Copperheadism, Imprisonment and the Politics of Federal Desertion

Daniel Farrell's picture

In this week’s blog post, Daniel Farrell, explores the connections between federal desertion, treason, Copperheadism and imprisonment in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri.

            In May 1863, Humphrey H. Hood, a surgeon for the Union Army, described for his wife, an interesting episode concerning an arrested deserter. Writing from Memphis, Tennessee, Hood explained how an unnamed Indianan soldier, accused of desertion, attempted to escape the guardhouse and was ultimately killed. The soldier appeared to have slipped out rather easily, but a 16-year-old guard quickly confronted him. Hesitant to shoot the man, the young guard let him escape, only to be ordered by a superior officer to pursue the man. When the guard caught up with the escapee, the Indianian refused to cooperate and the guard shot him as he attempted to flee.

            The story did not end the story there. According to Hood, the deserter possessed a particularly obnoxious issue of the Chicago Times that contained an article excoriating President Abraham Lincoln for becoming a military despot. Apparently, the deserted clutched the paper in his dying hand, but it is plausible that Hood embellished the story – Copperheadism is a persistent theme in his letters. But the effect that Copperheads had on the army, both real and imagined, was a palpable fear expressed by Union soldiers and officers alike. A month before the Indianian’s inglorious end, Hood remarked that military officials had suppressed the Chicago Times in Memphis.  That the deserter allegedly possessed the paper was only an affirmation of the Democratic Party’s ill effect on the army and the treason that Copperheads promoted.

            When I began this blogging project, I noted that I was investigating the gray areas of civilian imprisonment. Essentially, I consider gray areas to be arrests made within a mixed civil-military context, or examples where ideology and individual action conflict with official military policy. Confederate guerrillas are a great example of this, as the Union military rarely treated captured guerrillas with consistency. Desertion, however, is less clear, and I often contemplate how to correctly integrate it into my broader analysis of loyalty and treason. Typically, the military (across multiple conflicts) treats desertion as a disciplinary problem. Civil War soldiers, according to Mark Weitz, primarily deserted over the rigors of camp life and perceived problems on the home front. Nevertheless, arrested deserters were neither civilian captives nor prisoners of war; they existed within their own category. For Union soldiers, however, the context of the American Civil War sometimes blurs these lines when Copperheadism entered the conversation on desertion. Military officials, fellow soldiers and citizens increasingly saw desertion as political.

            Hood’s recollection was colorful but not unique. Across Southern Illinois, for example, where the federal military maintained a strong presence (due to its strategic location), military officials received numerous complaints about deserters and the “Copperheads” who harbored them. Deserters attempting to reenter civilian life occasionally violently resisted attempts to arrest them. Military officials similarly investigated and arrested those suspected of sheltering them and encouraging desertion. Reports surfaced that Union deserters were cooperating with Copperheads to form militias to resist the draft. In at least one case, the military dispersed such a group, numbering over one hundred men, albeit with minimal bloodshed. Parsing out fact from fiction does prove challenging, but what is certain is that the federal military, and Illinois Republicans more broadly, deeply feared Copperheads. Officers in Illinois regiments occasionally complained to state election officials that Copperheads encouraged desertion, or at “best,” political support for presidential candidate, George B. McClellan.

            Similar evidence exists in Indiana, although reporting on Copperhead activity fell more heavily upon state and local officials. Specifically, the Indiana Legion, Indiana’s statewide home guard, was saddled with much of the state’s local defense. Deserters, Butternuts (Indiana’s preferred term for Copperheads), draft resisters, and the Knights of the Golden Circle were acute problems for the Legion. In January 1863, Captain J. W. Barrett reported a violent encounter with a federal deserter. Tracking the man in Warwick County, Indiana, Barrett confronted and attempted to arrest him. Rather than submit, the deserter opened fire and attempted to escape, with Barrett killing him in the scuffle. Yet similar to Hood, the man’s death was not the end of the story. Barrett remarked that “a certain class of men” would not “stand” for the deserter’s death. Undeterred, Barrett sarcastically noted that if his men were better equipped, he would force the local Butternuts “to stand it,” revealing the violent tensions supporters and opponents of the war routinely faced on the local level.    

           There is one example, however, where desertion and civilian identity straddle the line more closely. Missouri required all white males, 18 – 45, to enlist in the Enrolled Missouri Militia (EMM). Facing widespread resistance to the enrolment laws, state and military authorities worked to compel obedience. Henry J. Deal, a Colonel in the EMM, threatened the residents of Mississippi County, Missouri, that he would brand everyone refusing to enlist as a deserter, liable to arrest. Similar pronouncements were ordered across the state, and enforcement fell upon the EMM itself, forcing the militia to function as a police force. This situation presents an interesting question concerning the transition from civilian to soldier. Should EMM resisters be regarded as deserters, civilians, or something more akin to draft dodgers? Perhaps it’s semantics, but what is clear is that state and military officials regarded them as traitors and Southern sympathizers, rather than mere cowards.

           Admittedly, I am more familiar with Confederate desertion. The War Department explicitly considered imprisoned Confederate deserters to be civilian prisoners under certain circumstances, allowing them the right to petition for their freedom – a topic, perhaps, worthy of a follow-up post. Federal desertion, however, cuts roughly across multiple themes and contexts, and runs into interpretive issues when political partisans employed Copperheadism as a pejorative. Most Union soldiers likely deserted for practical, rather than political reasons, but the connections between disloyalty, Copperheadism and desertion are worthy of investigation. Even so, I suspect the primary interpretive value lies in studying the anxieties caused by disloyalty on the home front, then within the motivations of any individual deserters. Observers routinely described federal desertion as a political, rather than practical problem.

Hi Dan,

Thanks for this post which raises a number of interesting questions.

I have one of my own. I noticed that you drew your examples from Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri—that is, butternut territory or, in the last case, a slave state. Your post seems to suggest, then, that the tendency among federal authorities to associate desertion with political motives—primarily Copperheadism—was a regional predilection that occurred in areas where their writ seemed particularly insecure because a good part of the civilian population was hostile. Was that that case? Or did authorities elsewhere, say, in New England, see desertion in a similar way?



Hi Daniel,
Your area of research is well beyond my expertise, but your framing of this post in terms of Copperheadism begs the question: what obligation do soldiers -- or draftees -- have to serve when they disagree with the politics of the administration in office?

When I frame the question that way, I realize that for Americans today, the answer would be heavily shaped by what happened during the Vietnam war. Which would not at all be relevant for your study. BUT that makes me realize a more relevant question for your consideration is: what informed attitudes toward the draft and enlistment in the period immediately PRIOR to the Civil War? I have no useful suggestions for how you might gauge what those attitudes were (did any state militias have compulsory enlistment before the war?), but it seems like if you can uncover the attitudes "in theory," perhaps it will give you a sense of to what extent, for example, Missouri men's responses to the required enlistment had to do with the particularities of Lincoln or of Copperheadism, and to what extent they simply reflected how much Americans do or do not like being told they must serve.

Apologies if none of this is useful at all,