"Angel of Peace"

January 2, 1864

Thomas Nast

"Angel of Peace"

Civil War, Copperheads/Peace Democrats; Wars, American Civil War;

Nicholas II; Wood, Fernando;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast portrays Congressman Fernando Wood, a former mayor of New York City (1855-1857; 1859-1861), as a devilish supporter of the Confederate cause.

During the Civil War, the Democratic Party in the North was divided into two wings:  the War Democrats, who supported the Union military effort, and the Peace Democrats, who favored a truce and negotiated settlement to end the war.  Often unwilling to distinguish between war opposition and treason, Republicans and other political opponents considered Wood and the Peace Democrats to be Confederate sympathizers, commonly called “Copperheads” (named after the snake). 

Wood is depicted in the featured cartoon as the Angel of Peace, a dual reference to a traditional New Year’s symbol as well as to the congressman’s leadership role among the Peace Democrats.  The image reveals the innocently named Angel of Peace to be, instead, a devil with talon-edged wings and feet, hair curled like demonic horns, and a copperhead snake entwining his legs.  

Fernando Wood was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 14, 1812.  His father engaged in several unsuccessful business ventures, then moved the family to New York City in 1821 where his luck was little better.  Young Wood attended a private school, but left home at age 13 to support himself by working at a variety of menial jobs.  He moved to Philadelphia and in 1831 married Anna Taylor.  The next year his father died, so the couple moved to New York City, where the 20-year-old Wood labored to provide for his mother, younger siblings, and new bride.  He and his wife divorced in 1839.

Like his father, Wood was not a prosperous businessman, but he learned he possessed a talent for politics.  He joined the Tammany Hall organization, sided with the anti-National Bank faction of the Democratic Party, and quickly rose to prominence.  He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1840 at the age of 28.  Shortly after taking office he married Anna Richardson, the daughter of a well-connected judge from upstate New York.  The couple had seven children; she died in 1859.

In Congress, Wood opposed the Whig program of national banking, tariffs, and internal improvements, except when they benefited his district.  He lost his seat in 1842 due to redistricting.  Two years later, he received a patronage position in the State Department as a dispatch agent at the port of New York.  He used his wife’s money to invest in real estate, eventually becoming wealthy as a result.  However, he was successfully sued in 1848 for cheating his partners out of their due share of the profits from a gold mine investment.

During the 1850s Wood was the almost perennial Democratic nominee for mayor of New York City:  1850, defeated; 1854, elected; 1856, elected; 1857, defeated; 1859, elected; 1861, defeated.  As mayor, he tried to unify a factionalized party and a city deeply divided by class, religion, ethnicity, and race.  He supported social and moral reforms, such as establishing Central Park and the City University of New York and controlling vice.  In deference to working-class immigrants he did not strictly enforce state liquor laws, and he endorsed public work projects during the financial panic of 1857.  Democratic infighting led to an eventual schism, with Wood forming Mozart Hall as an organizational rival to Tammany Hall.

During Wood’s final mayoral term (1859-1861), the limited authority of his office and a Republican state legislature further restricted Wood’s ability to accomplish his political goals.  The state-city power struggle over law enforcement produced rival police forces, rioting, and a court case, which finally ended in triumph for the state legislature.  This antagonism provoked Wood to suggest in 1861 that the city secede from the state of New York.  Because of his pre-war sympathies for the South, his political enemies claimed he supported the Confederate cause.  In fact, during his last days as mayor he had urged a million-dollar tax to finance the raising of Union troops.  At the end of his mayoral term he married Alice Mills, the 16-year-old daughter of a rich merchant; they had nine children.

In 1860, Wood purchased the New York Daily News and installed his brother, Benjamin, as editor.  When the Civil War began, the brothers gained notoriety for their outspoken opposition to the war.  For 18 months in 1861-1863, the federal government halted publication of the Daily News for its alleged Confederate sympathy.  However, the unpopularity of the Civil War among New Yorkers resulted in Fernando Wood’s election to Congress in 1862 as a Peace Democrat.  

In August 1864, a few months after the featured cartoon appeared, Wood was instrumental in convincing delegates to the Democratic National Convention to adopt a peace plank calling for an immediate cease-fire and negotiated settlement with the Confederacy.  In November 1864, he lost his reelection bid, but two years later was returned to Congress, where he supported low tariffs and hard money.  He briefly served as speaker pro tem in 1875, and after 1877 chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.  Wood served in Congress until his death on February 14, 1881.

Robert C. Kennedy

"Angel of Peace"
July 14, 2024

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