Historic America

“Traitors and Secessionists”

How Republican reaction to wartime dissent stoked tensions and almost led to violent revolution in Illinois.

During the American Civil War, intense disagreement over the conduct of the war erupted in Illinois. Republicans, members of the party that elected President Abraham Lincoln, supported the war, while members of the Democratic Party split between pro-war and pro-peace factions. In 1862, two issues inflamed the peace faction: the military draft and emancipation of slaves. Republicans conflated opposition to these issues with disloyalty and sympathy for the Southern Confederacy.

Though Illinois was a free state, many Illinoisans opposed political equality for African Americans and didn’t want freed black slaves moving north. After President Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, Illinoisans let their opposition known when they returned a Democratic dominated legislature in the midterm elections that November.

Republicans in Illinois did not lie prostrate as the Democratic-controlled legislature attempted to pass resolutions calling for an armistice, legislation that hindered use of the state militia, and obstructed the draft. On the last day the legislature sat in session before its spring recess, in February 1863, a Senator and farmer from McLean County in central Illinois, Isaac Funk, delivered a widely published speech condemning the Democrats for their obstructionism.

“I say that there are traitors and secessionists at heart in this Senate!” he shouted. “Their actions prove it. Their speeches prove it… I can sit here no longer and not tell these traitors what I think of them… I am willing to pay my whole fortune, and then give my life, to save my country from these traitors that are seeking to destroy it.”

Isaac Funk

In the only speech the senator made in his short time in office, he called for decisive action. “They deserve hanging, I say, the country would be the better of swinging them up… What man, with the heart of a patriot, could stand this treason any longer?”[1] Needless to say, Funk’s words did little to heal the rank partisanship in Illinois.

In June 1863, the Republican Governor, Richard Yates, exploited a loophole in Illinois law that allowed him to decide how long the legislature went on recess. He sent the congressmen on an extended vacation, and for the next two years, Yates ruled the state as de facto dictator.

A Republican from Christian County (located in central Illinois), Aden E. Cherington, was serving as an enlisted man from in the 63rd Illinois when he penned a song criticizing the copperheads back home entitled “The Conservative.” “Now to these northern traitors I have a word to say,” the lyric went, “when through with southern rebels we’re coming home to stay. We’ll not forget past favors when to the polls we go, this party called conservative we soon will overthrow.”

Cherington then turned his pen on the Democrats serving in the state legislature. “’Twas at the town of Springfield all in our good old state, the copperheads assembled to try to legislate.” He concluded with a warning, “we soon will settle Davis and his Rebellious crew, and then we will come home and see what we can do for you.”[2]

Similar threats echoed from home front newspapers. Maj. Gen. John A. “Black Jack” Logan, in a speech reprinted by Unionist and Republican papers throughout Illinois, warned that “when [the volunteers] return it will do the soul of every loyal man good to see the summary manner in which they will cause these sneaks and peace agitators to seek their holes.”[3]

Political cartoon in Harper’s Weekly lampooning antiwar Democrats.

Illinois soldiers did not wait for the war to be over before they “settled” with Democrats back home. We will never know how many such instances went unpublished, but a sizable number of abuses by Union soldiers on furlough were reported in the press, and historian Wood Gray admitted that in the case of the most widely published fights between soldiers and Democrats, “a large share of the initial blame was ascribable to the soldiers.”[4]

Two of the more popular ways Illinois soldiers harassed Democrats was by confiscating their weapons, in violation of the Second Amendment, and by forcing them to take loyalty oaths. “Democratic farmers venturing into Mattoon ran the risk of being pulled from their wagons and forced to kneel in a muddy street to take the loyalty oath,” historian Robert Sampson explained. On January 30, 1864, a soldier on leave in Mattoon shot and killed a man who tried to escape that fate.[5]

According to historian Mark Neely, Jr., protestations against “treason” revealed an anxiety over party politics during wartime. Northerners were generally uncomfortable with the existence of a political opposition. “In the context of loyalty and disloyalty, a return to normal political competition constantly threatened violence,” he wrote.[6]

That political competition threatened violence in the North during the Civil War seems undoubtedly true, especially in central Illinois, but in Illinois politics, at least, most were aware that “Unionist” and “Republican” were virtually synonymous and that “Democrat” meant “disloyal.” In the climate of absolutes brought on by a civil war, the aims of the war were the aims of the war party.

By 1864, one could not be for the war and against Republicans, since they routinely conflated Northern Democrats with their “ancient party allies, Jefferson Davis and the Southern rebels.”[7] In the 1864 presidential election, Republicans and pro-war Democrats ran under the National Union Party, with the goals of uniting Northerners behind the war effort and defeating their political opponents.

At the August 29th Democratic National Convention in Chicago, copperheads successfully adopted a platform arguing for immediate peace with the South. The Democrat’s own nominee, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, publicly repudiated the platform. Events on the battlefield overshadowed politics in Illinois. The fall of Atlanta on September 2nd pulled the rug out from under the peace movement. It never recovered, and the threat of political revolution on the home front vanished.

[1] Loyal Publication Society, The Three Voices: Soldier, Farmer, and Poet. To the Copper Heads (New York: Rebellion Record), 1-2.

[2] Kenneth W. Noe, “‘The Conservative’: A Civil War Soldier’s Musical Condemnation of Illinois Copperheads,” Illinois Historical Journal 84 (Winter, 1991): 272.

[3] Crawford County Argus (Robinson), 7 January 1864.

[4] Wood Gray, The Hidden Civil War: The Story of the Copperheads (New York: The Viking Press, 1942), 165.

[5] Robert D. Sampson, “‘Pretty Damned Warm Times’: The 1864 Charleston Riot and ‘the Inalienable Right of Revolution’,” Illinois Historical Journal 89 (Summer 1996): 111.

[6] Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 174.

[7] Congressional Union Committee, The Chicago Copperhead Convention: The Treasonable and Revolutionary Utterances of the Men Who Composed It (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Union Committee, 1864), 3.

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