Wisconsin Historical Society

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Wisconsin Copperhead Anti-War Movement and Marcus 'Brick' Pomeroy

Wisconsin and the Civil War

Wisconsin Copperhead, Marcus "Brick" Pomeroy | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge Studio portrait of Marcus Mills Pomeroy, WHI 85027.

Marcus Pomeroy

Full-length studio portrait of Marcus Mills Pomeroy standing next to a chair with his hand in his pocket. View the original source document: WHI 85027

Grade level: Secondary

Duration: More than one class period

Local examples make the larger historical picture come alive. In the case of the Copperhead movement, one need look no further than the example of Wisconsin Copperhead Marcus "Brick" Pomeroy. As editor of the LaCrosse Daily Democrat, Pomeroy's spit-fire columns and satirical poetry seem harsh even by today's standards.

Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine different points of view on the Civil War
  • Analyze primary and secondary sources and gather historical evidence

Background

What is a Copperhead?

It was a smear term coined by Republicans and used against their political enemies, the Democrats, who refused to accept emancipation of the slaves as a legitimate object of the war. Republicans claimed that such Democratic dissenters resembled that venomous snake with the copper-colored head. They claimed that, just as the snakes were poisonous, the dissenting Democrats were pro-Southern in their views, literally 'rebels in the rear.' It also applied to Democrats who argued that peace and reunion could be achieved by means other than war. The first six months of 1863 were trying for the Lincoln administration. Negative reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation, the threat of federal conscription, and a dearth of military victories cast a cloud of gloom over the North. War weariness and a spirit of defeatism added weight and momentum to a peace movement which found many adherents in Wisconsin. During these months, the term Copperhead came into popular usage.

Democrats tried to give their own meaning to the term Copperhead. Some of them cut the head of the goddess of liberty out of the old copper cent and contended the terms Copperhead and Liberty were synonymous. Over time the Republican rather than the Democratic meaning of the term was written into history. (Klement, 40)

The Transition from War Supporter to Copperhead

One Copperhead who achieved national status and notoriety was Marcus "Brick" Pomeroy, editor of the La Crosse Times Daily Democrat. Pomeroy used his editorial position to publish diatribes against Lincoln, abolitionists, and the war. Originally a patriotic supporter of the war, Pomeroy changed his views in 1863 when he saw the abolitionist cause become a war objective (Emancipation Proclamation) and witnessed the physical horrors of the battlefield. "We are willing to fight till death for the common good of a common man, but will not be forced into a fight to free the slaves. The real traitors in the north are the Abolitionists and they are the ones who will do more to put off the day of peace than all the soldiers of the South." (La Crosse Democrat 8-19-1861)

Pomeroy spent approximately two months in Arkansas at the headquarters of the Army of the Southwest, where he saw the physical horrors of the battlefield in addition to the social evils of war. "Brick" chronicled these observances with a critical voice for Democratic newspapers across the nation. It was this constant criticism of the army that led Union General Prentiss to order him to leave the headquarters and threaten to bring him up on charges of treason if he returned.

Pomeroy returned to La Crosse and his paper, and as the 1864 presidential elections approached, he once again "spit fire" with his critical editorials. In addition to the satirical poetry and harsh words of his column, Pomeroy began to feature an image of Lincoln with the title "The Widow-Maker of the 19th Century and Republican Candidate for President."

Resources

For examples of these "spit-fire" diatribes and the image of Lincoln, see in the three attached documents, La Crosse Times Daily Democrat editorials penned by Pomeroy. The Wisconsin Historical Society Library has a copy of these newspaper articles on microfilm.

Background

  1. Analyzing the Document

    Have students read over the documents and answer the guided questions. After students have completed questions, discuss responses out-loud and provide additional background information and introduce students to the next project.

  2. Historic Monologues

    Have students research "Brick" Pomeroy and then write and deliver a historic monologue based on his life. The following resources may be of assistance:

    • Klement, Frank L. Wisconsin in the Civil War. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1997, pp. 19–22, 35-37, 40–42, 120–123.
    • Current, Richard N. The History of Wisconsin Volume II. The Civil War Era, 1848–1837 Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976, pp. 410–413.
    • Klement, Frank. "'Brick' Pomeroy: Copperhead and Curmudgeon," Wisconsin Magazine of History, 35 Winter 1961, 106–113, 156–157.
  3. Further Research

    Further research on Pomeroy and his roles as an "exposer" of the "Tweed Ring" in New York, a chieftain in the Greenback wigwam, and an investor in Western mines, can serve as an introduction to the themes and topics of the next chronological unit in U.S. history. Students can write a biographical essay or create a PowerPoint presentation showcasing their research.

  4. Multiple Perspectives—Examining the Other Side

    After students have read Pomeroy's Copperhead editorials, have them locate and read editorials in a Republican newspaper from the same time period. Ask students to write an essay examining the different viewpoints concerning the re-nomination of Lincoln for president.

    • Milwaukee Sentinel
    • La Crosse Republican
    • Oshkosh Northwestern
    • Wisconsin State Journal (Madison)
  5. Freedom of the Press

    Freedom of the press is enjoyed quite liberally in the U.S., evident in the attacks made on our public officials, in particular the president. Ask students to discover additional editorial examples throughout history that showcase opposition and perhaps contempt held toward the President. President Wilson during World War I, President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, and President Johnson during the Vietnam War are particularly good examples.

  6. The Message through Images

    Pomeroy's use of Lincoln's image and the accompanying title (Widow-Maker of the 19th Century and Republican Candidate for President) demonstrate a powerful trend still used today when trying to sway the public and showcase one's opinion. Have students think about the media's (particularly newspapers and web sites) powerful use of images and words and bring in examples to share with the class. Discuss with students which images tend to be most powerful. Is it difficult to find the meaning with the overabundance of information? Do people really pay attention any more? How are the boundaries being pushed today?

  7. Copperheads in Satirical Poetry

    Satire often effectively expresses political views. In addition to Pomeroy's satirical prose, poetry (part of an 1866 collection of Civil War poetry) can help students understand the tension that existed between Copperheads and Republicans. Pass out copies of poems, and read out loud to ensure student comprehension. Afterwards discuss the attached questions. As a creative writing exercise, have students compose two poems based on the different sides of a current, controversial public policy issue, such as affirmative action, bilingual education, or abortion. Woody Guthrie during the Great Depression, Tom Lehrer in the 1950s and 1960s and The Austin Lizards today are examples of singer/songwriters who have effectively utilized political satire in their lyrics.

Bibliography

Several primary source documents with suggested activities that relate to Camp Randall include:

  • "Arrival of Secession Prisoners." Wisconsin State Journal, 4/21/1862.
  • Cooke, Chauncey H. Soldier Boy's Letters to His Father and Mother, 1862-1865. Mondovi: The Mondovi Herald, c. 1919.
  • Cronk, John. Civil War letter to Charles Palmer. Madison, 1862. In the manuscript collection. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • Favill, John. Certificates indicating reasons for medical deferments. Dane County, 1862. In Civil War Draft Records. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • Letters written by doctors and acquaintances to help men called obtain exemption. Dane County, 1862. In Medical Correspondence. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • "Matters at Camp Randall." Wisconsin Weekly Patriot, 4/26/1862.
  • Pomeroy, Marcus "Brick." "Abraham Lincoln." The La Crosse Daily Democrat, 8/15/1864.
  • Pomeroy, Marcus "Brick." "Look At It." The La Crosse Daily Democrat, 8/24/1864.
  • Salomon, Edward. Letters. Madison, 1862. In Volume 5- Series 33 of Governors Correspondence General 1838-1926. State Historical Society of Wisconsin
  • United States Office of the Provost Marshal General Board of Enrollment. Broadside listing the names of draft dodgers for the First District of Wisconsin. In the Historic Pamphlet Collection. State Historical Society Library.
  • Van Slyke, N.B. Detailed Drawing of Camp Randall, 1865. In Visual Archives WHi(X3)33886. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • Vilas, Levi. Lists of men eligible for the 1862 militia draft. Dane County, 1862. In Civil War Draft Records. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • "Visits to Camp Randall Discontinued." Wisconsin State Journal, 4/29/1862.

Other sources include:

  • "Camp Randall in the Civil War." Wisconsin Electronic Reader. (1998).
  • "Camp Randall Sent 70,000 Soldiers to Fight for the North." Wisconsin Then and Now. (1972): 6-7.
  • Cooke, Chauncey H. "Letters of a Badger Boy in Blue: Life at Old Camp Randall." Wisconsin Magazine of History. 4 (1920): 75-77.
  • Current, Richard N. The History of Wisconsin Volume II. The Civil War Era, 1848- 1873. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976.
  • Heberling, James R. The Boys at Forest Hill. Madison: J.R. Beberling, 1992.
  • Historic Madison, Inc., Forest Hill Cemetery Committee. A Biographical Guide to Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, Wisconsin: The Ordinary and the Famous Women and Men Who Shaped Madison and the World. Madison: 1996.
  • Holzhueter, John. Madison during the Civil War Era: A Portfolio of Rare Photographs. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
  • Klement, Frank. "'Brick' Pomeroy: Copperhead and Curmudgeon," Wisconsin Magazine of History, 35 Winter 1961, 106-113, 156-157.
  • Klement, Frank L. Wisconsin in the Civil War. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1997.
  • Larsen, Lawrence H. "Draft Riot in Wisconsin, 1862," Civil War History, 7 December 1961: 421-423.
  • Malone, Bobbie. Back to the Beginnings: The Early Days of Dane County. Madison: Litho Productions, 1998.
  • Mattern, Carolyn J. Soldiers When They Go: The Story of Camp Randall, 1861-1865. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1981.
  • Mollenhoff, David. Madison: A History of the Formative Years. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1982.
  • Nesbit, Robert. Wisconsin: A History. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
  • Piersma, Matthew. "Confederate Prisoners Arrive at Camp Randall." The Bugle- Wisconsin Veterans Museum Foundation. 7:2, 1, 14.
  • Stevens, Michael E. and Steven B. Burg. Editing Historical Documents: A Handbook of Practice, Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1997.
  • White, Richard Grant. Poetry of the Civil War. New York: The American News Company, 1866.

Standards

Wisconsin Model Academic Standards:
Standard B - History: Time, Continuity, and Change
REFERENCE NUMBERBY THE END OF GRADE 12 STUDENTS WILL
B.12.1 Explain different points of view on the same historical event, using data gathered from various sources, such as letters, journals, diaries, newspapers, government documents, and speeches
B.12.2 Analyze primary and secondary sources related to a historical question to evaluate their relevance, make comparisons, integrate new information with prior knowledge, and come to a reasoned conclusion
B.12.4 Assess the validity of different interpretations of significant historical events
B.12.8 Recall, select, and explain the significance of important people, their work, and their ideas in the areas of political and intellectual leadership

Credit

This lesson was developed by the Wisconsin Historical Society's Office of School Services for secondary-level classrooms. Please adapt to fit your students' needs.

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Primary Sources
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