The Most Unpopular Man In The North”

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Late in June of 1864, with the presidential election approaching, Vallandigham decided that he must chance a return to the United States at all costs. For this necessarily furtive undertaking, he put on a disguise. His eyebrows became heavier and darker; a thick mustache swept his upper lip; a flowing beard fell to his waist; and a large concealed pillow provided Falstaffian girth. He boarded a regular Canadian passenger boat and landed safely at Detroit, only to encounter an anxious moment when a conscientious customs official poked him in his pillowed abdomen. “Pardon me,” said the official, “I see I am mistaken, but I have to watch for tricks.” Vallandigham moved on. He reached Hamilton, Ohio, just in time to be chosen by the Democratic convention of the third congressional district, which was gathered there, as a delegate to the future presidential convention.

Vallandigham quickly announced his presence by launching into a series of public speeches in Dayton, Syracuse, and New York City that, if anything, were more violent than those which had brought about his arrest. He still hammered at his old theme, the summoning of a convention of all the states to arrange a peace settlement restoring “the union as it was.” Intermixed with his proposal were ringing defiances of the Lincoln government and veiled but unmistakable threats that in the event of his rearrest those responsible would be taken hostage by his supporters. But for all of Vallandigham’s cacophony, the administration left him alone. It would be better, the President felt, to let the man’s intemperate words discredit the Democratic party.

When the Democratic national convention assembled in Chicago on August 29, Vallandigham’s immediate endeavors were focussed upon the resolutions committee, of which he was a member. After meeting into the early morning hours, the committee brought to the floor a brief platform of six planks, the second of which Vallandigham had prepared and forced through by a narrow vote. He rightly characterized his plank as the most “material” of the Chicago platform. It was a “peace plank,” encouraged by Grant’s current involvement in the long, costly, and indecisive struggle with Lee in Virginia, which was reawakening the old doubts concerning the wisdom of the struggle. After scoring the failure of the war and the Lincoln administration’s violations of constitutional liberty and private rights, the plank urged an immediate cessation of hostilities and the calling of a convention of the states “to the end that at the earliest practicable moment peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States.” Vallandigham’s plank was promptly adopted.

The next order of business was the nomination of General George B. McClellan, the party’s best vote-getter, for President, an act of supreme paradox. Having declared for peace and nominated a general, the delegates had created a glaring contradiction. Which of these two acts constituted the more authoritative expression of the true position of the Democratic party? Although Vallandigham pressed McClellan hard to stand by the peace plank, the General all but repudiated it by calling for union, and therefore victory, as a prerequisite of peace. His subsequent campaign fired little enthusiasm in Vallandigham and, for that matter, in the Union as a whole. Lincoln swept to an easy victory. In Ohio political circles the question evoking more attention than the election was whether the Lincoln administration, safely entrenched in power for another four years, would again arrest Vallandigham.

Even before the Democrats nominated a presidential candidate at Chicago, more sinister events had been taking place behind the scenes. As Grant and Sherman drove deeper into Southern territory in the summer of 1864, Confederate demands upon the Sons of Liberty to commence the uprisings plotted in the several Canadian meetings became increasingly intense. Further meetings of Confederate representatives and Sons of Liberty leaders were held: one at St. Catherines, Ontario, on July 22, another at London, Ontario, on August 7. Although Vallandigham did not participate in either, federal agents who were watching the situation closely asserted that the selection of a specific date in August for launching the uprisings was left to him. Vallandigham, for his part, always denied having any knowledge of the conspiracy; he was, he said, in New York State at the time when his decision was supposedly required. Confederate records disclose that ultimately several dates had been selected, but in each instance, as the hour for action approached, the Sons of Liberty concluded that more time was needed.

Despite the several postponements, the Confederate agents looked forward hopefully to the Chicago presidential convention. Hungry for success, they demanded that a well-stocked “transportation fund,” previously entrusted to Dr. Barrett, be expended to bring some 50,000 members of the Sons of Liberty to Chicago. Several days before the convention began, sixty Confederate soldiers, armed and in plain clothes, and led by Captains Thomas Hines and John B. Castleman, slipped into the city by way of Canada. The Confederates put up at the same hotel where Vallandigham and his associates were staying.

Arms would be provided to the Sons of Liberty men; under the supervision of the Confederates, they would assault nearby Camp Douglas and Rock Island, Illinois, to release many thousands of Confederate prisoners held at those places. As the zero hour approached, the Copperhead leaders got their customary attack of cold feet; the venture was dropped. The forte of Vallandigham and his colleagues, in the Confederates’ estimation, was “governmental theory.” It was not revolution.