Civil War Journal: Who Were the Copperheads?

As we near closer to the production of Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead, I thought it best to explain just what exactly a Copperhead is, because this is going to be a film dealing with a portion of the Civil War that has never been tackled on film, and a nearly forgotten part of our American history in itself. We have all seen the battlefields and men dying, and even the politics behind it, and why certain things happened the way they did, but what of the anti-war movement in the north, yes, the north, of all places? There are many people out there, probably including some Civil War buffs themselves that did not even know a sentiment like that even existed. A “Copperhead” was the nickname of a group of Peace Democrats who lived up north that were in opposition to Republican President Abraham Lincoln and the war effort. Some felt that the southern states had a right to secede while others just wanted to force a truce with the rebellious states in order to end the most costly war in American history. In going against Lincoln, many northern patriots looked at them as traitors, and called them a derisive term for back then, snakes, specifically, Copperheads. At first, this terminology was seen as insulting, but then the Peace Democrats decided to flaunt their new nickname, many wearing copper pins or pennies sewn on to their jackets and clothing. For a more in-depth look at this movement, I will post a quote from the Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War, by Patricia Faust:

Although the Democratic Party had broken apart in 1860, during the secession crisis, Democrats in the North were generally more conciliatory toward the South than were Republicans…A majority of Peace Democrats supported war to save the Union, but a strong and active minority asserted that the Republicans had provoked the South into secession; that the Republicans were waging the war in order to establish their own domination, suppress civil and states’ rights, and impose “racial equality”; and that military means had failed and would never restore the Union.

Peace Democrats were most numerous in the Midwest, a region that had traditionally distrusted the Northeast, where the Republican Party was strongest, and that had economic and cultural ties with the South. The Lincoln administration’s arbitrary treatment of dissenters caused great bitterness there. Above all, anti-abolitionist Midwesterners feared that emancipation would result in a great migration of blacks into their states. As was true of the Democratic Party as a whole, the influence of Peace Democrats varied with the fortunes of war. When things were going badly for the Union on the battlefield, larger numbers of people were willing to entertain the notion of making peace with the Confederacy. When things were going well, Peace Democrats could more easily be dismissed as defeatists. But no matter how the war progressed, Peace Democrats constantly had to defend themselves against charges of disloyalty. Revelations that a few had ties with secret organizations such as the Knights of the Golden Circle helped smear the rest.

The most prominent Copperhead leader was Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, who headed the secret antiwar organization known as the Sons of Liberty. At the Democratic convention of 1864, where the influence of Peace Democrats reached its high point,  Vallandigham persuaded the party to adopt a platform branding the war a failure, and some extreme Copperheads plotted armed uprisings. However, the Democratic presidential candidate, George B. McClellan, repudiated the Vallandigham platform, and victories by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and Phillip H. Sheridan assured Lincoln’s reelection, and the plots came to nothing. With the conclusion of the war in 1865 the Peace Democrats were thoroughly discredited. Most Northerners believed, not without reason, that Peace Democrats had prolonged war by encouraging the South to continue fighting in the hope that the North would abandon the struggle.

Something else that I wanted to point out is the meaning of the political cartoon I have been using as the temporary logo for my column that covers this film, called, “The Copperhead Chronicles”. Below, you can see it without any lettering covering it, as well as the explanation from the website Son of the South:

This cartoon features an image of Uncle Sam and a Copperhead.  The copperheads were a group of “Peace Democrats” in the Civil War, and they argued strongly to negotiate with the South and end the war. During 1863, the war was not going well for the North, and the Copperheads became vicious in their attacks on Mr. Lincoln. This satirical image shows the Copperheads trying to sell “Peace Soup”, “Humble Pie”, “Cooked Goose”, and “Evil Spirits”.

The cartoon shows, however, that the Copperhead is having to close his shop; apparently, no one is willing to buy his wares anymore. This cartoon came out shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Fall of Vicksburg, both enormous victories for the Union Armies. With these victories, public opinion turned decidedly against the Copperheads, and in support of the continued prosecution of the War.  The public decided that victory was the only acceptable outcome of the war.  The following year, President Abraham Lincoln was re-elected, and the Copperhead candidate George McClellan was defeated. In this cartoon, Uncle Sam is referred to as “Uncle Samuel”, which was not unusual during the Civil War.

So, there you have it—that is who the controversial group of the Copperheads were. As I have written about extensively on this blog, in regards to political correctness and the Civil War, or any general portrayal of history, I must say that this medium too is going to catch a lot of people off guard, because this story is going to show northerners who are not necessarily in love with Abraham Lincoln, a President I find to be truly fascinating, yet highly overrated. We do not know much about the story that is going to be told here, but I am looking forward to it. Ron is going to keep me in touch with their publicist, so anything information that comes out, when I get it, you can be sure to read it here.

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7 thoughts on “Civil War Journal: Who Were the Copperheads?

  1. Gettysbuff

    While this isn’t MY opinion, i will say that a lot of cinemagoers and critics are going to view this movie as “favoring the South” and “Southern Propaganda” – as a lot of people did with Gettysburg and even more so with G&G – before it’s even released. And honestly i can’t deny the argument that it does ‘appear’ from stuff that Ron has said in the past that he is more of a Southern Sympathizer, so i’m not really surprised by the subject of his next venture…incidentally he actually decided to settle in the South (Virginia of all states – not a surprise) although born in New Jersey – Coincidence? How the hell should i know, i’m just putting it out there.

    Don’t get me wrong, i’m not bashing Ron or his views as i will prove. I know Ron is highly educated on the causes of the war, etc (unlike a lot of Southerners) so i have no problem with him or anybody else being a Southern Sympathizer (if that’s what he is), so long as they’re an EDUCATED Southern Sympathizer…because – for example – you know there’s nothing worse than having a discussion with a person from the South who thinks that slavery had NOTHING to do with the war. That’s almost as bad, if not worse, than a Northerner saying that slavery was the ONLY issue. So there.

    I sincerely love Ron and all of his movies, and i wish him the very best of success with this one. And i am just as excited to see it as you or anyone else, Greg. I’m just being real. I think this movie could split people as did Gettysburg. Back then, Gene Siskel gave it a ‘thumbs down’ and said it was “Southern Propaganda”, whilst the wonderful Roger Ebert gave it a ‘thumbs up’…I’ll think i’ll end on that note!

  2. Interesting discussion on the Copperheads and the Civil War. Like so many political movements and the people in them… things get complicated very quickly. Thanks for bringing up these conversations. I suppose it is inevitable that people see a story in different ways. For those who make someone like Abraham Lincoln into a hero larger than life, anything that threatens that will be viewed with skepticism. And for Southerners who view battlefield leadership and bravery as vindication of a cause, they are skipping over some of the deeper issues of the time. Again, thanks for a great post.

  3. Gettysbuff

    PBS’ History Detectives was on the other day, and that particular episode featured a cane that belonged to a Copperhead that had a coiled snake on the top of it. It was pretty cool. Anyone see it?

  4. Wayne Haaaland

    I am writing a novel about the Copperhead movement in the 21st Century (Dragon God and the Copperheads). It is the third in a trilogy about the Afghan War. In my novel the Copperheads are on schedule to try and rise again to create the Golden Circle. But this time they are armed with ten Davy Crockett warheads and billions of dollars of gold they stole after the Civil War.I wonder if the movie will reference Virginia City, the Copperhead movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Randolph Scott and Errol Flynn.

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