This weekend, my wife and I watched Ron Maxwell’s latest film, The Copperhead. This film is not like any other film on the War to Prevent Southern Independence. It is the story of a northern anti-war Democrat in upstate New York in the spring of 1862. While the character development is slow, the story is interesting enough to carry a patient viewer through.
The main character, Abner Beech, is a farmer, husband and father to a biological son Jeff and an adopted orphan boy, Jimmy. Abner Beech does not support the war, and challenges both its means and ends. His son, Thomas Jefferson “Jeff” Beech, is smitten with the daughter of the local Republican Abolitionist, Jee Hagadorn. Hagadorn is a stereotypical New England Abolitionist: arrogant, given to philosophical abstractions over present reality, and more than little crazy. His daughter, again stereotypically, is a schoolmarm. To convince her of his bravery and pander a bit to her Unionist sympathies, Jeff enlists in the Union Army. After the Battle of Sharpsburg, Jeff is listed as missing, much to his mother’s chagrin. His father Abner’s reaction is somewhere between indifference and “I told him not to go.”
I highly recommend this film. Four extracts from the dialogue will give one a good feel for the tone of the film. Near the beginning of the film, for example, Republican Benjamin Wade is quoted as saying “anyone who quotes the Constitution in the present crisis is a traitor.” (Historian Frank Klement writes that Wade actually said that). Beech rightly is appalled by Wade’s statement. This sets the tone for the film.
Later, Peter Fonda’s character, Avery, a Republican has the following conversation with Abner Beech, the Copperhead:
Avery: I don’t want to see politics tear our community apart.
Abner: Already has.
Avery: It’s your Democrats who have rent this country asunder.
Abner: It’s Abraham Lincoln and his Republicans tearing us apart and the Constitution, closing down newspapers, putting critics in prison, enlisting mere boys to fight in his unconstitutional war.
Avery: Well, what would you have President Lincoln do? The Rebs fired first at Fort Sumter.
Abner: He should have let the South go. They have never harmed us.
Avery: Not harmed us? No, they’ve split the Union in two, just so they could keep black men in bondage.
Abner: I am not a slaver. I’ve never even seen a slave, but the Constitution says its none of York state’s business what Dixie does.
Avery: And those slavocrats, they’re not satisfied with their little corner of the country. They want to expand, into Kansas, into Nebraska, into New Mexico. Good Lord, they wanted us to steal Cuba, too. How does that fit into your beloved Constitution?
Abner: I am no party man. I’m no expansionist neither. I don’t want Cuba. Hell, I didn’t even want Texas. But I do not want our boys dying. And I don’t want the Constitution dying with’em.
Avery: The Union, Abner. Doesn’t the Union mean anything to you?
Abner: It means something. It means more than something. But it doesn’t mean everything. My family means more to me. My farm. The Corners means more. York State means more to me. And though we disagree, Avery, ye mean more to me than any Union. Good day to you.
Avery: Good day, Abner.
The film does not dodge the issue of slavery, however. Later in the film, the orphan boy Jimmy asks Abner, “Mr. Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal. Those slaves are men, aren’t they?” Abner responds, “They are, they surely are. But this 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.” Thus, even in dealing with the issue of slavery, the film stays true to its principled opposition to the war.
Near the end of the film, after Republicans accidentally burned Abner’s house while trying to intimidate him. After salvaging what they could from the burning house, Jimmy, the orphan boy, has a conversation with Abner.
Jimmy: Why’d they burn our house down?
Abner: War is a … it’s a fever, son. It’s a fever and you get head up, and the fever puts you out of your right mind, and you do things you wouldn’t do if you weren’t sick. You kill, you maim, lose sight of who you are, where you live. It’s like you got no kin no more. No neighbor. You lose … you lose your bearings, and you don’t know who you really are.
This film takes an unusual look at the war. Viewers of a statist perspective do not like having their prejudices challenged and tend to not like the film. For this, among other reasons, the film had an unbelievably small and short theatrical release. This film is well acted, beautifully directed, and philosophically challenging. In this unusual film, no characters, at least none of the sane ones, rush about singing “Glory Hallelujah” and trampling out the vintage. The rational characters support the Constitution and question those in power and their policies. For these reasons, you should consider getting your hands on a copy and watching it.