The Most Unpopular Man In The North”

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Vallandigham’s chief business in his new location was to promote his candidacy for the governorship of Ohio. He had already been nominated by the Democratic state convention—his martyrdom had clinched it —and the campaign was in full swing. His opponent, John Brough, a founder of the Cincinnati Enquirer , a stellar outdoor orator, and a War Democrat, had been nominated by that wing of the party and also by the Republicans.

Despite a hard-fought campaign, the election’s outcome was starkly foreshadowed by magnificent victories of the Union at Gettysburg and Vicksburg; they obliterated much of the lack of confidence in the Lincoln administration, on which Vallandigham’s popularity long had thrived. When the returns on election day were finally totalled, the Copperhead had lost by an unprecedented majority.

While Vallandigham was nursing the wounds of defeat, the stock of another Ohioan, General George B. McClellan, was booming as the prospective Democratic nominee for the Presidency in 1864. Relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862, the dawdling general was available. Alarmed by the possibility of a presidential candidate with a military background, a group of midwestern Peace Democrats decided to consult with Vallandigham at Windsor. The visitors had a second and not unrelated matter to take up with him: the organization of a newborn secret society, the Sons of Liberty, which conceivably might be manipulated to block McClellan and build up another candidate—hopefully a staunch Peace Democrat.

The several predecessors of the Sons of Liberty had been pure anathema to the Lincoln administration. All were Copperhead organizations, pro-Southern in orientation, and capable of great mischief. These earlier societies were deemed responsible for the huge shipments of arms into anti-Union hands in Indiana in 1863 and for the tumultuous resistance to the draft in that state and in Illinois.

When the delegation of Peace Democrats reached Windsor, it proffered Vallandigham the supreme commandership of the Sons of Liberty. According to his own account of the interview, he at first declined, saying he was opposed in principle to secret societies. His callers pointed out, however, that the Republicans already had formed their own secret societies, the highly effective Union Leagues, to bring out the party vote, watch over the polls, and forestall possible violence. Vallandigham finally accepted, but with one condition: the Society’s activities must be “kept legitimate and lawful.” His visitors quickly assured him that the group “was only a political organization having reference to affairs in the States that had adhered to the Union and recognized the Federal Government and its authorities.” When Vallandigham was invited to suggest an oath for his fellow members, he proposed (he later asserted) that it include a pledge to support the Constitution of the United States.

Unfortunately, what is known of Vallandigham’s further Canadian activities seems to run directly counter to his protestations of loyalty to the Union. Following his investiture as supreme commander of the Sons of Liberty, he was visited by several representatives of the Confederacy. They did not just happen by; they came to Canada expressly to see him. With the war now going badly for their cause, high-ranking Confederate officials had begun to think, with a boldness born of desperation, of fomenting uprisings in the most disaffected areas of the Midwest. The uprisings were part of a larger plan aimed at securing the release of 30,000 to 50,000 Confederate soldiers in Union prison camps in Indiana and Illinois. In April of 1864, Jefferson Davis, who enthusiastically endorsed the project, appointed three commissioners, headed by Jacob Thompson, to proceed to Canada with some $900,000. The money was to be used to bring about the release of the prisoners, to destroy Union military and naval stores, to influence the press, and to purchase arms for the several secret political societies, including the Sons of Liberty.

On June 9, 1864, Thompson’s deputy, the twenty-three-year-old Captain Thomas H. Hines, who had recently won Southern acclaim by escaping with General John Hunt Morgan from an Ohio prison, visited Vallandigham at Windsor. Two days later, Jacob Thompson himself met with Vallandigham. According to Confederate accounts of the conversations, Vallandigham talked principally of the power and size of the Sons of Liberty in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. Somewhere in his discourse, Vallandigham contended that if the Confederates supplied the society with a sufficient quantity of money and arms, it could successfully overthrow the existing governments of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. In such an event, these several states would be converted at once into a western confederacy, separate and independent from both the North and the South. It was a conspiratorial dream which far exceeded Jeff Davis’ original aspirations, and the Confederate agents eagerly proffered their money. But, still asserting his unwillingness to identify with the Southern cause, Vallandigham declined to accept it personally. He recommended that it be entrusted instead to Dr. James A. Barrett of St. Louis, grand lecturer of the Sons of Liberty.