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A. James Fuller
University of Indianapolis
The War Begins
Issues related to economics and power, race and slavery dominated Indiana politics during the Civil War. At the center of it all stood Governor Oliver P. Morton, whose strong personality, skillful leadership, and sometimes ruthless policies made him the most prominent figure in the state’s political battles. Although Morton claimed that he was above party and that the old political divisions must be set aside in the name of saving the Union, stark differences continued to divide Hoosiers politically. These differences included disagreements over the meaning of the war, race, economics, and governmental power. Combined, they led to conflict and to charges of tyranny on one side and treason on the other.
In the aftermath of secession and the beginning of the war, Governor Morton rallied Hoosiers to prepare for the coming military conflict. A wave of patriotism swept Indiana and, with some exceptions, Hoosiers supported the Union and the government, at both the state and national level. Morton called for setting aside partisan politics in the name of a Union Party and those Democrats who had supported Stephen Douglas in the Election of 1860, led by Joseph A. Wright, now joined the Republicans in the name of fighting the war. Democrats who had supported John C. Breckinridge, led by Senator Jesse D. Bright, mostly held out and opposed the efforts of the majority, although some of them rallied to the Unionist cause.
Hoosiers Support the Union
Hoosier support for the Union surpassed all expectations. When the war began with the shots fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. Governor Morton responded by telegram that same day, tendering 10,000 Indiana soldiers to enforce the laws of the United States, four thousand more than he had offered the national government back in January. The War Department informed Morton that Indiana should provide about 4,600 men, in six regiments. In keeping with his Union Party ideal, the governor appointed Lew Wallace, a Democrat and military veteran who had served in the U.S.-Mexican War, to the post of adjutant general and tasked him with mustering and preparing the troops for service. Within days, Wallace transformed the state fairgrounds at Indianapolis into “Camp Morton,” and began the work of training the volunteers. Meanwhile, the Indiana General Assembly passed resolutions supporting the war and voted for laws giving the governor the authority to borrow money and spend it to purchase arms and supplies for the troops. The legislature also expanded the governor’s authority over the state militia. Democrats voted along with the Republican majority to mobilize the state for war. No wonder the Indianapolis Daily Journal, Indiana’s leading Republican newspaper, joyously argued that, “We are no longer Republicans or Democrats,” but that “in this hour of our country’s trial, we know no party, but that which upholds the flag of our country.”
These early days of unity and loyalty allowed Governor Morton to demonstrate his leadership talents. In unprecedented territory as governor, he faced tremendous problems. The state government lacked funds, the various military-related offices had long been unneeded and were nearly non-existent, and the new volunteers needed arms, ammunition, and supplies as well as training. The legislature responded to these pressing needs by voting $500,000 for the governor to use to purchase arms for the soldiers. It also authorized him to borrow money and passed a bill allowing for the sale of two million dollars in state bonds. Furthermore, the willing legislators gave Morton $100,000 for a contingency fund and appropriated another one million dollars for additional troops. Because of the state’s poor credit, severely damaged by the repudiation of debts incurred for internal improvements during a severe depression twenty years earlier, the bonds ended up selling at a discount, and frauds discovered in 1862 made Indiana’s credit rating even worse. In 1861, however, the legislature’s actions seemed to provide ample funds for the war effort.
Morton moved to fill the many military offices with men who could spend the state’s money wisely and make the soldiers ready for battle. Lew Wallace proved a worthy choice, as did lifelong Democrat Robert Dale Owen, whom the governor made Agent of the State. Owen worked tirelessly to find and purchase arms for Indiana troops, including more than 30,000 Enfield rifles. Such high-profile appointments of Democrats seemed to prove that Morton took his calls for non-partisan unity seriously. In reality, however, he appointed far more Republicans than Democrats and, within his own party, he favored those who supported him over his rivals for leadership. In addition to important offices that supported the military, Morton also appointed officers in the volunteer units and state militia. Time and time again, he chose Republicans loyal to him over Democrats or Republicans connected to politicians like Congressmen George W. Julian or Schuyler Colfax, his chief rivals in the Republican Party. While the use of patronage was nothing new, Morton took the opportunity not only to strengthen his party, but also to build his own political power base.
Still, the governor proved an effective administrator. Under his leadership, troops were recruited, enlisted, trained, equipped, supplied, and made ready for service in the U.S. Army. To be sure, it wasn’t easy. Finding enough guns, uniforms, and supplies of food required long hours and lots of ingenuity. Morton lived up to the job, visiting Washington to obtain arms, scouring the state for weapons stored in local arsenals, and sending Owen on purchasing trips. His efforts proved so effective that he became the most famous of many politicians called “The Soldiers’ Friend.” Finding capable men to fill offices who also happened to be loyal to him also proved difficult at times. Some of his appointees lacked the abilities their jobs required, and others turned out to be corrupt. Morton chose one of his close friends, Isaiah Mansur, to direct the state’s commissary department. Mansur provided the soldiers at Camp Morton with bad meat purchased from his own pork processing business and had to resign when the scandal became known. In general, however, the governor managed to appoint men who not only strengthened his own political position, but also did their jobs well. Morton’s energy and skill also made him an effective recruiter, and he helped raise more troops than the national government needed from Indiana.
Political Conflict Increases
The unity of 1861 soon gave way to bitter disagreement and political conflict. Even while patriotism and harmony prevailed, differences over the meaning of the war emerged. The majority of Hoosiers believed the conflict was about preserving the Union, but two distinct minorities thought differently about the war. A small minority, mostly Democrats in southern Indiana, opposed the war and saw it as an aggressive campaign to increase national power and further the Republican economic agenda. These conservatives usually held to an agrarian ideal and hoped for a restoration of the Union along the traditional lines of Jacksonian America. They feared that the war would bring an end to their agricultural way of life and American liberty. Another minority, this one mostly within the Republican Party itself, hoped that the war would bring an end to slavery. These radical abolitionists worried that Republicans like Lincoln and Morton were not fully committed to emancipation and believed that no real peace could be achieved without ending slavery. These two minorities opposed one another, as well as the majority, and both feared the other. Abolitionists worried that the conservative view would prevail and slavery would continue, while the conservatives feared that abolitionism would bring an end to state sovereignty along with an expanded national government that would trample on the Constitutional rights and liberties of Americans. But most of the people in Indiana, regardless of party, joined the majority of Northerners in seeing the war as a fight to save the Union. They believed that secession was illegal and unconstitutional and that the government was right to take up arms to defend the Constitution and preserve the Union.
Differences over war aims were often rooted in economic interests. Many in southern Indiana feared the financial consequences of the war. The Civil War brought to an end the thriving river trade upon which so many Hoosiers in the southern part of the state relied. Since the founding of the first settlements in Indiana, merchants and farmers in the southern counties had depended on the waterways of the continental interior for their livelihood. The Ohio River offered them access to the arteries of the Mississippi River Valley and trade with the world through the port of New Orleans. In more recent years, Hoosiers in the rest of the state had turned increasingly to trade with the northeast, especially New York, via the Great Lakes, supplemented by canals, roads, and new railroad networks. But the river trade with the south remained a vital part of life south of the National Road. When the Republican majority in the state legislature began passing laws restricting activities in the name of the war, many Democrats in southern Indiana protested that these new measures masked the real agenda: destroying the agrarian way of life in the name of a new industrial order. Southern Indiana agrarians found the so-called “Felonies Act especially odious, as it called for severe punishment for anyone who joined the Confederate military, helped the rebels obtain arms or supplies, or had traitorous correspondence with the enemy. Not only did critics see this as an infringement of freedom of speech, they also saw it as a direct assault on both the loyalty and economic livelihood of those living in the southern counties. The already diminished river trade became further restricted as trade with Kentucky was called into question because of that state’s self-proclaimed “neutrality” and the number of Kentuckians who had joined the Confederacy. Enforcement of the law by the Republicans meant that it could be narrowly construed and used as a means not only to stamp out dissent, but also to create a more favorable environment for achieving the old Federalist/Whig economic agenda. Republicans, the conservatives worried, hoped to industrialize Indiana and increase the power of big business and banks as well as the national government.
Of course, economics always played an important part in politics. Even as the new Union Party worked to mobilize Indiana for the war, some worried not only about the growing power of the government, but also the growing burden of debt. That would inevitably lead to higher taxes. Conservative Democrats like Hoosier Congressman Daniel Voorhees publicly proclaimed their loyalty and support for the Union, but their concerns about the growth of power and debt continued, awaiting an opportunity to burst forth in protest against the Republican centralization and expansion of government power that was so popular in 1861. Governor Morton proved a likely target, and the Democrats watched carefully for an opportunity to attack his policies. But he proved too shrewd when one such moment finally came.
Expulsion of U. S. Senator Jesse D. Bright
Senator Jesse D. Bright, long the leader of Indiana Democrats, took a serious blow to his reputation and power when the Hoosier Democracy voted against John C. Breckinridge, his chosen candidate for president in 1860. Still, Bright’s power remained strong and, with his position as a United States Senator, he seemed likely to be the leader of the Peace Democrats who opposed the war and Republican policies. War Democrats, mostly supporters of Stephen Douglas, joined Morton and the Republicans in looking for a way to get rid of Bright. Joseph A. Wright, a former governor and long-time Bright rival, led the War Democrats, many of whom blamed Bright for helping to defeat Douglas with his influential support for Breckinridge. In 1861, anti-Bright forces in the legislature tried to oust him by passing a resolution to investigate whether he was really a resident of Indiana and whether his views on the war were “inconsistent with public interests and public safety.” They also passed a resolution saying that any elected official not willing to support the war should resign. These efforts failed. But, in early 1862, Bright’s enemies finally got their opportunity.
In March 1861, Bright wrote a letter of introduction to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, on behalf of a friend, and addressed it to “His Excellency, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederation of States.” The United States Senate expelled Bright, despite his argument that he wrote the letter before the war began, at a time when many in the North were communicating with Davis and other Confederate leaders. He insisted that the title he used for Davis was simply a matter of formal courtesy and not an indication of his own political views or of disloyalty. His defense failed, and he was expelled from the Senate; his enemies in Indiana were rid of him at last. His expulsion gave Morton the chance to appoint his replacement. Despite having many Republicans at hand who were willing to take the job, the governor turned to Wright, Bright’s long-time foe in the Democratic Party. Although he secretly demanded assurances from Wright that he truly supported the war, that he would not oppose the confiscation of rebel property— including slaves, and that he would not support the Democratic Party in the 1862 election, Morton’s appointment of the War Democrat served as further evidence of his commitment to the Union Party.
Wright’s appointment delayed some attacks on Morton, but many Democrats denounced the move as sheer politics that would strengthen Morton and the Republicans while weakening the opposition. They also maintained that Wright was a turncoat who had never really stood for Democratic principles anyway. Meanwhile, the radicals in the Republican Party, led by George Julian, argued that Morton had surrendered to the Democrats in creating the Union Party in the first place and that Wright’s appointment was just another compromise of true Republicanism. The fight between Julian and Morton intensified as other Republicans took sides in their feud. Michael C. Garber, the influential editor of the Jefferson County Republican newspaper, the Madison Courier, also opposed the governor. Morton fought back ruthlessly. He slammed the door on appointments for the friends and supporters of Julian and Garber, and he tried to out-maneuver his enemies in all parties. Whenever possible, he ended their careers and strengthened his hold on Indiana politics by replacing them with men loyal to himself.
The Election of 1862
The Democratic convention in January 1862 marked the end of political unity. There, the growing dissent among Democrats erupted into action; the party adopted a platform that promised support for the war and the Union, but also criticized the Republicans for trampling on the Constitution and destroying liberty. The arrest of Democratic leaders and newspaper editors critical of the Lincoln administration lent credence to their arguments, as did the federal government’s suspension of habeas corpus later in 1862. New leaders emerged to replace the disgraced Bright and the pro-Morton Wright. Thomas A. Hendricks and Daniel Voorhees soon became the spokesmen for the opposition. Morton responded by calling for the Union Party to convene and turn the fusion of Republicans with War Democrats into a political reality. Without using the formal trappings of party organization, Morton had skillfully led his supporters in using local conventions and meetings to forge a powerful political machine during the period of patriotic unity. Now, he put his machine into high gear, arguing that the Union Party was dedicated to the single goal of saving the country. He strongly criticized those who supposedly plotted to create a Northwest Confederacy that would ally with the South. He hinted that the Democrats who opposed the Union Party were disloyal members of secret societies that aimed at treasonable acts. The Union Party put War Democrats out front along with Morton, while the opposition spoke darkly of the “Morton-Wright plan” to seize more power. Thus, the lines of battle were drawn.
The fortunes of the Union Party depended on the context of the war. As casualties mounted amid defeat and continued stalemate on the battlefield, the Democrats enjoyed renewed political prospects. Republican economic policy also played a role, as the Lincoln administration passed a protective tariff, a measure that renewed the old political battles that reached back to the days of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Democrats argued that the tariff favored big business while hurting farmers and the ordinary consumer. Further echoing the policies of Hamilton and the Whig platform of Henry Clay, the Republicans established a national bank, a direct assault on the Jacksonian ideals of Democrats. Other economic issues also gave the opposition ammunition in their fight with the Republicans. Higher taxes, including an income tax, to pay for the war and higher prices caused by the war hurt all Hoosiers, and not just those already suffering from the diminished trade along the Ohio River.
The growing power of government also divided Hoosiers, as plans for conscription began to be implemented. Governor Morton and other leaders tried to delay the draft, but it became clear that it would soon be a reality, and many Democrats denounced it as a further example of tyranny and another loss of liberty. Union prospects looked bleak as the war became so unpopular and costly that the government had to turn to conscription to enlist enough soldiers to fight it. Scandal also threatened the governor’s political position. In August 1862, Morton became involved in a bitter disagreement with General William Nelson, the Union commander leading the forces in Kentucky. In September, Morton was present at the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky, when Hoosier native and Union Army commander General Jefferson C. Davis shot and killed Nelson. Because of his public fight with Nelson, Morton’s enemies accused him of instigating the killing and tried to smear him with charges of complicity and worse. Scandal always mattered in elections, but the biggest issues to help the Democrats in their campaign of 1862 were race and slavery.
The Slavery Issue
Everyone recognized that slavery was central to the Civil War. But most Northerners opposed abolitionism and remained antislavery in the first two years of the war. Northerners opposed the expansion of slavery but did not call for the end of the peculiar institution where it already existed. The more radical abolitionist view called for the emancipation of slaves wherever they lived. The antislavery position was a “big tent” under which the majority of Northerners came to agreement. Some antislavery proponents opposed the institution on moral grounds, but believed that the Constitution protected it where it already existed. Others opposed slavery on an economic basis, fearing that the expansion of slavery would mean that whites would have to compete with slave labor. Still others took the antislavery line on racist grounds, arguing that they did not want slavery because they did not want to live around black people. While Indiana had few abolitionists, the vast majority took the antislavery position. Indeed, the Constitution of 1851 expressed Hoosier notions about race and slavery quite well. Like the original 1816 Constitution, the 1851 document prohibited slavery in Indiana, but it also contained provisions excluding African Americans from settlement in the state and limiting suffrage to white males. The controversial ban of blacks from the state required a separate vote when the new Constitution was brought before the people. It passed with a large majority.
When the war began, most Hoosiers made it clear that they wanted the war to preserve the Union and not to be an abolitionist crusade. The state’s few abolitionists, led by prominent Republican congressman George Julian, insisted that true peace depended on emancipation and sought to include the end of slavery as a war aim. But most of the Republicans hoped for a more moderate course and agreed with Governor Morton, who opposed slavery personally (he had left the Democratic Party over the issue during the controversy surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854) but publicly stressed the war for the Union in hopes of rallying the whole state to support the war. War Democrats generally held to antislavery views and joined the Republicans in fighting for the Union. But their racism remained strong, as evidenced by the views of their leader, Joseph Wright, who insisted that any move to end slavery must include colonization, a plan that called for sending freed slaves to Africa. Meanwhile, a small number of Hoosiers actually supported slavery. Most notably, Senator Jesse Bright, the long-time Democratic leader who was ousted by the Republican dominated Senate in 1862, held proslavery views. Bright, a native New Yorker, owned slaves in Kentucky, where they worked his land. Others, mostly in southern Indiana, also supported slavery and feared that the War for the Union would become a war for freedom.
The Emancipation Proclamation
Those racial and political fears became reality in the fall of 1862, when President Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 20. Lincoln had walked the line between the radicals, who pushed him to end slavery as a means of winning the war, and the more conservative voices, who called for a limited war to maintain the Constitution and an easy peace with the South to restore the Union. As the war continued, however, pressure for emancipation mounted. Thousands of African Americans escaped slavery as Northern armies won battles and took territory. Congressional legislation allowed for the confiscation of rebel property, including slaves, and this raised the question of what to do with the men and women seized from their masters. Long opposed to slavery, Lincoln steered a moderate course, holding the antislavery line that had been his position throughout his political career. But the war changed things, and he now drafted an Emancipation Proclamation and waited for a victory to provide the opportunity to announce it. The battle of Antietam gave him the chance, and he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which said that all slaves still held in rebel territory would be freed on January 1, 1863. The intervening months presumably would give Southerners the chance to make peace and rejoin the Union if they wanted to preserve slavery. No slaves in the border states still in the Union were to be freed; nor were slaves in the areas in the South held by the Union Army. Lincoln made the move in light of politics and military considerations. He hoped to keep the European powers out of the war by making it a conflict about slavery, which would make it less likely that Great Britain would support the Confederacy. And he hoped that it would hurt the Confederate cause by damaging the Southern economy.
In the North, the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation set off a political firestorm. While abolitionists delighted in Lincoln’s move, most Democrats saw it as a confirmation of their fears about the Republican agenda. Their worries that the Republicans wanted to implement a nationalist expansion of government power now combined with their fears of the abolitionists, who they argued wanted not only to end slavery but destroy American values and tradition. They argued that emancipation would bring thousands of unwanted black immigrants to states like Indiana. Many Northerners, including many in Indiana, balked at the very idea of emancipation and expressed their outrage that the War for Union had now become a war about slavery. Democrats had gained support in the summer of 1862 when the Confederates invaded Kentucky and won victories in Virginia. But the ultimate failure of those campaigns had turned the tide back toward the Republicans. The slavery issue now boosted Democratic political fortunes again, and they swept the state elections in October 1862, winning seven of the eleven congressional seats and a large majority in the state legislature. The stage was set for a Democratic showdown with Governor Morton.
The 1863 Indiana General Assembly
When the Democrats took control of the legislature in January 1863, the official Emancipation Proclamation had just taken effect. Its widespread unpopularity gave the Democrats confidence in their designs to challenge the governor and take power from him. Morton’s personality and ruthless politics made him an easy target, as did his involvement in the killing of Nelson and various corruption scandals. For Democrats, Morton embodied the Republican agenda, with its expansion and corruption of power. They saw him as Lincoln’s henchman in Indiana as well as a tyrant in his own right. They designed their plans for the legislative session to curb Morton’s power and bring the state and its military efforts under Democratic control.
To be sure, Morton did not simply follow in lockstep with the president. As a Republican, of course he shared much of Lincoln’s political agenda, but the governor was clearly his own man. He often disagreed with the administration in Washington and fought to preserve state sovereignty in many areas. His disputes with Federal officials often made him a thorn in their side. His seemingly endless stream of correspondence to Lincoln and his cabinet was filled with his personal views and much advice, some of which called for different policies than those pursued by the national government. One example of his independence involved the purchase of weapons. Despite Federal efforts to stop or at least limit his efforts, Morton insisted that his agents continue to buy arms for Hoosier soldiers. When added to similar actions by other state governments, Indiana’s purchasing helped drive up the price of weapons and supplies. Eventually, in 1864, the Lincoln administration forced the governor to stop this practice, despite Morton’s insistence that it was a matter of state sovereignty and that he was properly exercising his legal authority. The governor also often disagreed with Union military policies and was quick to criticize commanders and political leaders alike when he thought they were in the wrong. His battles with General Ambrose Burnside over the arrest of prominent Democrats in Indiana resulted in the removal of one of the general’s subordinates. Morton went so far as to create military strategies of his own and forward them to Washington, especially in regard to the security of Kentucky, which he believed the War Department ignored. Still other disagreements arose over Morton’s recruiting policies and the care of Indiana’s soldiers wounded in battle. In all of these and other areas, the governor expressed his independence and often defended State’s Rights against what he saw as the encroachment of the national government.
Regardless of the truth of the matter, Morton’s term as governor coincided with the dramatic increase in the size and power of the national government. And his efforts to build a political machine made him a serious long-term threat to his rivals within the state. So his enemies moved quickly when the legislature met in 1863, and the battle to control the state government began in earnest. The opening salvo came when the Democratic majority refused to accept Morton’s message to the legislature and instead voted to receive that of the Democrat governor of New York, Horatio Seymour. Republicans bolted from the session in hopes of stopping the election of Democrats to the U.S. Senate. They returned in time for the Democratic majority to elect David Turpie to serve out the unexpired term of Jesse Bright, which Morton had filled temporarily with Joseph Wright. The Democrats also elected Thomas Hendricks, one of the stars in the Indiana Democracy, to a full six-year term as Senator. But this was only the beginning.
Democrats passed resolutions criticizing Morton and Lincoln and denounced their Republican enemies as tyrants and dictators in long, rousing speeches. They also called for investigations of Republican abuses of power and the infringement of civil liberties, including the arrest of those who had criticized the administration. Peace Democrats seized the opportunity presented by the unpopularity of the Emancipation Proclamation to introduce resolutions calling for an armistice and a negotiated peace with the South. The Democratic majority challenged Morton’s power directly by introducing a new militia bill which severely limited the governor’s authority and established a committee of state officers to share control of the militia with him. Time after time, the Republicans bolted from the session to deny the majority a quorum and prevent passage of Democratic measures aimed at the governor. Both Morton and his supporters defended his record and condemned his opponents with the charge of disloyalty.
When the Republicans bolted to stop the militia bill, the session ended. Democrats confidently prepared for stronger measures when the governor called for a special session, which they were sure he must do because they had not passed an appropriations bill and, without a budget, the state government would come screeching to a halt. But Morton surprised them by refusing to call the legislature back into session and instead began a period of “One Man Rule.” He borrowed money from New York bankers and the counties controlled by Republican commissioners. He obtained funds from the War Department and took additional money designated for the state arsenal. Morton kept all of this money in a large safe in his office and disbursed it through an assistant he named to head the “Bureau of Finance.” Ignoring the state Constitution and the illegality of his actions, the governor effectively ran the state without the legislature until after the next election; he finally reconvened the Indiana General Assembly in January 1865. Despite Democratic protests and criticisms, events played to Morton’s advantage. Military victories convinced some that the tide had turned toward a Union victory, while Morgan’s Raid in the summer of 1863 brought widespread panic and rallied support for the governor and the war effort in general. And, as if that were not enough, those who dared to criticize the Republicans opened themselves up to accusations of disloyalty and treason.
Secret Societies and Conspiracies
Morton and the Republicans continually smeared their opponents with charges of disloyalty. On several occasions, the governor announced the discovery of secret societies and treasonous conspiracies designed to overthrow the state government and take Indiana out of the war. He often painted with a broad brush and implied that all Democrats and their supporters were disloyal. This masked a much more complicated situation. Many in the rural areas of Southern Indiana proudly took on the derisive label of “Butternut,” which indicated the color of their walnut-dyed homespun clothing and Southern ancestral roots. These Hoosiers distrusted the Republicans and criticized their policies, but generally did not engage in disloyal activities. As dissent grew and resistance to the war began to take on new forms, Morton again threw out accusations of disloyalty. Resistance to the draft brought actions that could be charged as disloyalty, since draft dodging and draft riots sometimes led to violence. That most of those who resisted the draft were Democrats only reinforced Morton’s claims.
In the summer of 1864, as his period of One Man Rule continued and war weariness grew amid mounting casualties, Morton revealed the discovery of a plot by the members of a secret society called the Sons of Liberty. Military officers arrested suspects and brought them to trial by military commissions for treason. Made public just in time to help Republicans in the critical elections of 1864, the charges seemed too convenient for coincidence. Indeed, some thought the charges were a political tool invented by the governor. Others thought Morton was paranoid and that, after years of worrying about conspiracies, he had followed his wild imagination too far. Conservative Democrats adopted the symbol of the “Copperhead” as a sign of their defiance of the Republicans, and the nickname became the term used to label those who actively opposed the war and went so far as to commit acts of treason. Working closely with military officials, such as General Henry B. Carrington, commander of the Indiana District, Morton investigated the Copperheads and their secret societies. The government successfully infiltrated them and gathered information about their activities. Harrison Dodd, William Bowles, Lambdin Milligan and other Copperheads formed the nucleus of the Sons of Liberty in Indiana, an organization possibly linked to the more widely-known Knights of the Golden Circle. The Sons of Liberty claimed the heritage of State’s Rights, and they sought to take Indiana out of the war in hopes that such action would help bring about a negotiated peace with the South. The Copperheads played upon the Democratic victories in 1862 and 1863, and there was widespread talk of secession and the creation of a Northwest Confederacy. Morton and Carrington worked with the governors of neighboring states and gathered evidence that indicated that the Sons of Liberty were stockpiling weapons and working on military plans to free Confederate prisoners of war, including those held at Camp Morton in Indianapolis. The dates for the plots to be carried out came and went and nothing happened. Apparently, the Copperhead conspirators lost heart and lacked the courage to carry out their plans. Morton waited until the most opportune political moment to announce the plot and arrest the conspirators. The treason trials proved to be quite sensational, especially when Dodd escaped and fled to Canada, seeming to confirm his guilt. Found guilty, three of the traitors were sentenced to hang, but their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. They were later released after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they should have been tried in civilian courts instead of by the military tribunal that found them guilty. But the well-timed treason trials secured Morton’s power and helped the Republicans carry the 1864 elections.
The Civil War came to an end in 1865, within months after Morton finally reconvened the legislature. But peace did not mean a return to the way things had been before. The war changed the United States and Indiana forever. Economics and power, race and slavery had motivated the politics of the era, and the ways in which they were resolved would be felt for generations to come. Oliver P. Morton’s dominance in Hoosier politics continued for some years after the war. Despite his declining health, he served in the U.S. Senate from 1867 until his death in November 1877. Long extolled as a hero who had saved the state and the Union, he later came under criticism, but his impact remains significant, no matter how one interprets his actions. Rarely, if ever, has one politician played such an important role in Indiana. But the context mattered, as the times helped make the man. After all, Morton played his part in the midst of the most important crisis in American history, for he stood at the center of Civil War politics in Indiana.
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