Civil War Politics, Nationalism, and Postwar Myths

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    ISTORY, Napoleon Bonaparte once stated somewhat cynically, is a myth men agree to believe, i.e., lies agreed upon. Thomas Carlyle, dipping his pen in acid ink, offered a similar supposition by defining

    history as the distillation of rumor.* Although American his- torians, preaching probity and extolling objectivity, have elimi- nated many legends and erroneous interpretations from the stream of Civil War history, some myths and incorrect assumptions re- main as pollutants, darkening the waters and affecting its purity.

    Civil War myths and legends gained respectability and ac- ceptance as fact in the years following the conflict partly because nationalism helped to transform partisan and majority views into the correct ideas and interpretations. Nationalism, as a political force and a subtle operative, affects the minds of men and affects the writing of a countrys history. Defined as a psychological phenomenon and a state of mind, nationalism dictates that everyone owes his loyalty to the nation-state and provides a frame- work for consensus history.3 It tends to promote majority con- tentions of an age, or an era, as the true views and proper inter- pretations. It tends to transform historical figures into national heroes, lauding their virtues, effacing their errors, and tarring. their critics. I t even tends to present partisan suppositions and mcor-

    Dr. Klement, Professor of History at Marquette University, served as president of Phi Alpha Theta during the 1974-75 biennium. This topic was his presidential address at the international convention of Phi Alpha Theta in Atlanta on Decem- ber 29, 1975.

    1 J. Christopher Herold, The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection from His Writ- ten and Spoken Words (New York, 1955), 50.

    2Thomas Carlyle, The French Rewolution: A History, 3 vols. (London, 1898), I: 256.

    8Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nutionalism, A Study of Its Origins and Back- ground (New York, 1!344), 16. Boyd Shafer, president of Phi Alpha Theta during the 1972-73 biennium, is the author of two books which deal with nationalism as a world force: (1) Nationalism, Myth and Reality (New York, 1935), and ( 2 ) Faces of Nationalism, New Realities and Old Myths (New York, 1972). Also see Shafer, Webs of Common Interests: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Peace, The Historian 36 (May 1974): 403-33.


  • The Historian rect assumptions of the Civil War years, the majority views of the time, as historical truths and galvanized generalizations. His- torical myths and legends, historian Thomas A. Bailey stated in an address, are needful in establishing national identity and stimu- lating patriotic pride.4

    Some of the Civil War myths and legends arose out of the political contentions and the political stratagems practiced by the majority party which controlled both Congress and the White House during the early 1860s. The Republican party held most of the governorships as well, and party leaders, therefore, had an opportunity to claim that they were the government, present their contentions as the true views, and practice tactics to stifle and suppress the opposlition, i.e., Democratic dissenters who wanted their own views and suppositions to prevail.

    The Civil War years witnessed some despicable political prac- tices or dirty tricks, for the greater the intensity of partisanship, the more likely immoral means will be used to serve partisan ends. Although Democrats of the war years did not have clean hands at all times, Republican practices and political claims had the far greater effect in determining what facts and generalizations weavers put into the fabric of history. Repitblican contentions provided much of the woof, their practices much of the warp.

    Joseph Medill, an influential Republican and editor of the Chicago Tribune, typified party spokesmen whose misrepresenta- tions and practices gave shape and color to the fabric of history. His opinions and assertions, made in the columns of his news- paper, provided documentation for latter-day historians writing consensus history. Patron of a young aspiring politician named Abraham Lincoln, Medill gave his protCgC some confidential ad- vice in 1859: Go in boldly, strike straight from the shoulder- hit below the belt as well as above, and kick like thunder.5 No- body, not even Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune nor Governor Oliver P. iMorton of Indiana, hit below the belt as consistently and effectively as Medill.

    Civil War politics contain countless examples of artful lying, outright forgery, and smear tactics, as well as the use of such devious stratagems as fashioning bogeymen, devising conspiracies and ex- pos&, and using the arms of the government to present falsehood as fact - falsehoods which posterity accepted as correct events, ideas, and interpretations.

    Thomas A. Bailey (presidential address at the 1968 convention of the Or- ganization of American Historians), The Mythmakers of American History, Journal of American History 60 (June 1968): 5.

    &Joseph Medill to Abraham Lincoln, September 10, 1859, Robert Todd Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.


  • Civil War The manufacture of lies as political propaganda was a most


  • The Historian received an extensive circulation in the Republican press:

    (1) Vallandighams arrival in Canada coincided with the New York antidraft riots of July 13-16. 1863. Republican editors supposed that Vallandigham had been responsible, in one way or another, for the violence, perhaps conniving with Confederate agents to start the rioting. The suppositions were eventually nurtured by a forged letter, reputedly writ- ten by a man who was aboard the L,ady Davis, which Val- landigham took from Bermuda to Halifax. This forgery implicated the exile, maintaining that he planned the bloody disturbance and that his agents set it in motion.9

    (2) Same Republicans suggested that Lees invasion of Penn- sylvania, culminating in the battle of Gettysburg, had been suggested or encouraged by Vallandigham while an exile in Dixie. A forged letter, supposedly written by an agent who had spent several weeks in Richmond, made the rounds of the Republican press. The anonymous author of the forged letter claimed that he had witnessed a conference between Vallandigham, General Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis and that he had overheard the exile urging an invasion of Pennsylvania to coincide with an uprisilng in the upper Midwest. lo Vallandighams denials, including his assertion that he had never set foot in Richmond, failed to stop the widespread circulation of this forgery.

    (3) Republicans circulated a similar story, one linking Val- landigham to Confederate general John H. Morgans abor- tive raid into Indiana and Ohio. Vallandigham, the myth- makers contended, had helped to plan the daring Confed- erate excursion across the Ohio River, and it was to be timed with an uprising staged by the exiles friends in the hope of establishing a separate Northwest Confederacy. One tangent of the lie was that Morgans men cheered for Vallandigham and instructed those whom they captured and paroled to vote for the exile and against the Republican- sponsored candidate. 11

    (4) The Vallandigham-to-Inshall letter, another forgery, also made the rounds of the Republican press. The letter, re-

    DL)ayton Daily Journal, July 15, 1863, and November 22, 1867. Ditroit Prer Press, September 14, 1863. The Free Prers attributed the forgery.

    which linked Vallandigham to Lees invasion of Pennsylvania, to Henry Reinish. UDayton Daily Journal, July 15 and 16, 1864; CZeueZund Leader, July 30, 1863;

    New Lisbon Buckeye State, August 13, 1863; Bucyriis (Ohio) Weekly Journal, August 14, 1863; Columbus Daily Ohio State Journal, July 20, 1863; and BuffaZo Morning Express, July 18, 1863. This myth is perpetuated in such widely read works as James D. Horan, Confederate Agent: A Discovery in History (New York, 1954).


  • Civil War ports said, had been written by Vallandigham, when an ex- ile in the South, to a rebel friend, Daniel D. Inshall, a colonel in the Eighth Alabama Regiment. The letter, sup- posedly, was discovered when Colonel Inshalls body was searched after his death on a battlefield, and it was plucked from a pocket to become public property. In the letter, Vallandigham called himself a friend of the South, ex- pressed sympathy for the Confederate cause, denounced the U.S. government as hated and tyrannical, and closed with the statement my heart bleeds for Dixie. The forged letter, published a day or two before the fall election, re- ceived a nationwide circulation and gave Democrats and Vallandigham, waiting fitfully in Canada, little chance to denounce or repudiate it.12

    Forged letters, perhaps, had less effect upon election returns than another tactic - devising a bogeyman to scare voters and discredit the opposition. The most popular Republican-devised bogeyman took the form of the Knights of the Golden Circle, portrayed as a subversive secret society composed of Democrats steeped in subversion. Two pamphlets, both claiming to be ex- pos& of the Golden Circle, prepared the way for the use of a bogeyman as an election-eve stratagem. l3

    T h e bizarre story had its setting in Marion County, Ohio, where Thomas H. Hodder edited a Democratic newspaper noted for its vicious anti-Lincoln editorials and its opposition to the war. Known and unknown persons threatened Hodders life and vowed to destroy his printing plant. In turn, Hodder and some of his Democratic friends organized a mutual protection society to defend each other and their property from the hands of the self-styled patriots who talked of using a halter and a torch to suppress dissent. Hodders friends agreed upon a specific signal to be used if one of them needed help or if the office of the Democratic newspaper was threatened.

    On the eve of the October 1861 election, several Republican rascals produced a set of forged documents which portrayed Hod- ders ill-organized mutual protection society as a castle or council

    * Cincinnati Gazette, October 12, 1863; and Columbus Daily Ohio State Journal, October 10, 1863.

    The first, Joseph W. Pomfrey, -4 True Disclosure and Exposition of the Knights of the Golden Circle, including the Secret Signs, GTip.s, and Chnrges, of the Three Degrees, as Practiced by the Order (Cincinnati, 1861), came off the same presses as the Republican-oriented Cincinnati Gazette. The second, credited to a member of the Order, was really written by a young Republican, Dr. John M. Hiatt of Indianapolis. It was entitled An Authentic Exposition of the K.G.C., Knights of the Golden Circle . . . and published by C. C. Perrine & Company of Indianapolis in July 1861.


  • The Historian of the Knights of the Golden Circle and turned their questionable evidence over to the newspapers. Several Republican editors pub- lished election-eve extras featuring the revelations, and a federal marshal, in on the hoax from the very beginning, arrested Hodder and other Democratic leaders in an attempt to convince the wary public that the Knights of the Golden Circle really existed in Marion County and Ohio. The very wording of the bogus oath should have made it suspect, but war psychosis served as a breeding ground for rumors and made the ridiculous seem commonplace. The bogus loath read:

    And I will further promise or swear in the presence of Al- mighty God, and the members of the Golden Circle that I will not rest or sleep until Abraham Lincoln, now president, shaIl be removed out of the Presidents chair, and I wilI wade in blood up to my knees as soon as Jefferson Davis sees proper to march with his army to take the city of Washington and the White House, to do the same.14

    Golden Circle suppositions spread to other Ohio counties, as well as neighboring states, and proved to be effective political propaganda. Democrats, of course, rushed their denials and de- murs into print. We believe that this secret organization has no existence in reality, wrote one prominent editor, and it is our conviction that the whole affair was concocted by a few dishonest politicians to influence well-meaning men to vote against the Democratic party. l5

    Time and a postelection trial discredited Republicans respon- sible for devising the Golden Circle bogeyman and revealed that the evidence consisted of fraud and forgeries. lo Having found an effective political stratagem, however, Republicans used the Golden Circle bogeyman time and again. Michigan Republicans parlayed Franklin Pierces visit into a K.G.C. scare, even branding the ex-president a prowling traitor spy. l7 -4 Chicago Tribune correspondent, who doubled as an aide to the Republican governor of Illinois, devised an expos6 of the Golden Circle in August of 1862,lS partly to justify a series of arbitrary arrests and partly to influence the fall election returns. lo A politically-minded colonel,

    expose published by the Springfield Daily Ohio State Journal, October 8, 1861. I4The bogus oath and other supporting documents appeared as part of the

    IE (Columbus) The Crists, November 7, 1861. ** Cleveland Leader, October 10, 16, and 18, 1861; and History of Marion County,

    l7 Detroit Tribune, n.d., quoted in the Detroit Free Press, September 25, 1861.

    =The use of the K.G.C. bogeyman in Illinois is treated more extensively in my Copperhead Secret Societies in Illinois During the Civil War, Journal of the IZltnois State Historical Society 48 (Summer 1955): 152-80.


    Oh20 (Chicago, I883), 448-49.

    Chicago Tribune, August 26, 1862.

  • Civil War who played the role of man Friday to the governor of Indiana, repeatedly raised the Golden Circle bugaboo to discredit Demo- crats, cover his errors of judgment, inflnence elections, and justify the arming of the Union Leagues.2O

    When the Golden Circle bogeyman became rather tattered and torn, Republicans sewed on a new coat and brought on new names. A politician hoiding a colonels rank and stationed in St. Louis devised a lengthy revelation about the Order of American Knights in 1864, entitling his expos6 Conspiracy to establish a North- western Confederacy.21 Even the New York Tribune published the startling revelations in full 22 and gloried in the political effectiveness of the revived bogeyman. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Mortons man Friday, Carrington, also put a set of new clothes on the old bogeyman, and the Sons of Liberty made the headlines as the result of a lengthy expos6 published in the Indianapolis Journal. z3

    Even the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, got into the act, instructing his judge advocate general to investigate the secret society suppositions. Judge Advocate General Joseph Hol t pro- duced a fourteen thousand-word report in which he presented the suppositions as facts. Holt claimed that the Knights of the Golden Circle had evolved into the Order of American Knights and even- tually into the Sons of Liberty, all hampering the war effort and plotting treason. Holt discussed eleven speciEic purposes and operations of the serpentine societies and estimated that half a million members practiced perfidy in the upper Midwest. 24

    Republicans riished Judge Advocate General Holts report on secret societies into press as a campaign documentz5 intended to help maintain their party in power and win a second term for Lincoln. Republican-sponsored Union Leagues disseminated

    20The role of Governor Oliver P. Morton and Colonel Henry B. Carrington in giving headlines to the K.G.C. is reviewed in my Carrington and the Golden Circle Legend in Indiana during the Civil War, Indiana Magazine of History 51 (March 1965): 31-52. The full story of the K.G.C. is summarized, more or less, in my Ohio and the Knights of the Golden Circle: The Evolution of a Civil War Myth, Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin 32 (Spring-Summer 1974): 7-27.

    The undated document is in the John P. Sanderson Papers, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus. It was first published in the St. Louis hfrssouri Democrat, July 28, 1864 and then broadcast over the country.

    New York Tribune, July 29, 1864. 28 Indianapolis Journal, June 29, 1864. Report, Joseph Holt to Hon. Edwin M. Stanton, October 8, 1864, published

    in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, series 2, 128 vols. (Wash- ington, D.C., 1880-1901), 7: 930-53.

    26 Report of the Judge Advocate General on the Order of American Knights, alias the Sons of Liberty: A Western Conspiracy in Aid of the Southern Rebellion (Washington, D.C., 1864).


  • The Historian one hundred thousand copies as an effective means to convert the unwary, 26 inadvertently passing on a myth to posterity. Democrats, of course, denounced Holts report as a conglomeration of false- hoods 27 and denied the propriety of the Republican party using an arm of the government to manufacture ante-election false- hoods for its own purposes. 28

    Republicans not only made a deliberate effort to discredit the Democracy by developing the legend that thousands of dissenters belonged to subversive political societies but used a tar brush to discredit the opposition. Republicans, led by Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, blatantly called all who opposed any of President Lincolns policies a variety of smear terms: traitors, allies of Jeff Davis, secessionists, friends of the rebels, and Copperheads. T h e term Copperhead became the favorite word of derision by the time the war reached the halfway mark, and Republicans claimed that most Democrats deserved to be named after the poisonous snake with the brown-blotched body and the copper-colored head. Radical Republicans agreed with a diarist who wrote A defender of slavery, a Copperhead, and a traitor differ so little from each other that a microscope magnify- ing ten thousand times would not disclose the difference. A pro- slaveryist, a Copperhead, and a traitor are the most perfect tres in 1inum.~9 Scores of poems appeared, some advising President Lincoln to stomp upon those whom they stigmatized as Copper- heads. One such verse read:

    Theres a foe behind your back, Old Abe, that crouches for a spring,

    Besides the one [i.e., the rebels] in front of you whose shouts defiant ring;

    It is life or death with us, Old Abe, Strikef ere it is too late,

    And crush the traitorous, crazy crew that clamors at your gate. 30

    The smear campaign of the war years discredited Democratic dis- senters, even the loyal opposition, most effectively and passed on to posterity a new proper noun with a degrading meaning: Cop

    =William B. Lord to Joseph Holt, November 13, 1864, Joseph Holt Papers. Library of Congress; and John McGaffey to William Henry Smith, November 17,1864, William Henry Smith Papers.

    Springfield Illinois State Register, October 18 and 21, 1864. s8 Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, October 16, 1864. a8 Adam Gurowski, Diary . . . from March 4, 1861 to November 10, 1864, 3 vols. 9o Hartford (Wisconsin) Home League, November 15, 1862.

    (Washington, D.C., 1862-66), 11: 302.


  • Civil War perhead - a northern sympathizer with the South during the U.S. Civil War. al

    The smear campaign developed an interesting tangent. Re- publicans developed still another type of dirty trick as a political device - they drew up formats for conspiracies, used an array of detectives (some outright rascals) to transform suppositions into treasonous plots, exposed the so-called conspiracies in the public press, and used military commissions to gain convictions and pro- duce political propaganda.

    Governor Oliver P. Morton, claiming that his party monopo- lized patriotism, set the stage for such a political program in Indiana, for he needed reelection and Republican victory to vin- dicate his dictatorial and extralegal practices and to indemnify himself. When the determined governor failed to convince two military commanders that enough evidence existed to make arrests and conduct treason trials, he succeeded in replacing the two recalcitrants with servile military men. The Governor, one of the deposed commanders later wrote, urged the arrest of the Indiana members [of the Sons of Liberty and the conspiracy] as essential to the success of the National cause in the autumn elec- tions. 32 General Samuel P. Heintzelman, removed as command- er of the Northern Department because he would not play Gover- nor Mortons game, learned later that he lost his post because he did not make enough arrests and because he did not believe that the evidence at hand supported the conspiracy theory. The deposed commander recorded his humiliation in his journal: I have not been radical enough - wont arrest people without or- ders [from Washington] - would not take the responsibility of doing what Mr. Stanton would not do without Mr. Lincolns or- ders. They cant make me radical. I will do what I think best for the country & not the party. I have served my country too long to now commence to serve a party.53

    General Alvin P. Hovey, who had assured an assemblage of Republicans that the Democrats would not carry the 1864 elec- tions if he could help it,84 served as Governor Mortons lackey and chief executioner. He arrested some prominent Democrats as

    The American College Dictionary, text edition (1948), S.V. Copperhead. Henry B. Carrington, Indiana War Documents Cleared of Error (thirteen-

    page undated typed ms.), 8, Henry B. Carrington Papers, Archives Division, Indiana State Library, Indianapolis. General Alvin P. Hovey replaced Carrington as com- mander of the District of Indiana.

    83 Samuel P. Heintzelman, Journal, entry of August 8, 1864, Samuel P. Heintzel- man Papers, Library of Congress. General Joseph Hooker replaced Heintzelman as commander of the Northern Department. The District of Indiana was a subdivision of the Northern Department.

    Zndiunapolis Stute Sentinel, September 9, 1864.


  • The Historian well a5 some second-rate ones, brought in a partisan judge advocate to serve as both prosecutor and judge over a hand-picked military commission, and wrote a wretched chapter in the history of Amer- ican jurisprudence. Although the evidence consisted largely of hearsay and supposition, the military commission found five Demo- crats, including Lambdin P. Milligan, guilty of involvement in a conspiracy, largely because of the tactics used rather than because of the evidence presented. R5

    Republicans staged the same comic opera in Illinois, with dif- ferent scriptwriters but a similar script. An editor of the Chicago Tribune provided the basic outline for the conspiracy plot, 3* and Colonel Benjamin J. Sweet, commandant at nearby Camp Douglas, fleshed out the format. Colonel Sweet, seeking a promotion and anxious for the glory which had escaped him on the battlefield, hired six detectives to find evidence to support a nonexistent con- spiracy, and he made the arrests on the eve of the November 1864 elections as proof that the plot existed. Sweet claimed that Chicago Copperheads, cooperating with rebels in Canada, had devised a plot to free the eight thousand Confederates being held in Camp Douglas, burn Chicago, sponsor an insurrection, and establish a separate confederacy sympathetic to the South. 37

    After Colonel Sweet arrested those whom he tried to involve in the nonexistent plot, the Chicago Tribune published an expose with bold headlines as election-eve propaganda. Sweets fantasy and the grand expose even implicated Clement I,. Vallandigham, back in Ohio after a year in exile, and General George B. McClel- lan, Democratic presidential nominee. 38

    After the elections were over, Major Henry L. Burnett, who had directed the Indianapolis treason trials so expeditiously, su- pervised the trial of the Chicago eight before a military com-

    35 Gilbert R. Tredway, Democratic Opposition to the Lincoln Administration in Indiana (Indianapolis, 1973) is a watered-down version of his dissertation, Indi- ana Against the Administiation, 1861-1865 (Indiana University, 1962), arid both dixredit Governor Mortons tactics, the military procerdings, and the judge advo- cates high-handed practices. Kenneth M. Stampp, The Milligan Case and the Election of 1864 in Indiana, Mississippi Valley Historical Review 31 (June 1944): 41-58, recognizes the political implications in the Indianapolis trials.

    William A. Deacon Bross, financial and commercial editor of the Chi- cago Tribune, later gave two different and conflicting accounts of how he first heard of the Confederate-sponsored conspiracy. See Bross, Emgraphical Sketch of the Late General B . J . Sweet [and] History of Camp Douglas: A Paper Read Before The Chicago Historical Sociely, June IS, 1878 (Chicago, 1875), 18; and Tracy E. Stretey, Joseph Medill and the Chicago Tribune during the Civil War Period (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1930), 188-89.

    s7 Report, Colonel Benjamin J. Sweet to Brigadier General James Fry, November 23, 1864, in Official Recoids, series 1, 45: part 1, 1077-80.

    Chicago Daily Tribune, November 8 and 9, 1864.


  • Civil War mission convened in Cincinnati. Colonel Sweets chief witness, John T. Shanks, had the record of a renegade: perjurer, forger, deserter, bigamist, liar, horse thief, and ex-rebel. Sweets six detectives, the principal witnesses in the trial held in Cincinnati, transformed a local Democratic club into a castle of the Sons of Liberty and wove a web of treason around a handful of little- known Chicagoans. They also entrapped George St. Leger Gren- fell, an English soldier of fortune, who had stopped over in Chi- cago when returning from a hunting safari in south central Illi- n ~ i s . ~ ~ Although the farce ended tragically for the English ad- venturer Grenfell, it had a happy ending as far as the Republicans were concerned; Republicans won the 1861 presidential contest and a dirty trick of great magnitude gained respectability in history - political propaganda won widespread acceptance as a historical happening.

    Republican political propaganda and Republican poIitica1 ploys, practiced by the majority party during the crucial years of the Civil War, led to the development of six myths still recited and repeated by historians 110 years later. The six myths are:

    (1) That Democratic critics of the Lincoln administration, i.e., Northern Democratic dissenters during the Civil War, were pro-Southern in their sympnlhies, treason-minded in their proclivities, and deserving of the cmenr term, Copperhead. These Democratic critics of Lincolns policies have been presented - especially by nationalist historians - as men whose hearts were black, whose blood was yellow, and whose minds were blank - friends of Jeff Davis, defeatists, fifth columnists, and irrational critics who discouraged enlist- ments, sponsored antidraft riots, hampered the war effort, joined subversive secret societies, engaged in conspiracies, and earned an appellation which equated them with the poisonous, copper-colored snake which struck without warning. Actually, the Copperheads and (or) Democratic dissenters were conservatives who opposed the changes which the war imposed upon the country. Their wartime slogan, The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, indicated that they hung tenaciously, if ineptly, to their conservative political, social, and economic heritage. They opposed the transformation of the federal union into a centralized na- tional government, the triumph of industrialism, the exten- sion of the social revolution (including the freeing of the

    911 The traditional story, repeated in such well-known books as George Fort Milton, Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column (New York, 1942), 278-304, 323-34, is challenged in my book, The Copperheads in the Middle West (Chicago, 1960). 199-202.


  • The Historian slaves), and the upsetting of the three section balance of power. The so-called Copperheads of the upper Midwest drew most of their membership from three socioeconomic elements of the population: irish-.4mericans, German-Amer- ican Catholics, and the Butternuts, i.e., ex-Southerners who had left the upland South to preempt the poorer sec- tions and soils of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Some were outright racists and political bigots; others were concerned constitutionalists who realized that the undercurrents of the war were affecting the countrys ideas and ideals. The so- called Copperheads should be judged by what they said and did in their socioeconomic and political setting, rather than by General Ambrose E. Burnsides suppositions about loyalty and treason or Governor Oliver P. Mortons do,pmat- ically partisan contentions or Horace Greeleys definitions of partisanship and propriety.

    (2) That the Knights of the Golden Circle existed as a viable, extensive, ProSouthern subversive society, drawing multi- tudes of Democrats into its thousands of castles or councils and promoting treasonable activities. Actually, the Golden Circle was little more than a paper-based organization and a figment of Republican imagination. It was little more than a bogeyman created by partisan propagandists to discredit the Democracy, justify the creation and arming of Union Leagues, and affect the election returns.

    (3) That the Order of American Knights was a widespread sub- versive organizntion, lineal descendant of the Kniqhts of the Golden Circle when exposis and expediency cauted the latter to disintegrate. Actually, the Order of American Knights was little more than another political mirage and bogeyman devised for political effect. The effort to develop the American Knights as an agency to serve Democrats fear- ful that their rights might be quashed collapsed completely before a politically-minded colonel, stationed in St. Louis, concocted an expose out of lies, misrepresentations, and sup- positions.

    (4) That the Sons of Liherty became the lineal successor of the Knights of the Golden Circle and the Order of Americun Knights, that the new secret Democrntic society had half n million members, and that the organizalion had treasonable objective^.^^ Actually, the Sons of Liberty was little more than another paper-based proposition, charted by a second-

    & Traditional interpretations of the Order of American Knights and the Sons of Liberty are summarized in Bethania Meredith Smith, Civil War Subveraives, Journal of the Illinois State Historacal Society 45 (Autumn 1952): 220-40; and Elbert


  • Civil War rate Indianapolis politician and devised to serve as a mutual protection society, a fraternity to elect Democrats to office, an association to maintain free and open elections and pre- serve civil rights, and a means to nominate a peace man as the partys presidential candidate.

    (5) That Lambdin P. Milligan, whose name was later associated with a notable US. Supreme Court case ( E x Zartc Milligcln), was involved in a conspiracy to seize a federal arsenal, free rebels held as prisoners in Camp Morton, und revolutionize the Midwest in 1864 and that justice was dispensed by the Indianapolis treason trials. Actually, several of Millfgans political allies, notably Harrison H. Dodd, were guilty of seditious talk and taking money dispensed by Confederate agents in Canada, but Governor Morton transformed a mole- hill into a mountain through the Indianapolis-based exer- cise in military justice. The Indianapolis treason trials were little more than a political stratagem promoted by Governor Morton to discredit the Democracy, create political propa- ganda, and effect his reelection and vindication.41

    (6) That the Camp Douglas conspiracy -supposedly a Plot to free rebel prisoners being held in a prison compound out- side of Chicago, burn the city, and sponsor an uprising which would lead to the establishment of a Northwest Confederacy - was real and that the subsequent treason trial in Cincin- nati revealed that a treasonable plot was nipped in the bud. Actually, the formula for the so-called Camp Douglas con- spiracy was devised by a partisan Republican editor of the Chicago Tribune, and a politically-minded colonel fleshed out the format and hired an array of detectives to frame some Democrats and deveIop a plot. The subsequent expose and the treason trial held in Cincinnati provided the substance for still another Civil War myth.

    These six Civil War myths, evolving out of Republican politi- cal propaganda and majority views, gradually gained acceptance and respectability. The nationalistic upsurge, nurtured by the Grand Army of the Republic, helped to transform Civil War sup- positions into historical facts. So did the gradual transformation

    J. Benton, The Movement for Peace Without Victory during the Civil War (Cleve- land, 1918). The traditional story of th,e Order of American Knights has been de- bunked in my article Phineas C. Wright, the Order of American Knights, and the [John P.] Sanderson Exposi., Civil War History 18 (March 1972): 5-23.

    Tredway, Democratic Opposition to the Lincoln Administration in Indiana, discredits the Indianapolis treason trials effectively. Lorna Lutes Sylvester, on the other hand, follows a more pro-Morton line in Oliver P. Morton and Hoosier Politics during the Civil War (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1968).

    43 1

  • The Historian of Lincoln from a historical figure into a folk hero. The apotheo- sis of Lincoln received an assist from the manner and timeliness of his death. This murder, this oozing blood, Count Adam Gurow- ski wrote in his diary while manning an observation post in Wash- ington, . . . opens to him i m m ~ r t a l i t y . ~ ~ The perceptive editor of Leslies Illustrated Weekly recognized that the Civil War presi- dent was a martyr to a cause and an ideal, writing, Abraham Lincoln has joined the noble army of Freedoms Martyrs. Christ died to make men holy; he [Lincoln] died to make men free.4s A Connecticut clergyman also predicted the deification of the assassinated president. In a memorial sermon he stated, We shall hear the name of Lincoln mentioned hereafter as the martyr of Liberty. 44

    Some prominent Republicans of the war years also had a hand in fastening majority views upon history as the true views during the decades following Appomattox. Having helped to devise Re- publican propaganda during the war, they wrote their contentions as history after the war. Horace Greeley, for example, repeated many of his wartime allegations about Democratic perfidy, sub- versive secret societies, and treason plots in a two-volume work which he entitled The American Conflict.45 Whitelaw Reid, a newspaperman whose Cincinnati Gazette broadcast suppositions about the Golden Circle and subversion, wrote his views into a widely read work entitled Ohio in the War.4D Dozens of others followed suimt, whether writing formal history or personalizing their reminiscences. 47

    Gurowski, Diary . . . from March 4 , 1861 to November 10, 1865, 3: 398. Leslies Illustraied Weekly (New York), April 29, 1865. Funeral Obsewances at New London, Connecticut, in Honour of Abraham

    Lincoln . . . including the Public Addresses of Rev. G . B. Willcox and Rev. Thomas P. Field, D.D. (New London, 1865), 32-33.

    N, Horace Greeley, T h e American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States, 1860-1865, 2 vols. (Hartford, Conn., 1867), 1. 350, 492-93, 2: 18-19, 556-58.

    4fi Whitelaw Reid, Ohio in the ma?, 2 vols. (Cincinnati, 1ES8), passim. The term dozens of others includes such diverse works as (a) Berry R.

    Sulgrove, History of Indianapolis and Marion County (Philadelphia, 1856); @) William H. H. Terrell, Report of the Adjutant General of Indiann, 8 vols. (Indiana- polis, 1869); (c) Felix G. Stidger, Treason History of the Order of the Sons of Liberty . . . (Chicago, 1903); (d) I. Winslow .4yer, The Great Northwestern Con- spiracy in All I t s Startling Details . . . (Chicago, 1865): (e) Edmund Kirke Uames R. Gilmore], The Chicago Conspiracy, Atlantic Monthly 16 (July 1865): 108-20; ( f ) Wi!liam A. Bross, Rioaraphical Sketch of the Late B . J . Szoeet: History of Camp Douglas (Chicago, 1878); (g) Eugene F. Baldwin, The Dream of the South: The Story of Illinois during the Civil War, in Transactions of the Illinois State His- torical Society, 1911 (Springfield, 1913); jh) Jubal A. Early, The Story of the Attempted Formation of a N.W. Confederacy, Southern Historical Society Papers


  • Civil War The 1890s proved to be the second era which helped to fasten

    the six Civil War myths upon history. A nationalistic upsurge characterized the decade - it underwrote the big navy policy, the search for world power, the imperialist craze, and the jingoism and breast-beating of the self-styled patriots. Nationalists applied the Horatio Alger format to Lincoln and put him on a pedestal. Scores of regimental histories appeared, most appealing to pride and passion. Union veterans preached patriotism as they lobbied for pensions, reviewed their wartime experiences at encampments and reunions, and developed a myopic view of the late war. The popularity of U. S. Grants memoirs, published during the late lSSOs, stirred anew the fires of patriotism as the majority views of the Civil War years became consensus history. William D. Foulke, a newspaperman turned historian, wrote a two-volume biography - it could properly be characterized as a eulogy - in which he presented Oliver .Morton, Indianas Civil War gover- nor, as patriotism personified, while he depicted the Democratic critics as evil men. Foulke incorporated Republican suppositions about Democratic disloyalty, subversive societies, and treasonable plots as historical truths. He gave respectability to the six Civil War myths which Governor Morton had helped to develop and perpetrate.

    Even James Ford Rhodes, writing his magnum opus and unable to distinguish between wartime Republican propaganda and his- torical fact, presented Democratic critics of war policy in a bad light, assigned untold numbers of Democratic dissenters to sub- versive societies, and put his stamp of approval upon the treason trials held in Indianapolis and Cin~innati .~S

    The World War I era seemed to revive an interest in Civil War subversion and the treason trials. Mayo Fesler, an Indian- apolis newspaperman who had been weaned on Civil War myths and suppositions, responded to the war psychosis of his day and decided to seek more information about the Knights of the Golden Circle and secret wartime activities. He wanted to tap the mern- ories of the old timers, men active in Civil War affairs, before Father Time gathered the full harvest. He formulated a question- naire seeking information about the Golden Circle and secret society activities and sent it to five hundred old timers, including many Indiana Democrats accused of belonging to some secret societies. I n addition, Fesler personally interviewed two hundred - 10 (April 1882): 154-58; (i) John B. Castleman, Active Ssruice (Louisville. Ky., 1917); and (j) Henry B. Carrington, Indiana War Documents Cleared of Error (ms.), in Carrington Papers.

    James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinlry-Bryan Election of 1896, 7 vols. (New York, 1893-1906). 5: 311.

    43 3

  • The Historian more aged citizens, putting his questions orally.

    Not a single Democratic respondent to the written questions or the oral interrogations, even those whom Republicans had pub- licly accused of Golden Circle activities during the war, admitted membership in any secret subversive society. Nor did any know of a single council or lodge existing in their neighborhood. Republi- can respondents, on the other hand, repeated the suppositions about the Golden Circle and Democratic secret societies which they had read in their partys press or heard at poiitical rallies.

    Instead of accepting Democratic denials a t face value, Fesler developed an interesting rationale to support his own sup- positions; Democratic respondents who had once belonged to the Golden Circle lied, denying any knowledge about subversion be- cause they regarded their secret society vows binding for life and superior to any civil oath. In other words, Fesler, inquisitor extra- ordinary, used the lack of tangible evidence as further proof that the subversive societies existed, spewing treason on the home front during the war.

    Unable to distinguish between the Knights of the Golden Cir- cle, the Order of American Knights, and the Sons of Liberty, Fesler lumped them all together, asserting they were really one and the same thing - an assertion that should have made his work suspect. These secret associations, the single-minded newspaper- man concluded, bore different names in different sections and at different periods of the war. He also repeated the old saw that hundreds of thousands of Democrats joined the subversive orders and that the prime purpose of the serpentine societies was to overthrow the government, thus lending assistance to the southern rebel~.4~

    The editor of the respected Indiana Magazine of History pub- lished Feslers long composition, entitled Secret Political Soci- eties in the North during the Civil War, for it bore the trappings of scholarship. Although Feslers pseudo-scholarly work incor- porated his own suppositions and much historical hogwash, it won acceptance in the best academic circles. Fcslers contentions en- tered the college textbooks, and his notable article became the gospei during the 1920s and the 1930~.~O

    48 Mayo Fesler, Secret Political Societies in the North during the Civil War, Indiana Magazine of History 14 (September 1918): 183-85, 280-86.

    bo During the 1920s, Curtis H. Morrow wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled Politico-Military Societies in the Northwest (Clark University, 1927). It covered much of the same ground earlier tilled by FesIer, and its conclusions also paralieled Feslers. Portions of the dissertation were published in five installments in Social Science 4 (November 1928-August 1929): 9-31. 222-42, 348.61, 365-476; and ibid. 5 (November 1929): 73-84.


  • Civil War A generation later, when World War I1 stoked the fires of

    nationalism and patriotism again, renewing an interest in dissent and subversion associated with previous wars, George Fort Mil- ton composed a poorly researched and hurriedly written potboiler entitled Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column. Accepting propaganda of Civil War days as historical fact, Milton blamed the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Order of American Knights, and the Sons of Liberty for draft disturbances, widespread dis- content, and wartime conspiracies. Adept at drawing word por- traits and dramatizing historical events, Milton wrote a book that read like a detective thriller. I n the end, according to Milton, truth triumphed over evil and Lincoln over the purveyors of treason. Not only had Lincoln been elected for a second term in the November elections of 1864, Milton concluded with a lit- erary flourish, but he also won a complete victory over the seces- sionists fifth column in the Loyal States. 61

    Important people endorsed Miltons book, inadvertently sanc- tioning his retelling of Civil War rumors and myths in readable fashion. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a favor to a friend, arranged to be photographed holding the book preparatory to boarding a plane for one of his conferences with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill. Roosevelt also gave the book a plug by equat- ing dissenters of his own day with those of the Civil War era, applying the term Copperhead to both. Homer S . Cummings, FDRs attorney general, also endorsed Miltons book, pointing out that it dealt with the appeasers, the seditionists, and the faint- hearted of another day when the nation was in peril.62 Even Henry Steele Commager, one of the countrys most respected his- torians, wrote warmly in Miltons behalf. The timely tale, Com- mager averred, was a stirring and on the whole, heartening story of how Lincoln out-maneuvered and confounded the appeasers, the defeatists, the malcontents, and the fifth columnists of the Civil War era.68

    T h e same year which saw the publication of Miltons popular potboiler also witnessed the appearance of Wood Grays scholarly and stilted book, The Hidden Civ i l War: The Story of the Copjier- heads. The book evolved out of Grays doctoral d i s~er ta t ion ,~~ which had gathered dust for ten years before World War IT re- awakened an interest in Civil War subversion and defeatism. More

    George Fort Milton, Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth CoIrrmn, 334. (D Homer S. Cummings, quoted on the dust jacket of Miltons Abraham Lincoln

    Is Henry Steele Commager, ibid. MWood Gray, The Peace Movement in the Old Northwest, 1862-1865: A

    and the Fifth Column.

    Study in Defeatism (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1934).


  • The Historian scholarly than Miltons book about Democratic dissenters in Lin- colns day, Grays book, nevertheless, followed the nationalistic and anti-Copperhead course. Gray collected hundreds of quota- tions from Copperheads and their critics and hung them on the line of treason. Expressing the nationalism of the hour, he saw the Copperhead leaders as a type that is dangerous in a democ- racy - dissenters who must be guarded against in time of crisis among a free peop1e.E5

    Writers of college textbooks borrowed from such historians as Wood Gray, George Fort Milton, and Mayo Fesler, presenting Democratic dissenters of Civil War days as subversives active in secret societies and involved in treasonable plots. John D. Hickss widely used one-volume textbook, A SI2ort History of Anz~ricnn Democracy, followed the patriotic line. The book, which reputedly sold a million copies, depicted Democratic critics of Lincolns war policy in a bad light, implying that they deserved to be equated with the poisonous snake with the copper-colored head. Hicks de- picted Copperheads as peace-at-any-price men who joined subver- sive societies like the Knights of the Golden Circle and gave aid and comfort to the Confederacy. 66

    John D. Hickss recitation of Civil War propaganda seemed to encourage others to do likewise. Mark M. Boatner I11 incor- porated myths about Copperheads into his oft-used reference work, The Civil War Dictionary. Boatners reference work, re- garded as a bible by some Civil War cultists, devoted three and one- half sentences to the best known of the secret societies of the war years:

    Knights of the Goldm Circle. A secret order in the North of Southern sympathizers. Originally starting in the South, its purpose was the extension of slaverv in the 185Os, and as the movement spread into other part? of the country, it became the organization of the Peace Democrats. who disproved of the war. In the latter part of 1863, the name was changed to the Order of American Knights, and in 1864 to the Sons of Liberty. Vallandigham was the supreme commander of this Iast-named order, having been active in the originaI organiza- tion as well.57

    The three and one-half sentences contain eight errors of fact - more than two errors per sentence -and helped to popularize

    uWood Gray, The Hidden Civil War: The Story of the Copperheads (New

    M1 John D. Hicks, A Short History of American Democracy (Boston, 1943). 403. Mark M. Boatner, The Civil War Dictionary (New York, 1959), 175. Some

    of the same errors appeared in the Ewzyclopedia Britannica, 1951 edition, 13: 441-42.


    York, 1942), 224.

  • Civil War some of the myths which evolved out of Republican political propaganda of the 1860s.

    Writers of historical novels borrowed from academe, trans- forming Civil War myths and suppositions into folklore. William Blake mixed sex and intrigue in a ratio which made his book, The Copperheads, a best seller. Blake began his historical novel by assuming that all Copperheads, i.e., Democratic critics of Lin- colns war policy, were traitors and that many joined the Knights of the Golden Circle. The story features a pretty New York miss (Maria Meinhardt) and three suitors. The first was a wealthy

    and corrupted scion of an old New York family, also a Copper- head and a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle. He sought the heroines hand while engaging in illegal trade with the Confederacy and partaking in subversive activities. The second suitor, a fervent Unionist, possessed the finesse of Falstaff in the art of wooing a fair maiden. The third suitor wore the heros mantle, being a staunch patriot, a brave soldier, a gentlemans gentleman, and an ardent lover wrapped up in one. After winning the fair maidens heart and serving a stint in the Union army, the War Department sent him on a spying mission into the upper Midwest to ferret out a plot of the Knights of the Golden Circle to subsidize a rebellion and establish a Northwest Confederacy. When the hero foiled the plot and returned to New York to marry his beloved, he found her already married to suitor number two. Like a gallant gentleman, and in the manner of Tennysons Enoch Arden, the disappointed and sad suitor tiptoed off into the night.68

    Constance Robertsons historical novel, entitled The Golden Circle, also made the best seller lists. It featured less sex and more drama, with true historical characters playing minor roles in the tale of intrigue and counterintrigue. The story had its setting in Dayton, the hometown of Clement L. Vallandigham, famous Ohio Copperhead. It centered around a conspiracy scheme de- vised by the Knights of the Golden Circle. Zachary Granger, the hero, arrived in Dayton to investigate subversion, and he soon met Asa Ormerod, the villain who headed the Golden Circle and devised a scheme to revolutionize the upper Midwest and bring a Northwest Confederacy into being. The two not only worked backstage at cross purposes, but both sought the hand of a viva- cious, astute, and wealthy widow. In the end, Granger foiled the treasonable scheme, exposed the villain (he was arrested and car- ted off to prison), and ended up in the widows arms. Patriotism,

    William Blake [Blech], The Copperheads (New York, 1941).


  • The Historian truth, honor, and virtue triumphed over villainy, treason, Copper- headism, and the Golden Circle.69

    Three other historical novels helped to popularize Civil War myths about Democratic dissenters, subversive societies, and s u p posed conspiracies. Ernest Haycox, being rediscovered as a worthy Western writer, entitled a story The Long Storm; it dealt with the Knights of the Golden Circle and a treason plot centered in the far Northwest.00 Phyllis A. Whitney wrote a romantic story, The Quicksilver Pool. It also dealt with the Golden Circle and a conspiracy.61 Mary Tracy Earle told a young peoples tale about an orphaned teen-ager with prorebel sympathies, his Union-mind- ed uncle, and a Golden Circle plot. The uncle, a medical doctor kidnapped by Golden Circle members, showed such pluck that he converted the nephew to Unionism and caused the subversive society to disintegrate in south central Tennessee. 62

    Democratic dissenters of Civil War days were neither saints nor sinners: most were concerned and conservative citizens re- sponding to the issues of their own day. They should not be viewed through the opaque spectacles of their political opponents.

    Republican political propaganda, abetted by nationalism as a force and factor, evolved into some myths which were written into consensus history. Historical truth should never be adulter- ated with political propaganda nor colored by adding generous dosages of an intangible ingredient called nationalism.

    A mythical cat had nine lives. Some Civil War myths have had ten. 133

    Constance Robertson, The Golden Circle (New York, 1951). WErnest Haycox, The Long Storm (Roslyn, N.Y., 1946). In all, Haycox wrote

    twenty novels, each having a Western setting. His best woik might well be Bugles in the Afternoon (Boston, 1944), an excellent fictional presentation of the Custer massacre.

    a1 Phyllis A. Whitney, The Quicksilver Pool (Greenwich, Conn., 1955). The story is available only in paperback.

    O2 Mary Tracy Earle, The Flag 011 the Hilltop (Boston, 1902). Respected historians still repeat the myths about subversive secret societies

    and their conspiracies. A recent article in The Hhtorian, for example, justifies President Lincolns use of arbitrary measures because of seditious, if not treasonous, conduct by elements of the sizable and influential Copperhead press and by such covert organizations as the Order of the Knights of the Goldcn Circle- both threatened irreparably to undermine the war effort - Robert Neil Mathis, Free- dom of the Press in the Confederacy: A Reality, The Historian 37 (-4ugust 1975): 647.



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