The Defense Rests (in Peace): How a Civil War Rabble-Rouser Went Out With a Bang


Clement Laird Vallandigham was never a household name, but during the era of the Civil War, he led an interesting and amazing life that ended abruptly and bizarrely.

Over the course of his career, Vallandigham edited the Dayton Empire, practiced law, served as a brigadier general in the Ohio militia, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In Congress, he earned a reputation as an aggressive states-rights advocate and earned the nickname “wily agitator” from Abraham Lincoln.

In 1863, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside had recently issued General Order No. 38, which forbade “expression of sympathy for the enemy.” That phrase was loosely interpreted to cover any criticism of or opposition to the Civil War, and Vallandigham was arrested while making a public speech critical of Lincoln and the federal government that spring.

He was tried by a military court and sentenced to two years in an army prison, but Lincoln quickly commuted Vallandigham's sentence to banishment to the Confederacy and had him shipped to Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Vallandigham made his way from the Confederate states to Bermuda, and then to Canada, where he set up shop in Windsor, Ontario. From a hotel room there, he campaigned for the governorship of Ohio and eventually snuck back into the U.S. in disguise.

A Bizarre End

After losing the gubernatorial bid and a campaign for the state senate,  he resumed his law practice, defending criminal cases. In 1871, he was hired by Thomas McGehan, who was accused of shooting another man in a bar fight.

Vallandigham’s case revolved around convincing the jury that the victim had actually killed himself while trying to draw his pistol during the brawl. While discussing the case with his colleagues, Vallandigham grabbed what he thought was an unloaded pistol and began to reenact the fight as he thought it might have happened. The gun went off, and a bullet went into Vallandigham’s abdomen and lodged in his chest.

He fell at the other men’s feet, but was soon able to stand on his own and go about his day. He was described as being cheerful the rest of the afternoon and complained to no one despite the serious pain he must have been in.

Vallandigham died early the next morning, and Thomas McGehan was acquitted and released from custody after his remaining attorneys used Vallandigham’s accident to present the jury with a credible alternative narrative of the murder.