Copperheadism and the Ubiquity of Morgan

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an occasional series on the Civil War sesquicentennial provided by members of the Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee.

July 1863 was an eventful month. The Battle of Gettysburg, the watershed engagement of the Civil War, spanned the first three days. Robert E. Lee withdrew in defeat from Pennsylvania just as, 1,000 miles to the southwest in Mississippi, Confederate forces were dealt a second mortal blow as Grant accepted Pemberton’s surrender at Vicksburg.

Meanwhile, a New York City mob, composed primarily of Irish immigrants enraged about the unfairness of the draft laws, rioted, violently attacking any blacks in their path. Just days later, the 54th Massachusetts, a black regiment on which the movie “Glory” is based, lost one-third of its number in a courageous frontal assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, S.C.

Throughout the month, Confederate cavalry under the command of John Hunt Morgan created quite a stir in the western border states with a desperate raid (essentially a horse-thieving bender) covering 1,000 miles from Tennessee, through Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.

By July 6, the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer’s headlines were celebratory: “Glorious News. Defeat of Lee … Backbone of the Rebellion Broken at Last.” Two days later, Wheeling learned of a second long-awaited victory: “Vicksburg has surrendered … Never were more glorious tidings borne over the wires … Truly last Saturday was a 4th of July second only to that of 1776.”

The Wheeling Register went to press for the first time on July 10, 1863, as a new West Virginia flag flew over the Linsly Institute, the temporary state capitol. A black refugee from the New York riots named Solomons appeared in Wheeling with his girlfriend, whose head was wrapped to cover “a wound received by a flying missile.” They had stopped on their way to a new life in Ohio.

While the people of Wheeling saw the mixed bag of distant events like Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the New York riots through newspaper reports, the Morgan raiders rode terrifyingly close to home. Despite this proximity, however, the story remained frustratingly (and somewhat comically) out of focus.

Perhaps to provide focus amid the chaos of war, riots and raids, local pundits daily warned about an insidious, mustachio-twirling villain called “Copperheadism.” Nationally, the term applied mostly to northern “Peace Democrats” (followers of Clement Vallandigham), but locally, the title was applied to just about anyone who expressed even the slightest doubt about the war. Copperheadism was soon equated with treason and used to explain bad news, from the New York riots (a copperhead plot to create a diversion for the rebels) to the Morgan Raids (abetted by Ohio copperheads).

Copperheads or “butternuts” lurked around every corner in the Ohio Valley. A trio of Wetzel County horse thieves confined in Wheeling’s military prison, the Athenaeum, were said to have eyes “as green as grass … (probably) caused by the venom which belongs to the more dangerous species of the Copperhead …” Though not all were green-eyed rebels, horse thieves were regularly dragged to the Athenaeum. In fact, copperhead-perpetrated-horse-thievery became so pervasive that Sen. Hawkins inquired about the expediency of making horse theft punishable by death.

But no horse thief dominated the local headlines in July 1863 quite like John Hunt Morgan.

On July 20, Gov. Arthur Boreman received a dispatch claiming that Morgan was trying to cross the Ohio near Parkersburg. So began a head-spinning series of reports about the mercurial Morgan’s mysterious whereabouts. “Ubiquitous John,” was seemingly crossing into West Virginia simultaneously from almost every town on the Ohio River from Steubenville to Marietta.

Morgan hysteria gripped Wheeling. “Be Ready for Morgan,” The Intelligencer admonished. “Every man who can shoot should have a gun (and) be ready at the ringing of the bells to rally at the Court House … Fellow Citizens … keep your powder dry.” Two pieces of artillery and two companies of militia from Carlin’s Wheeling Battery were promptly “planted in a position for service” on Wheeling Island. Even The Intelligencer’s staff stood ready. “We are all able-bodied men at Quincy and Main and … we all hold ourselves ready to drop our pens … and shoulder our muskets.”

On July 25, Morgan was reported to be in St. Clairsville, then Moorefield, Senecaville and Cadiz. Yet another witness was certain he had already crossed the river. So the bells were rung and the militia assembled at the Court House. Even Wheeling’s older men were armed, including clergy like the Rev. J.T. McLure and the Rev. Barnes.

Perhaps the most over-the-top example, the so-called “Gunboat Expedition” left dock on July 25. “The (steamboat) Wm. H. Harrison under the command of Col. Darr and Capt. Moore left the wharf (with) two pieces of cannon and a couple hundred militia, including the members of the legislature (and the aforementioned clergymen), all well-armed.” They steamed to intercept Morgan at the mouth of Short Creek, then above Steubenville. Alas, Morgan remained elusive.

The corporeal Morgan and his raiders were finally defeated at Salineville, Ohio, on July 26. Yet, even as shackles were being applied to the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy,” another dispatch was received claiming that Morgan was in Harrisville and making his way to Wheeling.

Finally convinced that the danger had passed, the Wheeling militia marched to the Island where they discharged their weapons into the river, a “necessary precaution against accidents.” Unfortunately, “many of the men held their muskets too high and … a great many bullets entered the houses in Bridgeport and Kirkwood, creating great alarm among the people.”

For newspapermen, Morgan’s Raid was just another symptom of pandemic Copperheadism. “If citizens want Morgan raids stopped they must not have sympathy with Morgan’s cause,” they wrote. “We will have raids … just as long as rebels of the south, encouraged by copperheads of the north, shall entertain hopes of … demoralization in the loyal states.”

At the end of July, John Morgan arrived by train in Columbus, where he was to be imprisoned. As he stepped onto the platform, the crowd greeted him with a chant of “Horse Thief!” The chant grew louder as more people recognized him.

“It is said,” the newspapers reported, “that John Morgan actually shed tears.”