Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Category: Civil Liberties

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: Persuader in Chief

Lincoln had the consummate skills of a lawyer, a politician, and a storyteller.  Added to those skills, he had impressive logic.

In many cases, Lincoln served himself, the Republican Party, and the country well.   But in some cases, Lincoln (and his subordinates) violated civil liberties.

One of Lincoln’s defeated Union Generals, Ambrose E. Burnside, inadvertently sparked a controversy, involving a vocal Peace Democrat.  Amid a public outcry, Lincoln defended his views on civil liberties in wartime.

Imprudent edict

Historian Frank L. Klement writes:

[Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio] regarded all criticism of the President as unpatriotic and traitorous … Since Burnside believed that Copperhead speeches and editorials gave encouragement to the enemy, he issued his well-known ‘General Orders, No. 38’ on April 13, 1863.


General Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress)

General orders No. 38 stated that “the habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy” would no longer be tolerated.  Burnside would discern between criticism and treason.  Civilians who disobeyed Burnside would be arrested and subjected to military procedure (that is, denied rights in the civil courts).[i]

Incendiary arrest

Almost immediately, Peace Democrat (and former congressman) Clement L. Vallandigham gave a speech, defying Burnside’s edict and suggesting that voters use “the ballot-box” to hurl “King Lincoln” from his throne.

Clement L. Vallandigham (Library of Congress)

Burnside arrested Vallandigham.  A military tribunal found Vallandigham guilty and put him in prison.

Democrats cried foul, and Lincoln ordered that Vallandigham be exiled to the Confederacy.  The level of outrage increased as Northern Democrats held mass protest meetings.

Corning Letter

A committee of Democrats of Albany, New York, chaired by Erastus Corning, wrote Lincoln on May 19, 1863.    They demanded that the Federal Government “maintain the supremacy of the civil over military law.”[ii]

Military arrests in the North were unconstitutional and eviscerated the Bill of Rights, according to the Albany Democrats.  They also claimed that Vallandigham was seized and tried “for no other reason than words addressed to a public meeting, in criticism of the course of the administration, and in condemnation of the military orders of the general [Burnside].”

Lincoln’s public reply

President Lincoln on June 12 wrote that he had lawfully suspended the writ of habeas corpus earlier in the war.  The Constitution allowed the suspension “when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.”

Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Lincoln then commented on the former Ohio congressman:

Mr. Vallandigham avows his hostility to the war on the part of the Union; and his arrest was made because he was laboring, with some effect, to prevent the raising of troops, to encourage desertions from the army, and to leave the rebellion without an adequate military force to suppress it.

He [Vallandigham] was not arrested because he was damaging the political prospects of the Administration, or the personal interests of the commanding general, but because he was damaging the army, upon the existence and vigor of which the life of the nation depends.

He [Vallandigham] was warring upon the military, and this gave the military constitutional jurisdiction to lay hands upon him.

Powerful, homespun argument

Lincoln asked:

Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?

This is none the less injurious when affected by getting a father or brother or friend into a public meeting, and there working upon his feelings till he is persuaded to write the soldier boy that he is fighting in a bad cause, for a wicked administration or a contemptible government …

I think that in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional but withal a great mercy.

Preventive arrests, assumption of guilt

Lincoln stated:

Arrests [in cases of rebellion] are made, not so much for what has been done as for what probably would be done …

The man who stands by and says nothing when the peril of his country is discussed cannot be misunderstood.  If not hindered, he is sure to help the enemy; much more, if he talks ambiguously – talks for his country with ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’.

Lincoln explained the value of his policy by citing Confederate generals who hadn’t been arrested before they entered the Confederate service.  He stated, “I shall be blamed for having made too few arrests rather than too many.”

Clarifying Lincoln’s words

The Albany Democrats on June 30, 1863, responded to Lincoln’s letter.

Your claim is, that when the writ of habeas corpus is suspended, you may lawfully imprison and punish for the crimes of silence, of speech, and opinion …

Your doctrine denies the freedom of speech and of the press.  It invades the sacred domain of opinion and discussion … even the refuge of silence is insecure.

They mentioned that the previous Congress (on March 3, 1863) had voted to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.[iii]  The Albany Democrats explained:

This [congressional] statute promptly removes the proceeding in every case into the courts where the safeguards of liberty are observed, and where the persons detained are to be discharged, unless indicted for criminal offense against the established and ascertained laws of the country.

Cross-examining Lincoln

The Albany Democrats pressed Lincoln for an explanation:

Upon what foundation, then, permit us to ask, do you rest the pretension that men who are not accused of a crime may be seized and imprisoned, or banished at the will and pleasure of the President or any of his subordinates in civil and military positions?

Where is the warrant for invading the freedom of speech and of the press?

Where is the justification for placing the citizen on trial without the presentment of a grand jury and before military commissions?

Lincoln never responded to these questions.  His words and actions suggest that for him, saving the Union (and preserving enlistments) “covered a multitude of sins.”

Historians weigh in

Historian Philip Paludan observes that President Lincoln made a more extreme defense of military arrests of civilians than necessary.[iv]

Historian Mark E. Neely Jr. writes:

If a situation were to arise again in the United States when the writ of habeas corpus were suspended, government would probably be as ill-prepared to define the legal situation as it was in 1861.

The clearest lesson is that there is no clear lesson in the Civil War—no neat precedents, no ground rules, no map.  War and its effect on civil liberties remain a frightening unknown.[v]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any questions or comments below.

[i] Frank L. Klement, The Copperheads in the Middle West (Chicago: 1960), 89; Frank L. Klement, The Limits of Dissent:  Clement L. Vallandigham & the Civil War (New York:  1998), 149.

[ii] Frank Moore, ed., The Rebellion Record, Vol. VII (New York:  1864), pp. 298-308.

[iii] Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty:  Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York:  1991), 68.

[iv] Phillip S. Paludan, “Toward a Lincoln Conversation,” Reviews in American History, XVI (March 1988), 40-41.

[v] Neely, 235.

Lincoln on Trial: A review of All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime

It’s not often that a Supreme Court Chief Justice writes a book of history.  But when he does, it’s a book worth reading.

This is true for William H. Rehnquist’s All the Laws but One:  Civil Liberties in Wartime.  He uses an experienced jurist’s eye to discuss how the federal government handled civil liberties in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.  He also gives legal insights in terms that laymen can understand.


In treating the Civil War, Rehnquist begins with Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus.  In one of the first test cases, Chief Justice Roger Taney rebuked Lincoln, telling him that it was unconstitutional for Lincoln to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.  Lincoln, of course, ignored Taney.

Rehnquist discusses the number of civil liberties violations under Secretary of State William H. Seward and then Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  There was a huge increase of civilians imprisoned under the secretary of war.

Stanton decided that civilians could be tried before military commissions, that is, courts-martial for civilians.  These arrests and trials took place while the civil court system — state and federal – were operating throughout the North.

Rehnquist also discusses General Ambrose Burnside’s arrest of former Congressman Clement C. Vallandigham, and the treason trials of Democrat Lambdin P. Milligan and others in Indianapolis.  The Civil War section ends with Ex parte Milligan, in which the Supreme Court rebuked Lincoln, deciding that the Bill of Rights is still in force during wartime.

The author compares government conduct during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.  The biggest difference, he explains, was as follows:

The Lincoln administration relied on presidential authority or on the orders of military commanders to curtail civil liberties, while in the 20th-Century wars, the executive branch resorted much more to laws passed by Congress.

I highly recommend this thoughtful book.

“When you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail”: A review of Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton

Many Americans can picture the “devoted patriot” Edwin Stanton, close to Lincoln’s bedside as the president lay dying.  After Lincoln breathed his last, a stoic Stanton reportedly said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Historian William Marvel has written Lincoln’s Autocrat:  The Life of Edwin W. Stanton (Civil War America series, University of North Carolina Press).  This engaging, well-documented book tells how Stanton, an able lawyer, came to serve Presidents James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson.


This book reveals Stanton’s duplicitous, self-serving character.  The author describes Stanton’s “deep insecurity,” a condition suggested by his “sycophancy, double-dealing, and self-congratulatory storytelling.”


Marvel preferred to use “the most contemporary primary sources – diaries, letters, official documents, and newspaper observations from the period in question.”  He explains:  “All those sources suffer from personal and political prejudices, but those are usually easier biases to detect than those absorbed unconsciously, over the passage of decades.”

The author does a good job of setting events in context, while maintaining the thread of a story.  I was fascinated to learn about Stanton’s role in suppressing and violating civil liberties in the North during the Civil War.

The power to arrest and imprison

After Fort Sumter, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the North.  This meant that federal authorities could arrest and imprison civilians, without any charges.

Secretary of State William H. Seward was, at first, in charge of arresting civilians.  Secretary of War Stanton assumed this authority in early 1862.

Lincoln signed into law the first draft in U.S. history on July 17, 1862.  Marvel describes what happened less than a month later:

Stanton quickly … nullified much of the Bill of Rights.  Citing no authority but his own, on August 8 he ‘authorized and directed’ all U.S. marshals and chiefs of police – over whom he could claim no constitutional authority whatever – to arrest and imprison anyone who ‘may be engaged, by act, speech, or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice against the United States.’

Stanton’s orders were significant, from a civil liberties perspective.  Marvel states:

In a single sentence, Stanton abolished the First Amendment, overrode the Fourth, ignored the Fifth, and eviscerated the Sixth.  He essentially criminalized every citizen’s right to criticize the government.

Republican officials would quickly embrace his order as an opportunity to treat criticism of the Lincoln administration and its political supporters as a form of treason, and to punish Democrats – almost exclusively – for daring to voice disagreement.

Bringing it home to Iowa

Shortly after Stanton issued his orders, federal and state authorities arrested and imprisoned about 36 Iowans in August 1862, according to historian Hubert H. Wubben.  Arrestees included Dennis Mahony, editor of the Dubuque Herald, and David Sheward, editor of the Constitution and Union (in Fairfield, Iowa).

Dennis Mahony, editor of the Dubuque Herald (Loras College)

Dennis Mahony, editor of the Dubuque Herald (Loras College)

The arrestees were imprisoned without any formal charges and without a jury trial.  They were held in prison for as little as two months.  Mahony, “like most of his fellow prisoners,” was forced to sign a pledge that he wouldn’t sue Stanton or other officials for false arrest.

The arrests and imprisonments violated the following civil liberties:

  1. Freedom of speech;
  2. Freedom from criminal punishment except upon indictment and trial;
  3. The right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury;
  4. The right to be informed of the nature of an accusation; and
  5. The right to confront contrary witnesses.

Marvel comments:

Suddenly it was impossible to utter any effective criticism of the war, or the administration, without at least the threat of arrest.

Republicans faced a backlash during state elections in October and November 1862.  Nonetheless, Marvel writes that Stanton “kept jailing critics, painting all who disagreed as traitors, and the president allowed him free rein.”


I have focused on only one part of Marvel’s lucid and thought-provoking book.  I highly recommend Lincoln’s Autocrat:  The Life of Edwin Stanton.

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What about you?

Have you read any books on these topics that are well-documented and have compelling arguments?  Please leave a comment!  Thank you for reading my blog.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Good books about early Iowa, the Underground Railroad, and the Civil War

I am a fan of well-documented books with solid reasoning.  I recommend the following books about early Iowa history, the Underground Rail Road, slavery, causes of the Civil War, reasons for enlisting, and the U.S. Constitution:

Early Iowa History

Bright radical star cover from AMAZONRobert R. Dykstra, Bright Radical Star:  Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier (Cambridge, 1993).  This detailed, thoughtful book covers from 1833 (when Iowa Territory was officially open to settlement) to 1880.

Morton M. Rosenberg, Iowa on the Eve of the Civil War:  A Decade of Frontier Politics (Norman, 1972).  Rosenberg discusses 1850s Iowa demographics and politics.

Chandler C. Childs and Robert F. Klein, ed., Dubuque:  Frontier River City (Dubuque, 1984).  This book aptly covers Dubuque’s early history, stretching from 1830 (territorial days) through 1857.  It reminds me that Dubuque Democrats of this period called their city “The Gibraltar of the Iowa Democracy.”

Iowa Underground Railroad

Necessary Courage SoikeLowell J. Soike, Necessary Courage:  Iowa’s Underground Railroad in the Struggle Against Slavery (Iowa City, 2013).  This is a good introduction to the Iowa Underground Railroad.  Soike is a veteran UGRR researcher and former director of the Iowa Freedom Trail project.

Bill Silag, Susan Koch-Bridgford, and Hal Chase, eds. Outside In:  African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000 (Des Moines, 2001).  I especially appreciated chapters two through four, covering Iowa Territorial Census figures, the Underground Rail Road (written by scholar G. Galen Berrier), and African-American legal history, starting with the Iowa Territory.


Civil War as a Theological CrisisMark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, 2006).  Noll does an excellent job of presenting the biblical texts quoted by abolition-minded ministers, and passages quoted by pro-slavery ministers.  I found the most compelling abolition argument (derived from Scripture) to be more nuanced than the proof-texts cited in support of slavery.  In open debate, crowds in the 1840s and 1850s seemingly had little patience for nuanced arguments.

Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire:  The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens, 2009, original ed. 1998).  Genovese offers compelling and reasoned insights into Southern perspectives on slavery.

Causes of the Civil War

The impending crisis AMerica before the Civil WarDavid M. Potter, The Impending Crisis:  America before the Civil War, 1848 – 1861 (New York, 2011, original ed. 1976).  As a boy, I enjoyed Bruce Catton’s Civil War trilogy.  As an adult, I appreciate Potter’s profound insights and compelling logic regarding the causes of the war.

Donald E. Reynolds, Editors Make War:  Southern Newspapers in the Secession Crisis (Carbondale, 2006).  Reynolds creates a picture of the changing political face of the South as it headed toward Fort Sumter.  Editors Make War is a well-written combination of quotations and analysis.

Reasons for Enlisting

James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades:  Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford, 1997).  This thoughtful book draws upon the correspondence of many Union and Confederate soldiers.  McPhersons examines reasons why men enlisted and why they continued fighting at different stages of the war.

U.S. Constitution / Civil Liberties

Constitutional problems under lincolnJames G. Randall, Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln (New York, 1926).  This thought-provoking book is rich in detail.  It covers a host of topics, ranging from the legal nature of the Civil War to habeas corpus, illegal arrests, martial law, and more.  It was interesting to see how President Abraham Lincoln framed the argument over secession in such a way that readers would conclude that secession was an illegal revolution.

Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty:  Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York, 1991).  Neely records how the Lincoln administration dealt with civil liberties, often trampling on them for various reasons.  He charts how the president quickly responded to new situations, beginning in the earliest days of the war.  Overall, Neely justifies the actions of Lincoln and his administration.  I highly recommend this richly detailed book.

Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press (New York, 1951).  I was interested to read about the opposition press in the North during the Civil War.  Harper paints a picture of the Federal government suppressing many newspapers.  A number of newspapers were barred from the mails, editors were arrested, and in some cases, Union soldiers destroyed printing presses.

What about you?

Have you read any books on these topics that are well-documented and have compelling arguments?  Please leave a comment!

Next Week

Next week, I plan to recommend more books related to the Civil War.  Topics will include Copperheads, Civil War medicine, foreigners in the Confederacy, the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy, and Confederate national identity.

How the Underground Railroad helped me find Confederates from Iowa

UGRR marker State of Ohio blog photo“Men maddened with hate and rage ran through the streets with insulting words ever on their lips.  When I bade my husband good morning, I did not know but he would be the first victim of the fury.”  (Sarah Parker to her mother, March 1860)

This letter described Grinnell’s first riot (March 13-14, 1860) over the presence of fugitive slaves in the public school.  It captured my imagination.  I wanted to know who instigated the riot and exactly what happened.

Most Grinnell residents today know that their town was a stop on the Iowa Underground Railroad.  I was hungry for facts, so I dived into the local archives.

Building shared by Grinnell School and Grinnell Congregational Church

Building shared by Grinnell School and Grinnell Congregational Church

Members of the local Congregational Church played a large role in this young town (founded in 1854, just 7 years before Fort Sumter).  The church required members to oppose slavery and respect the “rights and privileges” of all people, including fugitive slaves.

Today, Grinnell is the home of progressive Grinnell College.  All in all, it seemed like an unlikely place for a race riot.

Civil Liberties

I’m a child of the 1960s (granted, from a conservative family).  As such, I value the civil liberties of Americans.  I respect the right to dissent, that is, to disagree with those in authority.  I honor the Grinnell residents who, at risk of heavy fines and jail time, broke the national law.  They helped at least 37 fugitive slaves on their way to freedom.

I found hundreds of sources about early Grinnell, from its founding in 1854 through the end of the Civil War.  I also studied the history of Poweshiek County.  In the process, I discovered some Confederates from Iowa.

Murder of the Marshals

Murder of the Marshals OCt 2 1864 letter from Oskaloosa Iowa in Chicago TribuneOn October 1, 1864, two deputy marshals tried to round up three “draft deserters” in southwest Poweshiek County.  Bushwhackers murdered the marshals.  Earlier that summer, 50 or so men had formed a local militia, swearing that they wouldn’t submit to a draft.  The men called themselves “The Democratic Rangers.”  One of those men became an accomplice to the murder of the marshals.

Lincolns nose 1 STUCKATTHEAIRPORT dot COMThis whole development was news to me, an Illinois native.  When I was a kid, my class went down to Springfield, and we walked past a bronze bust of Abe Lincoln’s chest and head.  I happily rubbed his now-white nose.  (Most Illinoisans have done the same thing.)

I used to think that all Iowans supported the Union war effort and President Lincoln.  Then I discovered that wasn’t true.

The murders made me ask, “Did any Iowans go a different route and serve the Confederacy?”  That question led me to historian Hubert H. Wubben, author of Civil War Iowa and the Copperhead Movement.  Wubben states that two Iowa state legislators served the Confederacy, and so did two sons of Iowa U.S. Senator George Wallace Jones.  That’s how I began my study of Confederates from Iowa.

Million-Dollar Question

I soon faced the million-dollar question:  Why would men leave a nice state like Iowa and serve the “other side”?

That question led me to study the home front in Iowa during the war.  To my surprise, there were violations of civil liberties, and men were arrested and imprisoned without formal charges and without trial.

I learned that Iowans haven’t always agreed.  This tradition goes back to the Underground Railroad, and then Confederates from Iowa, and a hundred years after that, the anti-war protestors of the 1960s.  Like a scarlet ribbon, dissent marks our history.

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