The Most Unpopular Man In The North”

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As dawn approached on the morning of May 25, 1863, General William S. Rosecrans, the Union commander in Tennessee, found himself in charge of a prisoner he would soon and gladly be rid of. The man was Clement L. Vallandigham—the most reviled member of that controversial political sect of the American Civil War, the Copperheads. A former United States congressman from Ohio recently defeated for re-election, Vallandigham had achieved notoriety by denouncing Abraham Lincoln as a dictator and by demanding an immediate armistice to end the war, with full restoration of the South’s constitutional rights and privileges. His real game, many believed, was to accomplish the permanent separation of the South and the acceptance of its independence by the North.

Vallandigham’s views, which he had given unbridled expression in an unending round of orations in the East and West, had roiled countless loyal Unionists. During his membership in the House of Representatives, petitions had poured out of Ohio electoral districts calling for his expulsion from the House as a “traitor and a disgrace to the State.” Five months after the outbreak of war, one of Vallandigham’s staunchest supporters was writing, “There is no denying the fact now that he is the most unpopular man in the north, and that here in his own district he has but a minority of the people with him.”

Just three weeks had passed since the long-gathering storm of condemnation had finally crashed down upon Vallandigham. On May 7, 1863, a military commission had tried him and found him guilty of publicly expressing sentiments calculated to hinder the suppression of the rebellion; he had been sentenced to prison. But President Lincoln had come up with a better idea: he simply ordered the troublesome Vallandigham exiled to the South, behind Confederate battle lines, for the rest of the war.

Now, as he prepared to hand his prisoner over to the Rebels, General Rosecrans provided him the benefit of a polite lecture on loyalty which concluded with the emphatic observation that were Vallandigham not under heavy guard, Rosecrans’ soldiers would tear him to pieces. “That, sir,” Vallandigham answered evenly, “is because they are just as prejudiced and ignorant of my character and career as yourself …”

“I have a proposition to make,” Vallandigham continued. “Draw your soldiers up in a hollow square tomorrow morning, and announce to them that Vallandigham desires to vindicate himself, and I will guarantee that when they have heard me through they will be more willing to (ear Lincoln and yourself to pieces than they will Vallandigham.” Rosecrans, of course, refused, but the rest of their conversation was amiable enough; when it was time to depart for the Confederate lines, the General laid his hand on Vallandigham’s shoulder and said to an aide, “He don’t look a bit like a traitor, now does he, Joe?”

History, in whose approving judgment Vallandigham had indestructible faith, has not smiled upon him. The prevailing view is that he was a traitor, or at best only a half-step removed from being one. Yet for all of the severity and assurance with which the verdict has been rendered, history’s estimation of Vallandigham is still open to question. Although he stands in no danger of becoming a national hero, several key facts of his career remain shrouded in doubt, and the good that he did, which was not unimportant, has been interred with his bones.

What manner of man was Clement Laird Vallandigham? He was born in New Lisbon, Ohio, on July 29, 1820, the son of a Presbyterian minister of southern extraction. Young Clement’s upbringing included a thorough grounding in religion and study at Jefferson College at Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, which at the time had a large southern clientele. Upon returning to Ohio, he practiced law in New Lisbon and subsequently in Dayton and went into politics. A spellbinding champion of the Jeffersonian vision of individual liberty, local autonomy, and agrarian simplicity, he served in the Ohio legislature and, commencing in 1858, in the United States House of Representatives.

Vallandigham’s congressional career was largely devoted to assailing the abolitionists, whose antislavery preachings, he believed, were impairing the general peace and harmony and threatening the dissolution of the Union. To preserve peace—which was the natural interest of the Midwest with its acute dependence upon unfettered use of the Mississippi—Vallandigham counselled a strict observance of states’ rights. “With the domestic policies and institutions of Kentucky, or any other State,” he declared, “the people have no more right to intermeddle than with the laws or form of government in Russia. Slavery in the South is to them as polygamy in the Turkish Empire.”

But the exhortations of Vallandigham and others in Congress who sincerely advocated peace were all in vain. The states of the Deep South seceded, the Confederacy was established, Fort Sumter was attacked, and the Union disintegrated in the roaring furnace of war.

Vallandigham’s position in the new state of affairs was quickly and candidly revealed. He refused to aid the war by word or deed. “I had rather my right arm were plucked from its socket, and cast into eternal burnings,” he cried in his theatrical fashion. When a gigantic army appropriation bill went before the House, Vallandigham tried to attach an amendment that would have required the President to appoint commissioners to accompany the army on the march and receive and consider propositions looking toward the suspension of hostilities and the return of the Confederate slates to the Union.