Copperhead was a name for Northern Democrats opposed to the Civil War. Now it’s also the name of a remarkable new film: CopperheadTheMovie.com. This is not the first film about a family opposed to the Civil War. Many will probably recall the 1965 film Shenandoah starring Jimmy Stewart. But Copperhead is the one to see.
This is a war movie that neither sanitizes war nor pornographies it. This is a war movie set far away from the war, in upstate New York to be precise — just as all of our wars today are far away from all 50 states. It’s an unpredictable movie, an engaging movie, a personal drama that makes the Civil War and the politics surrounding it more comprehensible than a gazillion tours of battlefields or hours of PBS specials.
We come, through this film, to understand the viewpoint of a man, and others like him, who opposed slavery but believed the cure of war to be worse than the disease. Here was a man of principle and courage who saw better than others what war would mean, and who opposed it. Here was someone opposing President Lincoln’s assault on the Bill of Rights as he was engaged in it, not just centuries later as Lincoln’s example is used to justify similar abuses.
Copperhead does a remarkable job of bringing us to understand the mindset of the copperheads, these opponents of mass-killing who found themselves accused of “aiding the enemy.” And yet I wish this film went one step further. I wish it addressed directly the inevitable audience response that — reasonable as the copperheads may have seemed at the time — the war proponents were eventually proved right by the ending of slavery.
But the copperheads never claimed the war couldn’t end slavery, only that slavery should be ended without war, as it had been in other countries and would go on to be in still more. Today we have more African Americans in prisons, jails, and under the supervision of the U.S. justice system than were enslaved in the United States in 1850. If we were to wake up tomorrow and discover that everybody was suddenly appropriately outraged by this horror, would a helpful proposal be for us to gather in some large fields and kill each other off by the hundreds of thousands? Of course not! What would that have to do with prison reform or with prison abolition? And what did it have to do with slavery abolition?
Anti-slavery activists in the U.K. had already been somewhat disappointed when Parliament had chosen to compensate slave owners for the liberation of their slaves. The slaves themselves were, of course, not compensated. They had little but hard times ahead. But the compensation of slave owners offered a model that might have served the United States better than bloody civil war.
During the American revolutionary war, the British had recruited slaves to fight on their side by promising them freedom. After the war, slave owners, including George Washington, demanded their slaves back. A British commander, General Sir Guy Carleton, refused. Thousands of freed slaves were transported from New York to Nova Scotia to avoid their re-enslavement. But Carleton did promise to compensate the slaves’ owners, and Washington settled for that. So, it was good enough for George Washington!
The original British abolitionists, including Thomas Clarkson, greatly influenced Americans like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. But few picked up on the idea of compensated emancipation, which had not originated with the abolitionists. Elihu Burritt was an exception. From 1856 to 1860 he promoted a plan to prevent a U.S. civil war through compensated emancipation, or the purchase and liberation of slaves by the government, following the example that the English had set in the West Indies. Burritt traveled constantly, all over the country, speaking. He organized a mass convention that was held in Cleveland. He lined up prominent supporters. He edited newsletters. He behaved, in other words, like Clarkson and many an activist since.
And Burritt was right. Britain had freed its slaves without a civil war or a slave rebellion on the scale that was possible. Russia had freed its serfs without a war. Slave owners in the U.S. South would almost certainly have preferred a pile of money to five years of hell, the deaths of loved ones, the burning and destruction of their property, and the uncompensated emancipation that followed, not to mention the century and a half of bitter resentment that followed that. And not only the slave owners would have preferred the way of peace; it’s not as if they did the killing and dying.