Taking a Bullet for Your Client

Clement Vallandigham (pictured) was, by modern standards especially, a pretty terrible Congressman (and for that matter, person).  A representative from Ohio at the beginning of the Civil War, Vallandigham was staunchly in favor of maintaining slavery in the United States, continuing the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, and of a peace treaty with the Confederacy which would re-united the fractured nation under the pre-secession framework; i.e., lots of slavery and lots of laws which make it hard for slaves to become free.  Vallandigham lead a group of anti-War Democrats called (by their Republican enemies) the “Copperheads,” whose motto, written by Vallandigham, was “to maintain the Constitution as it is, and to restore the Union as it was.”  Not a good fellow.

His political career was short-lived.  In 1863, Vallandigham gave a speech, which, per his Wikipedia entry, argued that the War “was being fought not to save the Union but rather to free blacks by sacrificing the liberty of all Americans to ‘King Lincoln.'”  (The Copperheads had likened President Lincoln to a despot, as evidenced by this pamphlet cover circulated by the group.)   In doing so, he ran afoul of a General Order issued by Union General Ambrose Burnside, which aimed to stem “habit of declaring sympathies for the enemy will no longer be tolerated” — in this case, by sending Vallandigham to the Confederate states, banishing him from the Union.  (He’d later move to Canada and, from there, run for Governor of Ohio.  He lost the general election but did, in fact, succeed in making the ballot.)

Vallandigham’s post-war life was short.  Having returned to Ohio and, after unsuccessfully attempting to return to public office, instead returned to the practice of law.  He served as an attorney until he died in 1871, after a strange series of events. One of his clients, a man named Thomas McGehan, was charged with murder for the death of another during a barroom brawl.   Vallandigham’s defense strategy: argue that the victim died from a self-inflicted wound; specifically, that the victim’s gun went off when he attempted to draw his firearm from a kneeling position.  Vallandigham decided to demonstrate his theory by play-acting the fatal, accidental gunshot wound as he alleged, using an unloaded gun, but there was a problem — Vallandigham’s gun was, in fact, loaded.  It went off and Vallandigham shot himself in the process.  Vallandigham died from the wound.  His client? Acquitted.

Bonus fact: While Vallandigham sported what is now, derogatorily, often called a neckbeard, he apparently lacked sideburns.  This is particularly note because the term “sideburns” is derived from one of the first to wear them — the aforementioned Ambrose Burnside, pictured here.

From the Archives: Fight Club: A Duel in Congress.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.