Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Enemy Within: Copperheads and the Knights of the Golden Circle

Of Snakes and Men

Support for President Lincoln was far from unanimous in the Northern States, and the same was true of the State of Ohio. Though Ohio was the home of influential Abolitionists and the main passage of the Underground Railraod, there were many Southern sympathizers living within Ohio's borders, specifically near the Ohio River. Even though these individuals were not permitted to own slaves in Ohio, many of them still had slave-owning familes in the South and supported their rights to own slaves.

Among this group of Lincoln's Northern critics were the Peace Democrats, better known as "Copperheads." During the presidential election of 1860, Stephen Douglas was the Northern Democratic candidate opposing Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln won the 1860 election, Douglas worked to negotiate peaceful solutions between North and South. However, after the South seceded, Douglas supported Lincoln's use of military force to reunite the country.

Two months after the Battle of Fort Sumter and the outbreak of the Civil War, Stephen Douglas died on June 3rd, 1861. His death caused the Northern Democratic Party to spilt. The two different factions were known as the Peace Democrats, Northern Democrats critical of Lincoln and seeking to find a peaceful resolution to the secession, and War Democrats, Northern Democrats supportive of President Lincoln's military action against the South.

Copperheads:What's in a Name?

The copperhead party - in favor of a vigorous prosecution of peace!
 The name "Copperhead" was coined after an anonymous letter was sent to the Cincinnati Commercial. The writer of the letter suggested that the motto of the Ohio Peace Democrats should be derived from Genesis 3:14: "Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the day of thy life." From the motto came the name "Copperhead", after the venemous snake with the name found in Ohio.

By 1862, the name became widespread and the Peace Democrats tried to turn the name into their own. In addition, the nickname for a penny was, coincidentally, "Copperhead." Since Lady Liberty was on one of the faces of the penny, the Peace Democrats chose her to symbolize "people deeply concerned about incursions on their rights." With the skillful twist of symbolism, the Peace Democrats used the penny to represent their beliefs. The symbol became popular among the "Copperheads" and many began to wear pins made out of pennies to show their loyalties.

Knights of the Golden Circle

The secret society known as the Knight of the Golden Circle (KGC) were responsible for spying for the Confederates and other subversive acts to undermine Union military efforts to defeat the South. The KGC was formed a decade before the Mexican-American War as the Southern Right's Club (SRC) by George W. L. Bickley. Southerners, disgruntled by the banning of slave trading nearly thirty years prior, relocated to Texas in the hopes of re-establishing the African slave-trade.

By 1855, the pro-slavery SRC evolved into the KGC. Several chapters had developed by this time, including in the North. Throughout the Civil War, Northern KGC members facilitated the Confederate government by providing classified information on Union activities. Ohio KGC spies used their ties to Ohio to freely cross Union and Confederate lines to deliver secret messages and supplies. Many of the Ohio KGC members allegedly lived near the Ohio River, close to the Mason-Dixon line.

Lincoln's Assassination

On April 14th, 1865, President Lincoln, only a month into his second term, was assassinated at Ford's Theater by John Wilkes Booth. Booth, an actor, and other conspirators devised a plan to assassinate the President in the hopes of crippling the Union to allow for an overthrow of the government.

It is speculated that Booth was a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, initiated as a member in 1860 in Baltimore, Maryland. If the conspiracy theories are correct, this may have been the last ditch effort of the pro-slavery movement to prevent abolition.

For more infomation about the Assassination of President Lincoln visit 

Lincoln's Critics: the Copperheads of the North By Frank L. Klement and Steven K. Roqstad
Copperheads: the Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North By Jennifer L. Weber

For more information on Stephen Douglas visit 


The Knights of the Golden Circle Research and Historical Archives