Civil War Journal: New Jersey’s Anti-Union Feelings a Microcosm of the Copperhead Movement

Part of the reason why I started “The Copperhead Chronicles”, many postings of which having to do with more of the politics than the actual upcoming Civil War film that led to its creation, and have posted articles like this, was to expand our knowledge on a subject that very rarely gets any mention, or taught in schools, if not for maybe a one sentence fragment in the biased history textbooks we make our young students slave over. This subject is a general anti-war, anti-Lincoln movement in the northern states, more specifically falling to a political group known as the Copperheads, which will have prominence in Ron Maxwell’s film, slated to begin production this month. Many in this ultra-politically correct world cannot fathom any northerner being against the so-called “Great Emancipator” or his little war, and unfortunately, many do not even get the chance to give it much thought. Proponents of the Copperheads have been buried and kept out of sight in the historical record. George Brinton McClellan, an eventual governor of New Jersey, the ill-fated, egotistical Union General who ran for president against Lincoln in 1864 as a Copperhead supported candidate, has been relegated to nothing more than a caricature of how to not conduct a military campaign. Meanwhile, another one of the movement’s leaders, Clement Vallandigham, has become just “that guy who accidentally shot himself to death while trying to prove a point in a courtroom in 1871”.

Out of sight and out of mind for many years, the one true hope that the film Copperhead can have will be the resurrection of this very controversial topic, one that will guarantee debate between historians, moviegoers, and critics alike. People tend to be uncomfortable with what they do not understand, and a portrayal of an anti-Union, “Who cares about slavery?” movement in northern states is one that will definitely get the job done. This is not to say that the Copperheads were right, in defaming the Union Army and the war, and taking a more than lukewarm approach to the slavery issue, but it is simply a matter of bringing to light all aspects of the war. Teachers and those with an agenda try to present everything to their students as simply being a matter of black and white (please note I am not referring to skin color here). There can be no gray areas when dealing with the Civil War, because that will only prompt more questions and a heartier desire to learn, which would be inconvenient to the curriculum, at least in New Jersey and other nearby states, which needs to breeze through the War Between the States in less than two weeks, then spend two months on the Reconstruction Era.

While between the years 1861 and 1865, the United States was divided, north vs. south, my home state of New Jersey also saw its share of wartime bitterness, a microcosm of the movement that was sweeping through the north. While the state remained in the Union, and sent many regiments to join the fight, the politics going on back-stage so to speak, were anything but a wholehearted support for Mr. Lincoln’s army and the suppression of the southern rebellion. Ron Maxwell’s film will take place in upstate New York, a hotbed for Copperhead activity, but there was also quite a share in the Garden State, as it was the last to abolish slavery, due to the massive amount of farms and harvesting that lend us our world-renown nickname. One may look at New Jersey now and see a melting pot of different cultures, with an abundance of tolerance for our great differences that extend to, among others, languages and lifestyles, but during the Civil War, perhaps, people of this state, namely free black citizens, experienced anything but.

In an article titled, “Our Forgotten Civil War”, authored by W. Barksdale Maynard for New Jersey Monthly in March of 2011, he writes, “Fearful of growing federal power, Democrats condemned Lincoln for suspending the writ of habeas corpus and arresting several newspapermen in the state when they spoke against the government—including one who called Honest Abe a ‘foul-mouthed gorilla.’ Most of the state’s 80 newspapers were Unionist, but some were raucously Copperhead, opposed to the war. The Monmouth Democrat wondered why Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, was ‘sporting away his college vacations at Long Branch’ instead of enlisting. Many Jersey Copperheads blamed pro-Lincoln abolitionists for the national bloodletting: ‘We are cutting each others’ throats for the sake of a few worthless Negroes,’ one told a Democratic crowd in Trenton. Such anti-black feeling was evident in New Jersey—the last Northern state to outlaw slavery (in 1846)—where a gradual approach to emancipation left more than a dozen elderly house servants still enslaved when the war began.”

More disturbingly, the article also goes to mention, “Angered by the Emancipation Proclamation, some Democratic legislators in Trenton proposed banning ex-slaves from the state and even talked of deporting free blacks to Africa…New Jersey never created a black regiment. Joel Parker, the state’s wartime governor, said that whites ‘should not place their reliance on a distinct and inferior race.’ So 2,900 African-Americans from New Jersey went to Philadelphia to join U.S. Colored Regiments…” This may come as a complete and utter shock to those who have not taken the time to examine the plain facts more deeply, but this feeling towards blacks was widespread in the north, though not quite a majority feeling. If one wants to understand this time-frame, they cannot ignore that fact, because it was not like life down south was pure hell, and life up north was pure heaven. Slavery was a sin and a scourge, perhaps the greatest ever perpetrated by those who founded this nation and allowed it to thrive, but we do nothing but a disservice to ourselves, our country, and those who are descended from slaves, to say that the northern states were nothing but a haven. It would be a dishonor to them, those who experienced racism and hardships, while living even as free men and women of color, to ignore the truth of the situation.

The same people who had it in for Gods and Generals may very well have it in for Copperhead, if they did not take the last several years to actually educate themselves, because of the pro-south undertones present in the earlier film that let to such derogatory critiques. Any work, whether it be book or film, that does not serve as a condemnation for the Confederacy and support the Union in every sentence of its ideology is generally branded racist, poorly researched, or much more insultingly, a lie. However, when that work is based in fact, not fiction, and the product of a hundreds of hours of research, can the issue even be argued? Of course it will, and that is what makes debate so great, but to attack something when one has not adequately bothered to willingly know more, that is where the naysayers have fault in their substance. There is more than enough information and research out there for political correctness to take a back-seat to the facts, the only questions is whether or not population of this country is ready for it.

Click here for more on the upcoming film.

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16 thoughts on “Civil War Journal: New Jersey’s Anti-Union Feelings a Microcosm of the Copperhead Movement

  1. Gettysbuff

    Nice article. We’re never going to agree on this but i do think that this film MAY be slightly slanted more towards being in favor of the south. I agree that if facts are used then one cannot argue, however, factual subject matter can be ‘manipulated’ and ‘presented’ to audiences in a certain way – it can be ‘dressed up’. That happens all the time with art, especially movies. Sorry, but i have the feeling that i might walk away from this movie with the feeling that i have watched another piece of Southern Propaganda. I could be wrong and often am (as i am only human) and that’s why i only said that this movie MAY be slanted more towards favoring the South instead of it WILL favor the South, as i cannot say the latter with any certainty as i do not possess the power of foresight. I guess i’ll just have to wait and see. And believe me i’m not one of those people who doesn’t want to hear the truth or anything against Lincoln, etc. Pretty much everything you have talked about in this article (and everything i’ve read on your blog and elsewhere on the subject) i was already aware of, so i don’t expect to be in for a nasty surprise or anything when i sit down in the front row of the movie theater on opening night. All i am saying is that i think i may be a little disappointed by the way the movie is going to be presented in terms of bias. Not facts, the facts i’m sure will be correct as Ron is quite adept at that. I just have this nagging feeling that i may walk out after the credits have finally rolled, feeling like it was too preachy and that the overall suggestion was that “the South was right” – if you know what i mean. Sorry if i can’t explain what i’m trying to say any better than that, i’m not as intelligent or articulate as you are, Greg (and i’m not being sarcastic in the slightest). I know that Ron shouldn’t really be judged by his last effort, but when he decided the subject of his new venture should be the subject of people who were pro-South, or anti-North, or Anti-Lincoln, or Anti-black, or whatever, that’s when i started to wonder. Of all the things, battles, subjects, people, etc from the Civil War he could have chosen to make a film about and he chose to make this film. You gotta admit i do have a point.

    1. Thanks for your extremely well thought out response. I know exactly what you mean in regards to facts being manipulated, and both sides to the argument have had their share at it. However, before you and I can debate this any further, I would need to know your general opinion on “Gods and Generals”, IE how you felt the facts were presented, whether or not you liked the film, etc.

  2. Gettysbuff

    As i said, i struggle to put stuff into words sometimes. My general opinion is that the facts were pretty well presented, and i did like the film, just not as much as Gettysburg. I thought it was a bit long and too dialogue heavy, but i guess i enjoyed it. I’d have to watch it again as i haven’t seen it for a while and there is a lot to take in (not to mention there now being 2 versions of the film), but i do remember just having a little feeling that the makers of the film might be more Pro-south than the average northerner. I can’t quite put my finger on specific details at the moment, it was more the overall feeling i was left with. As i said, Ron is obviously a very skilled auteur.

  3. Gettysbuff

    I know i’ve probably lost your interest, but i just wanted to give you ONE example of a film that Ron could have done instead. He could have done a film about another lesser known (but still interesting and exciting) part of the Civil War – the war on water. Yes i’m talking about ships. When people tend to think about the Civil War they picture men charging across open fields, etc. Not boats blasting GIGANTIC balls of hot lead at each other (although the role that ships played in the war was obvously not just confined to that). I think that would have been a good move for him. Why does everything have to be political/have an agenda? Also there are hardly ANY films out there that cover the war at sea (and the ones that are out there are not very good and hardly anyone even knows they exist) so this would really have been an untapped market. And i think there would be more interest from Civil War buffs and the general moviegoing public alike in seeing a story about the men who worked on these ships plus action scenes, than there will be in a political movie. I think it’s really a no-brainer, as Ron would have made a SPECTACULAR movie about the war at sea. There’s really nobody else out there who has Ron’s passion (how many people do you know who are making Civil War films?), but i do think that somebody will do a great movie about this subject one day. Don’t get me wrong, i’m not a huge fan of boats or anything, but i know a good premise for a movie when i read one. And this would also do the same job of educating people about an interesting and fascinating part of the war they may not know a lot about, just as Copperhead might. And you cannot argue with that. After making 2 averagely-successful movies about what are basically land battles, having the idea to film a movie involving battles at sea and the characters involved would have been a moment of pure genius. Maybe i’m just clever for my own good…now only if i knew how to work a camera.

    Oh, and i did say that this is just ONE example of what Ron could have done, didn’t i? OK good, just wanted to make sure. I have other examples but this is the first that sprung to mind, and probably the best example of a potential movie that would have subject matter that people may not know a lot about, thus drawing parallels to Copperhead in that respect…And you gotta admit it would be an entertaining film.

    1. The war at sea is something never done on film with the exception of “Ironclads” made for TNT in the early 90’s (which I have not seen). It is something that with today’s technology and special effects, could be amazing. From Farragut and New Orleans to the Monitor vs. Merrimack, yes, it would be an outstanding subject to tackle. The interest is already there with fighting at sea (see: “Master & Commander”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, etc), so I think it could definitely work.

      Whether or not Ron or anyone for that matter SHOULD make something is entirely up to them. I think it tends to get more interesting when you mix in politics (Patrick Gorman did say in our interview that “you can’t make a movie just about a battle”), however, you also run the risk of losing a large part of your audience when you get too technical, or take an unfavorable position. There really has yet to be a major Civil War feature film where politics are in no way involved, though “Gettysburg” mentioned them only in passing more than anything else; it didn’t really preach them. “Gods and Generals” is obviously pro-Confederate, whereas a film like “Glory”, which I enjoyed and even own seems to vilify the south more than anything else, but I supposed they had to go that route in order for their story to make sense and be as dramatic as it was. And of course, “Gone with the Wind” is the worst of the lot– nothing but a piece of propaganda.

      1. Gettysbuff

        Well said, Greg. That’s the reason i read your blog.

        I AM really excited to see Copperhead, i just hope it doesn’t become too ‘bogged down’ with its subject material and try to hammer some ‘point’ across. I admit that whilst i am fairly educated on the details, i hope that i too will learn something (i’m sure i will) that i didn’t know.

      2. Gettysbuff

        Ok sure, i just wondered. I too have only skimmed through it, i didn’t wanna read too spoilers, if there are any.

  4. Very interesting blog post and I have enjoyed going through the comments. I assume most of us look at a film on a historical topic and, if it confirms our notions of the truth, we think it is a good film. The problem with history is there are many things that are true. Each character in history lived a life full of relationships, decisions, actions, etc. If these characters make a significant impact on history they may end up in a history book or in a film. Distilling people and historical movements down to a few manageable truths is the work of historians. The history we learn is the compilation of all these simplifications.

    The problem with history is so many things get trimmed out. It is a necessity for a school book since all the history of the United States has to fit into one book. I guess that is why so many books with more specific focus are popular. They drill down to the stories and truths that are left out. This is where things get dicey. When we dig deeper we find so many things that do not conform to our simplified view of people or historical events. So, for some, a movie that portrays Stonewall Jackson as a good churchgoing man has to be a flawed movie.

    I would suggest a movie or book with bad “facts” is flawed. Get the facts straight.

    A book or movie that zeros in on a narrow range of facts may feel that it is favorable to the Southern cause. I think that is fine. This story fits in with all the other stories of that time to give a more complete picture of the complexities of that time. You could likewise focus on slave owners – one might beat slaves on a regular basis, the other gave his slaves property at the end of the war. We can find instances where both of these stories are true. A movie that just focused on one of the stories would be true. Our uneasiness comes when the focus touches on a truth that contradicts the general truths we have grown to learn. We also have a problem when someone takes a narrow focus like this and extrapolates it into the one and only truth.

    I look forward to the Copperhead movie. As long as it is well researched and true I can appreciate it. I will enjoy it more if it works to establish the story into the context of the times and works to show how this connects to the other stories we have learned.

    1. Gettysbuff

      Nice comment. I agree with most of what you have said, although personally i do not feel uncomfortable with truths about the South contradicting what i have been taught. Believe me i am aware of the “full story” of the Civil War, causes, etc, etc but i just don’t like over-emphasis on the South and the way they are (at times) overly-sympathized with. I agree that for Copperhead to fully succeed and to not attract attention from critics again (which it probably will anyway, it’s unavoidable), it would need to put the story into the context of the times and show how it connects to other stories, as you said so perfectly. I am hoping it doesn’t mainly focus on the type that would have been bashing the north and totally for the South. I don’t want that rammed down my throat. From my knowledge of Copperheads, hopefully the film will more accurately portray the truth and show the variety of people at that time including those that weren’t pro-South but who just wanted an end to the bloodshed.

      1. I think we are on the same page. My comments were not directed toward you… they were generalized and directed at how many people think. I also agree, if a movie gets too pro-South promotional, it has stepped over the line. I believe we are all agree and recognize that the North did not possess 100% of the virtue and everyone else 0%. People and causes typically do not conform to that sort of math. A movie that challenges us when it zeros in on “untold” stories hopefully helps all to understand that life and issues are complex and sometimes our assumptions need to evolve. Anyway, great conversation…

      2. Gettysbuff

        I agree, nice talking about it with you too. Do me a favor, will you come back here (not necessarily RIGHT HERE, but rather to this website) once you have seen the film and tell us your thoughts? I would be interested to see what you thought about it, as i am sure Greg would too. I know it won’t be released for a while and so you’ll have probably forgotten this comment by then, but if you happen to be around on this website at that time then just look out for posts by me because i’ll definitely be giving my critique and then hopefully that may jog your memory! Regards.

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