Oct. 13, 1863—The loss by Clement Vallandigham in Ohio’s gubernatorial race was more than just the usual matter of one political party missing the chance to gain control of a state’s most important office and consequent spoils. It also deprived the Copperheads—Northerners favoring a negotiated settlement of the Civil War—of a large state essential to prosecuting the Federal effort in the increasingly crucial Western theater of operations.
The loss by this outspoken dissenter (critics would say “defeatist,” even “traitor”) from the war also enabled Abraham Lincoln—who admitted feeling more nervous about this election than his own Presidential contest three years before—to pour more resources into a conflict approaching a critical phase in Tennessee, the gateway to Georgia and linchpin of his strategy of carving up the Confederacy into isolated portions unable to come to each other’s aid.
Before his run for governor, Vallandigham had served as newspaper editor, lawyer, and a Congressman redistricted out of his seat in 1862. He was not even in the state he was trying to serve in fall 1863: his virulent criticism of Lincoln led to his arrest in May for treason by Gen. Ambrose Burnside, then conviction by a military commission. Lincoln, embarrassed by the political fallout but not wanting to undercut a commander in the field, insisted that Vallandigham had been arrested not for criticizing him but for undercutting the war effort by encouraging desertion. (Union conscription, Vallandigham proclaimed, was unconstitutional.) Rather than commit Vallandigham to prison, however, he had deprived the Copperheads of a chance to transform this racist into a free-speech martyr by having him transported, under a flag of truce, to Confederate General Braxton Bragg in Tennessee. The Confederacy, not liking the Copperhead’s statement that he was “a citizen of Ohio, and of the United States,” didn’t want any part of him, either, so Vallandigham had escaped on a blockade runner and sailed to Canada. This was his base of operation for directing his gubernatorial run as a “Peace Democrat.”
The Copperheads demanded that Vallandigham be allowed to return to Ohio, but Lincoln was not about to do so any time soon. “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, and not touch a hair of the wily agitator who induces him to desert?” the President had written Democratic governors who had complained of the threat to civil liberties posed by the arrest. “I think that in such a case, to silence the agitator and save the boy, is not only constitutional, but withal a great mercy.” Vallandigham could return, the President said, but only by agreeing to support the war effort.
The ex-Congressman refused. It had to be especially galling for Lincoln to hear that, two months after Vallandigham’s arrest in Dayton—and six months after he had berated the administration, in Congress, for expending blood and treasure on an unwinnable war—the war critic had launched his gubernatorial campaign from the Canadian side of the border at Niagara Falls, vowing to “return with my opinions and convictions…not only unchanged, but confirmed and strengthened.”
Lincoln could ill afford a man of this ilk who would undercut the war effort in the governor’s chair. Without conscription in the early years of the war, the Federal government needed state governors’ cooperation in raising troops and securing arms. Many had responded vigorously, including John Andrews of Massachusetts and Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania. Oliver P. Morton of Indianapolis, faced with recalcitrant Peace Democrats, had been forced to run his state without a state legislature, or the appropriations it could vote on, for two years. (The latter’s leadership was so skillful that years after his death, the people of Indiana included a likeness of him among the two it was allowed in Congress’ Statuary Hall.) In 1862, the Northern governors, at a key point in the war, had reaffirmed their support for the war effort (including the controversial Emancipation Proclamation), though pressuring Lincoln to sack the timorous George B. McClellan as commander in chief.
In particular, more than 300,000 Ohioans would serve in the Union forces at one point or another in the Civil War—more per capita than any other Union state. This critical source of manpower could not fall into the hands of an antiwar critic.
Fortunately, a solution was at hand. In the spring, the GOP had beaten back stiff challenges in the Northeast from Peace Democrats by using the term “National Union Party” rather than “Republican” and by extending furloughs to soldiers so they could vote on the election. When they noted how well this worked, the same electoral strategy was employed in Ohio.
It worked beautifully. On the same day that Gov. Curtin was returned to office in Pennsylvania, Indiana voted for the National Union Party candidate, John Brough, by a landslide of 100,000 votes. Key to the victory were the 41,000 soldier votes for Brough versus only 2,000 for Vallandigham. Lincoln was ecstatic: “Glory to God in the highest: Ohio has saved the Union.” Four days later, he issued a call for 300,000 more men.
The call-up would be crucial to the next year and a half of hard fighting. The Army of the Cumberland was in such a desperate way after its loss to the Rebels at the Battle of Chickamauga that it had been reduced to quarter rations. Four days after Ohio had rejected the candidacy of Vallandigham, Lincoln asked a native son of the state, Ulysses S. Grant, to assume command of all Union forces between the Appalachians and the Mississippi as he came to the aid of the Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Chattanooga. Grant’s subsequent successful campaign would cap a momentous year for him that led to his move east, to fight against Robert E. Lee, in the following year.
Success in Tennessee and Georgia in 1864 ended up swinging Northern opinion decidedly against negotiating with the Confederacy for an end to the fighting on anything other than a restoration of the Union. In the Presidential election of 1864, Lincoln repeated the success that Brough had with the votes of the military, gaining 70% of soldier votes that year.
As for Vallandigham, he returned to Ohio, but Lincoln decided not to bother with him again. The Copperhead died not at the hands of Union executioners, nor even by languishing in a Federal prison, but as the victim of his own carelessness in the practice of the law. Retained for the defense in a murder trial in 1871, he intended to show that the victim had died by accidentally shooting himself in a barroom brawl. Demonstrating to his colleagues how it might have happened, he picked up a pistol he mistakenly believed unloaded that—sure enough—accidentally discharged.
The jury accepted this defense and acquitted his client, largely on the basis of what had happened to Vallandigham: he died of his wound.