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.

The film Copperhead is based on the novel The Copperhead, by Harold Frederic, born and raised in Utica, New York. The turning point comes in a chapter called "The Election." In the book, after Abner Beech casts his ballot, he declares, "The war must now surely be abandoned, and the seceding States invited to return to the Union on terms honorable to both sides." His celebration of his candidate's victory, in both the novel and film, precipitates the attack of the abolitionist mob.

A political cartoon, by Henry Louis Stephens, of Horatio Seymour delivering his famous "My Friends" speech from the steps of New York's City Hall during the draft riots. (Wikimedia Commons)

The winner of that election in New York State for governor in 1862 was the Democrat Horatio Seymour, a friend of the author Harold Frederic, who dedicated an earlier novel to him. Seymour campaigned against the Emancipation Proclamation, which was unpopular and the Democrats' main issue. This is what Seymour stated at a campaign rally: "The scheme for an immediate emancipation and general arming of the slaves throughout the South is a proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes of lust and rapine, of arson and murder, unparalleled in the history of the world." During the New York City draft riots of 1863, Seymour addressed a crowd of rioters as "my friends" and refused to cooperate with federal authorities for days in suppressing the violence. (Martin Scorsese's 2002 Gangs of New York climaxes with the fury of the draft riots. As he shows, the gangs served as the muscle for local political bosses such as Fernando Wood, whose "Mozart Hall" political machine relied on gangs like the Dead Rabbits, involved in inciting the riots. Wood was notably and accurately portrayed in Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln as a Copperhead congressman opposed to the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.)

Before and during the Civil War, waves of mobbing crested across the country. Not a single one of those recorded involved abolitionists attacking individuals of opposing opinions. Not one. That did not occur. That is not how abolitionists behaved. There were also not any attacks on Copperheads in upstate New York. There were, however, infamous examples of the mobbing of abolitionists. Before the war, in the north, in free states, there were 73 mob attacks on abolitionists, according to the historian David Grimsted of the University of Maryland. There were 19 mob attacks in the South -- fewer, of course, because there were not many abolitionists present in the South. Fifteen of these took place in the border state of Kentucky. Thirteen mob attacks were aimed at abolitionist presses. There were numerous beatings, of Frederick Douglass, for one, and tar-and-featherings of abolitionists. The most momentous mob attack was the murder of the abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois, while defending his press, an event that Lincoln addressed in his first major speech, in 1837, at the Springfield Lyceum.

New York State had a particular history of the mobbing of abolitionists. After mobs had broken up antislavery meetings in New York City, a convention was called for October 21, 1835 to found the New York State Antislavery Society in Utica, the home of The Copperhead's author. About 600 delegates gathered in a church where they were besieged by a mob. The leader of the mob was Samuel Beardsley, the congressman from the district and a close friend of Vice President Martin Van Buren, engaging in an act that he thought would help Van Buren secure Southern support for the Democratic nomination for president, which it did. Beardsley declared, "It would be better to have Utica razed to its foundations, to have it destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah, than to have the convention meet here." And the mob broke up the meeting. The delegates reconvened in a nearby town. That is the history of mobbing in and around Utica.

In The Copperhead, Harold Frederic turned the history of mobbing on its head. He made the abolitionists the violent mob and the anti-abolitionist into the innocent victim. His novel was published in 1893, after Reconstruction was crushed by white terrorist organizations led by former Confederate officers throughout the South. The year before, a black man in New Orleans named Homer Plessy was denied the right to sit in the front of a public streetcar and sued. The Supreme Court would rule in 1896 that segregation was legal, indeed nothing less than "separate but equal." On the ruins of Reconstruction the dominant themes pervading politics and literature about the Civil War, now more than 30 years concluded, were of the North and the South truly reconciled, one nation at last, with discussion of the causes of the conflict removed. The theme of reconciliation was the veneer for Jim Crow. (For those interested, the historian David Blight has written an excellent book on this subject, Race and Reunion.) The Copperhead falls into a stream of both Lost Cause and reunion literature.

Ron Maxwell, the director of Gettysburg and God and Generals, told an interviewer for The New American, the magazine of the John Birch Society, that he had discovered in Frederic's novel a vehicle for a story on "why good and honorable, ethical, moral men choose not to go to war." Asked by the interviewer about the constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation, Maxwell replied, "It was not just a violation of the Constitution, but the usurpation of power." (Of course, Lincoln believed that the Proclamation was constitutional under his presidential war powers.) To write the screenplay of Copperhead, Maxwell secured the services of Bill Kauffman, the author of a laudatory history of the pre-World War II isolationist movement called America First!.

And so we are back to the insidious mythmaking of Gone with the Wind, although without the talents of Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel. "You'd thought I'd won a second Civil War for the South," Clark Gable remarked about ecstatic audience reaction to the film debut in Atlanta. The Lost Cause myth was the political correctness of the postwar South, and a political correctness that dominated American history writing and culture for decades after Reconstruction. In the year of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Copperhead presents us with a false depiction of the Copperheads as principled men of peace instead of what they were -- often violent and always racist defenders of slavery, secession, and the Confederacy. Copperhead is propaganda for an old variation of the neo-Confederate Lost Cause myth, that the root of the Civil War was not slavery and the slave power, but an aggressive, power-mad North seeking to tyrannize, by unconstitutional means, a benign and chivalrous South. The Lost Cause myth was at its heart not a matter of a differing interpretation, but of the falsification and suppression of history in order to vindicate the Confederacy and later to justify Jim Crow. Frankly, my dear, we should give a damn.