SIDNEY — Clement Laird Vallandigham was born on July 29, 1820, in Lisbon, Ohio, to Reverend Clement and Rebecca (Laird) Vallandigham. A Presbyterian minister, Reverend Vallandigham educated Clement at home.
At age 17, young Vallandigham entered Jefferson College in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania. Finding himself short of funds, he only remained a year. He taught for two years before accumulating enough money to return to continue his education.
Following a disagreement during his senior year with the college president, Vaallandigham left the school. Although he later returned to the school to speak, he never received a diploma.
Vallandigham was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1842. His political career began when he was elected to the Ohio General Assembly in 1845 at age 25.
He subsequently ran for Congress. While a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1857–63) representing Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District, he railed against the principles and policies of the newly formed Republican Party.
His family had Southern roots. As a result, he was particularly sensitive when it came to issues regarding slavery. His held a particularly idealized version of life in the South. He became the de facto leader of the Copperheads, a group of pro-Southern Democrats.
The Copperheads were vigorously opposed to the war with the South. They viewed the war as beneficial only to the moneyed interests of the Eastern bankers and businessmen.
Vallandigham was particularly opposed to the policies of the administration of President Abraham Lincoln. He believed strongly that Lincoln was destroying not only the Constitution, but civil liberty as well.
Vallandigham became the commander of the secret, antiwar Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC). The KGC hoped to create a circle of 25 slave states that included not only the Southern states, but Cuba, Mexico and Latin America.
In January 1863, Vallandigham spoke strongly about the course of the war in the House of Representatives. “You have not conquered the South,” he declared. “You never will.” Vallandigham pointed out that after nearly two years of the conflict the Union had not been restored, but rather had lost thousands of lives in what he considered to be a hopeless effort.
Vallandigham’s biggest complaint was the number of freedoms that had been sacrificed for the war effort. He opposed the suspension of habeas corpus, the use of taxes to support the war, and the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Vallandigham told his fellow Congressmen that the restriction of these freedoms had made the Union “one of the worst despotisms on earth.”
During the early months of 1863, the Ohio Congressman made a series of speeches criticizing the Lincoln Administration. In response, U.S. Army General Order No. 38, issued in April 1863, banned spoken support for the Confederacy. However, Vallandigham continued his bitter criticism of the Lincoln administration.
At 2:40 a.m. on May 5, 1863, a detachment of 150 Union soldiers from General Ambrose Burnside’s command arrived at Clement L. Vallandigham’s home in Dayton. The soldiers’ mission was to arrest Vallandigham based on the content of an anti-war political speech he had made a few days before in Mount Vernon, Ohio.
After the soldiers captured Vallandigham, they put him on a train bound for Cincinnati where he was tried for treason by a military commission. Vallandigham’s efforts to secure a writ of habeas corpus failed. After his conviction, Vallandigham spent two months in prison before President Lincoln changed Vallandigham’s sentence from imprisonment to banishment to the Confederacy.
Vallandigham quickly grew bored with exile in the South. He made his way to Canada, where he continued his campaign of harassment. In September 1863 the Ohio Peace Democrats nominated him in absentia for governor. He was decisively defeated at the polls by Republican John Brough.
Vallandigham illegally returned to Ohio in 1864 and took an active part in that year’s presidential election campaign. He also wrote part of the national Democratic platform in which the war was denounced as a failure.
Following the war, Vallandigham continued to criticize the Radical Republican Reconstruction. He believed it to not only be unconstitutional, but tyrannical.
By 1870, he recognized that further opposition to Reconstruction to be pointless. He began urging his fellow Democrats to emphasize financial issues.
Vallandigham died June 17, 1871, after accidentally shooting himself the previous day. Representing a defendant charged with murder, Vallandigham was attempting to prove that his client’s victim had unintentionally shot himself during a barroom brawl.
In a demonstration at his room at the Golden Lamb in Lebanon, Vallandigham took a pistol he believed to be unloaded and reenacted the events of the fight in front of the other attorneys involved in the case. His death proved his case, and his client was released.
The writer is a local historian and mayor for the city of Sidney.