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A Few Questions for Jennifer Weber

Jennifer Weber, an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas, has a new book out titled, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. Weber’s book offers the first full-length portrait of the Copperheads to appear in almost half a century. The Copperheads were a a group of Northern antiwar activists who came perilously close to defeating Lincoln and ending the civil war in the South’s favor. Below, Weber answers some questions about her new book for OUP.

OUP: Where does the name Copperhead come from?

Jennifer Weber: Republicans were the people who initially came up with this. They called the Peace Democrats “copperheads” after the poisonous snake because they thought the antiwar faction was sneaky, stealthy, and deadly — just like the snake.

The Peace Democrats would sometimes use this moniker to refer to themselves, too, but they would argue for a different definition of the term. At the time of the Civil War, pennies, being made of copper, were also called “copperheads.” On one side of the penny was a bust of Lady Liberty. Part of the reason antiwar Democrats opposed Lincoln was because they thought he was trampling the Constitution and their civil liberties. So when they referred to themselves as copperheads their message was that they were the defenders of liberty. It wasn’t unusual for many of them to advertise their sentiments by making a pin out of a penny and wearing that in their lapels, the Lady Liberty side facing out to the world.

OUP: What first fascinated you about the Copperheads?

Weber: I went into the archives with the intention of doing a different project. Illinois was my first stop, and from the very first day I kept finding these urgent letters from people downstate to the Republican governor: People here are huzzah-ing for Jeff Davis. Make them stop. There are 20 Unionists in this county, and the Democrats are saying they’ll kill us. Send troops. Democrats have formed into militias and are marching in the woods. Send guns. Did you know that so-and-so, whom you just appointed as major in this regiment, is speaking out against Lincoln? I was immediately fascinated. I’ve been reading about the Civil War my entire life, and I’d never heard that there was this kind of fright in the North — much less about people’s own neighbors. Within a week I’d switched topics.

This was five months before September 11. In fact, I was at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan when the planes hit. After that, there was almost a surreal quality to working on this book. I’d spend the day reading material from the early 1860s, and then I’d go home at night and hear about the exact same issues and concerns on the news.

OUP: What did your study of the Copperheads reveal about President Lincoln?

Weber: His clarity of vision and his absolute commitment to carrying out that vision. He understood what this war was about and was able to articulate that to the country so eloquently. This is hardly a new observation, but it is striking to me how Lincoln never wavered from his goals of reuniting the country and, later, emancipation despite withering attacks and the very real possibility that these objectives would cost him his political career. I also found it interesting that Lincoln almost never alluded publicly to his critics or responded to their criticism. For the most part, their comments just rolled right off his back. He was an extraordinary leader.

OUP: Were the Copperheads ever suspected of assassinating Lincoln?

Weber: For a few days just after the assassination, yes. But those suspicions were put to rest pretty quickly, and people instead starting worrying about whether the Confederates were somehow behind Booth’s plot. There was an investigation on that angle, but no connection was ever established between Booth and the Confederate leadership.

OUP:What happened to the Copperheads after the war?

Weber:They went on and lived their lives, but from what I can tell, many of them were not eager to talk about their wartime activities. They were on the losing side of history, and they looked even worse after Lincoln’s martyrdom. They knew how bad they looked. I think it’s very interesting how few Copperheads (or their heirs), left their papers to historical societies or archives.

OUP: How is your book different from previous ones that look at the Copperheads and why is there SO much information about almost every facet of the Civil War, and comparatively so little about the Copperheads?

Weber: Only three other books have been written about the Copperheads, two in 1942 and one in 1960. They were all asking the same question: Were the Peace Democrats trying to overthrow the government, at either the state or federal level? After reading all those letters from Unionists pleading with their governors for protection from the Democrats, it seemed to me that was entirely the wrong question. I was much more interested in how these tensions shot through the North, why, the impact of all these suspicions people harbored about their neighbors, and what effect this had on the political system. Some Copperheads were interested in a coup, yes, but the vast majority wanted to seize power the old-fashioned way: at the ballot box.

As for why historians have pretty much ignored the antiwar folks, I think the preceding books, especially the last one, Frank Klement’s Copperheads in the Middle West, really wound up marginalizing the Copperheads. I don’t think this was intentional. Klement was an unabashed admirer of the conservatives, but in my view, they came off in his work as a bunch of cranks. And if the central question is whether they wanted to stage a coup and the answer is no (and this was Klement’s argument), then why bother with them? I hope that my book will bring them back to the center as important players in Civil War-era politics and give a deeper understanding of what Lincoln was up against.

OUP: How does Lincoln’s resistance from groups like the Copperheads compare to the resistance President Bush faces today in his war against Iraq? Both leaders at times seemed to have very little support in their home countries, can a comparison be made?

Weber:There are some superficial analogies: Both presidents are in charge of wars that grew increasingly unpopular over time because of casualties, the financial toll, and infringements on civil liberties. But these are very, very different wars. First, one was a civil war, which means your enemies look like you, talk like you, share a common heritage. It’s hard to identify the enemy sometimes, so it’s easy to suspect everyone. You might say that it’s hard to identify the enemy in Iraq, which is true because of the guerrilla nature of that war, but from an American standpoint, the guy whom you think might be the “bad guy,” as they say, is not your next-door neighbor. Second, the Civil War had an immediacy and presented an imminent threat that the Iraq war does not. The Civil War took place on our own soil — for some people, literally in their front yards — whereas Iraq is, what, 10,000 miles away? In the Civil War, almost everyone knew someone in uniform. About half the military-age men in the North served, and about three-quarters of the white men in the South. I’d say that most Americans also knew at least one person who died in the Civil War. The conservative estimate is that the North lost 360,000 men, and that total killed, North and South, was 620,000. That’s 2 percent of the 1860 population. If 2 percent of the population died in a war now, that would be in the neighborhood of 6 million people. I can’t begin to imagine what the public’s reaction would be to those kinds of numbers. Look at the discomfort Americans have with fewer than 3,000 dead in this war. Third, these wars came about quite differently. In Lincoln’s case, the United States was attacked at Fort Sumter, so this was a defensive war for the North. Iraq, on the other hand, falls more into the category of a pre-emptive war.

Finally, and most importantly, the stakes in these two wars are quite different. In the Civil War, the very existence of the country was threatened. Had the Confederates succeeded in obtaining their
independence, the United States as people knew it would have died. What would have been left was a rump nation, one that certainly could not have dominated the continent or the globe the way the U.S. has over the past century. Indeed, based on my research, it’s not even clear to me that the North that fought the war would have continued. I think there’s a very real chance that the West — which we now think of as the Midwest, and which, like the South, had no love of Easterners — would have broken off next. Once the South established a successful precedent of secession, there would have been little to stop a movement like that — a movement, incidentally, that was picking up a lot of steam in the first part of the Civil War.

OUP: What question did we forget to ask? What else should readers know?

Weber: One thing that’s very unusual about this book is that it’s not just about political or social or military history. I’m working along the seams of where those come together. I’m very interested in how, for instance, political events influence things on the front lines, or how military fortunes affected the political situation. Most histories of the Civil War deal with the home front, battlefield, or Washington discretely; they look at just one piece of that story. I wanted to see if I could write a more holistic account. If other historians think I succeeded, I would hope that more and more of my colleagues would consider writing about this war in a similar fashion.

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