[Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the Northby Jennifer L. Weber (Oxford University Press, 2006) Hardcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, Pp. 255 ISBN:0-19-530668-6 $28]
In the introduction to her book Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North, author Jennifer Weber provides the reader with a splendid outline of her thesis along with some interesting commentary on the historiography of the Peace Democrats. I was surprised to read Weber's assertion that only three major scholarly works on the subject have been produced, the last being Frank Klement's The Copperheads in the Middle West (University of Chicago Press, 1960)*. Weber characterizes Klement's work as generally dismissive of Copperhead power and influence; its paramilitary offshoots like the Sons of Liberty were essentially harmless and Copperhead political influence was largely an invention of the Republicans for partisan gain. Weber disagrees strongly with Klement, contending that Copperheads had significant political power (especially in the Old Northwest) and the secret societies that sprouted up represented a very real insurrectionary threat. While the author's case for the former assertion is ably constructed and well supported by the evidence, she is less persuasive in arguing for the latter.
While the reader never gets the sense that Weber has much sympathy for the Copperhead movement or its principles, the author avoids inflammatory language and does not condemn the group as a whole. She recognizes that most Copperheads held a strict constructionist view of the U.S. Constitution and had honest concerns about civil liberties, conscription, and paper money. On the other hand, on the social front, they were extremely aggressive in combatting any notion of racial equality for blacks.
Copperheads tended to have very serious reservations with the idea of restoring the Union through war. However, Weber rightly points out that the Peace Democrats never provided a viable alternative means of achieving reunion and persistently ignored the huge volume of evidence that indicated the Confederates had no intention of rejoining the Union no matter which party was in power in the North. While the home front fortunes of the Copperheads were directly tied to Union military successes and failures in the field, the author argues effectively for the idea that the anti-Copperhead efforts of Union soldiers themselves were key to ultimate political defeat for the Peace Democrats. As is made clear through soldier diaries and letters, the Copperhead mantra never spoke to these men in terms that made them feel supported or appreciated. Large numbers of previously sympathetic officers and men were driven into the opposing political camp. Their letters home and their threatening physical presence while on leave became a strong force in opposing Copperhead sentiments in local communities.
Where Weber's arguments are less effective is in their attempts to portray Copperhead organizations as a significant threat to federal and state governments. Rather than support her assertions, the evidence she provides of numerous harebrained plots that were easily infiltrated, or that never came to fruition when allowed to proceed, rather reveals a series of hapless, ineffective paramilitary groups populated by decidedly lukewarm operatives. While enrolling officers were occasionally assaulted or killed and some arms caches captured, a compelling case for the existence of significantly dangerous insurrectionary elements is not made.
Overall, Copperheads is a serviceable socio-political history of the Peace Democrat movement and how deeply its successes and failures were dependent upon the interconnectivity of home and military fronts. This slim but informative and well researched volume will hopefully spark other scholars to reexamine this fascinating aspect of the Civil War.
* [Looking through Weber's bibliography I did see that Klement published a much more recent book, Lincoln's Critics: The Copperheads of the North, published by White Mane in 1999. Whether this is a reprint under a new title or a work that Weber considers of lesser importance, I do not know.]