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History Spotlight: The Copperhead Movement Comes to New Jersey

Created on 29 June 2012

courier34Part of the reason why I started The Copperhead Chronicles over on my own blog and have been doing “History Spotlights” here on the Copperhead Courier 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, which just wrapped up filming at Kings Landing in New Brunswick this week. Many in this ultra-politically correct world cannot fathom any northerner being against the so-called “Great Emancipator” or the war he waged, 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 my home state of 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, boring students into oblivion.

While between the years 1861 and 1865, the United States was divided, north vs. south, 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 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.