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:
War Democrats. This faction was firmly supportive of military efforts to maintain the Union, but was loudly critical of Lincoln’s conduct of the war. This criticism grew with the lengthening list of Union military losses and with the president’s heavy-handed actions, such as the suspension of habeas corpus. The War Democrats represented the vast majority of Northern party members.
Peace Democrats. Many Democrats within this group hoped that the Union could be salvaged, but felt that military means were not justified. This faction asserted the following:
The North was responsible for pushing the South into secession
The Republicans were committed to establishing racial equality, a prospect opposed by many working class immigrants who wanted to protect their low-paying jobs and by racists
Lincoln had become a tyrant and was bent upon destroying civil liberties
The war was a national tragedy and must be ended, even if that meant granting independence to the Confederacy.
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.