I remember reading in the Sixties that the Viet Nam War was not the most unpopular war in our history. The article stated that the American Revolution and the Civil War were less popular than Viet Nam. Caught in that maelstrom with Dad and I on one side and my younger brother on the other, I had difficulty accepting the idea that things could be worse. Almost forty years later, this book more than proves how correct that statement was.
Civil war is the most heart wrenching type of war. The combatants are much closer and have no national or natural boundaries to separate them. Nor do these boundaries limit the differences that caused the war. This results in divisions' based not on national boundaries or state lines but within families, making the conflict and the dissent personal and very real. This fragmentation of families, communities, states and the nation is not on the clean crisp line we see on a map. Thousands of people start the war feeling trapped on the wrong side of an invisible line, not of their making.
Jennifer Weber has written a very impressive history of the Copperhead movement from development to destruction. This is a scholarly history, documented with footnotes and she clearly states her position and where it differs with prior histories. However, she has produced a very readable book that is both instructive and fun to read. This is not a small accomplishment and one that both the historian and casual reader will appreciate.
In 1861 the Democratic Party contained a number of members who were either pro-Southern and/or anti-abolitionists. They never agreed with going to war, choosing to ignore the South firing on Fort Sumter. Their position was that the Union of States should not be maintained by force and the war was wrong. Named the "Peace Democrats", they were the first opposition to the war. Public pressure largely silenced their voice but they were strong enough to force several "War Democrats" into the rank of political generals. Lincoln to ensure bi-partisan support appointed "War Democrats" to counter the voice of the "Peace Democrats" within the party.
At this point, the war was expected to be short, somewhat bloodless and a great adventure. The battle of Bull Run in August 1861 raised questions about these assumptions. Additional demands for men to build the armies, money to pay for the war, the disruption of trade routs, shortages and government measures to protect itself from "traitors' all contributed to destroying these assumptions. The nail in the coffin was the dead and maimed. 1862 opened with Shiloh and the list of dead grew longer each week. Battles seemed to vie for the title of bloodiest, each battle worse than the last. Antietam, took the title in one horrible day that left the country reeling and weeping.
The Copperheads rise to power coincided with the public's perception of the war. While a nation wide movement, they were strongest in what was then the mid-west and North-west. 1862 was a building year for them and they did well in the elections electing several of their number governor and to the House of Representatives. Emancipation was a boon to the Copperheads, allowing them to exploit the racism of nineteenth century America. Taking the position that Abolitionists forced war on America to free an inferior race that would supplant the white workers, they scored impressive gains with the Irish labors in the large Eastern cities. Emancipation coupled with the draft created serious armed resistance that produces real problems for the government. Counties divided and fear gripped many as neighbor turned against neighbor. Violence toward federal Officials became common and many resigned or refused positions out of fear.
With the war stalled in 1864 and the causality lists getting longer each day, the Copperhead movement crested. They managed to capture the Democratic National Convention, inserted a peace at any price plank in the platform and put one of their own on the ticket as vice-president. The fall of Atlanta, Union victories in the Shenandoah Valley and the soldiers standing firm defeated them. Just as the public's perception that the war was not being won, helped the Copperheads. The perception that the war was being won turned them into traitors and defeated them at the ballot box.
The Democrats paid a high price for identification with the Copperhead movement. Grover Cleveland's election as president in 1885 was the next time they would occupy the White House. After Cleveland, they would have to wait until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson was elected. The Union soldiers extracted revenge for what they saw as "fire from the rear" and refused to vote Democrat.
The Copperhead movement suffered excess that were as damaging as winning the war. Excesses in rhetoric, refusal to comprise and working with the enemy all damaged them in the public eyes. Even the Confederacy came to distrust them. Several Copperhead cells made plans to launch attacks on government installations, free Confederate POWs or even take their state out of the Union. All failed, the major reasons being the lack real leadership and members unwilling to risk their lives. After spending a great deal of money, the CSA listened, encouraged but expected and gave nothing.
The author makes no comparisons between the Civil War, Viet Nam or now. She has written a very good history of the first major anti-war movement and left it there. I was unable to read this book and not make comparisons between my family's experiences during the Viet Nam War and what is happening now. The lack of comparison in the book, is its' strongest point. This allows the reader to draw on their experiences and place them in the history of the Copperhead movement and the American Civil War. In doing so, we can see how history will repeat itself.
on December 31, 2006
"It was Lincoln's greatest moment."
This is how Jennifer Weber in her excellent book "Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North." singles out a decision Lincoln made during the Civil War.
But it's not what the reader might expect. It's not his inaugural or his Gettysburg address or his pick of Ulysses Grant to take over in the East. I'd never heard of the event before this book. But there is a lot I'd never heard of before I got caught up in the story.
I won't say what that "moment" is. But it reflects how formidable at times Lincoln's opposition was--or appeared. Weber writes an exhaustive chronicle in what seems like an effortless historical narrative. How often does a history make a subject almost new again with a style that draws the reader in to think they're going to find out the results of events like the 1864 presidential election for the first time--and with the Union in the balance? Now that is a good history book.
Ms. Weber is in part so effective in her telling because she makes the opposition come alive from numerous and varied sources: a New Jersey railroad manager; The Pilot, a newspaper geared towards Irish Americans; the governor of New York; a wife of judge in New York; Penn Yan Democrat newspaper; an Ohio Congressman; or a frightened local in Clark County, Illinois. She repopulates the period with so many different voices and perspectives and does so with such easy transitions that I felt myself surrounded by a crowd of contemporaries whose sheer numbers made me feel the strength of the anti-Lincoln views.
It's difficult to pick a favorite chapter. Each brings new material to the floor. But the chapters on the troubled summer of 1864 bring to a head the drama that reflected the unknowns, the hopes and the doubts of a political process with as much potential impact on the wars outcome as several, perhaps more famous, military campaigns. More familiar material about the military campaigns as well as her political analyses are also adeptly interspersed.
For readers who have relegated anti-Lincoln opposition to small, insignificant and powerless characters in the historical imagination, Copperheads resurrects them all, makes them bigger and gives them a life that makes you appreciate much more the moment Weber picks as Lincoln's greatest.
on April 8, 2007
Copperheads, The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North, is a well written and assiduously researched writing on the Peace Democrats during the Civil War. Jennifer L. Weber, a one time student of James McPherson at Princeton, covers this topic extraordinary well. Professor Weber does a marvelous job of covering the rise of "Copperheads" and the ups and downs their anti-war movement had. She also writes wonderfully on the root causes of this "movement" and the effects the Emancipation Proclamation had on bolstering its popularity, especially in urban and ethnic areas, along with the Midwest. I believe the reader is a bid inundated with a central them - that being the Copperheads' popularity were inversely related to the success of the Union forces. But that point is a minor one - as her description of the fall of this movement in 1864-65 is without parallel. The last three chapters of this book should, at a minimum, be read by all those with a keen interest in this period of American history and political movements: Chapter 6, The Rise and Fall of the Copperheads, Chapter 7, "Faction in Civil War Is Unmitigated Treason" and, Chapter 8, Defeated. Simply awesome historical writing.
The forward of this book, written by James McPherson, best sums up Weber's writing at it very end: "Faced with a war to his front, (Lincoln) called this "the fire in the rear". Without an understanding of that fire in the rear, our knowledge of the war at the front is incomplete. This book tells that story."
Nicely done Professor Weber.
on November 3, 2006
In a fresh look of opposition to the Lincoln Administration and the Civil War, Jennifer Weber has hit a homerun. Her analysis of Copperheads and Peace Democrats, their rising influence, and the concurrent disgust of the Army toward them, creates a powerful argument for her thesis that opposition in the North was larger, more prevelant, and closer to succeeding than Frank L Klement ever argued.
Weber frames her argument around four central discoveries. First, that opposition to the war was not marginal in politics of the time. She convincingly argues this point by taking the reader through efforts to organize groups such as the Sons of Liberty and influence the Democratic Party, especially in 1864, when their VP candidate George Pendleton was a Copperhead, and Clement L. Valandigham was put in charge of crafting the party platform.
Her second discovery was the level of bitterness between those who opposed the war and those who supported. As Weber wrote, this was as much a war between neighbors as it was a war between brothers. Time and again she illustrates the level of anger between the two camps; from fights, to families beign torn apart, to lynchings.
Third, and where I think she was not as convincing was that the opposition detracted from the North's ability to wage war. Whether it was opposing the draft, to encouraging desertion all the while forcing the military to address these issues instead of fighting. The question is whether the efforts of the North to counter such peace measures actually took troops in significant numbers from the battlefield. I wasn't convinced that this was the case.
Finally, Weber does a magnificant job of detailing the slow rise of anger and politicization of the military. A fact that most historians agree was crucial to Lincoln's victory in the election of 1864.
Well documented with primary source material, including well known and not so well known observations by Lincoln, Weber deserves credit for challenging the accepted interpretation of Copperheads with a well thought out book. I would not be surprised in the least if we see "Copperheads" in the running for the John H. Dunning Prize.
on February 8, 2007
Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North
In her highly readable, carefully and intelligently researched history, Jennifer Weber spins a tale that would be almost unbelievable if it weren't true. She tells who the Copperheads were, how they came into being, what they stood for, and why they were so important, and how they finally disappeared into the mists of history. As she spins her tale, she makes it so very meaningful because she compares and contrasts it with today's political scene. But it is stuff in between the opening and closing lines that grips the reader by the throat, by explaining how the politics of the Union were not only as (perhaps more) interesting, but of as much import than the blood-soaked battles between the boys in blue and grey.
She explains how our nation came so close to splitting, not only North by South, but Northeast by Midwest (where the Copperheads were so strong), thus creating a third nation in the pre-1861 United States. (And would Texas have seceeded from the Confederacy? Would the West Coast create its own empire separate from the Union?)
But it was the Presidential Election of 1864, Weber tells us, that was the crucial event of the war - asking how could a nation, divided north by south, in strife in congress and the newspapers, possibly hold a free election - and with enemy armies camped within sight of the nation's capital, no less.
If we think that we are badly divided today, and think that we "know all about the Civil War," then we are badly mistaken. The war's true meaning for then and now, may lie, not in military tactics and all that, but in Weber's fast-paced tale of political discord, intrigue, and skullduggery. Copperheads is possibly the last word on the subject of the Civil War's not-so-loyal-opposition - the peace Domocrats. Guaranteed to be a spellbinder.
Don Brittain - Author of The Spanish Centuries: Texas and New Mexico from the Sabine to the Río Grande.
on September 30, 2011
Jennifer Weber's revisionist history of the American Civil War is in many ways quite good. It argues that Northerners opposed to Lincoln, his policies and the war played a much more significant role than that attributed to them by the few historians who studied them and that resistance to the war by Northerners, sometimes armed -- especially in response to the draft -- was not a novelty on a freak stage but a central part of the war.
In her view, to truly understand the war, you need to understand the interplay of the military conflict, politics and public opinion. This changes the story considerably. The victory of the North was, as it is often put, a matter of dull Northern advantages (greater population, more rail lines, more factories, etc.) slowly wearing away the militarily brilliant South, culminating in the double decisive blows of Vicksburg and Gettysburg. In Weber's view, the war was much more of a toss up and the decisive battle was Sherman's taking of Atlanta, not because of its military importance, but because it completely reversed Lincoln's fortunes on the eve of the 1864 election, which had been looking catastrophic as Northerners had become sickened by Grant's seemingly pointless serial bloodbath across the Virginia countryside and the Copperhead support was growing.
This not only reads well as history, casting fresh light on one of the most researched periods in American history, but it puts an interesting spin on recent events as the Copperheads, who called themselves conservatives and clearly were forerunners of the modern far right, used rhetoric that sounds a lot like anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War language that came out of the American left over the last decade. Definite food for thought.
As much as I like this book, I'm not completely gobsmacked, for several reasons. First, it seems like sometime around 2005 editors and copyeditors stopped doing their jobs (or in the case of copyeditors, were likely laid off). In older books, it's quite a shock to see, say, a typo as small as space before a comma. In more recent books, I increasingly feel like I'm reading rough drafts (which, if you know anything about the challenges facing the book industry, is in fact the case). With Weber's book, it seems like the author got tired toward the end and no editor put their foot down and insisted that quality be maintained, so the last couple of chapters feel slovenly: there is a lot of repetition, the author's animosity toward the Copperheads starts leaking out, etc.
Second, a key part of the argument is that Copperheads were a significant presence in the North, but, as the beginning of the book makes clear, the kind of remaining documentary records we have makes it impossible to make quantitative assessments. Over the course of the book, Weber loses her caution on this point.
These are flaws but not fatal flaws. This is an important book, maybe even an essential history book, and one that will go down easy.
on December 18, 2007
Copperheads were those anti-war Democrats in the North who, throughout the war, were Lincoln's most vocal critics. Though it is generally accepted these days that no account of any war is complete without a thorough discussion of the strength of political opposition, the Copperheads have received very limited attention in the historiography of the Civil War. Though the Copperheads are usually mentioned in books concerning the Civil War, a comprehensive examination of their origins and their effect on the war effort and public life is almost always missing. Weber fills this void very nicely.
The most important thing about this book, then, is that it shows you in the first place that the void is there. That is, before reading a full account of the Copperheads it is hard to conceptualize the reality of the wartime North. Copperheads lived and worked throughout the North, and thus every Northerner who wasn't a Copperhead certainly knew some and had their life affected by them. After getting one's head around the notion that there was a visible anti-war population in the North and that this population effected life throughout the entire country (including the South), one is then able to learn exactly what the reality of Northern life during the war was like.
Weber does an excellent job of laying out for the reader exactly how Copperheads effected not only life in the North, but also the war effort in general. Without this accounting one's understanding of public life in the North during the war is incomplete. Weber shows how the Copperheads related to their neighbors, how they changed the political scene, how they hindered the war effort, and how they encouraged the Confederates. These are important themes without which our understanding of the Civil War is incomplete, and due to the lack of similar literature, Weber's book is an important addition to any Civil War historian's library.
This book is well written and the content is very accessible when considering the relative obscurity of the topic. People with only a basic knowledge of the Civil War will still take plenty away from this read, and this book would make a great part of either a high school or college history class syllabus. At just over 200 pages, Weber focuses mostly on how the Copperheads interacted with the population at large, including the Confederates, while referring to more central Civil War events such as battles only when those events help explain the changing dynamics of the Copperhead movement. Thus, this makes a great supplement to a more comprehensive Civil War book (I recommend Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era ) in which the Civil War itself is the center of attention. All said, this is a great book and I highly recommend it; it will really enhance your understanding of life in the Civil War North.
Weber has done her homework. The early part of the book, in particular, shows wide ranging new sources: letters, diaries, small town newspapers. This is the most important part of the book because it brings together new information and provides a basis for further scholars.
Examples from all of the northern states (or so I think, I didn't count) show how widespread the movement was. The nature of the anecdotal material does not demonstrate how deep it was. It appears to be deep in some communities and families, but the only polling data of the time, the elections of 1862 and 1864 do not reflect that depth. Weber points out the circumstantial nature of these elections and how the Copperheads' fortunes rose and fell with success on the battlefield. I held back a star, though, because in the MANY stories of people, towns and politicians I did not find a central overview.
The later part of McClellan's nomination and the election that follows while not so rich in new material, for me, it was an excellent read. Weber documents and explains how a "War" candidate and a "Peace" candidate came to be nominated in the same convention. She goes on to explain Lincoln's landslide.
The description demise of the Copperheads is brief. Maybe this is all that is merited, but it would have been good to have some examples here, especially of the aforementioned communities where the Copperheads caused loss of life and property damage.
Weber sticks with history and does not draw parallels for today. Since it is mentioned by other reviewers, I will note Weber's observation that this peace movement was one of the conservative faction of the Democratic party. Today's peace movement has its origins in the liberal faction of today's Democratic party. It seems that the only thing Copperheads have in common with those against the operation is Iraqi is being against "a" war. Weber clearly shows how racism fueled the Copperheads. This issue is not at all present in the current peace movement.
This book is a good contribution to Civil War research. Its substance and sources will surely be used for future material.
on March 2, 2012
I will not dispute the fine descriptive detail of this book that has impressed the other reviewers here. The problem with this book is that it is unbalanced in its overall assessment of the Copperheads. Weber maintains that the Copperheads were "blinkered by ideology", "fanatical," and "obstructionists, doing little more than laying into Lincoln and his policies" (p.6). Her charges of fanaticism imply that the Copperheads were irrational. She tries to maintain this by arguing that their desire for a negotiated settlement to the war was impossible because the Confederates were not willing to stop their quest for independence. But this view is anachronistic; it can only be maintained because we know how the war ended. But, as James McPherson has noted, this ending was contingent; it happened because off Sherman's taking of Atlanta that ensured Lincoln's 1964 reelection. Had Atlanta not fallen, the war could have drug on another couple years. From 1862, war-weariness gave rise to talks of peace on both sides. In the midst of a war that seemed never-ending to the participants, to continue talk of a negated peace was hardly irrational. In comparison, had there been a U.S. military victory in Vietnam by 1968, war protesters of that period could have gone down in history as "fanatical" and "only obstructionists." Instead, to most people today, they seemed to have a valid position.
And, of course, Copperheads "laid into Lincoln's policies." He was a liberal (for his time), they were conservatives. Weber traces their ideology back to Jefferson, Elkins and McKitrick would trace it back to the "country" ideology of 18th century England that complained about the establishment of the Bank of England (see their "The Age of Federalism" 3-30). To call Copperheads fanatics is to label a couple centuries of conservative thought fanatical. This supposed divorce from reality is still with us today. Weber, like McPherson, has a bit too much of the "jump on board the modernity train" mentality in her thinking.
In his career work rehabilitating the Copperheads, Frank Klement probably went too far in downplaying the Copperhead problem. But Klement was addressing a distorted 1940's historiography that had thousands of treasonous Copperheads forming para-military armies from Pennsylvania to Indiana. Klement proved otherwise. Weber has shown they were a problem for Lincoln; not with armies but with anti-war talk that impeded enlistment. Still, Weber's view takes anti-war protest as a wholly bad thing. Again, think about Vietnam while reading this book. Finally, she fails to recognize that Copperheads helped to reduce Lincoln's curtailment of Civil Liberties in the North. (Lincoln was not a despot, but his declarations of martial law should raise concern). They were not completely successful, but they did slow Lincoln down in this area. Everyone won't see that type of "obstructionism" as a bad thing.
Despite this, but keeping it in mind, you should read this book. It does have many interesting aspects. But it is probably best to read along with Klement's work, and also Mark Neely's "The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties." Then you will probably get a pretty balanced picture of who the Copperheads were. In the end, most of us are very happy that Lincoln preserved the Union and emancipated the slaves. And we find the Copperhead's racial views disgusting. But to wholly dismiss them as just some irrational cranks does an injustice to the historical record. Some good parts of the ideology that "blinkered" them should be better understood, if not respected.
on October 28, 2006
Flank L. Klement spent all of his career as an historian writing about the Copperhaeds. In his extensive and well documented writings Klement contends that the strength and importance of the Copperheads was for the most part a fiction and that their strength was over emphasized by the Republicans. Jennifer Webber goes about disproving that argument, showing that the Copperheads were a significant force in the dynamics of Civil War life and politics. For examle she shows that their opposition to the draft had a significant impact on enlistment which ultimately impacted the number of troops available to the Union. However, their weakness lay in their lack of organization and the mixed messages that they sometimes sent. Webber shows that at heart, the Copperheads were conservatives who objected to the changes in society and law that were coming about as a result of the war. She concludes that they preferred to hearken back to a simpler era. By 1865 that simpler era no longer existed. "While they (the Copperheads) looked over thier shoulders, the nation at large moved into the future."
The work is well written and easily readable for the Civil War historian, buff or the average reader who has an interest in the subject. She places her subject clearly within an historical context. While Webber tell the story of the Copperheads she also gives an informative history of the war. I would highly recommend this work.