The Freed Slaves’ Prospects; or, The Copperheads’ Revenge

This drawing from 1863 encapsulates the dangerous anti-federal anti-black sentiment that bubbled up in the Civil War north once the slaves were freed.  Dominating the drawing is a figure resembling Lincoln, mowing the field with a scythe and in the process exposing some snakes in the grass.  The verse below identifies the snakes as venomous “copperheads.”

Copperheads were a faction of northern “peace Democrats” sympathetic to slaveholding who opposed the war to preserve the Union.  Their opposition to race equality and perverse sympathy for Southern rebels clouded the prospects of black Americans and threatened the realization of the Republicans’ plans.  (Since the South had seceded and taken up arms, the US government was left mainly in Republican hands.)

The Copperhead faction, whose adherents were mainly from Ohio, Indiana, and other Midwestern states, were vigorous dissenters during the worst crisis Constitutional government had faced to date.

Beyond the Mower, episodes of a national saga unfold.  The scenes depict the massive social and economic transformation that “Black Republicans” had hoped would follow from abolition.  They anticipated that former slaves, once freed from Southern bondage, would become equal participants in a prosperous “free labor” economy on the same terms as whites.

The two halves of the drawing envision this heartening progression, as chattel slaves, depicted on the right under a stormy sky, begin living into the promise of personal freedom and autonomy.  Formerly, blacks enslaved in the South lived in demeaning conditions, their well-being dependent on the will of their owners and overseers.  At center, a fugitive slave carrying a child is pursued by dogs.

On the left, emancipated slaves labor on the land with dignity.  Like other Americans, they are part of a prosperous “free soil” economy, more than sufficient to meet their needs.  In the distance, a substantial-looking farmstead telegraphs a “dream home,” come true.

Unfortunately, emancipation ignited virulent opposition in some segments of white America.  The Copperheads couldn’t relate to a real shift in American sentiment that had led a majority of the electorate to reject slavery and the South’s “states-rights” defense of its “peculiar institution.”  Copperheads viewed the Union war effort as an abuse of federal authority.  They pleaded for a peaceful negotiated settlement with the South.

Copperheads were agrarians who feared that the modernization championed by eastern Republicans (which included industrialization) would jeopardize and eclipse their way of life.  Copperhead leader Clement Vallandigham was so vehement in opposing the federal government that he was tried for treason and exiled to live in the Confederacy.  Copperheads were understood to be active in the Knights of the Golden Circle, a fraternity whose goal was Southern expansion around the Gulf of Mexico to preserve the South’s distinctive way of life.  In the words of historian David C. Keehn, “The Knights were a militant oath-bound secret society dedicated to promoting Southern rights (including slavery) and extending Southern hegemony over the Golden Circle region,” encompassing the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and Central America.

The Copperheads’ impolitic opposition to progressive forces at work in US society echoes across the ages, finding voice in the militant anti-federalism fueling Trumpism and other reactionary causes today.  Just as baleful was the underlying racism that led Copperheads to embrace the cause of slavery and white supremacy, a world view that justified the exclusion and prejudicial treatment of black Americans.

Image: from this source.

2 responses

  1. Interesting. My history classes in high school and college didn’t cover this bizarrely named cult. I bet the portions of the “Northern States” where this group thrived were located in the extreme southern parts. Southern Indiana, Illinois, Ohio: to this day the region is pretty deep red. What a crazy fantasy the group had to form the Golden Circle Region!

    I say, once wars and cannons start firing, all kinds of unlooked-for events can occur on and off the battlefields.

    • Because slavery was legal where it existed before the Civil War, Americans living in the so-called free states had an easier time tolerating it, or even sanctioning it (seeing it as “okay” or a positive good.) To compare with a contemporary situation, illegal labor in the US is just that and therefore many of us refrain from engaging in that practice (we think it’s unwise or inhumane). Nonetheless, we shrug when we read that millions of people are being exploited in the US this way. We don’t rise up collectively to abolish it. Instead we say, “The US needs their labor to do the work citizens don’t want to do.” We don’t give every fiber of being to stop the practice in America. In fact, many Americans think that sweating illegal immigrants is a win-win situation that gives something more to the immigrant worker than he or she would have otherwise.

      Slavery was an extreme form of labor exploitation that many in the early Republican could not envision doing away with. Copperheads were traditionalists who liked the arrangements the US had.

      Likewise, their dreams of expansion were not that crazy. The shape and extent of the US was still changing dramatically and at a dizzying pace, as it annexed and acquired by various means (including both war and diplomacy) huge chunks of sparsely inhabited territories. The US had just fought a war with Mexico, resulting in the formal acquisition of Texas and California. So the idea of extending the US even further was not outlandish–it was right in line with what the political community was already doing.

      Nonetheless, the Copperheads were so devoted to the idea of preserving slavery that they took up a position that was anti-federal and practically amounted to treachery. Certainly, they come off as un-American and racist. Yet their cultural point of view endures. Race prejudice is an element of our culture–it is also the main reason blacks are still not treated equally and enjoying equal conditions and opportunities today. This is the real impediment to equality.