1863: “Sense Enough To Withstand Any Amount Of Seditious Nonsense”

It is known that Clement C. Valladigham, late member of Congress from Dayton, Ohio, was lately arrested at his house by order of General Burnside, tried by court-martial, and convicted of inciting resistance to  the Government in the prosecution of the war. And it is reported that he has been sentenced to imprisonment in a fortress during the war. The President enjoys the power of commuting or remitting this sentence altogether; and it is the unanimous hope of the loyal North that he will remit it.

For, whether the arrest of Vallandigham was or was not a wise step, there can be very little question but his imprisonment for months, and perhaps years, in a military fortress would make a martyr of him, and would rally to his side, for the sake of liberty and free speech, an immense number of sympathizers. It would probably make him Governor of Ohio, and would impart great strength to the rapidly-decaying Copperhead sentiment of the Northwest…

It is all very well to say…that war involves a sacrifice of liberty, and that this man Vallandigham was a pernicious and malignant enemy of his country. This we all know… But the question is not whether Vallandigham be a traitor, or whether war involve a suspension of individual rights; it is –  shall we better ourselves and help the country by locking this man up in a fortress, instead of letting him prate his seditious trash to every one who will listen? To that question the reply must be in the negative.

The mistake which has all along been made in this war by the Government and may of its agents has been not trusting the people sufficiently. Arresting seditious talkers implies a fear that the people have not sense or strength of mind enough to resist the appeals of sedition; just as the suppression or retention for a time of intelligence of a defeat implies a doubt whether the people have courage enough to bear bad news. Let us assure Mr. Lincoln, and all in authority under him, that the people of the United States have quite courage enough to bear any amount of misfortunes, and quite sense enough to withstand any amount to seditious nonsense, be it uttered ever so glibly…

The people can be trusted to deal with traitors without any help from Washington, and those who suffer the penalty they inflict – ignominy and disgrace – never find sympathy any where… Copperheadism has become so odious, and the doom of every sympathizer with treason so obvious, that not a single man who has any future to risk will jeopardy it by placing himself on the record as even indirectly sympathizing with a Copperhead. So long as the people are thus firm in their loyalty it is sure superfluous for Government to interpose for their protection against traitors.

Excerpt from a Harper’s Weekly editorial, May 30, 1863.

C.C. Vallandigham

Clement C. Vallandigham

Buckle up from some 1860’s politics… Who was Clement C. Vallandigham?

On May 1, 1863, Vallandigham, a former congressman, spoke at a Democratic political rally in Mount Vernon, Ohio. There, he used fiery speech to proclaim his idea that the war was “wicked, cruel, and unnecessary.” He went further, declaring the sole purpose of the war was to end American liberty, start despotism, free the slaves, and enslave white people. And he forged ahead, railing against General Burnside’s recent orders (General Orders No. 38) which said declaring open sympathy for the Confederacy would not be allowed in the Department of Ohio.

Two days later, Burnside arrested Vallandigham, sent him to trial for violating General Orders No. 38. The Democrat got convicted on May 7 and was sentenced to remain in prison for the remainder of the war. Vallandigham applied for a writ of habeas corpus, but the lower courts denied it, saying they wouldn’t interfere with a military prisoner.

In the end, President Lincoln basically had Vallandigham deported to the Confederacy. In exile, the Democrat ran in the gubernatorial race in Ohio (but lost) and eventually became involved in some suspicious plottings in Canada, though he returned to Ohio in 1864 to muck around in politics again.


Copperheads were Northern Democrats who opposed the war. They tended to be involved in local, grass-root political movements, unhappy with the war and the Lincoln administration. They opposed conscription and active copperheads worked to create disunion, dissatisfaction, and dissent.

Where did the name come from? Republicans used the term in reference to the venomous snake, comparing these dissenters to a snake, sneaking along and trying to cause harm. Copperheads themselves adopted the term and worn the emblem of liberty from copper coins as political pins and badges.

Historical Musings

It’s an interesting argument in the editorial. Did taking one action simply fuel the dissent and rally more people to the Copperhead cause? How much control of the press was/is really necessary?

It’s not the first time individuals had discussed the press’s role in the Civil War. Earlier in the year – for example – General Sherman complained privately and wanted more press security for a better chance of military success. Here, an editorial writer argues that military necessity arrests and suppression of the press were unnecessary and the majority of the people were pro-Union. Clearly, the discussion about the role of the press was far from over. And it’s a discussion that continues to the modern time, though the debate prompters are under different names than Vallandigham, Copperheads, and Union.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

2 thoughts on “1863: “Sense Enough To Withstand Any Amount Of Seditious Nonsense”

  1. Vallandigham was a focal point for northern people who either did not or had come to a point where they could not support the war. His actions were very much those of a “fire-eater,” such as those who inflamed the South with what amounts to hate speech prior to the war. His words split families, and his beliefs were not welcome in the South, for that matter. I am more interested in how people in the 1860s were able to separate soldiers from the war in which they fought. We are still reaping the bitter grains from our actions on this very topic from the 1960s.

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