The Most Unpopular Man In The North”

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Preliminary soundings made by Vallandigham upon his return to Ohio from Washington in 1863 revealed that a majority of the state’s Democratic leaders were opposed to his nomination for the governorship. Clearly he needed a dramatic and meaningful issue to build up a massive public support that the party professionals could not ignore. An ideal opportunity suddenly materialized in the person and policies of the newly appointed resident Union commander, General Ambrose E. Burnside. Tactless, impetuous, and smarting under his recent disastrous defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside had been sent to Ohio to halt a series of disorders attributed to the Copperheads. The General proceeded to issue a series of freedom-curbing orders which, among other things, forbade the citizenry to keep and bear arms and to speak out publicly against administration policies. The best known of Burnside’s several edicts was “General Order No. 38” of April 13, 1863, with its broad and loosely denned decree that those who committed “acts for the benefit of our enemies” would be tried by military tribunal “as spies or traitors.”

In one address after another, Vallandigham excoriated the Burnside orders as the ultimate in Lincolnian despotism. The most consequential of Vallandigham’s angry expositions was delivered at Mount Vernon, Ohio, on May 4 before a crowd estimated at 20,000. It was for Vallandigham a mild speech until he came inevitably to speak of Burnside’s Order No. 38 and dissolved into a fit of rhetorical rage. He “despised it,” he shouted, “spit upon it, trampled it under his feet.” The crowd roared back its defiant approval. While Vallandigham spoke, a captain of the Union volunteers in plain clothes was leaning against the speakers’ platform, taking down his words in shorthand.

Late that same night, General Burnside dispatched a force to arrest Vallandigham. Awakened at 2:30 A.M. by a violent knocking on the door, the Copperhead went to a front upstairs window, not suspecting what was afoot. In an instant he knew. The tramp of armed men, the low voice of command, the rattling of arms, the bayonets glittering in the gaslight, could mean but one thing: his arrest.

As Vallandigham threw open the shutters, his wife screamed with fright. The captain in command announced his purpose. Vallandigham shouted that no military officer had the lawful right to arrest him. Unless Vallandigham came down, replied the captain, he would be shot. The beleaguered Copperhead shouted for the police. There was a moment of silence, an angry command, and the house began to shake as the blows of axes broke down its doors. One soon gave way, and a wave of cursing men carrying bayonets surged inside. Vallandigham retreated through several rooms before he was finally encircled by a score of pointed rifles. He was quickly marched to a railroad depot and taken by special train to Cincinnati.

Vallandigham’s arrest put Dayton into an uproar. By noon the next day, wagons and carriages crammed with his followers were pouring into the city. At twilight a mob of five hundred men, hooting and yelling, sacked the office of the Dayton Journal , a Unionist publication. Stones and bullets shattered the newspaper’s windows and blazing torches were hurled inside. The fire raced through three stores, a meat market, a livery stable, and the office of a church publication. The city’s firemen, their engines sabotaged and their hoses slashed, fought helplessly.

The charges against Vallandigham were based mainly on his speech at Mount Vernon. There he was alleged to have called the war “wicked, cruel, and unnecessary,” claiming that it was fought “for the purpose of crushing out Liberty and erecting a Despotism,” that it was “a war for the freedom of the blacks and the enslavement of the whites,” and that “if the Administration had wished, the war could have been honorably terminated months ago.” By these and other statements, the charges continued, Vallandigham had violated General Order No. 38.

The day following his arrest, Vallandigham was brought to trial before a military commission of eight officers. When the court convened, Vallandigham calmly stated that the commission lacked authority to try him. He was not a member of the armed forces, he pointed out, and was therefore subject only to the civil judiciary. The trial nevertheless proceeded, the shorthand notes were introduced, and Vallandigham was found guilty of the charges against him. Appeals on his part to the United States Court for the Southern District of Ohio and eventually to the Supreme Court were to no avail.