Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.
Censorship has always been a delicate subject in American history. From John Adam’s Alien and Sedition Acts to the publication of the “Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture” during World War II, national security and the freedom of speech have always had a tenuous existence, especially in wartime. The Civil War was no exception.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln famously suspended habeas corpus to make it easier to deal with people “guilty of any disloyal practice.” There was also a congressional investigation over whether the government was censoring the telegraph in 1861. And then there was the case of Clement Vallandigham.
In the early years of the war, Ohio and much of the Midwest was outspokenly against the war. Fighting for states’ rights and a peaceful solution to a war that seemed to have no end, the Copperheads made their home here. Also known as peace Democrats, Copperheads wanted to reconcile with the South and pretend this whole Civil War thing never happened. Lincoln was famously terrified of “the fire in the rear”—dissension, that is, to his war policies, especially from the Copperheads.
In an effort to tamp out dissenting voices, Gen. Ambrose Burnside issued General Order No. 38 in April 1863. It declared martial law and forbade the “habit of declaring sympathies for the enemy.” It didn’t take long for people to protest.
Less than a month after issuing his order, former Democratic Congressman Clement Vallandigham—an antiwar Copperhead opposed to emancipation—spoke out against the war and against what he perceived as the Federal usurpation of state powers. He called the Civil War a “war for the purpose of crushing out liberty and erecting a despotism” and a “war for the freedom of blacks and the enslavement of whites.”
This didn’t go over well. Within a week, Burnside had arrested him. Within three weeks, a military commission had found him guilty and sentenced him to serve in closed confinement for the duration of the war.
Lincoln had other plans. Lincoln knew that Vallandigham was a formidable political threat and feared that his incarceration would make a martyr of the man or incite riots. Instead of commuting his sentence, he had it changed: if Vallandigham liked the Confederacy so much, he should join it. Lincoln exiled him across enemy lines into the South.
Vallandigham would not be silenced, however. He quickly made his way to Ontario via Bermuda, where he ran for Governor of Ohio in absentia. The state’s Democratic convention voted him as their candidate by a sweeping majority. Lincoln was not amused. He wrote an appeal to the Representatives of Ohio, explaining that he would rescind the order against Vallandigham if they agreed to a few simple terms.
The letter was largely ignored, but within a month, victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg had turned the tide of the war. Victory appeared a possibility for the North, and Vallandigham was soundly defeated.
Still, Vallandigham remained a prominent political figure. He rode on George McClellan’s 1864 Presidential ticket, strange considering McClellan supported the war, and following the war, Vallandigham ran unsuccessfully for the Senate and House.
By 1871, Vallandigham had returned to his legal practice. In the final court trial of his life, Vallandigham was not on trial but on the job, defending a man accused of murder. In the courtroom he intended to prove that the victim was capable of shooting himself, something the prosecution said was not possible given the location of the fatal wound. The night before the trial, Vallandigham indeed proved the man was capable of shooting himself by accidentally shooting himself in his hotel room, mistaking a loaded pistol for an empty one. Fortunately, the jury was staying just down the hall and crowded in the room to see the dying man. His defendant was later acquitted.