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The Democrats were a badly divided political party in the late 1850s, having fallen prey to sectional bickering. They were unable to unify in 1860, a shortcoming that assured the election of Abraham Lincoln. During the course of the Civil War, the Democratic Party in the North comprised two factions:
Support for the Peace Democrats was strongest in the Midwest, especially in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Residents of these areas held a deep distrust of the East, the seat of Republican power, and kept strong commercial and sentimental ties to the South.
The name “Copperhead” was applied to this group by a disapproving Republican press, which likened the Democrats’ actions to those of the venomous snake. The Peace Democrats tried to turn the name to their advantage by sporting on their lapels copper pennies bearing the head of the goddess Liberty.
Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio was the most prominent spokesman for the faction. However, in 1863, he was tried by a military tribunal and banished to the Confederacy for expressing Southern sympathies. Another prominent Peace Democrat was Fernando Wood, a former mayor of New York City who entered Congress in 1863.
In 1864, the Peace Democrats controlled the Democratic Convention. Vallandigham, who had worked his way back into the country, managed to engineer a plank for the party platform that labeled the war a failure and called for a negotiated peace. That position was promptly rejected by the Democratic nominee, George B. McClellan.
The fall of Atlanta in September reversed the course of the war, assured the reelection of Lincoln and took the wind out of the Peace Democrats' sails.
In the post-war North, many voters held the Democratic Party responsible for the Copperheads' actions, assigning them blame for lengthening the conflict. The Democrats were not able to escape voter disapproval until well into the 1870s. It was not until 1884 that a Democrat was elected to the presidency.
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Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War by Eric Foner.
Since its publication over four decades ago, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men has been recognized as a classic, an indispensable contribution to our u...
Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North by Jennifer L. Weber.
If Civil War battlefields saw vast carnage, the Northern home-front was itself far from tranquil. Fierce political debates set communities on edge, sp...