Oliver Otis Howard recognizes the Copperhead threat

Home on furlough after Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard feared that loyal Mainers (and Americans) might throw away at the ballot box the blood and guts spilled on the battlefield since April 1861.

Major General Oliver Otis Howard (Wikimedia)

Sent to Maine to rest, Howard chafed to rejoin XI Corps. “It will be impossible for me to comply with any further invitations to speak in Maine, since duty calls me to the field,” he informed an acquaintance on August 26, many days before his furlough expired.

Howard had already appeared at various Maine locales these past few weeks. Elevated to hero status since losing his right arm at Seven Pines in spring 1862, he certainly drew crowds, his speeches almost invariably preceded by brass band-provided patriotic music and heart-felt introductions by local politicians.

Howard knew full well the political divide threatening to splinter Maine and the loyal states. Many Northerners opposed the war. Primarily “Peace Democrats” who preferred to let the South go and the slaves go with it, these antiwar Democrats also opposed Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party — and politics drove much of the opposition, its adherents dubbed “Copperheads” by Americans supporting the war.

Relatively quiet in ’61 and much of ’62, Copperheads now spoke loudly in print and at the ballot box, and the draft provided additional ammunition in summer 1863. Tired of heavy casualties and a seemingly unwinnable war, voters in New York and elsewhere elected governors and congressional representatives pledged to ending the war. Sworn into office on New Year’s Day 1863, New York Governor Horatio Seymour (D) vociferously opposed the Lincoln Administration and even threatened to bring home New York’s volunteer units.

Realizing that patriotic, albeit war-weary Mainers needed encouragement, Howard rode the rails to visit cities and towns in the Pine Tree State. “The enthusiastic reception I have met with from every quarter, I am constrained to look upon as an expression of regard for me as the soldiers[’] representative, and more particularly as a mark of loyalty to the Government I have striven to defend,” he said.

This loyal spirit is true and deep, and will, I believe, carry everything before it,” Howard said. Noting “there are a great many earnest men … wedded to party interests” that coincided with “their own interests,” he asked Maine Democrats to “break loose from such restraint rather than directly or indirectly war against the Republic in this crisis.”

New York Gov. Horatio Seymour (Wikimedia)

Jeff Davis and other Confederate leaders recognized the Copperhead potential to take the United States out of the war; doing so would leave the Confederacy a separate nation. “Northern division certainly gives aid and comfort to the rebels, and thereby protracts the war,” Howard claimed.

Why should Davis abandon the war if the North might give it up via the ballot box? After all, “every blow aimed at the government and its characteristic measures [wartime policies], keeps alive the rebel hope that apathy and paralysis will seize the Northern heart,” Howard said. “I doubt not some traitors look with longing and expectancy to see party strife mount up to all the horrors of civil war.”

A West Point graduate and a native of Leeds in Androscoggin County, Howard did “not wish to meddle with party politics either local or national—only as far as the very existence of the Government is concerned.” The state’s pro-Democratic (and avidly anti-Lincoln) newspapers claimed he was “calling on the people to sustain the Government at the polls,” opined the Kennebec Journal.

Howard had witnessed death and destruction at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. All that sacrifice would be to naught if Copperheads ended the war politically. “We have too much real virtue and real good sense in the masses of our people to permit treachery[,] cowardice [now that was an insult], covetousness, or other kindred fruits of extreme selfishness to prevail,” Howard said.

His volunteer troops had collided with Confederates at Seven Pines, and he had led the primarily volunteer XI Corps into battle at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Howard knew the value of “the volunteer soldiers” who had “cheerfully submitted to the rigors of martial law.”

Now “the trial of a modern conscription [draft] is imposed” on the American people “for a season,” as decided by “their Representatives” in Congress, he said. If loyal Americans “have virtue, patriotism, or even a broad view of self-interest, they will not only submit cheerfully, but will welcome the opportunity to do so much good with so small a sacrifice.”

Although his phraseology apparently reflected some Republican talking points, Howard spoke as a soldier. He would wisely avoid meddling in politics throughout the war, and even though castigated for XI Corps’ collapse at Chancellorsville and July 1 route at Gettysburg, he kept quiet.

Howard cut short his late summer 1863 furlough to rejoin the army, but he did not remain long in Virginia. The War Department soon disbanded XI Corps and transferred Howard and Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum and his XII Corps to the Western Theater, where Howard would rise to command the Army of the Tennessee.

Source: A Noble Letter from General Howard, Kennebec Journal, Friday, September 4, 1863


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Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.