Ohio History Journal

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The Ohio Democracy and the

Crisis of Disunion, 1860-1861


One of the least understood political groups in American history

has been the northern Democratic party during the Civil War. Their

contemporary Republican foes vilified them as traitors, and

subsequent historians have for the most part agreed with that

verdict.1 Political partisanship, ideological conflicts, and wartime

passions account for the original animus; it is less clear why scholars

have tended to follow so closely the Republican lead. The primary

reason for the continuing bad reputation of the wartime Democrats is

that they, nearly as much as the confederates themselves, "lost" the

war and thus the legitimacy of their position. The war destroyed their

hopes for the preservation of "the Union as it was and the


Mr. Cardinal is a Teaching Fellow at Kent State University where he is in the final

stages of work on his dissertation, a project being advised by Professor Frank L.



1. See for example Curtis H. Morrow, Politico-Military Secret Societies of the

Northwest, 1860-1865 (Worcester, MA, 1929); Leonard Kenworthy, The Tall

Sycamore of the Wabash: Daniel Wolsey Voorhees (Boston, 1936); Wood Gray,

The Hidden Civil War: The Story of the Copperheads (New York, 1942); George F.

Milton, Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column (New York, 1942); Christopher

Dell, Lincoln and the War Democrats: The Grand Erosion of Conservative

Tradition (Cranbury, NJ, 1975); F. L. Grayson, "Lambdin P. Milligan-A Knight of

the Golden Circle," Indiana Magazine of History, XL (1947), 379-91; Frank C.

Arena, "Southern Sympathizers in Iowa During the Civil War Period," Annals of Iowa,

XXX (1951), 486-538; Bethania M. Smith, "Civil War Subversives," Journal of

the Illinois State Historical Society, XLV (1952), 220-40; Robert S. Harper, "The

Ohio Press in the Civil War," Civil War History, III (1957), 221-52, which are studies

embracing, in whole or in part, this general conception. This is not an exhaustive list,

nor does it fully indicate the pervasiveness of this view of the northern Democracy. For

example, Norman A. Graebner et al., A History of the American People (New York,

1975), 423; and Keith I. Polakoff et al., Generations of Americans: A History of the

United States (New York, 1976), 366 are two recently-published texts that reflect this


For lucid critiques of the interpretive literature concerning the northern Democrats,

see Richard O. Curry, "The Union as it Was: A Critique of Recent Interpretations of

the 'Copperheads,' " Civil War History, XIII (1967), 25-39; and Robert H. Abzug,

"The Copperheads: Historical Approaches to Civil War Dissent in the Midwest,"

Indiana Magazine of History, LXVI (1970), 40-55. For balanced views of the

"Copperheads" which tend to revise the traditional picture see Frank L. Klement, The

Copperheads of the Middle West (Chicago, 1960); and Idem, The Limits of

Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War (Lexington, 1970), in addition