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The Most Unpopular Man In The North”
Peace without victory was the crusade of Clement L. Vallandigham, the volatile extremist spokesman of the antiwar “Copperheads.” Too often his deeds had a suspicious odor of treason
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
Inside the Lincoln administration, opinion was less unanimous than it was among the military judges. “The proceedings,” wrote Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, echoing the feelings of the President, “were arbitrary and injudicious. It gives bad men the right of questions, an advantage of which they avail themselves. Good men, who wish to support the Administration, find it difficult to defend these acts.” The arrest, trial, and sentencing of Vallandigham, in point of fact, had taken Lincoln rather by surprise. Once faced with an accomplished fact, however, he had to decide whether to approve the military court’s decision or to annul it, thereby weakening the commanding general’s authority in his district and encouraging the anti-administration element throughout the West. Lincoln chose to back up Burnside; and then, with a finesse truly indicative of his political genius, proceeded to go one step further. He wisely concluded that Vallandigham’s incarceration would only refuel the fires of popular sympathy for the Copperhead, establishing a lasting source of irritation and public discussion. Instead, Lincoln chose to hand Vallandigham over to the Confederates, thus pinning upon him a contemptible and indelible badge of affiliation with the enemies of his country. So Vallandigham was hustled on board the United States gunboat Exchange at Cincinnati and taken down the Ohio River to Louisville; from there, he was escorted under heavy guard to Murfreesboro, the advanced headquarters of the Union Army in Tennessee. On the morning of May 25, following his brief debate with General Rosecrans on loyalty, the Copperhead was deposited behind Confederate lines.
Vallandigham’s stay in the South was not passed in idleness—though a good deal of controversy still surrounds his exact activities. Some evidence suggests that his days were devoted to one of the most heinous pursuits known to man, treason. Vallandigham was extensively interviewed by leading Confederate officials and, according to some accounts, he played a vital part in persuading the Confederates to undertake two major military enterprises in the summer of 1863. One was nothing less than General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, and the other was General John Hunt Morgan’s daring raid into the Ohio Valley. These ventures were encouraged, said Confederate Captain Joe Lane, by Vallandigham’s insistence that the North was “ripe for revolution” and only waited upon the appearance of Southern armies to overturn Lincoln and proclaim for Jefferson Davis.
A wholly opposite view of Vallandigham’s conduct is provided by Colonel Robert Ould, who interviewed the exile on behalf of the Confederate President. According to Quid’s account of their conversation, Vallandigham had begged the South to drop plans it was then readying to invade Pennsylvania. An invasion, Vallandigham warned, would unite the parties of the North, dissolve all popular support for the Peace Democrats, and immeasurably strengthen Lincoln’s hand in suppressing political dissent.
However much Vallandigham’s activities may be in dispute, it is clear that he chose to leave the Confederacy at the earliest possible moment to take up exile in Canada, “where I can see my family, communicate with my friends & transact my business as far as practicable, unmolested.” The Confederates assented to this plan.
On June 17, 1863, Vallandigham set out for his new land by a circuitous route. He sailed from Wilmington, North Carolina, on the British steamer Cornubia , bound for Bermuda, where he arrived on June 20; a coterie of Confederate agents were his fellow passengers. Midway in the trip, a dire crisis materialized in the shape of an approaching Union man-of-war. The Cornubia ’s terror-stricken captain turned to his most famous (or infamous) passenger, Vallandigham, for counsel. Were there British soldiers’ uniforms on board? that seasoned veteran of crisis calmly inquired. Fortunately there were some, presumably destined for the British garrison on Bermuda. At Vallandigham’s suggestion, the crew and the Confederate agents quickly donned the uniforms. The hasty recruits paraded with nervous inexactitude around the deck; and apparently convinced that the Cornubia was a British troopship, the man-of-war changed course.
After ten days in Bermuda, Vallandigham and several dozen Confederate agents embarked on another British steamer, the Harriet Pinckney , for Halifax, Nova Scotia. This leg of the journey also entailed several harrowing brushes with Union frigates and anxious groping through dense Atlantic fog banks; finally they reached Halifax on July 5. Vallandigham immediately pushed on to Quebec and Montreal, where he received official welcomes. He resided briefly at Clifton House on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and then settled at Windsor, Ontario. Situated opposite Detroit, Windsor was in easy reach of Ohio and the rest of the Midwest. Vallandigham occupied a comfortable second-story apartment facing the Detroit River. He had a fine view of the town and of the United States gunboat Michigan , which had moved into position upon his arrival, with its guns trained directly upon his living room.