Divisions within Divisions
CIVIL DISCOURSE, FEBRUARY 1865
In most of our minds, 150 years later, we have a notion that the North fought the South, which is true. But it also misleading in suggesting all the Northerners agreed with Lincoln and all the Southerners favored secession. Even the divisions were divided.
For starters, count the number of stars on a Confederate flag – thirteen. We forget that two of the border-states, Kentucky and Missouri, voted to secede even though they remained under Union control. Maryland likely would have seceded and rendered Washington City a tiny island in hostile territory had not Lincoln preemptively arrested and jailed its pro-secession legislators. Still, Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland provided entire regiments to the Confederacy. On the flip side, West Virginia seceded from Virginia, while eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina provided regiments to the Union.
We usually imagine the Civil War as being fought between armies of blue and gray, but the reality was far uglier – much of the war was fought by partisans, neighbor against neighbor, really just murder and bushwhacking. This is Quantrill burning Lawrence, Kansas and gunning down perhaps 164 civilians, many individually targeted in advance. This is the war in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, where gangland-style executions are carried out in dark coves by civilians against other civilians, where Confederate veterans struggling to bring in a crop to feed their families are fighting both their Unionist neighbors and home guards who will shoot them for desertion. This is the Lumbee Indians bushwhacking law enforcement from the swamps to avoid Confederate labor details. This is all very local and not on the other side of some frontier. Because this conflict is unorganized and largely civilian, these casualties are usually not counted in the official tally of losses, but the cost of this homegrown fighting is certainly in the thousands. Tennessee partisan Champ Ferguson personally killed over a hundred Unionists – and he probably knew most of their names.
The North was divided as well. Not all Northerners agreed that the abolition of slavery was worth fighting for. Desertions skyrocketed in the Army of the Potomac immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation. In July of 1863, the North implemented a draft. The reaction in Manhattan was the New York draft riots, where lower class whites (mostly Irish) who could not afford to hire a substitute deeply resented the notion of being enslaved to free the slaves. The riots began on July 13th, when the second draft lottery was held; the rioters burnt down the draft offices, careless of the tenants living above. The rioters chased away firefighters and the entire block was lost. They burned the armory as well; the local militia had been called away for Lee’s incursion into Pennsylvania and the police were overwhelmed. Pro-abolitionist newspapers were targeted; before the New York Times fell in love with gun control, its editor manned a Gatling gun to save his presses.
These were race riots, one object of which was to drive black labor out of New York. “The most cruel atrocities were inflicted upon negroes wherever they were found.” The rioters looted and then torched the Colored Orphan Asylum. About a dozen blacks were killed; one “was seized by the mob, and, after his life had nearly been beaten out, his body was suspended from a tree, a fire kindled under him, and, in the midst of excruciating torments, he expired.” By July 16th troops returning from Gettysburg quelled the riots. Harper’s estimates over 1000 rioters were killed, in addition to about 50 innocents.
Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion suggests that the riots were incited by Northern Democrats sympathizing with the Confederacy. These were known as “Copperheads” (so named from the head of Liberty carved from copper large cents worn on their lapels). Though sometimes characterized as the “peace-at-any-price” party, they were also openly hostile to Lincoln’s government. In New York, just prior to the riots, Governor Seymour gave a speech to the effect that Lincoln’s war had brought the country to ”the very verge of destruction” and warning there was not only a bloody civil war, but that the hostility between the Democrats and Republicans in the North threatened a second revolution right there at home. “Remember,” he warned the Republicans, “that the bloody, and treasonable, and revolutionary doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by government.”
The Copperhead’s timing for a revolt was unfortunate. Three things happened in July of 1863: the draft riots, Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg. As Harper’s puts it, “Undoubtedly there would have been an immediate explosion of this inflamed sedition but for the fact that even while these demagogues were throwing their torches into the magazine, their malicious work was spoiled by the two greatest and most decisive national victories of the war. It is scarcely too much to declare that Gettysburg and Vicksburg prevented a Democratic revolution in the North.” So, while the draft riots were horrendous, the revolt was quenched by too much good news. Nonetheless, the rioters did accomplish their goal of driving blacks from the city – one-fifth of New York’s black population moved elsewhere after the riots.
Of course Lincoln did not suffer the Copperheads lightly. He more or less suspended the constitutional guarantee of free speech to muzzle his opposition. It was a crime to speak against the war. Newspapers critical of the administration were shut down and thousands of critics were imprisoned without writs of habeas corpus. Chief of the northern Democrats was Clement Vallandigham, a congressman from Ohio. Lincoln had him arrested after a speech criticizing the war and “King Lincoln”; rather than imprison him, he exiled him to the Confederacy, where he was promptly interned as an alien enemy. He counseled against Lee’s invasion of the North, urging the Confederates to bide their time until a war-weary North sacked Lincoln in the 1864 election – not bad advice, considering how Gettysburg turned out.
Vallandigham ultimately escaped on a blockade runner and travelled to Canada, where he schemed to set up a “Northern Confederacy” consisting of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. This was to be accomplished by freeing Confederate POWs and inciting fellow travelers to overthrow the state governments. When this did not pan out, he returned to Ohio to promote his party’s peace platform in the 1864 election. Lincoln knew he was back, but did not re-arrest him.
General George McClellan ran against Lincoln in 1864, but the Democrat peace platform which would have ended the war by recognizing the Confederacy did not prevail. McClellan himself agreed with Lincoln that the country must be reunited, at least publicly. By the time November of 1864 came around, Grant had completed his Overland Campaign and Sherman was on the March in Georgia – too late. “King Lincoln” has his second term.
But the war was far from over and there were still many lives to lose. The warring parties made a last stab at peace on February 3, 1865, when Lincoln and Seward met with Confederate dignitaries on a ship anchored near Fort Monroe. Lincoln’s overriding concern was reunification – continuation of slavery in the South was negotiable, as was compensation for the slaves liberated under the Emancipation Proclamation. This is consistent with his remarks in an 1862 letter to newspaperman Horace Greeley: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery.”
The South needs peace, but the peace talks fail over the central issue of reunification. February of 1865 is a terrible month for the Confederacy. At Petersburg, Lee stops Grant’s effort to cut his supply lines in a three day fight at Hatcher’s Run February 5-7th; Grant takes about 1500 casualties to Lee’s 1000, but Lee has to stretch his thin line further west with fewer men. Sherman has some very big successes in the Carolinas. On February 17th, Columbia falls and burns. The next day, Charleston surrenders and Old Glory flies over Fort Sumter once again. On February 22nd, Wilmington falls, the last port for blockade runners. The writing is on the wall.
Sources: Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion; Battle of Hatcher’s Run, http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/hatchers-run/hatchers-run-history-articles/the-battle-of-hatchers-run.html; Abraham Lincoln On-line, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/greeley.htm; “How to Escape the Draft”,http://www.harpweek.com/09Cartoon/BrowseByDateCartoon.asp?Month=August&Date=1
Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.