Copperhead Activitiesby Dr. John W. Miller©1996 The Cincinnati
by Caveat Lector
by Dr. John W. Miller
©1996 The Cincinnati Civil War Round Table
Copperhead, a sinister word when used during the time of the War between the States.
It usually struck terror and consternation to the hearts of the Union Administration. A ray of
hope and possibly a way out, to the Confederacy.
The names Copperhead or Butternuts were used to cover all groups of Peace Societies,
Peace Democrats, Peace at any Price, or militant groups working to overthrow the existing
government and interfere by force, or otherwise with the conduct of the War between the States.
They were instrumental in bringing about one of the most controversial issues of the War.
Were they traitors to the Union, or were they people fighting for freedom of action, of speech
and the pursuit of their own convictions?
In the words of Lincoln, “were they testing whether that Nation, or any Nation, so
conceived and so dedicated could long endure.”
Many Northern political leaders and writers thought the Slave States had a perfect right to
accede and were glad they were doing so.
Senators and Congressmen made speeches in the Halls of Congress, such as Pendleton,
Long, Greeley and others, that nowhere in our Constitution did it say that any State had agreed or
were they duty bound to remain in the Union if they wished to do otherwise. I do not believe that
our Constitution as it stands today, has any rule or disciplinary action to follow if a State wished
In fact, some went so far as to say that in all probability the Founding Fathers had planned
it this way. That if any State in due time felt that they could do better alone or in another group,
they were perfectly free to leave the Union.
The confusion of ideas and impulses in the South was equalled by the hysterical state of the
North in the face of actual secession.
The abolitionists, or most of them, thought that nothing at all ought to be done to bring back
the seceded Statea. They felt that the Northern people should thank God that secession had
helped the Union to get rid of slavery. Horace Greeley wrote ponderously in the New York
Tribune that secession was justifiable, and that he was glad the slave Statea were saying
good-bye. Wendell Phillips delivered an impassioned, erratic speech in which he declared that
a War against the South could end only in disaster. The people of the North would not fight, he
said, and the only result of a War would be the conquest of the North by the South, with slavery
fastened on the country forever.
New York City was a center of disunion sentiment. Its Mayor, Fernando Wood, proposed
in black and white that in case of hostilities, the Metropolis should dissociate itself from the
Uhion and become a free and neutral City. The bankers and politicians whom W. B. Russell met
in New York on his arrival from England held similar views. “They told me”, he wrote in the
London Times, “that the majority of the people of New York, and all the respectable people,
were disgusted at the election of such a fellow as Lincoln to be President, and would back the
Southern Statea if it came to a split”.
The story of the Copperheads, gaudy with secret symbols, passwords and other
conspiratorial paraphenalia, is bloody and full of mighty terror. Beneath the theatrical props
were real violence and fanticism. The true scope of the Copperheads will probably never be
known. When Richmond was burning, Secretary of State, Judah Benjamin burned the record of
his and Hines’ secret dealings with the Copperhead leaders. However, Hines kept copies of
many of his reports and letters, which he sent to his wife with instructions to hide them.
The Knights of the Golden Circle Mayor may not have been the outgrowth of the Southern
Rights Clubs of the 1830’s. Six ships, all equipped for piracy, were sent out on the high seas by
the Clubs, but they were seized and burned by the British.
In 1854 a wonderful old humbug, George W. L. Bickley, took over the Clubs and organized
the Knights of the Golden Circle, with headquarters in Cincinnati, Bickley had an impressive
list of medical degrees – all forged, of course, – and a suitcase of secret signs, symbols and a
“book of rites”. Under his management the Knights spread like wildfire all through the Cotton
South. From hocuspocus rituals they turned to violence and conquest when they tried to promote
the extension of slavery by the conquest of Mexico.
Secession wee their goal in 1860. “Castles” as the Knights called their lodges, sprang up in
non-seceding States. Bickley, active in this work in Kentucky, was threatened with arrest and
fled to Virginia. But the movement flourished in Kentucky and became a real danger to the Union
Army after war broke out.
Not all the Knights knew the secret aims of their leaders. Many solemnly went through the
fantastic rituals, swore their oaths, believing themselves to be only Democrats preserving the
freedom of the ballot against tyrannica1 Republicans. Only those who took the last two
advanced degrees of the ritual were told – then only orally – of the violent goals their leaders
had set. Armed sentries, sometimes the strength of a full Company, guarded the meeting places.
In Illinois the Knights were openly gathering recruits for the Confederate Army in 1861. In
Iowa they burned the homes of men who joined the Federals. In Des Moines the U. S. Marshall
found evidence that the Knights were gunnrunning into Missouri for Quantrill’s guerrillas. In
August, 1862 the Chicago Tribune declared the movement had 20,000 members. Missouri
membership was reported from 10,000 to 60,000 with Castles springing up in every section of
Althought I find no connection between the two groups, long before the hysteria of
secession and actual warfare which brought the Copperheads into being, a group of men in our
government dreamed of an empire to stabilize slavery in the area. They took the first opportunity
to do just that. Their idea was that an imaginary Golden Circle be drawn, 16 degrees latitude
and 16 degrees longitude, with its center at Havana, Cuba. It reached north into Pennsylvania
and Ohio, also including the slave States, and South – – to the Isthmus of Darien. It embraced the
West Indian Islands and those of the Carribean Sea with a great part of Mexico and Central
America. The idea was, to purchase Cuba if possible, otherwise take it by force. Their first
opportunity came when the U. S. Merchant vessel Black Warrior wee seized and condemned by
authorities at Havana (28th Feb. 1864) for an error in her manifest. A clamor for war with Spain
broke out among expansionists in Congress. Pierre Soule’ U. S. Minister to Spain, presented a
claim for damages, followed by an ultimatum demanding immediate satisfaction. Secretary
Marcy checked Soule’, and in 1855 the U. S. accepted a Spanish apology and reparation. Soule’
was instructed by Marcy to meet at Ostend, Belgium, with John Y. Mason, and James Buchanan,
U. S. Minister to France and Great Britain, respectively, for the purpose of shaping a policy on
the acquisition of Cuba. The meeting with the approval of President Pierce, resulted in the
Ostend Manifesto. Declaring Cuba indispensable for the security of slavery, the Ministers
recommended that the U. S. should make every effort to buy Cuba, should Spain refuse, “then by
every law, human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from her, if we possessed the
The aggressive pronouncement of the document was the work of Soule’. The document
brought Marcy’s disavowal, and Soule’ resigned. Publication of the Manifesto aroused Northern
feeling and intensified Spanish resentment of the administration’s annexationists policy. The
newly born Republican party pointed to the Manifesto as proof that a Southern-dominated
administration had surrendered to pressure for more slave territory, Buchanan’s participation
recommended him to Southern Democrats.
What were the economical and social reasons that made secession seem so important to the
South? And a possible creation of a New Empire?
I find the best estimation of this has been made by the historian Dr. Woodward, and I quote,
– There were somewhere near 1,600,000 white families in the South, lesa than 400,000 held
slaves. Three-fourths of the southern families held no slaves and had no direct interest in its
continuance. About 10,000 families owned the great slave plantations and constituted the
wealthy and ruling class of the slave States and they wanted to keep it that way.
The rank and file of the Copperhead movement were the smaller farmers and poor artisans
of the region, if measured by the accumulation of wealth. They, like the poor whites of the South,
saw another vision from that which was seen by the followers of Lincoln. Why were they so
strong in the middle west? The census of 1860 shows that about 6% of the white population of
Ohio were immigrants or descendants of immigrants from slave States, chiefly, Virginia and
Kentucky, and from 12 to 25% from the same states in Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.
The name Copperhead and Butternut, first came into use in 1861 and it depended on which
side you were, as to meaning. If you were a Union sympathizer it was likened to the Copperhead
snake that struck without warring, and the Butternut wood was so soft it was useless. If you
were a Southern aympathlzer, the head cut out of a copper penny indicated freedom, and a
butternut cut in half showed two perfectly shaped hearts joined together which could not be
separated either by law or war.
Different peace societies had many different names: Knights of the Columbian Star,
American Knights and Sons of Liberty, Corps de Belgium, The Democratic Invincible Club,
Democratic Reading Room, Knights of the Mighty Host, Knights of the Circle of Honor and
Mutual Protective Society. These names were obviously used to confuse as to their real
purpose. Their Lodges or Castles, as they were called, were scattered over a number of
Western States. They were strongly entrenched in Southern California, and a number of Lodges
were reported in Michigan, Iowa, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland and
Delaware. In several counties in Pennsylvania and even as far north as Boston, the agents tried
to get a foothold. Who sent these agents out, I have been unable to determine, but they certainly
were active. Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky and Ohio were the hot beds of the
By 1863, Vallandigham speaking in Dayton on the strength of the Copperheads, estimated
their number to be 500,000 in the United States, and this according to Judge Advocate Holt was
very near the truth. They were organized in almost every county and by this time had set up a
military organization. Indiana, alone, was divided into four military districts by a man named
Dr. Wm. Bowles, a wealthy physician from French Lick, who planned, when the time came, to
murder all State and City Officials and take over the government. They used the same signs as
the Confederate Army, such as hand-grips, marking houses that were known to be Copperheads
and firing four shots, counting to fifty between shots. When in trouble, the penalty for any traitor
to the Copperhead cause, was to have his body cut into four pieces and cast to the four winds. It
is amazing, in the light of al1 this, that some men had the courage to divulge these and other
secrets and to become Federal counter-spies within the organization. Among them was a young
clerk named Felix Stidger, under order from Col. Carrington, who was the Union Commander at
Indianapolis. If Hines was the Confederacy’s most dangerous agent, Stidger was his Northern
counterpart. When Stidger’s reports arrived, Col. Carrlngton, a judicious man of sober
judgement thought his investigator’s imagination had run away with him. But when Stidger
predicted that certain Federal supply warehouses would be burned, and they were burned, then
Col. Carrington acted.
On March 19, 1863, Col. Carrington, in a direct wire to Lincoln, reported of Morgans next
raid, that he (Morgan), will leave the command and quietly reappear to raise the standard of
revolt in Indiana. Thousands believe this and his photograph was hung in many homes. In some
counties his name was daily praised. It would appear, then, that by this time the purpose of
Morgan’s raids had expanded. Now according to Col. Carrington’s information, the
Confederates – or at least Morgan – had made some sort of alliance with the Copperheads for a
revolt in the Northwest. On April 1st, Gen. Burnslde, who had been given the command of the
department of Ohio after the Fredericksburg debacle, issued his famous Order No. 38, which
authorized the death penalty for Confederate Couriers carrying secret mails, recruiting officers
of secret societies and “persons found concealed in lines belonging to service of the enemy”.
The following day 3,000 wildly chearing Copperheads greeted Vallandigham at an
open-air meeting in Dayton, to watch the former Congressman spit on a copy of the Order and
hear him denounce Gen. Burnside as a “Usurper of American Freedom”. That afternoon Gen.
Burnside heard of the speech. He immediately ordered the Provost Marshall of Ohio to arrest
Vallandigham. The hour of midnight was melodramatic enough, but Vallindigham added a few
tricks. Grabbing a pistol and barricading himself and his wife in a bedroom, he fired several
shots from a window, shouting “Asa, Asa, Asa”, into the darkness. What the words meant, no
one knows. But it is said they were signals to secret agents who were watching his house night
and day in case a Burnside man attempted to arrest him. The Soldiers smashed in a door,
arrested Vallandigham and took him to a Dayton Military prison. Word swept across the
countryside. In towns and villages men fastened the copper Indian head of a penny in their
lapels, armed themselves with rifles and pistols and marched on Dayton. Thousands streamed
into the City all day, Soldiers with bayonets ringed the jail three deep to stand off the shouting,
jeering mob. When they were usable to break through the ring of steel, the mob led by
Copperhead leaders, took its revenge on the City. Public buildings were burned to the ground,
stores looted, houses broken into and hundreds wounded by stray bullets. In the morning the mob
was gone, leaving behind streets littered with rocks, splintered glass and overturned wagons. A
pall of smoke hung over the City.
Across the sides of many buildings was painted “Release Vallandigham”. Vallandigham
was whisked to Cincinnati, where several lawyers of distinction defended him. His defense was
that no Military Court could try him as there was no rebellion in his State. In the newspapers
were frequent accounts of bands of armed men galloping about the squares of small towns, firing
pistols and shouting and cheering for Jeff Davis, John Hunt Morgan and Vallandigham. On May
10th, Vallandigham was convicted, found guilty of treason and sent to Ft. Warren in Boston.
Then Lincoln reviewed his case and decided he, (Vallandigham) could do less harm in exile
than at home. He sent him to Gen. Rosecrans’ headquarters to be sent through the lines. On the
25th of May he was taken to Murfreesboro, Tenn., and held there under guard. The next day he
was placed on the Shelbyville Pike and before nine wee riding into the Confederate lines to be
escorted to Gen. Braxton Bragg’s headquarters at Shelbyville. On June 2nd Vallandigham left
Gen. Bragg’s headquarters for Chattanooga. He next appears in Canada, a man without a country.
Felix Stidger probably did more to bring the Copperhead leaders to trial than any other
man, along with a man named S. P. Coffin, who was not trusted by Copperhead leaders and was
ordered by Dr. Wm. Bowlee to be murdered by Stidger. This did not occur, as Stidger had him
removed in time to save his life. (There were four other detectives working with this group, but
I found no record of their activities.) This gives us an idea of the lengths to which the leaders
would go to gain their ends. The same organization prevailed also in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri
In the spring of 1864, Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, willing to believe almost anything
that would aid the Confederacy, had come to the conclusion from the report of the Copperhead
organization, that it could be of great aid if the Northwest was invaded.
On March 16th of that year (1864), Capt. Thomas Henry Hines and several other officers
chosen by Hines’were detached from Morgan’s command and instructed by Jefferson Davis and
Secretary of War Seddon, to proceed to Canada in any manner possible to collect and organize
all Confederate soldiers in that country, most of whom were escaped prisoners. With these men
as agents, he and the officers named Lieutenants Bennett, Martin, Headley, Castleman, Young,
Ashbrook and Thompson, who was already in Canada as Commissioner for the Confederate
government. They were to try to organize the Copperheads into a formal group to aid in what is
now known as the Northwest Conspiracy. At the same time, to show that the feeling was
general, a group of 1,500 men in Holmes County, Ohio, defied the Union troops in Columbus to
come and get them. Troops were dispatched from Columbus and in one charge the so-called
Copperhead “Army” was dispersed. But they gained the name in history of “The Holmes County
Hines made his first report to Sec’y. of War, Seddon, in June 1864, from Toronto. Hines
reported that he had met Thompson and had been requested by him to “submit to you (Seddon)
the proposed plan for a revolutionary movement in the West”.
The two regiments now in the process of formation in Chicago, will be placed under
my command, to move upon Camp Douglas and free the prisoners. Simultaneously
with this movement, the Democrats in every county of Illinois, and portions of Indiana
and Ohio will rally to arms. A force of 3,000 Democrats under a competent leader
will march upon Rock Island for the release of the 7,000 prisoners at that place. The
remainder will concentrate upon Chicago and Springfield. State governments of
Indiana, Ohio and Illinois wilt be seized and their executives disposed of. By this
means we hope to have, within 10 days after the movement has begun, a force of
50,000 men. We hope to make a certainty of releasing the prisoners.
Perhaps this dispatch best shows the narrow-mindedness, the provincialism, found in many of
the leaders of the Confederacy. They could never understand that Lincoln’s high ideals of “Union
Forever” really inspired a large section of the North. It was this blind prejudice which made
them believe that they could overthrow the Republic. Relying on the ignorance and credulity of
men, in the end they deceived only themselves.
At about the same time that Hines was planning to move on Chicago, Capt. Castleman on
Rock Island, a group under Capt. Robt. M. Martin attempted to burn New York City. Capt.
Kennedy was captured and executed for his part in the New York City conflicts and other spy
work. Another group under John Yates Beall tried to capture the U.S.S. Michigan, the only
gun-boat on the Lakes, raid the Lake Cities and storm the Johnson Island prison. Beall was
captured and executed for his part. Lt. Bennett H. Young robbed three St. Alban’s balks, Cal.
Martin and Dr. John W. Headley planned and attempted to kidnap Vice-President Andrew
Johnson in Louisville.
On the 29th day of Aug. 1864 the Democratic Convention was held in Chicago, which was
also to be the time for the uprising of the Copperhead group, but owing to the great number of
Union soldiers in the City, the plan had to be given up to be tried at another time. A very bitter
disappointment to the Confederate leaders.
In the early fall of 1864, the plan of Capt. Thomas H. Hines to bring revolution to the
Northwest received its most severe blow. Carefully conceal- ing the identity of his counter-spy,
Felix Stidger, Col. Carrington, Union Commander at Indianapolis, in one swoop arrested H. H.
Dodd, Dr. Wm. A. Bowles, L. Milligan and other Copperhead leaders in the State. Col.
Carrington made sure there were no leaks in his command. He gathered together a picked band
of provost marshals and detectives and at a melodramatic midnight meeting handed out the arrest
warrants in sealed envelopes. In isolated farmhouses, secret hideouts and City flats, men were
taken from their beds. They were forced to listen in sleepy bewilderment as the warrants
charging treason were read to them, then they were hustled off to the military prison. More than
30,000 rifles, revolvers and cane of powder were found under floors, in hay- stacks, and in
graveyards. The Indianapolis trials opened in early October. Bowles, Dodd, Milligan and the
others entered the court room, which was packed with their friends, all hostile to the
Commission. Outside soldiers stood guard, their bayonets keeping at bay the hundreds who
milled about, “shouting that Bowles and Dodd and the rest must be freed or they would have
their vengeance”. The military tribunal was sworn in and took their seats. The first witness
shook the court room. He was Felix Stidger, former Grand Secretary of the Sons of Liberty, and
second in command only to Bowles. Stidger testified for two hours. A recess was taken until the
next day. The following morning the Judge Advocate rose to announce to the court that Dodd had
escaped at 4 o’clock by sliding down to the ground from the second floor by means of a rope
“furnished by his immediate friends”. Bowles and Milligan were sentenced to be executed by
hanging. Gallows were erected on the parade ground of Camp Chase. The State bubbled with
excitement. Riders of the “Sons of Liberty” galloped along roads and lanes, calling the faithful
to arms. Men drilled openly in the yards of schoolhouses, behind churches or on village greens.
As Col. Carrington reported, “The State is ripe for revolution”. Col. Carrington and even Gov.
Morton and Democrats of both factions sent telegrams to Seward and Stanton, predicting that
widespread rioting and blood- shed would follow the hangings. But at the 11th hour, Lincoln
acted. The death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and order slowly returned to
The humiliating failure of the attempted insurrection during the Democratic national
convention in Aug. 1864, convinced the Confederate commissioners in Canada that the Sons of
Liberty could not be depended upon to lead a revolutionary movement in the Northwest …
Captains Hines, Cantrill, Anderson and a few of the Confederate officers who still lingered in
the vicinity of Chicago, did not consider the situation so hopeless. They continued to believe
that members of the secret organization could be used to advantage in fomenting a revolution in
the rear of the Union armies. They conferred with some of the more radical peace men and found
that they were still disposed to assist in an attack on Camp Douglas for the purpose of releasing
Tuesday, Nov. 8, 1864, the night of the Presidential election, was selected as the time for
this second attempt. Public interest at that time, they thought, would be centered on the result of
the election and the presence of a large body of men from southern Illinois, members of the Sons
of liberty and southern sympathizers, would not create any suspicion in a city the size of
Chicago. Furthermore, the garrison at Camp Douglas had been reduced to 800 men, chiefly of
the veteran reserve corps, with Col. E. J. Sweet, commanding. At this time the prisoners
numbered between 8,000 and 9,000 Confederates, many of whom were reckless bushwhackers
from Morgan’s band of raiders. Captain Hines was confident, that if these men could be set at
liberty, they would create consternation in the northwest.
The small Chicago contingent, in the meantime, was employed in the purchase of arms, and
the manufacture of ammunition. The home of Charles Walsh, one of the most active of the Sons
of Liberty, who lived within a block of Camp Douglas was made the store house and the factory
for these amateur revolutionists. The campaign was to be under the direction of Captains Hines
and Fielding, Colonels George St. Leger Grenfel, and Vincent Marmaduke. The plans in general
were the same as those adopted for the uprising on Aug. 29, with the exception that the field of
operation was to include only Indiana and Illinois. At a given signal on the night of election
Camp Douglas was to be attacked from three sides and the Confederate prisoners were to rise in
revolt and overpower the guards; arms were to be seized in different parts of the city; telegraph
wires were to be cut, banks robbed, and a band sent west to free the prisoners at Rock Island
and seize the arsenal. These things accomplished, the forces were to move through Indiana and
Illinois, accumulat- ing strength as the proceeded south, to a chosen rendezvous on the Ohio
where a junction was to be made with the Confederate forces under Forrest, then in Kentucky.
There was some reason for their confidence in a successful attack on Camp Douglas, for,
according to Cal. Sweet’s testimony, there were not more than 250 men on duty at any one time.
The Camp, including an area of 60 acres, was surrounded by a board fence 12 ft. high and could
be easily assailed from either side. A band of 500 men on the outside, working in conjunction
with 8,000 seasoned Confederate soldiers on the inside, could readily overpower so small a
garrison. Moreover, the time chosen was a most seasonable one. In the midst of the rejoicing
over the result of the election the firing of signal rockets would not be noticed and the presence
of the citizens down town would leave the region about the Camp practically free of inhabitants.
But the Confederate leaders were again at fault in their estimation of the character of the
men with whom they had to deal. Informers were within their own camp. A majority of the
members of the Sons of Liberty were men of smell calibre and little honor and they admitted
into their confidence – – men who had no scruples against the role of informer. These men
offered to report the transactions of the order for a stipulated sum per report. Col. Sweet
employed not only these men, but two Confederates who were willing to betray their comrades.
(John T. Shanks and Maurice Langhoon.) To verify the reports of these informers he enlisted the
services of Col. Thomas H. Keefe, of the war department secret service, and Capt. E R.P.
Shurly of the veteran reserve corps, acting adjutant general at Camp Douglas. Since the fiasco of
Aug. 29th, Col. Sweet had not ceased his vigilance. He learned through these agents that the plan
for the release of prisoners had not been abandoned . . . At his request Gen. Hooker, commander
of the department, came to Chicago to confer with him. A number of conferences were held with
the military, State and City authorities, all of whom were convinced that a plot for the release of
the prisoners was developing.
The election, it will be remembered, was to take place on Tuesday, Nov. 8th. On the 5th,
Col. Sweet was informed of the arrival of a large number of suspicious characters from Fayette
and Christian counties. On Sunday, the 6th, it became evident that additional bands had arrived
in the city, many of whom were escaped Confederate prisoners of war and soldiers of the rebel
army. Colonel Sweet delayed making any arrests, hoping that by Monday, the 7th, all the leaders
and many more of the men and arms of the expedition might be captured. But he decided, as he
says in his report, that “the great interests involved would scarcely justify taking the inevitable
risks of postponement”. He, therefore, sent a dispatch to Brigadier General John Cook,
commanding the district of Illinois, urging him to send reinforcements at once.
Col. Sweet made arrangements at once for a raid on the conspirators. Col. Lewis C.
Skinner, commander of the Eighth Veteran Reserve Corps, was sent with a squad of 50 men to
search and guard the house of Charles Walsh, another squad, under command of Capt.
Pettiplace, was sent to surround the Richmond House, While a third detachment of 100 men,
under Capt. Strong, marched into the heart of the City to preserve order and arrest suspects.
After some difficulty Col. Skinner gained admittance to Walsh’s house where he arrested Walsh
and three of the Confederate Officers – Captains Cantrill, Travers, and Daniel. At the Richmond
House, Col. St. Leger Grenfel and J. T. Shanks were arrested – the latter for mere form’s sake,
for he was employed by Col. Sweet to spy on Grenfel. At the home of Dr. E. W. Edwards, 70
Adams St., Col. Marmaduke and Capt. Hines were known to be stopping. The former was
arrested, but the latter (Hines) eluded Detective Keefe. Judge Buckner C. Morris, treasurer of
the Sons of Liberty, was next arrested at his home. All of these arrests were completed before
Monday morning, Nov. 7th.
These prisoners were examined at Camp Douglas by Col. Sweet and his assistants The
testimnyy convinced him that the Sons of Liberty furnished the inspiration for this attempted
insurrection and that some of the leaders were in consultation with the rebel officers. These
arrests completely crushed
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