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Politics in Illinois and the Union During the Civil War

By Drew E. VandeCreek, Ph.D.

Abraham Lincoln carried his adopted state of Illinois in the election of 1860 and brought a Republican governor and legislature with him, but the triumph did not mark the beginning of heady times for the state's Republicans. The trials of war soon brought the state's Democrats back into favor. Throughout the conflict the two parties' competition provided a framework for the discussion, sometimes peaceful, others less so, of war aims. A significant number of Illinoisians turned to extra-political activities, including violence, in hopes of pushing their preferred policies into reality. But the Democratic Party came to represent those skeptical of the Union's war effort, while a significant portion of the state's new Republican Party coalesced around a patriotic call for a more vigorous prosecution of the conflict. For most of the war, President Lincoln remained in the middle. 1

As the Confederate states announced their secession from the Union, Illinois' Democratic leader Stephen A. Douglas, long a thorn in Republicans' sides, abruptly changed his stance and pledged his full support to President Lincoln. Douglas frankly admitted his own tendency toward "leaning too far to the Southern section of the Union," and urged his followers to support the president. Then, on June 3, 1861, Douglas passed away, the victim of a fever. In his absence, the Illinois Democratic Party struggled to pull together under the Union banner. 2

While open air secession meetings proved popular in southern Illinois and a number of Democratic politicians openly supported the Confederacy at first, the party eventually accepted its role in the Union. Congressman John A. Logan, who had originally compared Confederate secessionists with the United States' Founding Father, accepted a commission in the volunteer army and urged "all patriots to sustain the Government in its efforts to vindicate the Constitution." Many of Logan's supporters followed his lead, and Illinois' heavily Democratic southern sectors, which had once talked of seceding from the state, led the way in military enlistments. Nevertheless, many Illinois Democrats continued to oppose the war for the Union. 3

While Illinois Democrats struggled with the challenge of disunion, many of the state's Republicans became increasingly impatient with the federal government and President Lincoln. The War Department entered the Civil War largely unprepared for combat, and labored to organize a war effort. The Illinois State Journal complained "Our people venerate LAW next to GOD, but they are restive under the restraining operations of red tape. The idea of waiting for orders from Washington to defend ourselves or protect our outraged Union brothers in Missouri may not much longer be brooked." 4

Republicans soon took umbrage with President Lincoln's treatment of General John C. Fremont as well. The Republican Party's first presidential candidate in 1856 and a well-known explorer of the mountain West, Fremont became the commander of the Department of War's Western Division, headquartered at St. Louis, with Lincoln's appointment in 1861. Fremont's forces struggled with inadequate support from the beleaguered War Department. But the general also proved to be an ideologue often incapable of following the Commander in Chief's larger policies. In the late summer of 1861 Fremont issued a proclamation declaring martial law in Missouri and the emancipation of slaves there. Many Illinois Republicans, especially its abolitionists, cheered Fremont's action. But Lincoln, moving cautiously in a war to preserve the Union, annulled Fremont's order and eventually removed him from command, bringing down his supporters' wrath.

Democrats turned the Republicans' disarray into victory in the fall of 1861, taking over the state legislature. Many Illinoisians feared that the Democrats, led by senior leaders from southern Illinois, would attempt to dislodge that region from the state and unite it with the Confederacy. Others believed that the legislature would use its powers to block the state's contribution to the Union war effort. But the Democratic leadership proved uninterested in such sweeping goals, and instead turned to the familiar pursuit of partisan advantage.

Democrats quickly took up an investigation of the state's war expenditures, in search of unseemly contracts and graft, and found unusually high expenditures. Such discoveries failed to translate to political capital in wartime however. A Democratic report of the treatment of Illinois troops in the field found no wrongdoing, once again yielding no campaign leverage.

The Democrats soon turned to the framing of a new state constitution, a project that the voters had set in motion in the election of 1860. The legislators arranged a scheme of political apportionment that provided the state's less-populous southern counties with representation equal to those in the rapidly growing north. Their approach to economic regulation returned to the familiar Democratic themes of the antebellum period, framing provisions discouraging banking and the circulation of paper currency. One provision bluntly stated that "all laws enacted after the adoption of this Constitution, which create corporations, amend existing charters, or grant special or exclusive privileges to individuals, shall be subject to alternation, amendment or repeal." The body also proposed to incorporate into the document a prohibition of black immigration to Illinois first taken up in 1853. 5

Republicans of northern Illinois howled in protest at the proposed constitution. The bank and currency provisions promised to damage economic development in northern regions increasingly marked by railroads and factories. In a maddening refrain of the national sectional crisis, the new constitution's political apportionment threatened to subject the entire state to the political will of a southern minority. "Shall the manufacturing, agricultural and commercial interests of northern Illinois be put into Egyptian bondage?" wondered the Aurora Beacon. 6

Republicans ultimately organized their campaign against the new constitution, to be tested by a voters' referendum, around the theme of loyalty. "Why is it that every rebel sympathizer in Illinois is open mouthed for the adoption of the new Constitution? Asked the Illinois State Journal. "Down with the Secession Constitution," added the Chicago Tribune. Voters responded by rejecting each of the constitution's provisions, except the bans on black settlement, voting, and office holding, which carried by large margins. 7

While Abraham Lincoln pursued a war to preserve the Union in 1861 and 1862, Radical Republicans in Illinois, including Governor Yates and Senator Lyman Trumbull, labored to advance the cause of emancipation. One Illinoisian wrote that the federal government had "a higher and holier mission to perform, than to lavish hundreds of millions of Treasure and to sacrifice tens of thousands of the lives of our noblest young men, to see how strong it can hold a Traitor's negro with one hand and how successfully it can fight his master with the other." 8 When President Lincoln persisted in maintaining a conservative policy aimed at retaining slaveholding border states like Kentucky and Missouri for the Union, Illinois Republicans' patience snapped. One editor blasted "the imbecility of President Lincoln" whom he believed had "done more to aid Secessia than Jefferson Davis." Governor Yates and Senator Trumbull each questioned the president's ability to lead the nation. 9

Unbeknownst by the Illinois Republicans, President Lincoln had begun to consider the issue of slave emancipation by the summer of 1862. In meetings with Illinois visitors the president stood firm by his conservative pronouncements, but by July of that year he had written an emancipation proclamation, and awaited only a propitious occasion to announce it. Union soldiers' hard-fought victory at Antietam provided Lincoln with his opportunity to make public his emancipation plans, which Illinois Republicans greeted with relief.

In the wake of the voters' rejection of the Democratic state constitution, Republicans believed that the road to control of the state legislature had opened for them once again. But Republican overconfidence and continued opposition to the war and its toll led to a surprising Democratic sweep of the elections held in November, 1862. Democrats celebrated the results as proof that the voter had rejected the Republicans' attempts "to inaugurate a reign of terror in the loyal states by military arrests and transportation to prison… of citizens, without a trial, to browbeat all opposition by villainous and false charges of disloyalty against whole classes of patriotic citizens, to destroy all constitutional guaranties of free speech, a free press, and writ of `habeas corpus.'" 10

The Democratic legislature quickly sat down to address the actions of their Republican tormentors. They passed resolutions denouncing the federal government's conduct of the war and urging an immediate armistice and peace convention in the state house of representatives. Only the Republicans' withdrawal from the state senate prevented their approval there. Driven to distraction, Governor Yates prorogued (or suspended) the legislature, the first time in the history of Illinois that a Governor had used this power.

In the wake of the legislature's suspension, Democrats held a series of large public meetings calling for immediate peace and the restoration of the Union "as it was," that is embracing slavery. Democrats also denounced Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as "a gigantic usurpation" converting a war for union into a "crusade for the sudden, unconditional and violent liberation of three million slaves." 11

Democrats objected to the government's vigorous squashing of anti-war dissent in the state. State officials imprisoned many Confederate supporters, including members of Congress, judges, and state legislators. Military officials denied what they deemed to be "copperhead" (or pro-southern) newspapers the use of the mail, and even shut them down.

This political disagreement often turned violent. Republicans, for their part, objected to the activities of pro-southern "bushwhackers," many of whom had entered the state from Missouri, intent upon disrupting the state's war effort. Armed rebel sympathizers maintained quasi-military organizations in the state. Many Republicans interpreted anti-war statements, especially those calling for the secession of southern Illinois (or "Egypt") from Illinois or the disruption of troop enlistments, as sedition. Republicans formed Union League clubs to monitor the activities of partisans suspected of sabotaging the war effort or spying for the Confederacy. Others formed vigilance committees that battled bushwhackers and generally terrorized southern sympathizers. 12

In this context, repeated in large part across the Union states of the Ohio Valley, President Lincoln asked the voters to return him to office in the fall of 1864. The Union war effort appeared to be at its low point. General Ulysses S. Grant, called to Washington to lead the Union armies after his triumph at Vicksburg in 1863, had embarked upon a bloody campaign in Virginia that seemed to yield nothing. As northern casualties mounted to unprecedented levels, the deeply divided public seemed to lose its vigor for the fight. 13

Confident of impending victory, the Democratic Party met at Chicago in the summer of 1864 to nominate George McClellan, a Union general dismissed by Lincoln for his cautious tactics and suspect politics, for the presidency. Calling the war "four years of failure," the Democrats called for an immediate halt to hostilities. But the former general defied his handlers when he refused to dishonor the efforts of his former armies by calling for an immediate peace. Thus the Democratic ticket entered the fall campaign in a state of disorganization. 14

Democrats ran against Lincoln "the widow-maker," an "abolitionist and buffoon," while Republicans attacked the Democrats as "copperheads" devoted to the Confederacy's aristocracy of slaveholders. In Illinois General John A. Logan aided the Republican cause immeasurably by his defection from the Democratic side. When Union armies captured Atlanta, long regarded as the key to the Deep South, in October of 1864, they turned the election in Lincoln's favor. 15

Amidst the Union army's increasingly positive results in a war now marked for emancipation as well as union, Radical Republicans buried their grievances and turned out to vote for Lincoln, and who defeated McClellan by a margin of 30,736 in his native state. Republicans swept the state legislature, as well as eleven of the state's fourteen congressional districts. Richard J. Oglesby of Decatur was elected to succeed Governor Yates over a Democratic candidate. Soon after the fall elections, the Republican legislature gathered to send former Governor Yates to the Senate, where he joined the Republican Lyman Trumbull.

At the time of Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater, then, Illinois stood as a solidly Republican state, a remarkable transformation for an electorate long marked as a hotbed of the Democracy. As a candidate in central Illinois Abraham Lincoln had been among the Whigs squabbling over the state's lone non-Democratic seat in Congress. Not only did Illinois send him to the White House as the nation's first Republican president, they also helped to elect him as the first two-term occupant of the White House since Andrew Jackson. In the administrations of Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes the Republican Party would build upon the coalition that Lincoln forged. But this coalition contained the seeds of its own crisis. As Chicago and northern Illinois joined forces with the industrial North in the years following the conflict, central and southern Illinois would rise again to assert their own interests in the Gilded Age. Joined by laborers and farmers across the South and West, this political movement would score the Republican Party for its dramatic turn away from the cause of the working man, originally championed by Abraham Lincoln, the Illinois Railsplitter.


1. Philip Paludan, A People's Contest (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988) chapter 4.

2. Arthur Charles Cole, Centennial History of Illinois: The Era of the Civil War, 1848-1870 (Springfield, IL: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1919) 261.

3. Cole 262.

4. Cole 264.

5. Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State (Grand Rapids, MI: W.G. Eerdmans, 1972) 305-306; Cole 270.

6. Cole 269

7. Cole 271.

8. Cole 293.

9. Howard 308; Cole 294.

10. Cole 297.

11. Cole 300.

12. Cole 306.

13. James McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) chapter 24.

14. McPherson 775.

15. Cole 327.


©2002 Illinois During the Civil War Digitization Project.