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Who Was Valladigham?

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, August 12, 1928



By Howard Burba

     Press dispatches indicate, and it is the open prediction of political prophets wise and otherwise, that the coming gubernatorial race is to be “one of the hottest” in the history of this grand old commonwealth.
     In this connection it should interest the new generation of voters to learn that measurements in practically all such races in this state are dated back to 1863, the most spectacular race for governor Ohio has ever known, or probably will ever know. That was the “hottest” fight ever waged for this office, the bitterest and withal the most colorful, and Dayton furnished the candidate who made it what it so. We refer to Clement L. Vallandigham.
     This new generation of voters may know its politics, insofar as modern politics are concerned. But a survey would reveal an alarming ignorance of politics in the days of this noted candidate. In fact, so busy is the voter of today with the problems of today that, aside from admitting the name itself is familiar, he would register surprise when confronted with the statement that Clement L. Vallandigham was, without a single exception, the most spectacular the most outstanding historical figure Montgomery Co. can lay claim to. That justifies the question: “Who was Vallandigham?” and the answer as well.

     Genealogists have traced the Vallandigham’s to the Huguenots, on the paternal side; on the maternal side they boast Scotch-Irish descent. The ancestors of Clement L. Vallandingham emigrated to Stafford Co., Va., in 1690. From French Flanders, spelling the name “Van Lendeghem.” A son, who had become a land-holder in Fairfax Co. under Lord Fairfax, changed the family name desiring, doubtless a more agreeable sound and easier pronunciation.

     Clement Vallandigham, Sr., father of the subject of this article, was born in Allegheny Co., Pa., and was an old school Presbyterian clergyman. In 1807 he emigrated to Ohio, taking up his residence at New Lisbon, Columbiana Co., where he became pastor of a struggling congregation of his faith, preaching in a tent until a permanent house of worship could be provided. His salary being insufficient to support his family of a wife and four sons, he established a classical school in his own home. His death occurred in 1839.

    Of the four sons but one, Clement, Jr., attained a national reputation, or was ever heard of outside his own community. Clement was an infant when his father settled in New Lisbon. In that town he grew to school age, and from there went to Jefferson College, at Canonsburg, Pa., where he graduated. Upon being admitted to the bar in Ohio he “hung out his shingle” at New Lisbon. In those days law and politics were inseparable companions, and within a short time Vallandigham was occupying a seat in the Ohio legislature from Columbiana Co.

     Although he was the youngest member of that body, he became the recognized leader of the Democratic party in the house, but voted against the repeal of the “Black Laws,” preferring to submit the question to popular vote. It was his first stand on the slavery question, the question to which is traced directly the storms which later broke about his head and brought him as near a firing squad as any man has yet come, and escaped.

     In 1847 Vallandigham removed to Dayton, and for years resided in a house still standing on the west side of Ludlow St. near Monument Av. Arriving in Dayton he purchased an interest in the old “Western Empire,” assuming the editorship, while at the same time practicing the profession of law. In his salutatory he said “We will support the constitution of the United States in its whole integrity, protect and defend the union, maintain the doctrine of strict construction and stand fast to the doctrine of state rights.”

     But as a newspaper editor he was not an overwhelming success. He had his own views of slavery, and in a district overwhelmingly favorable to abolition, these views did not fit in. He lacked the qualification necessary to successful editorship, but he possessed the fire and the love of battle necessary to a political career. In 1852 he made a strenuous effort to secure the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, but was defeated by William Medill. Four years later he was nominated by the Democracy of this district for congress, his competitor being Col. Lewis D. Campbell known in those days as “The Butler County Pony.” Campbell was declared elected, but Vallandigham contested the result and was awarded the seat. He continued a member until March, 1863, having being defeated for re-election the year before by Gen. Robert L. Schenck.

     While in congress Vallandigham was recognized as an able parliamentarian and a bitter opponent of the Civil War because he believed it was impossible to conquer the south. Returning to Dayton he continued his boldness of speech. The draft was then pending, and exciting the people with violent talk, preaching a doctrine held by abolitionists to be traitorous to his country, Vallandigham quickly became a stormy petrel and the center of national interest. It was at a time when even the most ardent Unionists had begun to doubt that success would crown the efforts of the northern armies. Gen Burnside had just assumed command of the military department of Ohio, and with a view to restoring quiet among those who remained at home he caused to be issued, under date of April 13, 1863, what history now records as “General Order No. 38.” There was no doubt as to whom it was aimed. It reads:

            “. . . . All persons within our lines who commit acts for the benefit

            of the enemies of our country will be tried as spies or traitors, and if

            convicted will suffer death. . . . The habit of declaring sympathy

for the enemy will not be allowed in this department. Persons

committing such offenses will be at once arrested, with a view to

being tried as above stated or send bound our lines into the lines

of their friends. It must be distinctly stated that treason expressed or

implied will not be tolerated in this department.”

     This order inflamed Vallandigham. He openly and vehemently denounced it, expressing publicly his determination to defy it and to assert his constitutional rights to discuss the policy of the administration in the conduct of the war. He announced that he would speak at Mt. Vernon on Friday, May 10.

     In that address he opened with an allusion to the American flag, flying above his head, and said: “That was the flag of the constitution; it has been rendered sacred by Democratic presidents.” He claimed the Union could have been saved if the plans he proposed had been adopted: he declared that he was “a freeman” and did not ask David Tod, Abraham Lincoln or Ambrose E. Burnside for his right to speak as  he had spoken, concluding with this statement:

     “My right to speak and my authority for so doing is higher than General Order No. 38 – my authority is General Order No. 1 – the Constitution.”

     It was but natural that the more inflammatory utterances in that address should be carried to Gen. Burnside’s ears, and on the Monday following the speech at Mt. Vernon on Friday he dispatched a company of the 115th Ohio, under Capt. Hutton, by special train to Dayton, with orders to arrest Vallandigham and take him to Cincinnati. The order was carried out that night.

     With the dawn came the news of the arrest, and the spiriting away of the prisoner. Immediately the atmosphere was charged with tenseness such as Dayton history has not since recorded. Threats met counter-threats, street brawls were numerous throughout the day. Here and there on Main St. little groups gathered to express their opinion, each public expression adding to the seriousness of the situation, and breeding a deeper hatred among the followers of Vallandigham for those who had brought about his disgrace.

     The climax came after darkness had fallen, when cries of “Fire” sent both friend and foe of abolition scurrying into the down-town streets. The office of The Journal, a Republican paper that had, of course, espoused the cause of abolition and from time to time upbraided Vallandigham for his utterances, was in flames. That its burning was but an act of vengeance, planned and conducted by Vallandigham’s adherents, was unquestioned. State Guards were quickly assembled and dispersed the mob in front of the newspaper plant, which at that time was located at the north side of the alley running in the rear of the old Phillips House, a building occupied for many years by Louis Traxler as a department store.

     Vallandigham was arraigned before a court presided over by Gen. R. B. Potter and, being found guilty, was sentenced to close confinement during the war. Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor, was designated as the place of confinement, but here President Lincoln intervened and changed this to be conveyance of the prisoner through the Union lines into territory then held by the Confederate army. There was a provision to the effect that if the prisoner should return the original sentence of imprisonment was to be carried out.

     About 10 o’clock on Sunday night, May 24, a special train bearing a detachment of the 13th regular infantry, pulled into the little station at Murfreesboro, Tenn. Closely guarded, Vallandigham was taken from the train and to the outposts of the Confederate army, were he was kept until daylight. Then, under the cover of a flag of truce he was passed across the line and into the camp of the southern army. It is written that none save Gen. Rosecrans knew that the prisoner was within a stone’s throw of many thousand Union soldiers, as we awaited the dawn. Secrecy was maintained through fear that violence would result if the soldiers learned of Vallandigham’s presence in their midst. No power, it is declared, could have prevented the 10,000 Union soldiers encamped at Murfreesboro from wreaking vengeance on one who had denounced the cause for which they were making so great a sacrifice.

     Col. McKibben, senior aid to Rosecrans, was placed in charge of the prisoner and, securing a light spring wagon, he detailed a special guard to surround the vehicle, placed the prisoner in it alongside him, and started for the Confederate lines. Reaching the outposts, Maj. McKibben went forward with a flag of truce. Within the hour the flag was returned, Col. Webb, of the 51st Alabama signifying his willingness to receive the prisoner. By 9 o’clock the entire event was over, the Union soldiers were peacefully wending their way back to their own lines, and Vallandigham was among the men whose cause he had dared to espouse in Ohio, a hot-bed of abolition sentiment.

     Vallandigham was ordered to report to Gen. Bragg, whose headquarters at that time were at Shelbyville. He did so, and after a week spent in seclusion there he was directed to report on parole to Gen. Whiting at Wilmington from which place he took, on the 17th of June, a blockade runner for Nassau. Once under the British flag he lost no time in boarding a steamer for Canada.

     In this same month the Ohio Democratic convention met in Columbus and nominated Vallandigham for governor. Resolutions strongly condemning his banishment were passed, and appeal was forwarded to President Lincoln praying for the release of the Ohioan from exile and his reinstatement as a citizen of good standing. This President Lincoln refused to do. Vallandigham remained an exile in Canada – and the most novel race for governor in the history of Ohio was launched.

     But the Democratic party was far from a unit in endorsing Vallandigham. The more conservative pleaded that it was neither good politics nor good judgments; the radicals, however, excited by his banishment, insisted that such tactics would serve to draw sympathy to the ticket, and their party would win. The day before the convention thousands of Democrats invaded Columbus, all bitter, assertive and defiant in their determination to defy “General Order No. 38” and exercise what they declared to be their constitutional rights of free speech.

     The next day, the date set for the convention, great processions with men on horseback and in wagons crowded the streets. Bands were playing, flags were flying and delegations came in from every section of the state, hundreds of them walking, so meager were transportation facilities at that time. No hall in the city was large enough to hold one-tenth of the vast crowds, so the convention was called to order on the east side of the state house in the open air. Former Gov. Medill, of Lancaster, was chosen chairman.

     Preliminaries were soon disposed of, and then the radicals ran away with the meeting. The name of Hugh Jewett was presented before that of Vallandigham, but from his own county, Muskingum, a delegate arose and declared that his fellow-countians were for the Dayton man. Then Vallandigham was placed in nomination and the din that arose could be heard for miles. Jewett was able to control but a mere handful of the delegates, so within a few moments Vallandigham, “The Man in Exile,” had been unanimously acclaimed the Democratic party’s standard-bearer.

     It was agreed at that time that Vallandigham should be brought across the Canadian border, and be permitted to make a speech at Lima. Cooler heads and of sterner judgment interceded, however, and pointed out the danger of such an undertaking. There was no questioning the seriousness of such a move - no doubt existed but it would bring riots and bloodshed throughout the entire state. Vallandigham could have escaped and crossed the border, of course, as he did in 1864, when he crossed to Detroit in disguise, entered a sleeping car and the next morning appeared at a Democratic convention at Hamilton, where he was chosen unanimously as a delegate to the national convention at Chicago. But those promoting his candidacy felt it best not to excite his enemies into new, and probably still more serious, activities.

     Two weeks after the Democratic convention and the nomination of Vallandigham, the Republicans met. Though supporters of Gov. Tod felt sure of his re-nomination, he was side-tracked for John Brough, then a great popular orator of the sledge-hammer style, and at one time editor and owner of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

     Then came the ‘hottest” gubernatorial campaign in Ohio history. Then came the torch-light processions and the glee clubs, and up and down the state adherents of “The Man in Exile” marched as they sang:

            “We’ll rally ‘round the flag, boys,

            Shouting Vallandigham and Freedom.”

Everywhere in the state, and particularly in northwestern Ohio, Democratic meetings were enthusiastic; it was no unusual sight to see 1000 men, and quite often many women, mounted on horseback in cavalcades that sought to increase sentiment for their candidate. The excitement became so intense in some communities that all business and social relations between Democrats and Republicans were sundered. Fights and knock-downs were of almost hourly occurrence. The women wore Vallandigham or Brough badges just as their feelings were enlisted, and though at that time deprived of the ballot to their enthusiasm and partisanship can be traced the disruption of more than one peaceful church and social organization.

     But the tide of battle below Mason and Dixon’s line was turning toward the Union cause. The beginning of the end was in sight. The soldiers in the fields, weary-worn and sick at heart, longed for the final curtain on the nation’s most tragic drama. They poured absentee votes into the state of Ohio like rain. Sentiment went through a sobering process back home. The sunlight of victory was to all appearance about to fall aslant the stars and stripes; the dawn of a new era was just around the next turn in the road. The radicals in the party saw this; the conservatives pressed their advantage.

     John Brough was elected governor of Ohio. And the following year, the end of the war, Vallandigham returned to Dayton.

     Resuming the practice of law, Vallandigham continued to make this city his home, though he never fully recovered his old force and enthusiasm in his work following his days of exile. In 1871 he was engaged by a man named McGehan to defend him in a murder trial at Lebanon. McGehan was accused of having slain a man named Myers. The case had been in progress for several days and it was following an afternoon court session about the third day of the trial that Vallandigham, in conversation with Gov. McBurney in the former’s room at the old Lebanon House, was demonstrating with a pistol how it might have been possible for Myers to have shot himself. As he proceeded to enact the theory he proposed to use in his defense of McGehan, Vallandigham placed the pistol against his side. Instantly there was an explosion, and he sank to the floor at Gov. McBurney’s feet. The ball had entered the right side of the abdomen, passing between the ribs and lodging in a vital spot. He lived through the night and expired the next morning at 10 o’clock.

     It was the final chapter in a life that made a lurid page in the nation’s history. It was the passing of Ohio’s most spectacular politician.