Saturday, March 18, 2023

Loyal to the Union vs. Disloyal Copperheads -- A Missouri Union Soldier's Perspective

 If you loyally stand for the Union, how do you deal with family that doesn’t?  The following letter written by Thomas M. Coleman (6th Missouri Infantry) to his sister, Elizabeth Coleman in 1863 gives sad insight into the divisions that were personal, not just national. (The letter is from a private collection; punctuation and misspellings reproduce author’s writing style.)

Camp Sherman, 3rd Sept. ‘63
Dear Sister,
    ‘Tis with the greatest of pleasure that I take my pen in hand to inform you that I am well at present and hoping that these few lines may find you all the same.  I was on picket when I received your letter, and could not answer your letter any sooner.  We were out on picket on Black River six miles from our present camp.  We had one man shot by guerrillas from the opposite side of the river. If the officer had not sent out guards on the other side of the river the men would have burnt all of the houses within five miles of the river, for some of them follow nothing but shooting Union soldiers such me.  Are not worth wasting powder and lead, for the rope is the thing for them, and that is the best thing for the Copperhead.  If that is true what you said in your letter, about father, I shall never go near where there is a Copperhead.  I am going to get a furlough and go to Missouri in one week from today.  You need not look for me at home.  Old George Crane sent for me to come there.  He wants me and Martin and Steiner to come back as soon as our time is up I will go there, for I will never go after what he passed around there, for I can get along myself.  I don’t think very well of that, for I have undergone hardships of every description for the old Union.  Thank the great ruler off all being, that He spared me this long, but if I am spared through this time, and I am needed, I will still fight for the old flag that I followed many days, till it is restored master of this continent once more.  Then I will be satisfied.  If those Copperheads were in the rebel army, I would serve another five years, till they were all killed and under the sod.  I am in good earnest.  As for me coming home, that is played.  I must stop for this time.  Uncle Bill Reel is going to Illinois, and they are going on a farm there.  So nothing more at present, but remain your brother until death.  
Thomas M. Coleman

The 6th Missouri Infantry Regiment was organized at St. Louis, Missouri, June 15 - July 9, 1861, mustered in for three year service; mustered out of service on August 17, 1865.  Involved with the Vicksburg Siege May 18-July 4. Assaults on Vicksburg May 19 and 22. Advance on Jackson, Miss., July 4–10. Siege of Jackson July 10–17. At Big Black River Camp Sherman until September 25, 1863.
Reading this letter shows the loyalty Thomas Coleman feels for the Union, and also the divisions that are occurring in his family because not everyone agrees with him in his loyalty to the Union.  He chooses to stand by his decision to fight for the Union even if it means he must walk away from family.

Who were the “Copperheads” and what did they stand for?
“Copperheads” were people in the North who opposed using force to bring the southern states back into the Union, and instead wanted at first an immediate or then as the war progressed a negotiated peace settlement, (also called “Peace Democrats” or “Butternuts”).  These “Peace Democrats” were tagged “Copperheads” by the Republicans for two reasons:  first, they choose to wear badges made from one cent copper Liberty coins, and secondly, just like deadly snakes, they were traitors trying to kill the Union.  So “copperhead” is an interesting political play on words.  Obviously for those who supported the war effort, “copperhead” was not a positive moniker to be tagged with. 
There were variations on why people opposed the war to preserve the Union, and how they opposed it.  Some saw the conflict as a result of the extremist abolitionists stirring up trouble, or due to rich Northerners seeking more power and money through tariffs on the south, or an attempt to increase Federal power over the states.  Many southerners who had migrated north of the Ohio River saw it as an attack on their culture.  Immigrants were also drawn toward this approach as the war progressed in order to avoid being drafted into service.  In Missouri, Copperhead groups often came out directly in support of the Confederacy and fought against Unionists in the state.  The reasons why people, mostly Democrats, opposed the war varied.  Not everyone in the North was pro-war, just as not every Southerner fought to preserve slavery.  Generalizations make good politics, but do not accurately present the complexity going on in our nation at the time.  Sadly, it is true that out of the Civil War, there has come a now constantly increasing “federalization” power grab which defies what the founding fathers wrote into the Constitution.  But I digress.
For an interesting survey of historical interpretations of the meaning and effects that the Copperhead movement had on the Civil War, see the article “Copperheads” by Jonathon W. White on Essential Civil War Curriculum website.  It’s an interesting survey how views of the Copperheads have changed, depending on culture and time.

The Copperhead badge was made by cutting the Liberty Head symbol out of a copper large cent
and soldering a pin on the back side, or by drilling a small hole in the top so a ribbon could be threaded through it so the copper badge could be worn to show you were opposed this terrible war.  The wearing of Copperhead badges appears to have peaked in 1863 as the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg seemed to evidence that things were turning in the Union’s favor.

Returned Soldiers Punish a Copperhead -- An interesting news report from The Commercial Times Newspaper– Oswego, NY – May 21, 1864:
An exciting affair took place last evening at Shunpike, a small station on the Central [rail]road, a short distance west of Auburn. When the train containing the 26th regiment reached there, the station keeper made his appearance wearing a copperhead badge on his coat, in plain sight. This disloyal exhibition incensed the soldiers, and in less time than we are relating the occurrence, the odious emblem was torn off.  The station keeper, allowing his zeal in a bad cause to out-do his discretion, got very mad, and starting for his house, declared that he would get his pistol and shoot his assailants. Upon this some two hundred of the soldiers surrounded the house, smashed in the windows and doors and nearly destroyed the structure. They would have severely handled the misguided copperhead himself, if he had not made haste to escape by a back door. The conductor of the train, upon hearing of the occurrence, hurried up the departure of the train.  The copperheads will learn speedily that the soldiers look upon them as no better than rebels in arms, and woe be to them if they do not keep their unpatriotic feelings within due bounds.

Children Projects:
1) Explore some articles on Civil War Copperheads to get a better idea of the variations in what they believed and how they operated during the war.  Explore what might have been the effects in both the North and the South if their idea of “peaceful negotiation” to the split had been followed.  Explore what might have happened if Lincoln had lost the 1864 election and been replaced by McClellan and the Peace Democrat Party. 
2) Discuss how people today show their support/allegiance to various causes.  Clothing items/ flags/ internet postings/ bumper stickers – oops ignore the last one, sorry am old school.  During the Civil War period, Patriotic Envelopes both helped to shape public opinion on issues as well as enabled people to show their support of various causes during the Civil War.  Explain to your children what a “letter” is and how in the old days people used to write and mail them as a means of communications.  Yes, am being sarcastic.
3) Explore the issue of family division, in the Civil War and today.  May not be a comfortable discussion, but it has happened down through the ages for multitude of reasons.  Does it make sense that Coleman, who is clearly dedicated to preserving the Union, would walk away from his father? Why or why not?  Is it better he walks away than keeping going back home and maybe increase the anger into open hostile confrontation? Also look at the Commercial Times article.  Does it make sense that the soldiers who have been putting their lives on the line would be upset with a Copperhead?  In the discussion, remember that both “sides” (those for secession and those against it) insulted and openly attacked their opponents.