Film Explores 'Copperheads' of the Civil War

Thursday, 25 Jul 2013 10:13 AM

By David Alliot

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The Civil War stands in stark relief as the most divisive time of our nation's history, yet there were "honorable, courageous men" who chose to not go to war — those who were against war as a solution for the issues that tore the nation apart, noted director Ron Maxwell says in his new film, "Copperhead."

Based on Harold Frederic's novel by the same name, the movie explores the "copperheads" — a derogatory term assigned to those who refused their "patriotic duty" — of the War Between the States.

Copperhead was chosen as a representation of a snake in the grass, a dangerous person not to be trusted. However, those who were repugned by war embraced the term. "The copperheads adopted the term as a term of appreciation," Maxwell said in an exclusive interview with Newsmax TV. "They took the insult and wore it as a badge of honor."

The copperheads instead embraced the metal, and "actually would wear copper coins" in support of their unpopular stance against the war, Maxwell said.

So what made them "copperheads" to begin with? Copperheads felt there were constitutionally legislative means to resolve the issues tearing the country apart. They felt a close kinship with the Founding Fathers and believed they would not have opted for a violent solution.

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The braided lives of North against South, brother against brother, left no room for the "Peace Democrats" (though the film explores the many Republicans in the movement) — the copperheads — who refused to believe that war was the only way out.

In "Copperheads," Maxwell also explores in vivid detail the overall impact of the war on the North, and he sets the stage in Upstate New York. The film also explores the behind-the-scenes wrangling in Washington.
  • "This is the first time we see the impact of the war in the North," he relayed. "It's almost impossible to get your arms around it — 750,000 dead, another million and a half wounded."
  • George McClellan, who had been Lincoln's top general, left the army to run against President Abraham Lincoln as Peace Democrat, a point Maxwell said shows just how divisive the nation was.
  • By 1862, the period in which "Copperhead" takes place, "the anti-war movement is strong. It's in the ascendency," and Lincoln faced strong opposition. The film shows how the movement and Lincoln's ideology squared off.
  • Until 1862, the army was composed of volunteers, but as the pro-war stance began to wane, Lincoln had to resort to the draft after he failed to fill the ranks.
  • The nation was rocked by those who felt there was no constitutional precedent for Lincoln to declare war. In fact, Maxwell pointed out, the draft was just "another violation of the Constitution."
  • The movement gains some ground as the war grinds on, and a Peace Democrat, Horatio Seymour, actually gets elected as governor of New York, just ahead of the party's peak in 1863.
Maxwell's main fictional characters, farmers Jee and Abner, each have sons that are of age to be sent off to war. The farmers couldn't be more different — Abner is a firm believer in the words of Thomas Jefferson: "Early in the film, the camera pans over Abner's book collection, and you see the works of Thomas Jefferson. It is palpable to him. It's meaningful to him. He relates. This is a young republic," Maxwell told Newsmax.

Abner just can't bring himself to embrace war as a means to an end. He feels Jefferson would have used legislative means to end the war.

Jee is outspoken about his pro-war position — a zealot. His position is also understandable — "who among us would want to be enslaved an additional day?"

Abner agrees with abolishing slavery — yet he is ostracized from the community in the face of pro-war fervor. But is Abner any less a hero for thinking "there are constitutional legislative means to correct justice, that war will just take a bad situation and make it much worse" in the eyes of Maxwell?

Maxwell provides "a window into how the average citizen in the 1860s was informed," and how each defines courage in the face of adversity and herd mentality.

The two famers represent the core of the issues surrounding "Copperhead," and indeed the issues surrounding the very reasons for starting the Civil War. What would our Founding Fathers do?



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