Book Review: The Political Transformation of David Tod: Governing Ohio during the Height of the Civil War

The Political Transformation of David Tod: Governing Ohio during the Height of the Civil War. By Joseph Lambert, Jr. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2023. Paperback, 320 pp. $39.95.

Reviewed by Zachery A. Fry

Civil War historians have often focused their gaze on the Midwest because the region featured the full range of the 1860s experience. Ohio, that near-perfect cross-section of American social and political diversity, offers plenty of material for study. The triumvirate of Union generals who towered over the war’s last year—Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan—all called the Buckeye State home at some point in their lives. Two of Lincoln’s key cabinet ministers, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, had their roots in Ohio politics. And so too did the war’s most controversial political antagonist, the arch-Copperhead Clement Vallandigham, whose name dominates much of the struggle’s political story. But one of the war’s most consequential Ohioans, and certainly one of its least understood, was the state’s principal wartime governor David Tod. Joseph Lambert, Jr., rescues Tod from obscurity and offers a cogent and convincing analysis of the governor’s “political transformation” from conservative Democrat to Lincoln ally.

Lambert’s is one of the more insightful monographs on Northern politics to emerge in recent years. He introduces David Tod as a charismatic force in the rough-and-tumble politics of Northeast Ohio’s Mahoning valley. Unlike others in a region where antislavery radicalism flourished in the antebellum years, Tod, a prominent Youngstown attorney, counted himself a Jackson Democrat in his youth. Lambert offers plenty of accessible context for Tod’s political socialization in this period dominated by bank wars and market revolution. By 1860, after having gained the Democratic Party’s nomination and serving as U.S. ambassador to Brazil before the outbreak of war, Tod exhausted himself campaigning for Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas in the presidential contest that presaged civil war.

With the outbreak of hostilities, Tod, whom Lambert never really considers an ambitious man, nonetheless exhibited a fascinating mixture of principle and pragmatism that served his political career well in the uncertainty of mid-century partisanship. “Throughout his entire political career David Tod had represented himself as a Jacksonian Democrat, a dyed-in-the-wool states’ rights man,” the author writes. “And although his party identity did not change, he and others like Douglas adapted their views as a sign of the challenging times in which they lived” (98). The firing on Fort Sumter forced a fundamental change in Tod’s worldview. Once a Democrat, he lent his charismatic voice to the cause of Union, spurning party identity and pushing for a dynamic nationalism that would mobilize for war and crush the rebellion.

Elected overwhelmingly to governor just months after the onset of war, Tod led Ohio in successfully summoning and equipping thousands of volunteers. His concern for the many Buckeyes at the front rivaled that of Andrew Curtin, Pennsylvania’s own “soldier’s friend” governor. Tod took a direct role in coordinating steamers and railroads to relocate the wounded and sick back to the home, worked to ease the financial burden of soldiers returning from terms of service, and navigated the political minefield of confirming state commissions to volunteer officers.

His two-year term as governor was also fraught with controversy, particularly after the “no party” movement of the war’s early days crumbled under the weight of military failure at the front. Partisanship returned with a vengeance, and Tod, who had disavowed his Democratic roots for the new Union Party movement in Ohio, seemed to take fire from both the Radical Republicans and the Peace Democrats. Ohio was a political battleground during his tenure. Anti-draft violence broke out in north central Ohio (Holmes, Richland, and Crawford Counties), and Tod played a key role in putting down unrest and seeing to the arrest of prominent Copperheads like Edmond Olds and Clement Vallandigham. (Olds in fact sought personal revenge and convinced Fairfield County authorities to arrest Tod himself for having “kidnapped” Olds as a political enemy, a humiliation for the embattled governor.) This political wrangling augured ill for his reelection prospects, and the Union Party dumped Tod in 1863 for another War Democrat, John Brough.

Lambert traces Tod’s transformation on the issue of emancipation as proof of how willing the governor was to sanction radical change for the purpose of restoring the Union. Tod was a proponent of this policy at the crucial Altoona conference in late 1862 and remained its steadfast supporter despite blowback from much of his state’s electorate. He worked strenuously for the recruitment of Black soldiers from the Buckeye State. And between war’s end and his death in 1868, Tod had cautioned political allies against abandoning freedmen during the early days of Reconstruction.

Lambert’s book renders the complicated story of Tod’s metamorphosis from Democrat to Lincoln ally clear and accessible. He also shows how malleable partisan identity could be in the cauldron of the Civil War and offers a rare spotlight on the phenomenon of War Democrats, those political orphans often mistrusted by Republicans and maligned by Copperheads.


Zachery A. Fry is assistant professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is author of A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomac, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2020.

2 Responses to Book Review: The Political Transformation of David Tod: Governing Ohio during the Height of the Civil War

  1. Excellent review on an important Civil War figure. Wish it had been out when I researched Charles Anderson. Tod was also a key organizer of the cemetery dedication activities at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, choosing Anderson as the third speaker. Tod was a patriot in the old sense of the word and an example today’s politicians could learn a lot from in times of crisis and internal division.

  2. I tend to think it was Tod’s quiet efficiency, his team playing, and absence of a “look at me” attitude that commended him to Lincoln more than anything else.

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