The political history of the Civil War North, including that of Pennsylvania, is a historical field in disarray. The emergence of New Social History in the 1960s and 70s contributed to the decline of studies that examined political parties, leaders, elections, and issues. Social historians frequently dismissed political research as elitist and some even questioned the significance of politics for ordinary Americans. But as Mark E. Neely, Jr., argued in The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era (2005), politics and partisanship were central to the lives of Americans of the period. "To dismiss the engagement of Americans in political life in the nineteenth century," wrote Neely, "would, of course, pose the greatest threat to our understanding of the Civil War era" (xiv). This brief essay summarizes the literature of Pennsylvania politics with an eye toward recent trends and research needs. It begins with state and regional surveys, noteworthy political biographies, and lastly a variety of narrower topics including opposition politics and resistance, Union Leagues and partisan mobilization, controversies over soldier voting, and others.
Any research into Pennsylvania political history in the Civil War era should begin with three studies: John F. Coleman, The Disruption of the Pennsylvania Democracy, 1848-1860 (1975); Erwin Stanley Bradley, The Triumph of Militant Republicanism: A Study of Pennsylvania and Presidential Politics, 1860-1872 (1964); and Frank B. Evans, Pennsylvania Politics, 1872-1877: A Study in Political Leadership (1966). Commissioned as part of a series by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, these classic volumes ground the reader in chronological development.
Their generally top-down personality-centered format typified traditional political history. Bradley's work covering the war years focused upon factionalism and political machination — notably the Simon Cameron-Andrew Curtin feud. A reader should supplement these volumes with the somewhat older and less accessible dissertation by Stanton Ling Davis, "Pennsylvania Politics, 1860-1863" (Western Reserve University, 1935). It is unfortunate that the study was never published and that its able author did not continue his research to examine the second half of the war.
Bradley drew upon his close reading of primary sources to write the primary biography of Cameron, entitled Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Secretary of War: A Political Biography (1966). Nothing significant has appeared since — a trend common for Pennsylvania political figures. The only state politicians that have sustained some biographical attention are those who operated at the national level, such as Thaddeus Stevens, Edwin Stanton, and James Buchanan. Steven's reputation has risen and fallen over time but is generally regarded highly in his most recent biography by Hans L. Trefousse, Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (1997). James Buchanan's stock received no revisionist boost, however, in Jean H. Baker, James Buchanan (2004). Philadelphian George McClellan is certainly one of the most consequential wartime political figures but most of his numerous biographies give scant attention to his political career. See, for instance, Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union (2005).
One problem facing scholars is the scarcity of primary source material for many, including Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin. The loss of his personal papers has made writing his biography daunting and the closest we have come to it is a series of articles written by Rebecca Albright in the mid-1960s. A modern biography of Curtin is necessary. Curtin's role in relation to Lincoln, however, has been addressed in conjunction with other wartime governors in William B. Hesseltine, Lincoln and the War Governors (1948) as well as more recently by Stephen D. Engle in his Frank Klement lecture at Marquette entitled "All the President's Statesmen: Northern Governors and the American Civil War" (2006). And while not a political biography, A Philadelphia Perspective: The Civil War Diary of Sidney George Fisher is one of the most significant personal reflections by an influential state figure. Jonathan W. White has edited an accessible new softcover edition with introduction that makes this primary source easy to use.
The New Social History decimated traditional political narratives and biographies but its methodologies and approaches influenced a different kind of political history. The surveys of Pennsylvania politics by Bradley and Evans stood at odds with the emerging New Political History and its emphasis on politics from the ground up. Studies in this genre examined voter behavior and the structure of the party-system, shifted focus from national to local issues, frequently employed statistical analysis, and sought to account for the affects of cultural, social, economic, and ideological forces. Given the intensity of research required, historians using this ethnocultural approach often constrained their focus. Michael F. Holt's Forging a Majority: The Formation of the Republican Party in Pittsburgh, 1848-1860 (1969) was a path-breaking example of the field. Holt demonstrated how Pennsylvania Republicans navigated the minefield of white prejudice, promoting their antislavery goals as a protection of white rights. He also showed how anti-Catholic nativism figured into political affiliations.
While Holt had stressed the significance of ethnocultural factors, other scholars looked for economic predictors of party affiliation. A number of historians characterize areas of Democratic strength as weakly connected to the market economy, ambivalent about commercial expansion, or fearful of manipulation by outside financial powers. Thus party squabbles and the origins of the war come back to Charles Beard's controversial assertion that the Civil War was a conflict over economic interests pitting agrarians against industrialists. Excellent examples touching upon Pennsylvania in the antebellum period include James Huston's essay "Economic Change and Political Realignment in Antebellum Pennsylvania" (1989) and John Majewski, A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Civil War (2000). The most forceful statement of this economic-determinist model for the nation as a whole is Marc Egnal, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War (2009).
Another significant field of inquiry examines the nature, extent, and inter-connectedness of political partisanship, dissent, and resistance to the war. The continued operation of the two-party system in the North was once commonly viewed as an asset for achieving victory. In 1960, David Potter mused that the South's lack of opposition politics undermined the effectiveness of Southern leadership and military policy. Eric McKitrick expanded on the value of the two-party system for channeling opposition in constructive fashion and maintaining dangerous dissent within bounds. Dismantling this widespread notion was the central aim of Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North (2002). Neely outlined the corrosive impact of the party system which "made no marked contributions to Union victory, and at a few dangerous moments its accustomed operation threatened political suicide" (201).
The primary starting point to understand Democratic dissent in the state is Arnold M. Shankman, The Pennsylvania Antiwar Movement, 1861-1865 (1980). Scholarly interest in Copperheadism and the antiwar movement was spurred by two primary causes: the 1960 publication of Frank Klement's The Copperheads in the Middle West and the Vietnam War. Klement's prodigious scholarship traced Democratic opposition to ideological and economic roots. It sparked a host of parallel studies that presented the Mid-West as the epicenter of the peace movement. Shankman's book along with his many articles argued that "opposition to the war in the Keystone State was as intense as it was in Ohio, Illinois, or New York, states traditionally associated with peace sentiment" (13). He delineated the various factions within the Democratic Party and charted the rise of the peace movement and draft resistance. Despite the breadth and significance of opposition, Shankman defended copperheads from the label of treason. Like Klement and Joel Silbey, author of the influential A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868 (1977), Shankman stressed the conservative political ideology of party members.
The extent, form, and impact of the peace movement remains a point of contention. Jennifer Weber's Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North (2006) has reasserted a wartime Republican view that threats of organized conspiracy were real and that "opposition to the administration damaged the army's ability to prosecute the conflict efficiently" (2). My own essay "Damnable Treason or Party Organs? Democratic Secret Societies in Pennsylvania" (2013) looked at the community level, countering that grass-roots resistance was indeed widespread but that Republicans exaggerated the threat considerably. The debate goes on.
Beyond Shankman's book, a researcher will find more than a dozen shorter articles in state historical journals. The great bulk of them appeared in the 1960s and 70s on themes of newspapers and censorship, elections, and Democratic leaders. Of the latter, many focused on the "peace at any price" wing, including Charles Ingersoll, George W. Woodward, Jeremiah Sullivan Black, Francis W. Hughes, and William B. Reed. This fragmented approach underscores the need to look more carefully at the operation of the Democratic and Republican parties at the local, state, and regional level as well. As Shankman suggested, the emphasis on the Mid-West has skewed our understanding of Copperheadism elsewhere. Richard Orr Curry, A House Divided" A Study of Statehood Politics and the Copperhead Movement in West Virginia (1964) and Matthew Warshauer, Connecticut in the American Civil War: Slavery, Sacrifice, and Survival (2011) examined opposition in border states and New England. More is needed on these themes comparing those findings with the Mid-West.
A final topic related to Democratic opposition is draft resistance. Shankman acknowledged the widespread unpopularity of the draft laws and the resistance faced by distraught military officials. The standard treatment on the Union draft is James W. Geary, We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War (1991) and his thorough overview "Civil War Conscription in the North: A Historiographical Review" (1986). Three more recent works on Pennsylvania deserve mention. Grace Palladino's Another Civil War: Labor, Capital, and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840-68 (1990) examined wartime tensions between miners, their employers, and federal officials. Palladino's labor history situated this conflict in terms of work and ethnicity, as an extension of prewar struggles between laborers and mine owners. She documented how capitalists used wartime military authority to curb dissent. Robert Sandow's Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania's Appalachians (2009) similarly looked for the causes of dissent in the sparsely populated lumber regions of the northwest. The study points to economic marginalization of small farms, traditions of civic localism, and partisan debate over controversial military policies. The Fishing Creek Confederacy: A Story of Civil War Draft Resistance (2012), by Richard A. Sauers and Peter Tomasak, is the most recent monograph to focus on opposition. It excels at narrating the nature and causes of military enforcement in Columbia County in 1864 as well as the civilian arrests and trials that followed. A significant theme is the "postwar reverberations" and divergent memories of the incident that lingered for decades in the community.
All three works taken together stress the need to look more closely at regions and communities. They illustrate the "inner Civil War" that divided northerners and their neighbors over issues of the war's meaning, costs, and direction. Scholars must look closely for the social, ideological, economic, and political factors underlying dissent. More needs to be done at this micro-historical level to lay ground-work for an updated statewide treatment of Copperheadism and resistance.
This essay can only outline legal and judicial developments during the war, many of which hinged on issues of dissent and civil rights. Mark E. Neely, Jr., and Jonathan W. White are the most active scholars on this subject. It is noteworthy that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania offered one of the few constitutional challenges to the federal conscription laws in the case of Kneedler v. Lane. Interested readers should consult: Neely, "Justice Embattled: The Lincoln Administration and the Constitutional Controversy over Conscription in 1863" (1996) and White, "The Strangely Insignificant Role of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Civil War" (2013). For an overview of the federal government's suspension of habeas corpus and the use of military arrests and tribunals on civilians, read Neely, The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (1991) and White's fine study, Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman (2011). There was also considerable postwar legislative wrangling over disfranchising deserters and draft-evaders. This subject is covered in a chapter entitled, "‘Not Fit to Be a Citizen': The Disfranchisement of Deserters in the Postwar Period" in White's forthcoming book Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln (2014). The author asserts that the debate over soldier voting was about the meaning of citizenship and that disfranchisement of deserters represented the view that "those who shirked their duty during the Civil War ought to lose that sacred privilege."
One of the significant trends in recent scholarship is to examine politics as more than simply parties, leaders, platforms, and elections. The term can be broadened to encompass a wide range of behaviors involving ordinary Americans and their reactions to the war: e.g. mobilization, war work, benevolence, dissent and resistance, to name a few. This form of everyday politics spilled from homes, shops, factories, and churches into the public streets. No brief essay can do justice to the full breadth and depth of scholarship on these political issues in Civil War Pennsylvania. The remaining space will suggest fruitful directions.
One theme relates to the meaning and development of northern nationalism that sustained the will of the people during the long war. Intellectual historian George Fredrickson referred to this task as the "doctrine of loyalty." Melinda Lawson's, Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North (2002) outlined the Republican ideological campaign to foster devotion to the nation-state and its administration. While dealing with the entire North, Lawson's focus on Sanitary Fairs, Jay Cooke's bond drives, and the large urban Union Leagues, pointed to the significance of Philadelphia especially. A great deal of attention has been paid to these individual elements though predominantly in chapters and articles. Jeannie Attie, Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War situates the labors of elite women especially in this political context. Whereas Attie focused on the prominent role of the upper classes, Judith Giesberg's Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front (2009) examined the "everyday politics" of marginalized and vulnerable women. She described the survival strategies of these women and how their actions constituted "conversations" about political topics like enlistment and family aid.
Lastly, other works look at the intersections of soldiering and politics, namely the controversial policies of soldier voting or the development of pensions. Joseph Allan Frank, With Ballot and Bayonet: The Political Socialization of American Civil War Soldiers (1998) argued the centrality of politics for shaping the outlook and expectations of citizen-soldiers. Volunteers were a product of their politically engaged and literate society who eschewed professional military ideals of non-partisanship. But as Jonathan White argued, their desire to vote in the field was an overlooked "political innovation" that created a heated legislative and public debate over free and fair elections. See White's essay "Citizens and Soldiers: Party Competition and the Debate in Pennsylvania over Permitting Soldiers to Vote, 1861–64" (2004). On the subject of pensions, there is a growing body of literature. Good starting points for a national perspective are Larry M. Logue, Race, Ethnicity, and Disability: Veterans and Benefits in Post-Civil War America (2010) and James Marten, Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011).
Jeannie Attie, Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1998).
Jean H. Baker, James Buchanan (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2004)
Erwin Stanley Bradley, The Triumph of Militant Republicanism: A Study of Pennsylvania and Presidential Politics, 1860-1872 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964)
John F. Coleman, The Disruption of the Pennsylvania Democracy, 1848-1860 (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1975)
Richard Orr Curry, A House Divided: A Study of Statehood Politics and the Copperhead Movement in West Virginia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964)
Marc Egnal, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War (New York: Hill & Wang, 2009)
Frank B. Evans, Pennsylvania Politics, 1872-1877: A Study in Political Leadership (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1966)
Joseph Allan Frank, With Ballot and Bayonet: The Political Socialization of American Civil War Soldier (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).
James W. Geary, We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991)
Judith Giesberg, Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009)
William B. Hesseltine, Lincoln and the War Governors (New York: Knopf, 1948)
Michael F. Holt, Forging a Majority: The Formation of the Republican Party in Pittsburgh, 1848-1860 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969)
Frank L. Klement, The Copperheads in the Middle West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)
Melinda Lawson, Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002).
Larry M. Logue, Race, Ethnicity, and Disability: Veterans and Benefits in Post-Civil War America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
John Majewski, A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
James Marten, Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Golden Age America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Boundaries of Political Culture in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005)
Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002)
Grace Palladino, Another Civil War: Labor, Capital, and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840-68 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990)
Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005).
Robert M. Sandow, Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009)
Richard A. Sauers and Peter Tomasak, The Fishing Creek Confederacy: A Story of Civil War Draft Resistance (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2012)
Arnold M. Shankman, The Pennsylvania Antiwar Movement, 1861-1865 (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1980)
Joel H. Silbey, A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977)
Hans L. Trefousse, Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997)
Matthew Warshauer, Connecticut in the American Civil War: Slavery, Sacrifice, and Survival (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011).
Jennifer L. Weber, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)
Jonathan W. White, ed., A Philadelphia Perspective: The Diary of Sidney George Fisher (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007).
Jonathan W. White, Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011)
Jonathan W. White, Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, forthcoming 2014).
Rebecca Albright, "The Civil War Career of Andrew Gregg Curtin," Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine v. 47, no. 4 (October 1964): 323-341; v. 48, no. 1 (January 1965): 19-42; & v. 48, no. 2 (April 1965): 151-173.
Stephen Engle, All the President's Statesmen: Northern Governors and the American Civil War (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2006)
James W. Geary, "Civil War Conscription in the North: A Historiographical Review," Civil War History v. 32, no. 3 (September 1986): 208-228.
Irwin F. Greenberg, "Charles Ingersoll: The Aristocrat as Copperhead," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography v. 93, no. 2 (April 1969): 190-217.
John T. Hubbell, "Jeremiah Sullivan Black and the Great Secession Winter," Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine v. 57, no. 3 (July 1974): 255-274.
James L. Huston, "Economic Change and Political Realignment in Antebellum Pennsylvania" The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography v. 113, no. 3 (July 1989): 347-395.
David M. Potter, "Jefferson Davis and the Political Factors in Confederate Defeat," in David H. Donald, ed., Why the North Won the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1960).
Eric McKitrick, "Party Politics and the Union and Confederate War Efforts," in William Nisbit Chambers and Walter Dean Burnham, eds., The American Party Systems: Stages of Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).
Mark E. Neely, Jr., "Justice Embattled: The Lincoln Administration and the Constitutional Controversy over Conscription in 1863," in Jennifer M. Lowe, ed., The Supreme Court and the Civil War, a special edition of The Journal of Supreme Court History (The Supreme Court Historical Society, 1996): 47-61.
Robert M. Sandow, "Damnable Treason or Party Organs? Democratic Secret Societies in Pennsylvania" in This Distracted and Anarchical People: New Answers for Old Questions about the Civil War-Era North, Andrew L. Slap and Michael Thomas Smith, eds. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013)
Arnold Shankman, "Francis W. Hughes and the 1862 Pennsylvania Election," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography v. 95, no. 3 (July 1971): 383-393.
Arnold Shankman, "William B. Reed and the Civil War," Pennsylvania History v. 39, no. 4 (October 1972): 455-468.
Arnold Shankman, "Constitution As It Is: A Copperhead Views the Civil War," in James Robertson and Richard McMurry, eds., Rank and File: Civil War Essays in Honor of Bell Irvin Wiley (San Rafael, Cal.: Presidio Press, 1976): 93-111. [Addressing George W. Woodward]
Jonathan W. White, "Canvassing the Troops: The Federal Government and the Soldiers' Right to Vote," Civil War History v. 50, no. 3 (September 2004): 291-317.
Jonathan W. White, "Citizens and Soldiers: Party Competition and the Debate in Pennsylvania over Permitting Soldiers to Vote, 1861–64," American Nineteenth Century History v. 5, no. 2 (July 2004): 47-70.
Jonathan W. White, "The Strangely Insignificant Role of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Civil War" Journal of the Civil War Era v. 3, no. 2 (June 2013): 211-238
Stanton Ling Davis, Pennsylvania Politics, 1860-1863 (Ph.D., dissertation, Western Reserve University, 1935)