Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 119

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 119


This is the grave of Clement Vallandigham.

One of the most unknown yet important villains in American history, Vallandigham was born in 1820 in New Lisbon, Ohio and became involved in the Democratic Party as a young man. This was a time before the parties were fully divided on the issue. In the 1840s, you could be a pro-slavery Democrat or an anti-slavery Democrat and still be a Democrat without any real problems. So he became friends with Edwin Stanton, even though Stanton disliked slavery and Vallandigham was a strong supporter. He was elected to the Ohio legislature from Dayton, where he was practicing law, in 1845. As was common during this period, he was in and out of elected office, edited a newspaper for awhile, ran his law practice.

His period of prominence began in 1856. He ran for Congress. He lost but claimed voter fraud. I don’t know what really happened, but the Democratic House eventually seated him–on the next to last day of his term! But he was reelected in 1858 and 1860. He was a supporter of Stephen A. Douglas but thought him soft on slavery. Vallandigham’s primary political positions was a believer that the federal government had no right to supersede state power and that slavery was a noble institution. He fully believed in the right to secede over slavery. As the Civil War began, Vallandigham became the North’s most vociferous hater of Abraham Lincoln. He gave speeches about how the Republican Party was tearing the nation apart. He was a supporter of the Crittenden Compromise, which was to put the nation back together through the North giving the Slave Power everything they wanted. Lincoln, wisely, rejected this entirely.

Vallandigham had his own ideas on how to run the nation. He had a real passion for identifying himself as “a western man.” He believed, as did many during this time, that the “West,” which still often included Ohio, had starkly different interests than either the North or the South. This was never really articulated effectively and there’s a reason it never caught on in any meaningful way. But Vallandigham wanted to divide the country into four sections–North, South, West, and Pacific (to include the new states of Oregon and California and then whatever came after that, which was soon to be Nevada). Each section would have the power to veto all legislation. He wanted to extend a president’s term to 6 years and not allow them to run for reelection, which is what the Confederate constitution did. No one took this seriously, but he gave speech after speech on the House floor about it.

He also became the leading Copperhead in the House, the colorful nickname given for pro-Confederate northerners. He said the Lincoln government was “one of the worst despotisms on Earth,” and compared the president unfavorably to the Russian Czar, widely seen at this time in the U.S. as the prime example of tyrannical dictatorship. He decried the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s government for the Negro, as he put it.

As the United States (the proper name for what is usually called the Union, since the Confederacy were no longer Americans) moved to institute a draft, Vallandigham went off the rails. He gave increasingly hyperbolic speeches about the horrors of the draft and called for open resistance. At this point, he was really testing the patience of the federal government. On September 24, 1862, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and made draft resistance a military crime. He didn’t do this with Vallandigham in mind, who he mostly tried to ignore. But this just made Vallandigham more furious. On May 1, 1863, he gave a speech in Mount Vernon, Ohio (also the home town of Dan Emmett, who wrote “Dixie”) urging people to resist the draft in a war that was no longer about the Union but instead about subjugating the white man to blacks in service of “King Lincoln.” At this point, Ambrose Burnside, exiled to a minor post for being bad as a fighting general, had Vallandigham arrested for violating Lincoln’s order. This did not make the president happy. He didn’t want to prove the point that Democrats were making about his presidency. After his arrest, his supporters burned the Republican paper in Dayton. The loathsome Horatio Seymour and future 1868 Democratic candidate for president gave speeches in New York about Lincoln’s dictatorship.

Vallandigham was tried and found guilty. But Lincoln didn’t want him imprisoned. He wanted him out of his hair. So he exiled him to the Confederacy. Funny thing was the Confederacy thought he was a trouble maker and didn’t want him around either. When he was delivered to Wilmington, North Carolina, Jefferson Davis had him put under armed guard as “an alien enemy.” He stayed in the South only briefly. He ended up in Canada where he ran for the Democratic nomination for Ohio governor from exile. He won that nomination, showing just how far the Democratic Party had gone by that time. He lost the general election though in the fall of 1863 by a wide margin. He then wanted to start an internal revolt of his beloved West, talking to Confederate representatives about fomenting internal rebellion and secession into a new nation consisting of Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. He entered the U.S. secretly to start this plan. But the government knew what he was up to the whole time. He reappeared openly in Ohio society and attended the 1864 Democratic convention. He struggled to support George McClellan, since the ex-general and massive blowhard did not think the U.S. should stop fighting until the Confederacy agreed to rejoin the nation and Vallandigham still totally supported treason in defense of slavery.

Vallandigham’s demise is one of the funniest deaths for any terrible American. He went back to being a lawyer after the war. He ran for office a couple of times, but his day had definitely passed and that sort of near-treason was no longer considered acceptable, even among Ohio Democrats. In 1871, he was defending a client on a murder charge. He said it was impossible for the client to be guilty, for the gun was unloaded. He demonstrated this by putting a gun to his body and pulling the trigger. One problem: the gun was loaded. He gutshot himself. He was 50 years old.

Clement Vallandigham is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.

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  • Actually, the defense wasn’t to prove the gun was unloaded, but rather that the victim’s death could’ve been accidental, and from what I’m reading he shot himself in the abdomen. (The defendant was acquitted).

    • Huh; the material I was working from said it was the head, but everywhere does say the gut. I will change that.

    • lawguy

      Yes, that is the story of his death that I’d read. He was showing how the shooting could have been accidental and went the extra mile to get his client off, I guess. A little further than I’d be willing to go in defense of a client however.

  • Bloix

    “since the Confederacy were no longer Americans”
    Confederates were Americans in rebellion. They were criminals, not aliens.

    • They were aliens. They chose to no longer be Americans. Allowing for this “Union vs Confederacy” structure is another way the South controlled the post-war narrative.

    • dhudson2728

      Well, keep in mind that’s what they were fighting to determine. If, god forbid, the South had won, they would have ceased to be rebels. They were hoping to follow the example of the American colonists, who were criminal rebels until the British gave up.

      Consider John Adams, who went from England’s “unforgiveables” list to America’s first ambassador to England.

      The problem with the Confederacy wasn’t that they were rebels per se, it was the cause they were rebelling to protect.

      • so-in-so

        And (pedantically) arguably still “Americans”, since they would be sharing the same continent and even that part of the name. They would not have been citizens of the United States of America. It is hard to imagine that the short hand “American” would have caught on if there had been an actual, recognized CSA as well as a USA.

  • tsam100

    I had never heard of this butthole until now. What a great ending to an ignominious and useless life.

    The gun incident makes me wonder if those kinds of “accidental” shootings were more common back then or less common. My intuition says far more common.

    • busker type

      I kinda think less… guns back then were a lot harder to use, so you didn’t have toddlers shooting their siblings, etc.

      • tsam100

        Makes sense, but there really weren’t public safety campaigns like the NRA used to do before they took over for the defunct 5th Column.

    • dhudson2728

      There is a fascinating article on Wikipedia about school shootings in America that is related to your question. It shows that both accidental and deliberate shootings at schools go back to at least the 19th century, and probably earlier. The main difference is that modern guns are much more lethal.

      I highly recommend it, some of the stories are fascinating. Like the teacher who was shot by a student because he beat the crap out of the student’s sibling.

      • tsam100

        I’ll definitely check that out. We oddly think of school shootings and familial murders as some kind of modern phenomenon, when in fact the opposite is true.

        • Dennis Orphen

          You’re getting into Wisconsin Death Trip territory.

        • dhudson2728

          I think it is the establishment of a nationwide, 24 hour news cycle that is new, rather than the school shootings. In the past, most of these crimes were little known outside of the immediate area. Also, there is evidence that the wide-scale publicizing of school shootings served to encourage other school shooters–Adam Lanza and the VA Tech shooter both had news clippings about Columbine, for example.

      • Ithaqua

        Are they, though? Without antibiotics or basic knowledge of sanitary procedures, I could imagine that before WWII less lethal gun + more lethal treatment of wounds would add up to higher death rates.

        • dhudson2728

          On the individual level, I imagine you’re right, getting shot would be more dangerous. But on the collective level, modern day shooters, with semi- or fully automatic weapons and extended clips, can kill a lot more people than someone armed with a revolver or a hunting rifle.

          Which is why a reasonable compromise on gun control would be limiting access to the semi- and fully automatic weapons and extended clips–after all, you don’t need that kind of firepower for hunting or self-defense. But gun fanatics are so paranoid that they aren’t willing to compromise at all.

          • Drew

            Those soft pudgy melanin deprived dolts might need those extended clips to overthrow the gubmint.

      • Jon Hendry

        “The main difference is that modern guns are much more lethal.”

        Gun technology isn’t really a factor in the lethality of accidental shootings, for the most part. People are occasionally killed by accidental automatic weapon fire, but it’s only one unfortunate person per incident, not a room full. And accidental semi-automatic weapon shootings don’t usually involve someone squeezing off multiple shots.

        A .50 caliber slug of lead is quite deadly even if it’s coming out of a musket.

    • Jon Hendry

      There’s a recent book that collects newspaper mentions of accidental shootings, going back to an incident in Massachusetts in 1739.

      Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck

  • busker type

    In the period leading up to the civil war there was a serious uptick in wackos and conmen gaining political power and the trappings of legitimacy… kinda like right now.

  • Mack

    The persistence of hucksters across time never fails to astound.

  • NobodySpecial

    Christ, what an asshole.

  • brettvk

    Gunfail in History. Nice to know that American idiots have been offing themselves throughout the saga of our great nation.

  • JustRuss

    I usually enjoy Erik’s grave visits. Must say this one is extra special.

  • Joe Paulson

    “As the United States (the proper name for what is usually called the Union, since the Confederacy were no longer Americans)”

    They were Americans. They were traitorous rebels but those states were still part of the union as much as the colonies were part of the UK until the Treaty of Paris. Maybe the U.S. has an asterisk since some foreign nations did recognize their independence, at least de facto. No one that I know of, except maybe a few Native American tribes, recognized the Confederacy as a nation.

    (Anyway, in wartime legal news, the Supreme Court in Ex parte Vallandigham avoided deciding on the merits of his claim by saying that it didn’t have jurisdiction to accept appeals from military commissions.)

    • Scott P.

      I believe Brazil recognized the Confederacy. Of course, it was the second-largest slaveowning nation at the time.

      • Joe Paulson

        I see reference to recognition as a “belligerent power” but that wouldn’t be the same as recognizing them as an independent nation.

        “Great Britain granted belligerent status on May 13, 1861, Spain on June 17, and Brazil on August 1.” etc.


      • heckblazer

        Brazil also happily welcomed Confederate colonists escaping the end of the Civil War. Their descendants still hold festivals in their honor.

        • CP

          IIRC, Brazil was also one of the few nations that abolished slavery after the United States, which probably accounts for a lot of why they’d choose to move there.

    • Drew

      You gotta love how the Supreme Court has always managed to find creative ways of avoiding having to stomp out the flaming bags of shit it is periodically tossed.

    • David Newgreen

      I believe the closest to diplomatic recognition the Confederacy ever received was from the tiny German duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which requested permission from the Richmond government when dispatching a new consul to Texas during the war.

      The Confederate press were quite excited by this ‘recognition’, which I think indicates just how poor the CSA’s attempts at diplomatic recognition were…

      • CP

        Another one that gets them excited is the time Pope Pius IX answered a letter from Jefferson Davis and addressed it to “the Honorable President of the Confederate States of America.” Robert E. Lee, after the war, referred to the Pope as “the only sovereign in Europe who recognized our poor Confederacy.”

        Fun fact: looking this up on Wikipedia, it appears that this is all there was to it, and that the letter had no legal effect. But nevertheless, it pissed off the United States enough that it was part of the reason why Washington interrupted diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1867, and wouldn’t fully restore them until 1984.

  • woodrowfan

    When I saw you did the Wright Brothers and Paul Lawrence Dunbar I wondered if you’d get to Clement…

  • Alworth

    Say what you will about the man, but that’s a cool tombstone.

  • Mike_Masinter

    Geoff Stone wrote an excellent history of Lincoln’s treatment of Vallandingham in the context of early free speech law here: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2953&context=journal_articles

    It’s worth noting that, contra Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson prosecuted and jailed an enormous number of people for speeches and writings opposing U.S. involvement in WW 1. By contrast, there were almost no prosecutions for antiwar speech during WW II, and the few Nixon efforts during the Vietnam War were unsuccessful.

    • Drew

      Not a historian but Democracy’s Prisoner was a great look at this during the Wilson administration.

  • N__B

    I have no idea why, but my 11th grade history class spent a couple of hours on Vallandigham, which was enough to get the basics of the story – asshole who supported slavery and didn’t understand the nature of a civil war – but not enough to learn how to spell his name.

    TL;DR: I feel sorry for his monument’s stone carver.

    • Bitter Scribe

      I feel sorry for his monument’s stone carver.

      I’m impressed that the guy could stop snickering about carving a giant stone penis long enough to hold his chisel straight.

  • As long as you’re doing evil bastards from Southwest Ohio, I nominate my personal fave, Dr. Tom “I wrecked the environment TWICE!” Midgley.

  • apsalartoll

    I never heard of this guy before, but his last name was my great-grandfather’s middle name. I wonder if they were related, or if his parents were fans.

  • sharculese

    Welp, this really takes the cake in ‘gravestones that are just really giant stone penises.”

    • Bitter Scribe

      IK,R? This has to be the most phallic of all the tombstones in this series.

    • Origami Isopod

      Meh, if you GIS “phallic tombstones” you’ll find a number of better candidates.

  • Bitter Scribe

    Lincoln may have suspended habeus corpus and instituted military tribunals unnecessarily, but there’s no question IMO that as a whole, the U.S. treated opponents of the Civil War in a much more just and evenhanded way than practically any other country in a other major civil conflict. This record also compares favorably with America’s later record of pants-wetting hysteria that led to the disgraceful internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, not to mention the anti-Muslim demagoguery that helped give us as our current president a ridiculously unqualified buffoon

    • so-in-so

      That’s ’cause they was all white.

  • Warren Terra

    This post is exactly what “Erik Visits an American Grave” should be. Well done.

  • allium

    He has a cameo in the Gibson/Sterling steampunk novel The Difference Engine as President of a fun-sized (even for 1855) United States:


    Guess he got his wish.

  • Bruce Vail

    Hmm, an opponent of the war and an objector to conscription?

    Sounds like me in 1970. Of course I was only 13 at the time, so what the hell did I know?

  • osceola

    This is one of your more enjoyable and informative posts. I was familiar with his name and that he was a leading Copperhead and that Lincoln sent him South. But I didn’t know even Southerners thought he was a dickhead and that he did some pro-Confederate plotting in Canada.

  • scrutatrix

    Insult to injury: his grave marker misstates his age at the time of death.

  • He’s the only one. And the issue is that he was a major leader in the Ohio Democratic Party. And that Burnside actually did something about it. But it’s not like he was really any worse than Horatio Seymour or Fernando Wood, among others.

    • Bruce Vail

      Actually, no.

      The famed Confederate spy Rose Greenhow was arrested by federal agents in 1862 and exiled to the Confederacy.

  • CP

    He lost but claimed voter fraud.

    It’s nice to see how much progress racist conservatives with an affection for the Confederacy have made in a century or two. Nowadays, they win and still claim voter fraud.

    Vallandigham’s demise is one of the funniest deaths for any terrible
    American. He went back to being a lawyer after the war. He ran for
    office a couple of times, but his day had definitely passed and that
    sort of near-treason was no longer considered acceptable, even among
    Ohio Democrats. In 1871, he was defending a client on a murder charge.
    He said it was impossible for the client to be guilty, for the gun was
    unloaded. He demonstrated this by putting a gun to his body and pulling
    the trigger. One problem: the gun was loaded. He gutshot himself. He was
    50 years old.

    That is fantastic. Sometimes, every now and then, karma actually catches up to these people in the best way possible.

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