The Copperheads' fire in the rear

Mackubin Thomas Owen:

Dissent in wartime is as American as apple pie. There is not a single war in US history that did not face opposition from some part of the citizenry. But at some point, dissent becomes something else altogether – obstruction of the war effort.

The most egregious case of this occurred during the Civil War when "peace Democrats," called "Copperheads," nearly succeeded in defeating President Lincoln's attempt to save the Union.

It's a largely forgotten element of the Civil War, but it bears striking – and ominous – similarity to the obstruction we see in Washington today over the Iraq war. Indeed, as Democrats in Congress this week imposed withdrawal deadlines, it's clear that Copperhead syndrome is alive and well.

The Copperhead is, of course, a poisonous snake, which is how the Civil War-era opponents of the peace Democrats portrayed them: Confederate sympathizers and obstructers of the Union war effort. But "Copperhead" was also a contemporary term for the penny, which at the time bore the likeness of Lady Liberty. Peace Democrats often rendered these pennies into lapel pins to portray themselves as defenders of states' rights and civil liberties.

Self-image aside, Lincoln criticized the Copperhead effort as "the fire in the rear." Some historians have dismissed the Copperhead threat as, according to one author, "a fairy tale," a "figment of Republican imagination," made up of "lies, conjecture and political malignancy." But a fine new book, "Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North," by journalist-turned-academic-historian Jennifer Weber, shows that the Northern anti-war movement was far from a peripheral phenomenon.

The Copperheads exploited the North's widespread antiwar sentiment.

They actively interfered with recruiting and encouraged desertion. Indeed, they generated so much opposition to conscription – including armed resistance in some places and the infamous draft riots in New York City – that the Army was forced to divert resources from the battlefield to the hotbeds of Copperhead activity in order to maintain order. Many Copperheads actively supported the Confederate cause, materially as well as rhetorically.

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There is more.

One of the interesting aspects of the modern Copperheads is how they ignore the comparison. Normally they are quick to assert that others are challenging their patriotism when criticized, but they tend to stand mute when it comes to the Copperhead analogy. My guess is that they just have not thought of any talking points on the subject so far. I think the analogy is pretty close.

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