Ohio’s Impact on the War Series: Ohio’s Political Impact Part I

By arohmiller, posted on September 18th, 2013.
Filed under: News
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Written by Catherine Wilson

Politics in Civil War Ohio did not spring suddenly into being like Venus rising from the sea-foam.  From statehood in 1803, Ohio’s electoral history, with a large number of offices and swift turnover, allowed many men to seek office, campaign for their friends, vote, or (if nothing else) follow the newspaper coverage closely.  The 1844 election was the first in Ohio in which 3rd party anti-slavery voters took votes away from both Democrats and Whigs – sectional issues had entered the fray.  By 1848, division among Whigs and unity of Democrats was continuing over the extension of slavery, with the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Bill a catalyst.  During the Civil War, Democrats divided and Republicans united over the conduct of the war and abolitionism, in the simplest terms.

Ohio’s position between Eastern manufacturing and Western agricultural interests, and its rank as the third most populous and wealthy state behind New York and Pennsylvania, were factors in its economic importance, but its political importance can be traced to its “unusual diversity,” according to Stephen Maizlish in Triumph of Sectionalism.  “Containing a major urban center with a significant immigrant population [Cincinnati], a region strongly committed to anti-slavery reform [Western Reserve], and an area sympathetic to the slave South [Virginia Military District], Ohio was in many ways a microcosm of all the free states.”

Ohio had political importance before, during and after the Civil War, in four overlapping categories: national, military, statewide, and controversial.  Nationally important Ohioans include contributions to the Cabinet and other high offices, such as Salmon P. Chase, Edwin Stanton, John Sherman, and John A. Bingham, as well as our veteran Presidents from Ohio.  Those of military importance include the 22 men who achieved the rank of Major General before the war’s end, 16 of whom were US Military Academy (West Point) graduates; some of these also fall into the nationally significant category.  Ohio’s three Civil War governors would fall into the statewide significance category: William Dennison, David Tod, and John Brough, as would other prominent men in the Ohio Statehouse such as Samuel Shellabarger.  The controversial figures and movements in politics will get the most discussion here, since the other categories are well documented in much greater depth.  Clement L. Vallandigham, Benjamin F. Wade, abolitionists, Copperheads, Butternuts, extradition proceedings against two of John Brown’s followers in 1860, and the 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, among others:  if Ohio stands for the national political microcosm during the Civil War period, it is in controversy that we stand out the most.

Many people in Ohio who know about the Civil War may not want to claim Clement Laird Vallandigham (1820-1871), but he is ours.  He was one of the most notorious Peace Democrats, or Copperheads, and certainly the one with the most colorful career.  He ran for governor, was exiled, left the country, and made headlines whatever he undertook.  He was both reviled and praised, but never ignored.  Vallandigham tried his hand at college, but left after an argument with a professor over states’ rights; the budding lawyer often used his right to be wrong at the top of his lungs.  In the newspaper field, he had a tendency to do the same, as editor of Dayton’s Western Empire in the 1840s and as a newsmaker the rest of his life.

Vallandigham seemed to disregard what everyone thought of him, at least publicly, in order to go on with his plans.  Defeat in elections, calls of treason against him, fisticuffs with volunteer soldiers who were heroes to others, and managing to make Gen. Ambrose Burnside angry enough to make the political candidate a political prisoner, were only a few of his activities during the early war years.  The 1863 campaign for governor pitted the “exile in a neutral nation” against “Honest John” Brough; the latter won by over 100,000 votes.  Vallandigham seemed to fade a bit after this election, resuming his law practice, with a few brief forays into the newspaper pages as a speaker.  It is likely that his bad name is only partially deserved; he did not have a chance to explain his actions in later, more reflective writings or speeches, while his opponents had (and took) every opportunity to criticize him.

Stay tuned for Part II to learn about another Ohio politician, Benjamin Franklin Wade.

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