The presidential election was just a few short months away in July of 1864, but Abraham Lincoln’s return to the White House was still far from certain. The final outcome of the war remained in doubt, and many of the Radical Northern Democrats felt that if they could finally drive “Old Abe” from Washington, there would be a reconciliation with the South, a welcome return to the Union as it was, and a quick resolution to the widely detested Civil War.
No organization represented this opinion more vigorously then the “Copperheads,” an association of Unionists who vehemently opposed the war as well as the compulsory military draft and the abolition of slavery – they called for an immediate cessation of hostilities with the Confederate States of America. Their opponents named them after the venemous rock dwelling snake, but the Copperheads turned their moniker into a sly tribute to the image of Lady Liberty found on the copper penny, which they cut out as a pin and wore defiantly on their clothing. It was a movement rooted in the region just north of the Ohio River, and their leader was attorney Clement Vallandigham, a retired newspaper editor from Ohio and a former member of the U. S. House of Representatives.
Vallandigham had been a good friend of Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War. He had also been convicted in a military court for his anti-war activity. Although the President had commuted his sentence to appease the War Democrats and then banished him to the South, he was an unwelcome guest there and subsequently fled to Canada, where he continued to rabble-rouse against “King Lincoln.” He slipped back into the U. S. in early 1864, and immediately resumed his anti-war activity.
The overall influence of the Copperheads fluctuated along with the fortunes of war–regardless, they were viewed as traitors by their fellow Unionists. Copperhead activity reached a violent peak in March of 1864 during a bloody riot in Charleston, Illinois, a state experiencing deep political turmoil and unrest. A seemingly spontaneous event led to a confrontation between the Copperheads and some local Republicans, resulting in nine dead and 12 wounded. Nevertheless, the group remained active in the Prairie State, and they continued to demonstrate right up to the DNC convention in August of 1864.
It was in the middle of this political maelstrom that Abraham Lincoln agreed to participate in “unauthorized” peace negotiations with Confederate representatives in Niagara Falls, N.Y. on July 18, 1864. The President was strong armed to the conference table by Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the influential New York Tribune. Greeley was no friend of the president, and he hoped to replace him on the ticket at the Republican National Convention in Baltimore, MD.
Lincoln reluctantly agreed to publish his private correspondence with Greeley regarding the planned peace negotiations, seeking to avoid a public quarrel with the powerful newspaperman. Responding to reports that he had contradicted Greeley’s allegations about his role in the mediation, he said:
“Yes, all the newspapers will publish my letter, and so will Greeley. The next day he will take a line and comment upon it, and he will keep it up, in that way, until, at the end of three weeks, I will be convicted out of my own mouth of all the things which he charges against me.
No man, whether he be private citizen or President of the United States, can successfully carry on a controversy with a great newspaper, and escape destruction, unless he owns a newspaper equally great, with a circulation in the same neighborhood.”
The peace talks bore no fruit, but military events would ultimately decide the outcome for the President, his eventual re-election, and the end of the Confederacy. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, which began in the spring of 1864, would be a bloody but strategic success by mid-summer. The Siege of Petersburg, which began in June of 1864, also ran its deadly course – in nine savage months of fighting, it would lead to the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond, VA.
By July, General William T. Sherman’s campaign was making major inroads towards Atlanta, with victories at Paces Ferry, Peachtree Creek, and Ezra Church. Within two months his troops would oust the Confederate forces and fully occupy that key rail town, creating the groundswell that Lincoln rode to re-election. Sherman’s ensuing “March to the Sea” would also help to bring the struggling Confederacy to its knees.
The two letters presented here were sent to John Mathews during the crucial month of July 1864. They were written nine days apart by his cousins Mary Brown and W. B. Mathews – both residents of Yates County, a farming community close to Peoria in the heart of Illinois. These letters offers a glimpse into life in a small town as the country endured uncertain times with a difficult road ahead.
–Clifford B. Davids
John H. Mathews, Esq., Co. B 11th Regiment,
Veteran Reserve Corps–Alexandria, Virginia
July 15, 1864
Your welcome letter was duly received sometime ago, but since the reception of it my time has been so occupied that it was not convenient for me to answer it. Since receiving it I have spent three weeks in Burlington—just returned last week.
I was glad to hear that you were “doing as well as can be” for that is well enough, but I will take you as you meant it for I know there are many things you would have otherwise if you could.
I think you have been quite fortunate in getting to Washington, that is if you have no more hardships to endure than you would have in the west—for there you will get to see so much that you would not see otherwise.
You will get to see what the art of man can do towards beautifying this world for I expect that neither pains nor expense are spared, and the best taste consulted to make it beautiful at Washington. You will get to see many of our great men and many other things worth seeing. I should like very much to travel there myself to view some of the wonders of the world. I am a great admirer of nature, also of the art of man.
I think it a shame the way they use General Washington’s burial lot—it would be bad enough for the Rebs to treat his grave so. I should think that ground might be kept sacred from such use.
Well! I suppose you will want to know how the Brown’s are getting along in the army. Scott and John were both in that terrible-but-short-battle on the 27th of June at Kennesaw Mountain. Both came out unscratched, but Scott was not very well–the last we heard from him he got overheated after the battle. They were forced to fall back and he undertook to carry a wounded man back. He carried him about half a mile and gave out. He never wrote how he got overheated, but one of the company that was slightly wounded and came home told us.
George and Sarah Brown have been in a battle too–or almost one. The Fourth of July there was a picnic near Fairview. Two of those female traitors from below town came out with Copperhead pins on. It was more than some of the folks could stand.
Some of the girls from our neighborhood concluded they would take them off. They wanted some of the boys to back them in case they should have trouble. George said he knew nothing of it until a girl of his acquaintance (a cousin to John McKeigham) came to him and said she had two brothers fighting traitors, and so had he, and then asked him if he would not stand by her.
George went with her and cheered them along. They succeeded in getting the pins off, and by that time all disloyal emblems had disappeared. Sarah Brown is one that helped take them off. I am very sorry I was not there to help her with that job.
Our set was taken up and it cost them 55 dollars, but that is nothing. I would help do it again. George paid the bill, but the legal people around say it shant cost him anything. They will make it up for him. One gentleman has already sent him five dollars. The Cops lay it all on George, but they have the saddle on the wrong horse.
Now please write me soon and I will be sure to answer it sooner then I did this.
With much esteem and love.
Mary L. Brown
John Mathews, Point Lookout, Maryland
Co. B 11th Regiment, Veteran Reserve Corps
July 24, 1864
Nearly two months has elapsed since we received your last interesting letter. I just begin to think it about time it was answered. You know it is not necessary for you and I to write once a week as you get so many letters from home that contain all the news I can tell you. I hear as often as once a week from you through your folks.
A week or two ago a dispatch in the paper alarmed me some for your safety as it stated that 20,000 Rebs were making for Point Lookout to gobble up you boys and liberate the prisoners. So it was thought, but I guess you are ungobbled yet. I guess the Johnny Rebs “heard” you were in a place that was hard to “flank.” They may have also had an intimation that there were some few gunboats within shelling distance.
Well a good many things have transpired since I wrote to you before. Gen. Grant has fought his way to and around Richmond, Sherman has to Atlanta, and we French Creekers have fought our way most through the harvest. There has been more small grain harvested with less hands here this year than ever before. I think most all are done with the grain, we are now at the hay. I have stood it well, so have the boys Joe and Bob. They have made full hands all through.
“Old Abe” it seems wants a few more boys for a year or so. I think he will get them without much trouble. This state has only about 10,000 to raise. More than that number will volunteer.
The boys whose time is out are home and coming home, and most of them after spending a month or two here will go back again. They don’t seem satisfied here nor will they be while the war is going on. One thing about it now is every drafted man will have to go or furnish a substitute . They cannot get off by paying 300 dollars as before. So there will be 500,000 men raised this time, not a few men, and the rest raised in money, as in the two last calls.
I suppose you will long ere this reaches you have read of the last Copperhead and rebel scheme to try and make the people believe that Lincoln will not agree to any terms nor take any steps toward peace, but is for exterminating the Southerners and prolonging the war indefinitely. I allude to the correspondence between Clay & Holcombe and Horace Greeley and the President. I think “Old Abe” told them a little bit of the best thing he has got off in a long time. He told them who he would receive and who he would not, and what he would do and what not, and at the same time expressed the greatest willingness to stop the war that a man could express. His old ugly head is all right. I hope he will stick to his position and I guess he will. If he don’t, I won’t stick to him.
Some of the traitors here showed signs of pleasure when it was feared that Washington was in danger. Any of them that I met who felt such got my sentiments with the “bark on.”
August 1, 1864
Well John, this letter has not been sent yet. When I was going to finish it I found Mother had written one to you. So I thought I would not send mine for a day or two but wait to see if something would not turn up. I have waited up till now but nothing of importance has transpired. We have got all of our hay in in good order and some of the wheat and we are getting this morning what we need worse then either. That is a rain.
There is to be a grand Copperhead rally at Peoria this week. The hand-bills have the names of all the prominent Cops in the U.S. on them to be there to speak—Vallandigham at the head. I have just got done telling Esther that I hope it will pour down rain the whole day and that night. My subject at our next “Fools Aid” is Government. I am since thinking and reading on it. I am convinced of two things: that I know very little about it, and that this government of ours is the best, the cheapest, the freest and the greatest that now exists or ever has existed on earth. I wish every traitor in the nation could see it in that light. This war would not last long but as a part of the people would rather see the government cut in two then see slavery die or pass higher taxes. This thing will be lengthened out, I am afraid.
The South is looking and working and hoping even yet that the rebels here in the North may rise against the government and help them or beat Lincoln this fall and cheat a man that will peaceably give them all they ask. The whole Northern States will be one red battlefield before such a thing can be. There are enough for all men yet to handle all the rebels here at home. Thank God!
Write when you have time and inspiration
Your cousin as ever
W. B. Mathews