A copperhead is a venomous snake that strikes without warning. In 1864, Frankfort was swarming with copperheads. These copperheads, however, were not snakes, although some thought of them as so. These copperheads were members of the Sons of Liberty whose espoused purpose was to immediately end the Civil War and grant the Confederacy its independence. The Sons of Liberty used as their symbol the head of “Liberty” as found on a United States copper penny.

The Sons of Liberty, as an organization, pre-dated the American Civil War and were numbered among those organizations proposing the expansion of slavery. This expansion was to include all of the United States, plus various Caribbean Islands and lands in Central America, which would be seized. The name Sons of Liberty seems a little odd to be the name of an organization promoting slavery, but Sons of Liberty held that white Americans should have the liberty of owning a slave anywhere the American flag flew.

The Civil War Sons of Liberty was made up of individuals of all shades of belief, from that of pacifist to militant pro-Confederate. The United States government, recognizing the right to free speech and the right to non-violent disagreement with federal policy, tolerated the Sons of Liberty as long as they did not cross certain guidelines. However, many in federal and state governments viewed the Sons of Liberty as Fifth Columnists ready at a moment’s notice to lead an armed uprising to overthrow the federal government.

Note the word “liberty” in the woman’s headband. (Photo submitted)

In this belief, the federal government was correct, as the chief financial agent of the Sons of Liberty was the Confederate government, and many of the leaders of the Sons of Liberty held Confederate military commissions.

The start of the year 1864 saw the federal military and political cause at a low ebb. The war had entered a stalemate, and it looked like the Confederacy would win just by hanging on. Rumors began to circulate that the Sons of Liberty would strike during the spring or summer of 1864. There seemed to be a truth in these rumors, as federal agents who had infiltrated the Sons of Liberty reported plans being drawn up by the organization to strike against various northern targets, including releasing Confederate prisoners held at certain POW camps, burning New York City and other northern urban centers and infecting various northern population centers with yellow fever.

These actions would be undertaken following an invasion of the north by Confederate forces.

The start of the year 1864 saw increased Confederate military activity in Kentucky along with increased criticism by the citizens of the Commonwealth of the Emancipation Proclamation and the recruitment of United States Colored Troops. Kentucky slaves were leaving both Confederate and Union owners, declaring themselves free men, and joining the Union Army. On the battlefield, the federal and Confederate forces were engaged in a stalemate.

In June 1864, Gen. John Hunt Morgan led his Confederate cavalry division from Virginia through Pound Gap into central Kentucky. During the raid, Gen. Morgan captured Mt. Sterling, Winchester, Lexington, Georgetown and launched an attack on Frankfort. It was expected that at any minute during the raid an uprising by the Copperheads would take place. Yet, such an uprising in the Commonwealth did not take place.

The question is why were the Sons of Liberty’s plan of seizing control of the government of Kentucky and that of other midwest states not implemented. The answer seems to be that the Confederates were their own worst enemy. Gen. Morgan and the other Confederate military organization that invaded Kentucky in the summer of 1864 did not come as liberators but as thieves.

They looted and destroyed both government and non-government property, indifferent as to who owned it. Thus, many individuals with real and imaginary grievances against the federal government hesitated to help a group that was destroying non-government private wealth. In addition, many Sons of Liberty sat and waited for their neighbor to act before they would openly commit to the cause. As each neighbor sat and waited for the other neighbor to act, no one acted. Thus, the grandiose schemes of the Sons of Liberty proved to be unachievable.

One of the interesting facts concerning Cpt. John Cooper’s attack of June 10 and 11, 1864, against Frankfort is that no Frankfort citizen came forth to provide Cpt. Copper with information on the federal defense of Frankfort. All of the citizens of Frankfort had heard how the Confederates had robbed banks at Mt. Sterling, Winchester, Maysville and Lexington. No one wanted this to happen in Frankfort.

With the Civil War turning in favor of the federal government during the last half of 1864, Frankfort’s Copperheads withdrew from public view and went into temporary hibernation. Many of these members of the Sons of Liberty in later years would resurface as members of the Klu Klux Klan.