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Civil Liberties and the Civil War in Pennsylvania

Among the many challenges faced by this nation in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, foremost is reaching the appropriate balance between enforcing legitimate security measures and protecting the essential civil liberties of a free society. Although some of the specific challenges of the post 9/11 world are unprecedented in history, many of the larger questions about the balance between freedom and security strongly connect to past periods in American history, including the Civil War.

While acknowledging Abraham Lincoln’s near-mythic role in our nation’s collective memory, it is important to realize that during the Civil War he was mercilessly vilified by his political opponents in the North for many of his actions. These criticisms were not limited to failures on the battlefield, but were also aimed at many of Lincoln’s controversial domestic policies related to national security. In the name of national security, Lincoln used his office in part to restrict certain civil liberties in the North. The scope of these actions appears unconstitutional and despotic at first glance; the revocation of the writ of habeas corpus, the suppression of newspapers for editorial content, the arrest of citizens for “disloyal” speech and the trial of civilians in front of military tribunals. While political supporters of the president saw these actions as necessary in a time of war, critics lambasted Lincoln for violating the rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

Pennsylvania and Philadelphia were in the thick of this debate. An examination of the history of the commonwealth reveals a vast array of sentiments and loyalties, all of which created a complex set of challenges at the outset of the war in 1861.

1860 Philadelphia, with a population of over 560,000 people, was described by the esteemed Temple historian Russel F. Weigley as a “border city” in the American Civil War. Despite its vital war time role as an industrial center and depot for soldiers and supplies, there also existed clear political, social, and economic connections between Philadelphia and the South. Many prominent residents of Philadelphia expressed loyal sentiments to the South, as did some newspapers published in the city.

Philadelphia was a city dominated politically by the Democratic Party, and many of its most prominent families were ardent Democrats. Though the attack on Fort Sumter and the start of the war in 1861 temporarily quelled any political opposition towards the Lincoln administration, repeated Union failures emboldened the city’s Democratic establishment. Much of this political opposition did not go unnoticed by the federal government; its history is filled with records of prominent citizens arrested and newspapers ordered suppressed by order of the government. The city’s military prisons, specifically Fort Mifflin, also housed civilian prisoners from all over the commonwealth who were suspected of resisting the conscription of soldiers for the Union army.

The study of historical events often provides context and definition to events of the present. A comparison of Civil War Pennsylvania and the current War on Terror might suggest some similarities between these two unprecedented eras in American history.


19th century

Civil Rights

Government and civics

Civil War


Big Ideas

Cause and Effect

Perspective on Events

Essential Questions

How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to American society?

What role does analysis have in historical construction?


  • State and local history can offer an individual, discerning judgment in public and personal life, supply examples for living, and thinking about one’s self in the dimensions of time and space.

  • Historical literacy requires a focus on time and space, and an understanding of the historical context of events and actions.

  • Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as active, critical citizens in a democratic society.


  • Articulate the context of a historical event or action.

  • Evaluate cause-and-result relationships bearing in mind multiple causation.

  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.

  • Synthesize a rationale for the study of individuals in Pennsylvania history.

Background Material for Teacher

  • "'Words become Things': Free Speech in Civil War Pennsylvania,” by Jonathan W. White from Pennsylvania Legacies.

  • “Charles Ingersoll: The Aristocrat as Copperhead,” by Irvin F. Greenberg from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol 93, Number 2 (April 1969)

  • Marshall, John A., American Bastille: A History of the Illegal Arrests and Imprisonment during the Late Civil War by John A. Marshall. Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

  • “Freedom of the Press during the Civil War: The Case of Albert D. Boileau,” by Arnold Shankman from Pennsylvania History, Vol. 42, Number 4 (Oct 1975) 305-315.

  • "The Military Occupation of Columbia County:  A Re-examination" by William H. Hummel from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 80, Number 3 (July, 1956) p. 320-338.

  • Judge John Cadwalader’s opinion on the court case of ex parte Merryman from 1861.

End of Unit Assessment

  • Students can create an editorial that criticizes or supports a current government policy. Students can be graded on creativity, accuracy, style, clarity, etc.

  • Students can analyze other legal cases and write about the impact/relation to Habeas Corpus.

  • Using information and citing quotes from at least 2 primary sources from the unit, students can write an essay arguing for either the necessity of the government suppression during the civil war or against it.


Plans in this Unit

Freedom of the Press? The Suppression of the Christian Observer and the Evening Journal

Copperheads or Confederates? Political Opposition in Civil War Pennsylvania

Trespass, Assault and Battery, and False Imprisonment: The Cases of Pierce Butler and Charles Ingersoll

Habeas Corpus: A Constitutional Battleground

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content

8..1.12 A+B+C

8.2.12 B +C+D

1.2.10 B+C+D

PA Core Standards

CC.8.5.11-12.F  CC.8.5.11-12.H  CC.8.5.11-12.I   CC.8.6.11-12.A

About the Author

This lesson was created by Michael Karpyn. Updated for SAS by Casey B. Wernick and Alexandra Rospond, Education Interns, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


Unit Plan

Visual Culture, African Americans, and the Civil War

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