Written by James Simpson
Wednesday, June 26, 2013 – Orthodox mythology of the Civil War holds that the Northern states rallied in unity behind the messianic President Lincoln on a noble mission to liberate the slaves and preserve the Union. Its terrible cost in American lives – unmatched by any other conflict before or since – is taken as a measure of that nobility, and anyone who challenges that view can only be an idiot, or worse, a closet racist. The truth, as usual, is a little more complicated.
Copperhead, a movie set to open this coming Friday, June 28, grapples with one of these complicated truths: Northern opposition to the war. This is a truly unique Civil War movie. There are no battle scenes; no exploration of different campaigns and the military logic that informed them. Rather, this movie explores the politically uncomfortable realities – the divergence of interests and opinions, of rhetoric versus reality, and the social upheavals – that accompany major conflict. It may not change your view on the Civil War, but certainly challenges orthodox thinking, and deepens our understanding of an aspect that is rarely mentioned.
Copperheads were the derogatory name given by Republicans to “Peace Democrats,” a wing of the Democratic Party that opposed the Civil War. While Republicans were referring to the poisonous snake of that name, Copperheads responded by defiantly wearing lady liberty lapel buttons cut from copperhead pennies. They wielded a fair amount of influence, especially in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, but their protest was felt throughout the North. Most Copperheads believed the war was unconstitutional and destructive, and that Lincoln was abusing his power. Some low-income laborers, for example in the coal fields of Pennsylvania, also saw liberation of the slaves as a threat to their jobs. Prominent leaders included Ohio Representative Clement Vallandigham.
The Copperheads’ polar opposites were the “Radical Republicans,” represented by such figures as Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade, Horace Greeley, Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, who believed that Lincoln was not working hard or fast enough to emancipate the slaves. Their sentiments at the time were perhaps best captured by General Order Number 38, written by Union General Ambrose Burnside, making it illegal to criticize the war effort. The Order was used as pretext to arrest Clement Vallandigham for treason. Embarrassed by this excess, Lincoln commuted the sentence, but banished Vallandigham to the Confederacy.
The movie centers on two upstate New York families and the town’s reactions to their unyielding positions as the war’s effects hit home. The Copperheads are represented by patriarch Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), his wife M’rye (Genevieve Steele) son, Jeff (Casey Brown), and the orphan they have taken in, Jimmy (Josh Cruddash). The Beech’s run a dairy farm.
The Radical Republicans are represented by the family of Jee Hagadorn (Angus Macfayden of Braveheart fame), his daughter Esther (Lucy Boynton), and son Ni (Augustus Prew). Jee runs a saw mill and manufactures wooden barrels. Avery, an elderly Republican who attempts to keep peace among the various town factions, is played ably by Peter Fonda. One criticism of the film is that it is slow in developing the characters, thus it takes a while to figure out how each one fits into the story.
The period covered in the film, 1862, saw Democrat Horatio Seymour elected governor of New York State, along with a number of other Democrats. A Democrat was elected governor of New Jersey and Copperheads also won majorities in the Illinois and Indiana legislatures that year. Abner Beech provokes the town following the election by holding a celebratory bonfire, which the town’s Republicans see as an open act of defiance.
The antagonists opposing sentiments are well captured when Abner comments aloud to his family on a local newspaper story following the election: “Benjamin Wade, a Republican of Ohio, says anyone who quotes the Constitution in the current crisis is a traitor. A traitor! Can you imagine? But listen how a Democrat paper in Ohio gave it right back to him: ‘Such an abolitionist should be hung until the flesh rots off his bones and the winds of Heaven whistle Yankee Doodle through his loathsome skeleton.’”
Echoing Romeo and Juliet, Jeff Beech becomes enamored of Esther Hagadorn. Esther only courts him, however, after he agrees to use his middle name, “Tom.” She finds “Jeff” unacceptable, because it reminds her of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, even though he explains that he was named after Thomas Jefferson. He agrees anyway and becomes “Tom” to her family and his friends. Abner’s response to the influence Esther and her father is having on his son’s political views is classic Dad: “The way to a woman’s heart, boy, ain’t by rejecting one’s own kin and parroting the asinine opinions of her father.” Nonetheless, Jeff defies his father, joins the Union Army and goes off to war.
Jee Hagadorn, meanwhile, seeks to dissuade Esther from her interest in Tom with a torrid quote from Mark: “Brother will betray brother unto death, and the father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death…” He adds “I am a blind pilgrim on this earth, but even I can see when a boy sparks a girl.” To which Esther responds “Dear father, sparks don’t always lead to a fire.” He then flatly states, “If you marry him, well, he will kill me.”
Jee Hagadorn’s son, Ni – short for “Benaiah” one of David’s Old Testament generals – tolerates his father’s rigid dogmatism with sarcasm and defiance. Ni relates to Jimmy how every day his father lambasts him for not living up to his name. “I should’ve named you Pete, or Steve, or William Henry!” Jee wails. “I get this every day,” Ni tells Jimmy, but adds, “I said ‘Now listen here, patriarchs in glass houses mustn’t heave stones. You’re named after Jehoaddan, that’s in the Bible. He made a covenant with God. I ain’t never seen you make no covenant. All you do is make barrels.’” Jimmy asks “What did he say?” Ni smiles, “I left before he could say anything.”
The movie’s plot thickens as news of town casualties come back from the front, and the Radical Republicans, led by Jee Hagadorn, become increasingly hostile to Beech and the other Copperheads. Beech finds almost no buyers for his dairy products, and is scorned by the local preacher at the Sunday service. It is easy to imagine such drama playing out in a small town, where residents interact on a daily basis. I won’t spoil the dramatic ending for you.
The film has an unmistakable air of authenticity. It was shot entirely on location at Nova Scotia’s King’s Landing, a “living museum” reconstructed to mimic a 19th century North American town. The book on which the film was based, Copperheads, was written in 1893 by Harold Frederic, an author who lived through the period in question. His novel therefore captured the mannerisms and speech of the day.
Copperhead was directed by Ron Maxwell, who also directed two other well-known Civil War classics, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. The screenplay was written by Bill Kaufman, a novelist whose contrarian political leanings appear well-fitted for this contrarian plot. Kauffman has been described as a pacifist, an anarchist, an anti-war conservative, even paleoconservative; he is most decidedly anti-war and this is a prevailing theme in Copperhead.
This is perhaps best captured in an exchange between Jimmy and Abner. Jimmy asks, “Mr. Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal. Those slaves are men, aren’t they?”
Abner responds, “They are, they surely are. But their cure is worse than the disease. War ain’t a cure for this. Slavery ain’t right… but killing people, destroying whole cities and towns and turning the government in Washington into God’s almighty army isn’t right either. Why make things worse… only make for a lot of dead boys.”
One is tempted to draw a comparison between Copperheadism and the anti-war sentiments of sixties radicals. The Copperheads were boisterous activists and a few did have sympathies for the Southern cause. However similarities cease there. Copperheads really were opposed to the war, both because they saw the death and destruction as unnecessary, and because they believed it to be unconstitutional. Most also remained loyal to the Union.
Leftist leaders of the anti-war movement, on the other hand, aren’t really anti-war, but anti-US. This is best exemplified by Obama’s friend Bill Ayers, who wrote in his manifesto Prairie Fire, “We are communist women and men… Our intention is to disrupt the empire, to incapacitate it, to put pressure on the cracks, to make it hard to carry out its bloody functioning against the people of the world, to join the world struggle, to attack from the inside... Without mass struggle there can be no revolution. Without armed struggle there can be no victory.” Peace Democrats, for sure.
Conservatives will appreciate the other major theme of the movie, the U.S. Constitution. Many Copperheads firmly believed the war was unconstitutional and that Lincoln was abusing his power. What is left completely out of the movie, however, is the fact that some were also racist, and opposed the war on that basis. So while one can appreciate their devotion to the Constitution, and enjoy the movie because of it, their image remains tarnished by that reality.
Kauffman deliberately remained faithful to the book’s rich dialog. As Maxwell explained, “That line where an ear of burnt corn is described as ‘tougher than Pharaoh’s heart’ is so good you’d be crazy to cut it. The book was filled with them, illuminating a time and a place and a mind-set that’s been positively informed by the memorizing of scripture.”
This loyalty to the day’s dialog is refreshing in its honesty and wholesomeness. There is only one curse word to be found, and that uttered by the town bad boy, from which such might be expected – but even that seems out of place. I kept contrasting this in my mind with the idiotic Hansel and Gretel, Witch Hunters, which I had to sit through recently. The film pretended to be set in some fantasy medieval period, but was so rife with “F” and “S” bombs you couldn’t even enjoy the sophomoric humor, much less believe the setting. As Hollywood would doubtless be surprised to learn, Copperheads is enriched by both its authenticity and the absence of such base gimmicks. This historical honesty also evidences the nation’s then devout Christianity, another welcome departure from typical Hollywood fare.
As Paul Buhle & Dave Wagner write in a Swan’s Commentary review: “This is a movie with a script that is for a change equal to the complicated politics of the dangerous moment it explores, when the outcome of the Civil War was far from certain.”
This is a movie well worth seeing; both for its accurate depiction of the times, its rich narrative, and the unique, rarely discussed subject matter, which was in fact a major component of the days’ controversies. It is also completely family friendly – a rarity in Hollywood these days.
Here is a theater listing.