Civil War Anti-War Protests

From Ohio History Central

Like some residents of other Northern states, numerous Ohioans strenuously objected to the American Civil War. Various reasons existed for the reluctance of these Ohioans and their fellow Northerners to support the Union.

A sizable number of white Ohioans, especially those living along the Ohio River, had migrated to the state from slaveholding states. While opponents of the war could not legally own slaves in Ohio, many of them had family members residing in the South who did own African American slaves. These people often sympathized with slaveholders, agreeing with many white Southerners that the federal government did not have the power to limit slavery's existence. These Ohioans preferred political compromise rather than warfare.

Other Ohioans had economic ties to the South. These Ohioans either operated businesses in the South or engaged in trade with Southerners. These Ohioans feared that a war would hurt them financially, as it theoretically could end trade between Ohio and the Southern states.

Some Ohioans did not support the war for religious reasons. Numerous groups in Ohio objected to violence due to their religious beliefs. These people included members of the Society of Friends, the Mennonites, the Amish, and several other denominations. While these groups did not formally protest the war, many of their followers refused to participate in the conflict. Some members of these faiths violated their religious teachings and did take up arms against the Confederacy. While groups like the Quakers opposed violence, they also believed that slavery was equally unjust and against God's will.

Later, some Ohioans began to oppose the Civil War after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. That document declared that the slaves in areas still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863 would receive their freedom on that date. By issuing the proclamation, Lincoln made ending slavery one of the North's war aims. Many Northerners, including some Ohioans, were willing to fight to reunite the nation and to secure a government where the majority ruled, but they were unwilling to fight a war to terminate slavery. This was especially true among some soldiers from the working class. These men feared that, with slavery's end, African Americans would migrate to the North, taking jobs away from the white workers. Several Northern soldiers, including some Ohioans, deserted from the Union army in protest of the Emancipation Proclamation.

A final and, perhaps, most important reason for anti-war protests was the draft. In 1863, the United States government implemented the Conscription Act, which was also known as the Enrollment Act. This act required states to draft men to serve in the Union military if individual states did not meet their enlistment quotas through volunteers. The Conscription Act permitted drafted men to pay a commutation fee of three hundred dollars or to hire a substitute to escape service if they were drafted.

Draft riots occurred in both New York City, New York and Boston, Massachusetts. Some Ohioans also strongly objected to the Conscription Act. Many of the opponents were members of the anti-war or "Peace" section of the Democratic Party and encouraged men to resist the draft or to desert once they were drafted. In Hoskinville, residents attempted to hide a deserter from government authorities. The local federal marshal called in soldiers to arrest the deserter. In Holmes County, nine hundred to one thousand men created a makeshift fort to defend themselves from federal officials sent to enforce the Conscription Act. These men were responding to attempts by the federal government to enlist men into the Union army during June 1863. A mob had attacked an officer sent to enlist men into the service, and a provost marshal captured the ringleaders behind the assault. A group of residents freed the four men arrested. They built Fort Fizzle to resist future attempts to arrest the ringleaders and to prevent the draft's enforcement. They equipped themselves with guns and four artillery pieces, although some scholars doubt that any cannons were actually inside of the fort. Approximately 420 federal soldiers arrived to disarm the men and to implement the draft. A brief skirmish occurred, with the soldiers emerging victorious. Two draft resisters were wounded. The demonstrators dispersed into the woods, and the Battle of Fort Fizzle, as it became known, quickly ended. The soldiers continued to hunt for the protestors. Eventually a deal was brokered in which the four men originally arrested would surrender. When the men turned themselves in, a majority of the soldiers returned to Columbus. This was just one of many protests in response to the draft in Ohio. Unlike the Battle of Fort Fizzle, government authorities easily put down most of these uprisings without having to resort to violence.

Clement Vallandigham and the Peace Democrats

Several Ohioans participated in a peace convention during early 1861. The convention was held in Washington, DC, and the delegates hoped to convince President Abraham Lincoln to either agree to the Confederacy's demands to get its citizens to rejoin the Union or simply to let the Southern states leave the United States. Lincoln ignored the peace convention's attempt to end the conflict peacefully. Politically, most people who participated in the peace convention affiliated themselves with the Democratic Party. These people became known as Peace Democrats.

Clement Vallandigham was the best known Peace Democrat in Ohio. He helped organize a rally for the Democratic Party at Mount Vernon, Ohio, on May 1, 1863. Peace Democrats Vallandigham, Samuel Cox, and George Pendleton all delivered speeches denouncing General Order No. 38. In April 1863, General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of Ohio, issued General Order No. 38. Burnside placed his headquarters in Cincinnati. Located on the Ohio River, just north of the slave state of Kentucky, Cincinnati had a number of residents sympathetic to the Confederacy. Burnside hoped to intimidate Confederate sympathizers with General Order No. 38.

General Order No. 38 stated:

The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department.

Burnside also declared that, in certain cases, violations of General Order No. 38 could result in death.

Vallandigham was so opposed to the order that he allegedly said that he "despised it, spit upon it, trampled it under his feet" He also supposedly encouraged his fellow Peace Democrats to openly resist Burnside. Vallandigham went on to chastise President Lincoln for not seeking a peaceable and immediate end to the Civil War and for allowing General Burnside to thwart citizen rights under a free government.

In attendance at the Mount Vernon rally were two army officers under Burnside's command. They reported to Burnside that Vallandigham had violated General Order No. 38. The general ordered his immediate arrest. On May 5, 1863, a company of soldiers arrested Vallandigham at his home in Dayton and brought him to Cincinnati to stand trial.

Burnside charged Vallandigham with the following crimes:

Publicly expressing, in violation of General Orders No. 38, from Head-quarters Department of Ohio, sympathy for those in arms against the Government of the United States, and declaring disloyal sentiments and opinions, with the object and purpose of weakening the power of the Government in its efforts to suppress an unlawful rebellion.

A military tribunal heard the case, and Vallandigham offered no serious defense against the charges. He contended that military courts had no jurisdiction over his case. The tribunal found Vallandigham guilty and sentenced him to remain in a United States prison for the remainder of the war.

Vallandigham's attorney, George Pugh, appealed the tribunal's decision to Humphrey Leavitt, a judge on the federal circuit court. Pugh, like his client, claimed that the military court did not have proper jurisdiction in this case and had violated Vallandigham's constitutional rights. Judge Leavitt rejected Vallandigham's argument. He agreed with General Burnside that military authority was necessary during a time of war to ensure that opponents to the United States Constitution did not succeed in overthrowing the Constitution and the rights that it guaranteed United States citizens.

As a result of Leavitt's decision, authorities were to send Vallandigham to federal prison. President Lincoln feared that Peace Democrats across the North might rise up to prevent Vallandigham's detention. The president commuted Vallandigham's sentence to exile in the Confederacy. On May 25, Burnside sent Vallandigham into Confederate lines.

Some Peace Democrats resorted to more radical means, including subversion, to protest the Civil War. Some of these men formed secret societies such as the Sons of Liberty. Members of these organizations resided primarily in Northern and Border States. In February 1864, Clement Vallandigham was elected supreme commander of the sons of Liberty. Ohio government officials estimated that between eighty thousand and 110,000 Ohioans belonged to these organizations, but most historians discount these numbers as being dramatically higher than the group's actual numbers.

Rumors circulated throughout the North during 1864 that the Confederate sympathizers intended to free Southern prisoners at several prison camps, including Johnson's Island and Camp Chase in Ohio. These freed prisoners would form the basis of a new Confederate army that would operate in the heart of the Union. Supposedly, General John Hunt Morgan, who had raided Ohio the previous year, would return to the state and assist this new army. The plot never materialized. William Rosecrans, assigned to oversee the Department of Missouri, discovered the planned uprising and warned Northern governors to remain cautious. John Brough, Ohio's governor sent out spies to infiltrate the sympathizer groups. These men succeeded and stopped the uprising before it could occur. Confederate supporters hoped to capture the Michigan, a gunboat operating on Lake Erie near Sandusky. They would then use the gunboat to free Confederate prisoners at Johnson's Island. Union authorities arrested the plot's ringleader, Charles Cole.

While some Ohioans did openly oppose the Civil War, these people remained a distinct minority. Most Ohioans supported the war and a very large number of them volunteered for military service. Nevertheless, at least to some degree, the war protesters caused difficulties for both the state and federal government and hampered the government's abilities to wage the war.

See Also


  1. Dee, Christine, ed. Ohio's War: The Civil War in Documents. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.  
  2. Klement, Frank L. The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham & the Civil War. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1998.
  3. Reid, Whitelaw. Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Generals and Soldiers. Cincinnati, OH: Clarke, 1895.
  4. Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.  
  5. Vallandigham, Clement Laird. Speeches, Arguments, Addresses, and Letters of Clement L. Vallandigham. New York, NY: J. Walter, 1864. 
  6. Vallandigham, Clement Laird. The Trial of Hon. Clement L. Vallandigham, by a Military Commission and the Proceedings Under his Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of Ohio. Cincinnati, OH: Rickey and Carroll, 1863.  
  7. Vallandigham, James L. A Life of Clement L. Vallandigham, by his Brother, Rev. James L. Vallandigham. Baltimore, MD: Turnbull Brothers, 1872.