Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lincoln and Liberty: Part Two

The Arrest of Vallandigham

Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley agitator who induces him to desert? I think that in such a case, to silence the agitator, and save the boy, is not only constitutional, but withal, a great mercy.
Abraham Lincoln to Democrat Erastus Corning in a letter dated June 12, 1863.

Of all the opponents of the Lincoln Administration, none stood out more than conservative Democrat Clement L. Vallandigham, the leader of the peace faction of the Democratic Party, better known as the "Peace Democrats" or the "Copperheads," a sobriquet given to them by their Republican opponents after a writer to the Cincinnati Commercial compared them to the snake in Genesis 3:14: "Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life." The son of a Presbyterian minister, Vallandigham—a native of New Lisbon, Ohio—was descended from a Virginia family, a tie which made him sympathetic to the Confederate cause. In 1845, a mere 25 years of age, he was elected to the Ohio state legislature. Thirteen years later, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he became Jacksonian to the core, advocating states' rights; but when the Congressional biennial election in the fall of 1862 came around, Valldigham, whose campaign slogan was "The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was," lost that seat thanks to the Ohio Republicans' use of gerrymandering.
C.L. Vallandigham by Mathew Brady.

Despite this setback, he chose to continue making his views quite plain for the remainder of the 37th Congress, and on January 14, 1863, he went to the center of the opposition benches to say good-bye. Putting down their pens and newspapers, Valldigham's fellow congressmen listened to what he had to say. So what has this Lincoln achieved thus far? he rhetorically asked himself. "Let the dead of Fredericksburg and Vicksburg answer." These, added Vallandigham, are the fruits of Lincoln's labors: "Defeat, debt, taxation, sepulchers, these are your trophies." "Stop fighting," he urged. "Make an armistice... Withdraw your army from the seceded States." Yet what was perhaps the scariest part of his whole speech was when he referenced the desire of many western Democrats like himself for a "Northwest Confederacy" that would secede from the Union and reunite with South, an act that would supposedly humble New England and impel her to request to be readmitted:

The people of the West demand peace, and they begin to more than suspect that New England is in the way. If you of the East, who have found this war against the South, and for the negro, gratifying for your hate or profitable to your purse, will continue it... [be prepared for] eternal divorce between the West and the East.

"Let time do his office," concluded Vallandigham, "drying tears, dispelling sorrows, mellowing passions, and making herb and grass and tree grow again upon the hundred battlefields of this terrible war." "Valiant Val" had spoken for over an hour.

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside by Mathew Brady.
When the 37th Congress ended in March, Vallandigham returned to his home in Dayton, Ohio. Also in that month, the Department of the Ohio received a new commander: General Ambrose E. Burnside, fresh from being whipped at Fredericksburg by Robert E. Lee. Intent on crushing copperheadism in his jurisdiction, Burnside, on April 13, issued General Order Number 38. "Treason expressed or implied will not be tolerated," it read. Anyone, the order added, who "uttered one word against the government of the United States" or conveyed "sympathies for the enemy" would be banished to the Confederacy or tried by a military court. It was worse for those person found guilty of "acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country"; they would be executed.

Upon learning of this order, Vallandigham sensed an opportunity. If Burnside arrested him, he thought, his chances for becoming the Democratic nominee for the Ohio gubernatorial race would increase greatly. Vallandigham decided to lure the general into a trap.

The trap was sprung on May 1, 1863 at a Democratic rally in Mount Vernon, Ohio. It was a very colorful occasion. Thousands of stars and stripes stood beside banners showing butternuts, one of which proclaimed "the Copperheads are coming." Copperhead pins- the Peace Democrats embraced that moniker- showing the Goddess of Liberty adorned lapels, dresses, and hats. It was estimated that the audience numbered 15,000.

Before all the people started gathering, the Democratic Club of Newark was waiting for Vallandigham at the train station. Finally the club saw the locomotive, its smoke stack belching out smoke into the cool morning air of spring. As it neared the station, it started slowing down, its bells ringing in order to signal that the train was about to stop. At 8:00 A.M., the train now still, "Valiant Val" stepped out of the passenger car. Four hours and thirty minutes later, the Democratic meeting commenced.

Also on that morning, the men of the 115th Ohio, which was stationed in Cincinnati, saw two of their captains leave camp dressed as civilians. They shrugged; must have resigned their commissions, they thought. Actually, Burnside had selected them to attend the rally to take notes on what Vallandigham was going to say, and that same morning the officers boarded a train destined for Mount Vernon.

There, Vallandigham delivered his speech at the gathering first. Among the crowd, of course, were the two agents working for Burnside, whose presence Vallandigham was aware of. He began by pointing to the American flags that surrounded the speakers' stand he was on. The stars, he claimed, would have still been together had it not been for those dastardly Republicans. He then turned his gaze to the agent taking notes (his partner was only listening) and stated his right to speak freely was derived from the Constitution, which overruled Burnsides Order Number 38, "a bane usurpation of arbitrary power." He ended his oration by urging his listeners to teach "King Lincoln" a lesson through the ballot box.

Such rhetoric was all Burnside needed. He ordered Captain Charles G. Hutton and 67 men under his command to seize the Copperhead.

Knocks on the door of his house jarred Vallandigham awake. It was 2:30 on the morning of May 5. His name was called, although it was mispronounced, and the voice demanded that he give himself up. Vallandigham refused, locking all of his doors. With the help of bars and axes, Hutton's men brought down the front door. After hard kicks by the troops were applied to the other doors, Vallandigham was trapped, and he capitulated to Hutton. Fear gripped his wife and sister-in-law as the Union soldiers escorted their husband and brother-in-law out of his home.

From there, Hutton and his men sent Vallandigham to Cincinnati, Burnside's headquarters. The Democrat was then convicted by a military court and given a prison sentence that was to last for the duration of the war. He appealed for a writ of habeas corpus, but a federal judge denied that request, citing Lincoln's suspension of the writ. While in prison, Vallandigham penned "To the Democracy of Ohio," an address that was smuggled out of the jail and made its way to many of the nation's newspapers: "I am here in a military bastile for no other offense than my political opinions."

Lincoln, who learned of the affair from the papers, now faced a dilemma. He understood that both Burnside and Vallandigham had made foolish moves and brought the touchy subject up during a meeting with his cabinet on May 19, whose thought processes Burnside heard about. Ten days later, Burnside told the president that he knew that Vallandigham's arrest was "a source of Embarrassment" and tendered the commander in chief his resignation. Later that day, Lincoln responded that "being done, all were for seeing you through with it."

However, that reply did not solve the problem. He could not keep Vallandigham locked up until the Union was preserved; that would elicit the sympathy of the public for gubernatorial candidate. Yet he could not reprehend Burnside in public; that, too, would damage his administration politically. Eventually he found a solution: banish Vallandigham to the Confederacy.

On the morning of May 25, 1863, at the Shelbyville Turnpike in Tennessee, a Confederate cavalry officer from Alabama saw an unusual sight: Yankee cavalrymen carrying a white flag and escorting a prisoner, apparently a civilian. They were heading in his direction. After the Rebels reluctantly accepted him, Vallandigham introduced himself to his new hosts. In the South, he spoke with several Confederate army officers and politicians, conveying his desire for an amicable reunion. They all dismissed him; only when the North recognized the South as a separate, independent nation, they answered, would peace come. If you think you could preserve the Union through a compromise, they added, you, Vallandigham, are "badly deluded." The Ohioan imparted to one Rebel agent that if the Confederacy "can only hold out this year... the peace party of the North would sweep the Lincoln dynasty out of existence." Although he still held the delusion that an armistice and negotiations would be sufficient to bring the South back into the Union, the agent thought if the rebellious states refused to do so, "then possibly he is in favor of recognizing our independence." While in exile, on June 11, sympathetic Ohio Democrats nominated him for governor.

Transported to Wilmington, North Carolina, the new nominee boarded a blockade-runner in July, his destination being Canada. Upon his arrival there, he went to the city of Windsor near the border of the United States, from which he ran his campaign. Valiant Val was not out of the fight yet.

Selected Sources:

Marvel, William. The Great Task Remaining: The Third Year of Lincoln’s War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. Print.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print. The Oxford History of the United States v. 6. 
White, Ronald C. A. Lincoln: a Biography. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.

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