Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Was Illinois Governor Richard Yates Intimidated by the Copperheads during the Civil War?

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Was Illinois Governor Richard Yates Intimidated by the Copperheads during the Civil War?

Article excerpt

UNTIL 1948, WHEN WILLIAM B. HESSELTINE published Lincoln and the War Governors, it was conceded that Governor Richard Yates of Illinois had reacted appropriately to threats conveyed to him by secessionists opposed to Lincoln, variously known as Peace Democrats or copperheads. However, the tide turned dramatically against Yates once Hesseltine claimed that the Illinois governor had vastly overestimated these threats. "On dozens of letters the Governor wrote endorsements indicating his complete acceptance of each rumor. None of the letters, indicating as they do the hysteria of the writers, furnishes specific information of the alleged meetings and plots."1 Hesseltine was especially scornful of Yates' fears that secret societies were conspiring to overthrow the government. Alluding to the federal elections of October and November 1862 he wrote:

The Governor was convinced that only a secret society could have encompassed his [Republican Party's] defeat, and he listened credulously as rumors from all parts of the state recounted the dark meetings of the dread Knights of the Golden Circle.... As the Governor listened to ru- mors, his alarm increased. He heard that Democrats were patronizing gun shops, and getting weapons repaired that had not been used for twenty years. He heard that lawyers refused to take oaths in the courts, that rebels were drilling in one county and were ready to unfurl the rattle snake flag, that the Knights of the Golden Circle were meeting in the moonlight, that the army was filled with traitors, that threats to assassinate the Governor were boldly made.2

One of Hesseltine's graduate students, Frank L. Klement, echoed the skepticism of his mentor, and devoted his career to denying the menace of the copperheads. In his books and articles he questioned their motives as well as those generally frustrated with the course of the war. In the Forward to Jennifer Webers 2006 book, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincolns Opponents in the North, James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War scholar, wrote: "Until now the foremost historian of the Copperheads was the late Frank L. Klement, whose several books advanced the central thesis that the Copperhead 'fire in the rear' was mostly a 'fairy tale,' a 'figment of Republican imagination' compounded of 'lies, conjectures, and political malignancy.'"3

Based on the collection of letters to Yates from ordinary Illinois citizens,4 we contend that the threats of the copperheads were not only genuine, but that the governor had every reason to believe in them in spite of Klement's criticism: "Usually the gullible letter-writers reported upon what they had heard rather than what they had seen. Usually the rumormongers reported on what was happening in neighboring counties rather than their own. Usually the letter-writers were the uneducated and the credulous."5 To bolster his attack, Klement cited multiple examples of mistakes of grammar and spelling.

The following two letters were typical of many we examined. They are articulate, literate, and speak from personal knowledge. On January 6, 1863 A. and E. Babcock and several other farmers in Union County wrote to Yates:

We find it necessary in consequence of outrages recently committed in this county upon the property of Union men to appeal to you for protection. The hatred and fiendish malice of Tories or rebel sympathizers in this vicinity is beginning to show itself in open acts of violence such as poisoning horses, destroying orchards of young fruit trees, and vari- ous other acts of which you are probably already aware.... The outrages are mostly perpetrated by deserters from the army (Nimmo's regiment), Illinois volunteers. There are some 40 of them in the eastern part of this county.... Must we protect ourselves by retaliating and thus bring about such a state of affairs as have been enacted in Missouri?6

The letter then went on to mention concrete details: Mr. Evans and his brothers of Cobden lost 1,700 fine peach trees; A. …

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