British loyalists in the American Revolution. And in the American Civil War, Southern sympathizers in the North were known as Copperheads.***

Copperheads opposed the war and advocated the restoration of the Union through a negotiated peace settlement with the South. Many Copperheads were from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, where many families had southern roots and agrarian interests resented the growing power of the industrialized northern cities. The movement was also prominent in New York City, where many merchants and workers were dependent on the cotton trade. (Demonstrating that there is more than one path to any given political position.) Others were opposed to the draft, abolition, Lincoln’s abrogation of civil liberties, the Republican party, or all of the above. Some just wanted the bloodshed of the war to end.

The New York Tribune first used the term in July 20, 1861,**** comparing southern sympathizers to the poisonous snake that strikes without giving its victims the courtesy of a warning rattle. The implication was that southern sympathizers would, by definition, engage in treason given half a chance. In practice, they were more inclined to fight the war at the level of local elections and on the floor of state legislatures.

Peace Democrats embraced the name: “copperhead” was also the slang term for a penny, which at the time had an image of Lady Liberty on one side. They saw themselves as defending the Constitution and civil liberties against presidential incursions. I leave you to draw parallels to current political positions and note the resultant ironies for yourselves.


*NOT the same thing as pacifists.

**When such people fight the “other side” for “us”, they are called the resistance. You can see how quickly this gets complicated.

***And before anyone raises their hand to protest: I am not saying that British Tories were the moral equivalent of Nazis. Southern sympathizers are a gray area. Quite frankly, many Northerners who supported the war effort were not pro-abolition and even abolitionists were often racist in ways that shock a modern reader.

****For those of you who have not spent recent months living and breathing the Civil War, that was the day before the the first major battle of the war occurred: the First Battle of Bull Run aka the Battle of Manassas aka the Great Skedaddle (depending on where you hang your hat).


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