Predictions mixed on emancipation’s effects

On Jan. 1, 1863, the final Emancipation Proclamation was issued and put into effect. The event was the tipping point that opened the floodgates of controversy in the national press over the continuation of the war. Some political pundits made the dire prediction that the Union Armies would desert because of the Proclamation.

Certainly, another contributing factor in the political turmoil was a string of 1862 Union losses: Shenandoah Valley, The Peninsular Campaign, Second Bull Run and the recent Fredericksburg disaster. Although Antietam in September 1862 was chalked up as a Union victory, it was hardly more than a draw. Perryville in October 1862 was declared a Union strategic victory but one in which it failed to pursue and destroy the retreating enemy. Don Carlos Buell, a Buckeye, saw his military service end for his failure in this regard.

In some political circles the Union generals, most of which were Democrats, were alleged to be consciously averse to waging the war with appropriate aggressiveness. In fact, Lincoln’s cabinet advocated that Gen. George B. McClellan be tried for treason because of his perceived foot-dragging.

In the midst of this negative climate Peace Democrats, better known by the name given to them by Republicans, Copperheads (after the venomous snake), stirred the pot by advancing their agenda: to sue for peace, end the war and bring the Confederacy back into the Union with slavery. As one might expect, most northerners viewed Copperheads as traitors.

Copperheadism was strongest along the area just north of the Ohio River, since many of its residents had emigrated from Kentucky, still had relatives in that slave state and conducted profitable trade with Kentuckians. Indeed, Ohio was the cradle of Copperheadism. Its largest group of adherents evolved from an Ohio organization that formed in the 1850s called the Knights of the Golden Circle. It became a political entity in 1861 and changed its name in 1863 to the Order of American Knights.

The country’s acknowledged leader of the Copperheads was former U.S. congressman, Clement Vallandingham, who was born in Columbiana County (New Lisbon) but played out his professional / political career in the Dayton / Cincinnati area. In an address on May 8, 1862, he coined the slogan: “To maintain the Constitution as it is, and to restore the Union as it was.” Ohio was not alone in Copperheadism. Indiana, Illinois and New Jersey also had significant and influential elements of that faction. In fact, an Indiana delegation proposed to organize and lead a “Peace Conference” in Nashville, Tenn., to be attended by as many states, both Confederate and Union, as would send delegates, to iron out a peace package.

In surveying the Western Reserve Chronicle for this period 150 years ago this week I encountered articles that would rebut the dire predictions that the Union soldiers and / or their officers would desert the field of conflict. On the contrary, these witnesses overtly and unequivocally resolved to maintain the fight and vehemently denounced what they saw as treason (Copperheadism) on the home front.

The first article was a very long and passionate one from the entire body of Ohio soldiers in the Western Army, a group that had won in January a bloody victory at Stone’s River in Murfeesboro, Tenn. Losses were high on both sides. Many Trumbull boys fell in that conflict. The message was sent to the People of Ohio. The following excerpt is perhaps the best synopsis of the article’s essence:

“The Army of the West is in terrible earnest – earnest to conquer and destroy armed rebels – earnest in its hearty detestation of cowardly traitors at home – earnest in will and power to overcome all who desire the nation’s ruin.

“Ohio’s 100,000 soldiers in the field, citizens at home, potent in their capacity, ask their fathers, brethren and friends, by their firesides and in their peaceful homes, to hear and heed this appeal, and to put an end to covert treason at home, more dangerous now to our national existence than the presence of the misguided rebels in the field.”

The second communique was a letter from the Western Army’s commander, William S. Rosecrans, another Ohioan, to Governor Tod of Ohio. The latter forwarded it to the Ohio General Assembly. The following excerpt is the crux of Rosey’s message:

“Whenever they (Confederate political leaders) have the power, they drive before them into their ranks the Southern people, and they would also drive us. Trust them not. Were they able, they would invade and destroy us without mercy. Absolutely assured of these things I am amazed that any one thinks of ‘peace on any terms.’ He who entertains the sentiment is fit only to be a slave; he who utters it at this time is, moreover, a traitor to his country…”

The last sentiment from troops in the field came from CEYLON (Ridgely C. Powers of Mecca) correspondent for the 125th OVI. After five or so weeks in transit from Cleveland for their first combat deployment, they had finally arrived in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 10. In an excerpt from his account Rigely states:

“I do not believe, as has sometimes been stated, that the Army of the Southwest is discouraged. From the best information I can gain it is contented; willing to suffer more than it has yet suffered, that the country may be delivered from its current difficulties. The patriotic fire that burned so fervently two years ago has not abated; neither is love for the stars and stripes decreasing.”

Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren’s Sutliff Museum.