Monday, August 16, 2010

The 1864 Wisconsin Vote: Where the Copperheads Were

Some more Civil War musings.  Over the last few weeks I've been trying to unearth some of the data behind the Civil War era elections.  Like the last post that looked at the secession vote in Virginia, county level data is the holy grail, yet oftentimes elusive.  As has been the case so often, my native state of Wisconsin has been exceptional in its record keeping.  Any Badger State political junkie is well familiar with the bi-annual Blue Book, which acts as a sort of mega almanac of Wisconsin government, economics, history, and the like.  It also provides detailed election returns.  Thus, I was ecstatic to find an on-line version of every Blue Book going back to when it was simply called the "Legislative Manual of the State of Wisconsin."

For the 1864 election, the report election returns down to, where relevant, the town, ward, and precinct level (!!!).   From this, we can explore the relative levels of support for Abraham Lincoln and the Democratic nominee, General George McClellan.  What I'm particularly interested in is how the war, and its progress by 1864, affected support for Lincoln.  One thing that those familiar with the war know is how the military success of the north and south ebbed and flowed throughout the conflict.  While by 1864 the north had achieved some notable successes (i.e. Gettysburg), the war was far from over and a sort of weariness had crept into northern circles.  Politically, Lincoln was seen as highly vulnerable.  For the duration of the war he had been trying to balance a coalition of Radical Republicans, pro-war Democrats, and border state fence-sitters.  The defection of any of these groups could not only lead to the collapse of his government, but perhaps the Union as well.  For any President trying to manage a coalition, any decision or action is likely to upset one camp while not fully pleasing the other--a no win situation in even the most peaceful times.  The 1864 election was thus a test of whether or not the country would be willing to see the war to its conclusion or whether increasingly vocal anti-war northerners would be able to change the direction of country.

Indeed, the fact that Lincoln's re-nomination took place under the banner of the "Union Republican" Party and not the still fledgling "Republican" label is an indication of how worried northern pro-war politicos were of the coalition's splintering.  The coupling of Lincoln with pro-war Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson as the VP nominee is further illustration of this delicate dance taking place among those trying to re-elect the President.  Ultimately, Republicans were aided by the fact that the Democrats seemed to have a difficult time fielding a candidate that was 1) anti-war, or at least skeptical of the Lincoln administration's efforts and 2) viable in an electorate that had thousands of its sons, brothers, and fathers currently engaged in the fight.  The fact that the Democrats ultimately settled on the popular, yet handily pro-war McClellan shows how hard it was going to be defeat Lincoln, despite public unease with the pace of the war. (We could devote a lot of time to McClellan as a General and how his dismissal by Lincoln may have played into the politics of his nomination and campaign, but we'll set that aside for now).

Those northern elements allied against the war are normally identified as "Copperheads."  While being largely pro-Union, Copperheads were oftentimes driven against the war by its increasingly abolitionist tenor.  With the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation after the Union victory at Antietam, many northerners felt that the war's efforts were being directed for more ambitious purposes than those originally sold to them by Lincoln.  This question of "why" the war was being fought is one that I'm going to hopefully address in my next post.  Until then, its worth noting that northern feelings about abolition were decidedly mixed, especially in certain segments of the electorate.  When the manpower needs of the Union army were such that volunteer regiments would have to be supplemented by conscription, draft riots in such places as New York demonstrated how difficult it would be to lead men into battle under the banner of ending slavery.

In doing some background reading on the Copperhead movement, I've been spending some time with the writing of Frank Klement, a historian who used to teach at my alma mater.  In his writing on the subject, Klement talks a lot about how the Copperhead movement had a strong ethnic dimension to it.  Specifically, Copperheadism tended to take root in many parts of the midwest that had a strong German and Irish Catholic population.  Writing in "Catholics as Copperheads During the Civil War," he argues:

The Republican party, founded during the 1850's as Whiggery disintegrated, became the home of three isms: prohibitionism, abolitionism, and Know-Nothingism.  Irish-Americans and German-Americans detested each of the three, oftentimes reacting emotionally...The Irish and German-Americans detested abolitionism, for they feared that emancipation would release a flood of cheap labor that would threaten their very livelihood. (The Catholic Historical Review.  January 1994.  p. 36). 

Midwestern voters tended to also be drawn to Copperheadism for economic reasons.  Heavily agricultural, these regions relied on southern markets for their livelihood.  As the war dragged on, and especially as the Mississippi River blockade shut off southern markets, many sought an end to the war as soon as possible.

When we take all of this into account when looking at one particular state--Wisconsin--what do we see???  With the data I've created the following color coded map to show the support of Lincoln (red) and McClellan (blue) on a county by county basis.  Statewide, Lincoln won Wisconsin with 52.4% of the vote.  He won 35 counties to McClellan's 22.

McClellan's main area of strength was Milwaukee and its surrounding counties--the urban center of the state.  Winning 68% of Milwaukee county his 3700 margin there was the largest margin of victory for either candidate in any county.  Neighboring Washington and Ozaukee counties gave McClellan an additional 4058 vote margin. 

Aside from these areas being populous, what else does this part of the state have, that is relevant to this discussion???  German Americans.  Check out the following map that shows the prevalence of German Americans in Civil War era Wisconsin:

Not only were German-Americans present in great numbers in those counties that gave McClellan his greatest support, the German presence throughout the state was immense.  In fact, those who were either German born themselves, or had at least one German born parent, comprised over 1/3 of the entire state's population.  In the ethnic mosaic of Wisconsin, Germans were the dominant group.

While not nearly as large as the German bloc, Wisconsin did see considerable Irish immigration as well.  As Klement noted, this group was also likely to be sympathetic to Copperhead critiques of the war.  Looking at a map of Wisconsin's Irish population, the correlation isn't quite as stark as we saw with the Germans.

In my next post I want to explore another facet of the 1864 vote: that of the soldiers themselves.  Here, the question of how salient the issues of the war and emancipation will be at the forefront.  Were those actually doing the fighting more likely to support Lincoln or were they, perhaps, ready for the war to end?  Would they support their previous, and beloved commander, McClellan?  Might it depend upon which group of soldiers we're looking at?  Finally, we'll have something to say about the mechanics of how soldiers in the field actually voted--and whether this might have affected their choice.  Stay tuned.

**Above maps from Richard N. Current.  The History of Wisconsin.  Volume II.  The Civil War Era.