Book Review: Lincoln’s Northern Nemesis: The War Opposition and Exile of Ohio’s Clement Vallandigham

Ohio produced no shortage of Civil War luminaries. On one end of the spectrum, you have names like Grant, Sherman, Sheridan (sort of), Hayes, Rosecrans, and Garfield. And on the other…Clement Vallandigham. Even after 160 years, Vallandigham remains the name most closely associated with northern anti-war Democrats and the Copperhead movement. In the most recent biography, Ohio editorialist Martin Gottlieb tackles Vallandigham in Lincoln’s Northern Nemesis: The War Opposition and Exile of Ohio’s Clement Vallandigham.

GottliebA veteran newspaper writer and native of Vallandigham’s district, Gottlieb chose not to rehash a pure biography, the standard Vallandigham bio having been published more than fifty years ago. This is just as well, as the majority of Vallandigham’s papers were lost in a 1913 flood, and no great cache has been discovered following the publication of Frank J. Klement’s The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War (1970).

Instead, the author focuses primarily on the events of Vallandigham’s wartime years – the political campaigns, conventions, debates, arrests and trials. Short of any “mud and blood” that fascinates so many Civil War enthusiasts, Gottlieb’s book instead reads like a period newspaper, highlighting the sensational headlines of Vallandigham’s career.

Gottlieb deftly moves the reader through Vallandigham’s prewar years, including his interactions with John Brown. Like Virginia Governor Henry Wise, Vallandigham admired Brown as a “brave and resolute man as ever headed an insurrection,” while remaining patently opposed to Brown’s motives.

Through fourteen chapters the author covers the war years, including Vallandigham’s terms in the House of Representatives, his May 1863 arrest on charges of sympathy with the southern confederacy, and the resulting fallout. Banished south by President Lincoln, Vallandigham ultimately made his way to Canada and ran an Ohio gubernatorial campaign in absentia. Though unsuccessful, Vallandigham still garnered nearly 200,000 votes, highlighting the deep divisions in one of the Union’s largest states.

While short on battles, Gottlieb covers Vallandigham’s intersections with military personalities, including generals Robert Schenck, Ambrose Burnside, and William Rosecrans. Vallandigham continued his losing streak after the war in dropping campaigns for the Senate and House of Representatives before ultimately resuming his law practice. If his story wasn’t interesting enough, Vallandigham died in 1871 after accidentally shooting himself in the stomach while demonstrating a theory during a murder trial.

With a dearth of personal papers available, the author mined an impressive collection of available primary and secondary sources, including the papers of several of Vallandigham’s contemporaries, and numerous period newspapers. Gottlieb reasons that many of the issues challenged or effected by Clement Vallandigham – race and war, civil liberties, loyalty and treason, nationalism, partisanship and polarity – continue to echo after more than a century and a half.  Lincoln’s Northern Nemesis is an admirable study underscoring how one of the more polarizing figures of the mid-19th century might not seem so out of place in our 21st century politics.

Lincoln’s Northern Nemesis: The War Opposition and Exile of Ohio’s Clement Vallandigham
By Martin Gottlieb
McFarland & Company 2021, $39.95 paperback
Reviewed by Jon-Erik Gilot

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