The Democrats of 1864 - some complaints

One war-long Republican information project was to create a single view of the Democratic opposition: to eliminate distictions so that the worst element, the Copperheads, might characterize the entire party. It seems many Civil War readers have fallen into this view. On the flip side, Civil War authors have taken little trouble to explain the richness of Democratic opposition.

It is therefore irritating to see a book title like, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North. This title conflates opposition to Lincoln with Copperheads.

Q: Who in the Union opposed Lincoln's in war matters my children?

A: Traitors! (Hiss.)

To help this process along, the Republicans of that era took a page out of future East European history: they created a "united front" party, the Unionists, which further fragmented the Democratic opposition into what they could portray as war (Unionist) and antiwar (Democrat).

But it was not so simple in fact. The Democratic Party's war supporters split in two. A minority joined Lincoln in his sham/front party; other war supporters decried Lincoln's gross mismanagement of the war and called for efficiency in its prosecution.

I believe that the three overtures made to McClellan by Lincoln in the spring of 1864 - just as Grant was about to start his campaign (historians have discovered only three approaches thus far) - were about offering a "return to his place" in exchange for Unionist political affiliation. This is a supposition. The only record we have is of Lincoln intermediaries offering McClellan a return to his former "place" - the incentive - and not the price McClellan was to pay for returning to Lincoln's high favor.

The core, mainstream Democratic complaint was that the Republicans mishandled the war, extended it by design, created a runaway "culture of corruption", and relied on lawbreaking to pave the way for the total suppression of the Democratic Party. I believe that McClellan internalized this critique in toto.

The central problem of the election of '64 - apart from allegations of vote suppression and vote rigging - was that of the war Democrats outside the Unionist tent being unable to separate themselves from the accusation they sought peace.

Could McClellan have possibly have exchanged the peace vote for the soldier vote to gain electoral victory? It seems likely he had no peace vote anyway much less Copperhead support. After the war, Pinkerton told McClellan that the election had been settled beforehand. Whether or not that is true, the soldier vote was controlled enough that the candidate could not have taken it out of Stanton's grasp.

And yet, there were stirrings against Lincoln but they failed to benefit McClellan. Take as your guide Meade's quiet boast to his wife that he and Grant had abstained from voting altogether in the 1864 race. Army-wide, how many times was that little drama of defiance re-enacted?

We will know this corner of history has grown up when Lincoln's opponents can be honored, when their motives, concerns, and criticisms gain fair hearing. In the meantime, we remain free to hiss at the Copperheads.