Origin of "Butternut" and "Copperhead"

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Tue Jun 30 17:40:35 UTC 2009

Gleaned from "Origin of Butternut and
Copperhead", by Albert Matthews (Cambridge: John
Wilson and Son, 1918).  A reprint from "The
Publications of the Colonial Society of
Massachusetts", Vol. 20 (Boston: 1920), pp.
205--237.  (Same pagination in the Wilson and Son
reprint.  The seemingly-incorrect date of 1918
for a "reprint" is the date of the Colonial
Society's meeting.)  I'll leave a thorough
analysis to the lexicographers, but I will note some things that caught my eye.

This is a fascinating report on the use of
"butternut" and "copperhead" to refer to
Northerners sympathetic to the South, with many
primary source citations from newspapers and
magazines.  Unfortunately much is taken from Ohio
(especially), Indiana, and Illinois
--  presumably coming from pro-slavery and
anti-black attitudes and journals along the Ohio
River -- and Matthew's opinions about origin are
probably biased towards assuming that region was
the origin.  For example, he does not have the
Philadelphia Inquirer articles which I cited in
my previous message, nor the mail bag incident itself.

1.  On both terms

205:  "Though half a century has elapsed since
the close of the Civil War [and another century
since Matthews], during which the above terms ...
arose, yet even now their origin an history
remain obscure. Indeed, Butternut  is sometimes
wrongly explained by historians, and has received
scant attention from lexicographers and writers
on Americanisms; while the origin of Copperhead is still a matter of dispute."

      [OED 1989 does not have "butternut", and
for "copperhead" does not have the 1861 origin
with the snakes in the mail bag (as Barry Popik
pointed out) nor the Phil. Inquirer of April 10,
1861 (as Barry did not point out).]

211:  AM's opinion on the origin of both
"Copperhead" and "Butternut":  1862 Sept. and
Oct. respectively; "originally employed by the
Republicans in contempt; ... [then] more or less
humorously adopted by the Democrats themselves.
... Early in 1863 the word Copperhead, which
until them had perhaps been confined to, or
chiefly employed in, Illinois and Ohio, rapidly spread ..."

2.   Copperhead

Matthews (hereafter AM) puts the origin of
"copperhead" to the fall of 1862, as does the
OED, but he has cites from that year whereas the
OED begins with 1863 (NY Tribune).  His are
still, of course, later than the (1861) Phil. Inquirer articles.

206 n.2:  AM places the origin of "copperhead" in
the Ohio/Indiana/Illinois area.

207:  AM's earliest cite for "copperhead" appears
to be 1862 Sept. 24 (Chicago Tribune)

209, 210:  "Copperhead" (and on a later page,
"butternut") associated with
Vallandigham.  [Wikipedia: "Clement Laird
Vallandigham (pronounced velan´digham, -gam)
(July 29, 1820 – June 17, 1871) was an Ohio
unionist of the Copperhead faction of anti-war,
pro-Confederate Democrats ...".]

221:  Copperhead badge, [1863] March 7; in speech
by Vallandigham in NY.  [But not the exact phrasing "copperhead badge".]

223:  NY World, [1863] March 26:  "The Copperhead, or badge of liberty."

228:  The phrase "copperhead badge", from Frank
Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, [1863] May 23.

2.  Butternut

208:  AM's earliest cite for "butternut" (n.)
appears to be 1862 Oct. 15 (Columbus [OH] Crisis).

208, 209:  Butternut arising from the color of hats and breeches.

210:  A couple of citations of "butternut", autumn 1862.

211:  Vallandigham associated with the Butternuts.

213-214:  Newspaper article of 1863 Feb. 25 (the
Crisis):  "It has been the custom of late, among
a certain class of abolitionists, to call the
Democrats by the name of 'Butternuts.'"  [This is
the earliest quotation I noticed in Matthews
associating "Butternut" with the Democrats.]

213-216:  Essay from the Crisis, 1863 Feb. 25, on
Butternuts. Clothing color of the "mountain
ranges of Kentucky and Tennessee, and in Southern
Illinois and Missouri". Worn by recruits from
those districts; became an epithet applied by
their "store-clothed" companions. Discussion of
the "White Walnut" tree, and how a cross-section
of its nut can become a symbol of the unity
allegedly sought by the (pro-South) Democrats.

214 n.1:  AM observes of "Butternut" that
Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms, 1877, p.
88, has a citation (quotation?) referring to "the
butternut gentry", meaning Confederate
prisoners.  This footnote has other citations
associating "butternut" with clothing, and then with confederates.

217:  The Crisis, [1863] March 25:  "Whereas,
Major Muse did ... say that 'Northern Traitors
[an Abolition nick-name for Democrat, alias
Butternut, alias Copperhead, alias Secesh, &c]
ought to be hung up at their
door-posts;'..."  [Brackets presumably in the Crisis.]

220-221:  Butternuts as badges; 1863 March.

230:  1862 Nov. 19, the Crisis: "butternut"
applied to a person (who is called a copperhead) -- but no other context.


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