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Copperheads

Many of the original residents of southwest Ohio came to the area from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.  Not surprisingly, they tended to sympathize with the South and slavery.  Butler County also strongly favored the Democrats in the 1850’s, and that party tended to favor southern political ideals.  When the Civil War started, most of the southern sympathizers in the county refused to support secession, but that didn’t mean they believed in the Union war effort.  A large number of them remained staunchly opposed to the war and would not support it. This combination of southern sympathizers and anti-war Democrats came to be known as Copperheads.  The name was originally used to identify them as the hidden enemies of the Union.  A rattlesnake announced its presence by rattling, but the equally venomous copperhead snake attacked with no warning.  The name was later reinforced by the copper badges (also known as butternut pins) worn by anti-war Democrats.  The Copperheads in Butler County gained strength from the fact that their Congressman, Clement L. Vallandigham, was an outspoken opponent of the war and seen as the leading Copperhead in the state (see Clement Vallandigham on The People page).  

 

The Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret group of militant southern sympathizers formed early in the county, aided by a man named Steve Smith.  Smith went to Kentucky in the fall of 1861 in an attempt to spread dissent among the 35th Ohio and quickly learned that soldiers in the field had no sympathy for anti-war agitators.  Smith was beaten and publicly humiliated for his efforts before being sent packing back to Ohio.  A year later, the 35th Ohio unanimously signed a resolution informing the people at home that if they were not willing to take care of the Copperheads, the soldiers would come home and do it themselves. 

 

Even so, the anti-war movement in the county remained alive and vocal (see Sallie Rogers on The People page).  Political events in 1863 added to their numbers.  The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in January.  Many Copperheads firmly believed the war had already gone on too long and cost too many lives.  To them, the focus of the war was no longer restoration of the Union but freeing the slaves.  Free speech had been restricted by military order and writs of habeas corpus were being denied.  For many, the conscription laws requiring compulsory military service enacted in March were the last straw, and they began to openly call for the overthrow of the Lincoln administration.  Congressman Clement Vallandigham became so vocal in opposition to the war that he was arrested and exiled to the Confederacy in May 1863.  Copperheads in the county attempted to communicate with Morgan’s Raiders in July, but the distrustful Morgan wouldn't cooperate.  After the great cavalry raid ended disastrously, Copperheads in Morgan Township organized the Butler County Mutual Protection Company.  Despite the name, it was a political organization that did not long endure. 

 

Clement Vallandigham made his way to Canada in the fall of 1863 where he announced that he would run for governor of Ohio in absentia.  He was able to get himself nominated as the Democratic candidate, but he lost in a landslide to Republican John Brough.  Vallandigham’s stinging political defeat and Union battlefield success in 1864 greatly reduced Copperhead influence and interest in Butler County.  They were able to maintain a visible political presence, but fewer and fewer people were listening. Butternut pin image courtesy of Jon VanSant.
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