Clement Vallandigham

From Ohio History Central
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Engraving of Clement Vallandigham

Clement Vallandigham was a leader of the Ohio Democratic Party and an opponent of the American Civil War.

Vallandigham was born on July 29, 1820, in New Lisbon, Ohio. His father was a Presbyterian minister and educated his son at home. In 1837, Vallandigham enrolled at Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. He entered as a junior due to his father's previous tutoring. Vallandigham remained at the college for only a year. In 1838, he accepted a position as a teacher at a private school in Maryland. He returned to Jefferson College in 1840 as a senior, but he never graduated. He left school early to take up the study of law and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1842.

Vallandigham went into politics in 1845 and served as a member of the Ohio legislature from Columbiana County. He served a single term and then moved to Dayton, Ohio. He took a position as the editor of a newspaper that supported the Democratic Party. Vallandigham also remained involved in politics and sought the Democratic nomination to be Ohio's lieutenant governor in 1851. The party refused to nominate him. In 1852 and 1854, Vallandigham ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives against Fusion Party candidate Lewis Campbell. Vallandigham lost both elections. Undaunted, Vallandigham campaigned against Campbell again in 1856. Although Campbell was originally declared the winner by nineteen votes, Vallandigham won the election by twenty-three votes after a recount. In 1858, Vallandigham won reelection against Campbell by 188 votes, and in 1860, he won by 134 votes over the Republican Party's candidate. After Vallandigham's victories, the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature redrew Vallandigham's district in 1861. When Vallandigham sought reelection in 1862, Republican military hero Robert Schenck defeated him by nearly 1,250 votes.

In the years leading up to the American Civil War, Vallandigham was a staunch opponent to war to settle the differences between the North and the South. He believed that President Abraham Lincoln should let the South secede rather than use violence to keep the nation together. Vallandigham was one of Lincoln's most outspoken critics and the leading Peace Democrat in Ohio.

In April 1863, General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of the 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.

Most Peace Democrats in Ohio objected to General Order No. 38. They believed that the order was a clear violation of civil liberties, most notably the right to freedom of speech. Vallandigham helped organize a rally for the Democratic Party at Mount Vernon, Ohio, held on May 1, 1863. Peace Democrats Vallandigham, Samuel Cox, and George Pendleton all delivered speeches denouncing General Order No. 38. 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 throw out citizen's 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 would 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 Union 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.

While Burnside clearly objected to Vallandigham's views, it does not appear that the general was attacking him personally. Numerous Ohioans, especially those with family members living in the Confederacy, openly objected to the war. Other Union military commanders issued orders similar to General Order No. 38. Burnside attempted to restrain all Confederate sympathizers residing in the Department of Ohio.

Vallandigham remained in the Confederacy for only a few weeks. He traveled to Canada, where he sought the Democratic nomination to be Ohio's governor in June 1863. At the Democratic Party's state convention, delegates endorsed Vallandigham's efforts. They also demanded that President Lincoln allow Vallandigham to return to the United States. Lincoln agreed to do so but only if Vallandigham swore to support the Union war effort. Vallandigham refused to do so. Due to his controversial views and Union battlefield victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg during the summer of 1863, Vallandigham lost the election to the Union Party candidate, John Brough, by nearly 100,000 votes.

Vallandigham remained active in politics and the Democratic Party for the rest of the war. He returned to the United States in 1864, violating the military court's order. Union government officials did not seek to arrest Vallandigham for ignoring the ruling. Vallandigham encouraged the Democratic Party to nominate George McClellan unanimously as its candidate in the presidential election of 1864. In February 1864, Vallandigham was elected supreme commander of the Sons of Liberty or the Order of American Knights. Members of this organization resided primarily in the Union and Border States during the Civil War and opposed the Union war effort. Many members of the Sons of Liberty were Peace Democrats and called for the immediate end to the Civil War. They also opposed the draft. 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 Union during 1864 that Confederate sympathizers intended to free Confederate 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. General William Rosecrans, assigned to oversee the Department of Missouri, discovered the planned uprising and warned Union governors to remain cautious. John Brough, Ohio's governor, sent out spies to infiltrate the groups of sympathizers. 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 Island. Union authorities arrested the plot's ringleader, Charles Cole.

Following the Civil War, Vallandigham emerged as a leader of Ohio's Democratic Party. He served as the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Convention in 1865. He also encouraged the Democrats to adopt his "new departure" resolutions. Vallandigham came to believe that the Democratic Party had to support slavery's end and equal rights for African Americans with whites if the party was ever to regain power from the Republicans.

Vallandigham's political career ended with his untimely death on June 17, 1871. While preparing the defense of an accused murderer, Vallandigham enacted his view of what occurred at the crime scene. Thinking that a pistol that he was using as a prop was unloaded, Vallandigham pointed it at himself and pulled the trigger. The gun discharged, and Vallandigham was mortally wounded.

Clement Vallandigham is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio.

See Also


  1. "Burnside, Ambrose Everett (1824 - 1881)." Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Http://
  2. Dee, Christine, ed. Ohio's War: The Civil War in Documents. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.  
  3. Klement, Frank L. The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham & the Civil War. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1998.
  4. Marvel, William. Burnside. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991. 
  5. Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of Rebellion, 1861-1866. Akron, OH: The Werner Company, 1893.  
  6. Reid, Whitelaw. Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Generals and Soldiers. Cincinnati, OH: Clarke, 1895.
  7. Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.  
  8. Vallandigham, Clement Laird. Speeches, Arguments, Addresses, and Letters of Clement L. Vallandigham. New York, NY: J. Walter, 1864. 
  9. Vallandigham, Clement Laird. The Record of Hon. C. L. Vallandigham on Abolition, the Union, and the Civil War. Columbus, OH: J. Walter & Co. 1863.  
  10. 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.  
  11. Vallandigham, James L. A Life of Clement L. Vallandigham, by his Brother, Rev. James L. Vallandigham. Baltimore, MD: Turnbull Brothers, 1872.