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History Spotlight: A Copperhead Poem from a Union Soldier

Created on 27 June 2012

courier130The best way to understand the history of anything, especially a controversial one like the northern Copperhead movement, is to take a look at the first-hand accounts written by the people who were alive at the time, and not hold them to the same judgmental standards we have in today’s world. While this poem below cannot be taken as a history lesson, per se, because of the obvious bias it holds, it does a good job in giving us some insight into the creative mind of a Union soldier in the 6th New York Artillery, the same state where the film Copperhead takes place.

It is a rare look we have at some disillusionment in the Union ranks, as here we appear to have a soldier that is both a Copperhead and a fighting man, which is pretty ironic. It seems he is a little annoyed at the fact that his army is losing so many men, the result of poor leadership, and he has been called out and insulted for speaking against the war. We never really think about this much, at least with Union soldiers. Often times we see portrayals of the Confederates being the ones who are frustrated and reeling, but that is not the case here. However, it is noted that even with all of these feelings, he still returned to the army, because above all, even with disagreements, saving the Union is his ultimate goal, even if none of the politics swirling around him hold any importance. Below is the explanation of the poem, from the New York State Military Museum, as well as this soldier’s now immortal words:

A disbanded volunteer, of Co. F, 6th Artillery, riled at the scandalous libels of the Tribune and other journals upon the “drunken Copperheads in uniform” who cheered McClellan at Utica, has out in rhyme, and we must say that his production, as a first effusion, is good. The true spirit is to be found in his verses, even though they may be imperfect in construction. Moreover, they represent, in our humble belief, the sentiment of returned volunteers almost en masse:

“Traitors and Copperheads”

They say that we are traitors
To our country and our home,
And as such we should be branded
And suffer a traitor’s doom.
Some somewhat modify the term,
And give another name:
They say that we are Copperheads,
Yet deem the sense the same.
Now, who are traitors? Let us ask,
And who are Copperheads?
The echo answers, quick as flash,
All those not wooly heads.
Now what’s the difference? let us see—
Whoever’s not a fool—
Between a common Copperhead
And a head with curly wool.
The one’s our nation’s currency,
With a wreath upon her side,
A head, inscribed with Liberty,
Which is our nation’s pride.
The other is a “What is it”—
Half monkey, half baboon,
With hardly sense enough to know
A green cheese from the moon.
What makes them call us Copperheads,
And as traitors stigmatize?
Is it because we sigh for peace,
Or ask for compromise?
No! ‘Tis because we’re getting sick
Of sacrificing men,
Led on by demagogues and thieves
To fill a slaughter pen.
Then let us drop all this harangue,
Let minor questions be,
This war’s not waged for party strife
Or to set n—-r’s free;
‘Tis waged to save a Union,
For which our fathers bled,
And I never heard the question asked
Were those fathers Copperhead?
Nor did the Glorious Washington,
In the time of doubt and fear,
Ask a Colonel how he voted
Ere he made him a Brigadier.
But the question–is he competent?
Was all he wished to know,
If so–here’s your commission—
Deal death to every foe.
Now let our good old Abraham
Look the war square in the phiz,
And for the Union as it was,
The Constitution as it is;
Then we will all shake hands together,
And to the war will go,
And plant our flag on every hill,
From Maine to Mexico.

If you take the time, you can actually picture this soldier in your mind, walking downtrodden into his tent after a day of marching, maybe after being out in the rain and mud. Set early in the war, when the Union was suffering defeat after defeat, even with the “Young Napoleon” George B. McClellan in command (two separate times), it is easy to see this soldier completely disgusted with the situation, and though he does not want to leave the army, he does not want to stay silent either, so he sits down in his tent, takes out a journal and pencil, and puts lead to paper. It is the works like this that supplement all the general histories and narratives we have, showing us that these soldiers are, in fact, very, very human. Now that is history!