Not all citizens in the northern states approved of the American Civil War during the 1860s. Known collectively as "Copperheads," a type of poisonous snake, these Civil War opponents were primarily members of the Democratic Party. They consisted of Irish and German Catholics as well as poor workers and farmers, and their opposition centered on economic competition and the draft.
Irish and German Immigrants
Irish and German immigrants, especially those who were Roman Catholic, were some of the most vocal Democratic opponents of the Civil War in the North. Roman Catholic immigrants had been suspicious of the Republican Party, which governed the North during the Civil War. In the 1840s and 1850s, anti-Catholic nativist sentiment materialized against the Irish and Germans in the form of the Know-Nothing Party. Because this party was later absorbed by the Republicans, Catholic immigrants opposed the GOP and the Civil War they were leading.
Many of the Copperheads' arguments revolved around issues of constitutionalism, including the fact that the South had the right to secede. These proponents of maximum liberty were offended by certain Civil War policies, like President Lincoln's brief suspension of habeus corpus. Other Northern opponents of the Civil War were racist, and believed in the South's institution of slavery. These opponents often accused Lincoln and the Republicans of igniting the war through virulent anti-slavery rhetoric, and blamed them for an unwarranted conflict.
The institution of the draft especially agitated poor workers and farmers. During the war, a conscripted soldier could buy out his service for $300 or find a substitute to serve. While wealthy and middle class Americans could afford this price, poor farmers and workers could not. Worse, these poor Americans relied on their incomes to support their families and forgoing work to serve in the military created economic hardship. This resulted in massive draft riots across the country, like the New York City Draft Riot of 1863. In Columbia County, Pennsylvania, federal troops had to be sent in to enforce the draft.
Some Northern Democrats made a raw calculation that ending slavery increased their economic competition and would reduce their wages. This was especially because of the belief that freed blacks would flee north for jobs. In places like New York City, this resulted in mob violence against blacks. Additionally, Republican prospects soured just weeks after the announcement of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, an action that many Democrats feared. In the elections of 1862, New York and New Jersey's gubernatorial positions went to the Democrats.
- Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association: Lincoln's Critics: The Copperheads
- The Atlantic: Romanticizing the Villains of the Civil War
- University of Chicago Press: New York City Draft Riots of 1863
- U.S. History: 34c.: The Northern Homefront
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania: Copperheads or Confederates? Political Opposition in Civil War Pennsylvania
- History: This Day In History: Congress passes Civil War conscription act
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