Romanticizing the Villains of the Civil War

The newly released film Copperhead is in the same tradition as Gone with the Wind and Gods and Generals. Its history is highly revisionist.
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This political cartoon appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1863. (Library of Congress)

When Gone with the Wind had its premiere in Atlanta in 1939, the governor of Georgia declared a state holiday. One million people turned out to watch the arrival of Clark Gable, Olivia DeHaviland and Vivien Leigh. The night before, a costume ball of leading citizens dressed in the finery of the Old South was serenaded by a "negro boys' choir" dressed as slaves standing against the newly constructed backdrop of a plantation mansion. One of its singers was six year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. Hattie McDaniel, who acted as Mammy, was prohibited from joining the other stars inside the theater. It was segregated just as movie houses and other public facilities were throughout the South. Angry about McDaniel's exclusion, Gable threatened to boycott, but she persuaded him to attend. She would go on to win an Academy Award.

Copperhead, the newly released Civil War movie directed by Ron Maxwell, lacks the scope, star power and drama of the all-time blockbuster. But it's in a tributary of the tradition -- stretching from Gone with the Wind through Maxwell's ponderous Gods and Generals -- of Lost Cause mythology. The story takes a few liberties with an obscure late-19th-century novella based on a completely fabricated and otherwise unlikely incident in upstate New York in order to offer an alternative interpretation of the Civil War: that Abraham Lincoln was a bloodthirsty tyrant trampling the Constitution, that those who opposed the war in the North were not Southern sympathizers but true patriots, and that those truly loyal to the Constitution were the persecuted victims of an oppressive regime and virtual dictator who used emancipation as an instrument of his drive for power. Though Copperhead is a sad little morality play that has swiftly flickered away, it represents an increasingly fashionable pseudo-history among ideological re-enactors who wear Revolutionary War costumes but never the Union blue. "Do I think Lincoln was wrong in taking away the freedom of the press and the right of habeas corpus? Yeah," said Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky recently.

The hero of the film is an upstate New York farmer, Abner Beech: a man of profound character, diligent, well-read and religious, a believer in civil liberties but not in slavery, not sympathetic to the South but attached above all to the Constitution, and therefore glorified as the prototypical Copperhead. The crux of the film comes in a conversation between Abner Beech and Avery, a Lincoln Republican, played by of all people Peter Fonda -- a riff resonating with his father Henry's famous portrayal in Young Mr. Lincoln (released in 1939, the same year as Gone with the Wind). Abner argues that Lincoln has divided the country: "It's Abraham Lincoln, and he's a Republican...Closing down newspapers, putting critics in prison, enlisting your boys to fight in his unconstitutional war." He goes on: "He should have let the South go, as they would not have harmed us." Abner's political views make him an old-fashioned American dissenter, who is nearly martyred at the hands of the fanatical town abolitionist "Jee" Hagadorn and his mob. In the happy ending, the abolitionist recognizes the errors of his ways and he is reconciled with the good Copperhead.

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Ron Maxwell, right, on the set of his film Copperhead (Swordspoint Productions, LLC)

But the distortions of Copperhead, the film, as a parable for our time, cannot be understood apart from the Copperheads, the movement, and The Copperhead, the novel, and the tradition into which they all fit.

The Copperheads were the northern antiwar faction of the Democratic Party that demanded an immediate peace with the Confederacy. The Democratic Party had splintered after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that opened the territories to a contest over whether they would be free or slave. It was now a party thoroughly dominated by the South and in which the only northern men that thrived within it were famously "Northern men with Southern sympathies." Antislavery northern Democrats defected to the new Republican Party. Then, in 1860, southerners and their northern allies deprived Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois of nomination, splitting the party yet again. In effect, the pro-slavery Southern Democrats seceded and created their own Democratic Party with its own nominee. When the South itself seceded after Lincoln's election, with its state ordinances of secession declaring protection of slavery as the cause -- their Northern allies were left like a severed arm trying to reattach its nerve endings. One wing of the Democrats was the War Democrats, who had misgivings about Lincoln but supported the Union effort. Another wing was the Peace Democrats, which included the Copperheads, who were the more radical in their virulent racist rhetoric, hatred and demonization of Lincoln, and sympathy for the Confederacy. The vileness of the Copperhead rhetoric, especially in print, with its obsessive inflection of the n-word, is too offensive to quote in the post-Paula Deen era.

The Copperheads opposed the draft, emancipation, and suspension of habeas corpus. They were not pacifists; none of them were Quakers (who were deeply antislavery and had supported the Underground Railroad). Rather, they were an organized political movement, with political aims, chiefly to undermine the Union effort. Nobody really knows how big it was. They belonged to groups such as the Knights of the Golden Circle, which claimed a half million members, and its successor organization the Sons of Liberty, but it's hard to determine what the exact figures might have been. Historians today, such as Jennifer Weber of the University of Kansas, and others who have done recent state studies, have documented the broad character of the movement and dismiss the notion that the Copperheads were just dissident individuals. The movement fed off defeatism, growing with each Confederate victory and Union defeat. Some Copperhead leaders coordinated their operations with the Confederate government to create havoc on the Union home front. There is evidence of Copperhead agitation behind the New York City draft riots of late July 1863, the largest incident of mob action during the war, with at least 120 people killed, including 11 black men lynched. Fernando Wood, the congressman and former mayor of New York, had called for the city to secede at the war's beginning and was a notorious Copperhead, presenting himself as a Peace Democrat.

In the election year of 1864, the Confederate government heavily subsidized a number of Copperhead leaders in order to try to overthrow Lincoln. Ohio Democratic leader Clement Vallandigham, a former congressman, perhaps the country's number one Copperhead, who had been arrested, released, exiled, and returned, received Confederate secret service funds. Vallandigham had declared the Union struggle "a war for the freedom of the blacks and the enslavement of the whites," proclaimed his "duty to stay at home and fight the Abolition rebels," and declared that anyone who was loyal to Lincoln was "fit only to be a slave." Fernando Wood and his brother Benjamin Wood, publisher of the New York Daily News, also received Confederate secret service money. Copperhead leaders plotted, among other schemes, to stage the secession of the Midwest. This was not a completely lunatic fantasy on their part: Both the Indiana and Illinois legislatures were essentially in Copperhead hands--the Republican governors in those states would not convene them for fear they would withdraw volunteer units from the Union army. Coles County, in southern Illinois, was in effect in rebellion: Copperheads organized the killing of Union soldiers and a vicious little civil war was waged, as it was in many places.

The Copperhead myth holds Lincoln's chief crime among his exercise of presidential war powers (including the Emancipation Proclamation) to be the suspension of habeas corpus. It is true that briefly, Lincoln invoked suspension to thwart an insurrection and secession in Maryland, something explicitly permitted by the Constitution in the case of rebellion. Though Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, also author of the notorious 1857 Dred Scott decision, ruled that only Congress had this power, Lincoln invoked the measure on his own because the Congress was recessed, and the Congress, in 1863, voted for the suspension. The historian Mark Neely, of Penn State, and the leading authority on civil liberties during the war, demonstrates that the vast majority of arrests were for insurrectionary acts like blockade running, gun running and desertion. They were not aimed at political opponents, according to Neely, but to protect enlistment and conscription. Without question, there were abuses, mostly by military commanders in the field. Newspapers were suppressed. But the few big papers that were closed were reinstated within a short time by order of the President acting through the War Department, which had been overly zealous. The Copperhead press remained more or less intact throughout the entire war -- even Copperhead publications that advocated Lincoln's assassination were left alone. On the basis of a handful of cases, the Copperhead myth purported that the Lincoln administration sought to crush all criticism and opposition, which in fact remained so vigorous that Lincoln thought he might lose his reelection.

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Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, a former senior adviser to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the author of the forthcoming book The Man Who Became Abraham Lincoln. More

Blumenthal is an adviser to the Clinton Foundation and was executive producer of the Academy and Emmy award-winningTaxi to the Dark Side. He is the author of seven books, including The Permanent CampaignThe Rise of the Counter-Establishment and The Clinton Wars, and the satirical play This Town. He was on the national staff ofThe Washington Post, senior editor of The New Republic, Washington editor and staff writer for The New Yorker, columnist for Salon and The Guardian, and political editor at The Daily Beast. A long-time resident of Washington, he is a native of Illinois.  

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