Editorial: Rappahannock ruckus

The problem with history is it keeps getting rewritten for purposes of the present. It’s never the fixed star, the one True North, that we imagine and wish it to be. Instead, its facts and figures can be tweaked, its narrative revised and reworked, to justify just about any political point of view.

Take the American Civil War, 1861-65, the sesquicentennial of which we are now commemorating. Or is it the War Between the States? We can’t even agree on the proper name 150 years after the fact.

On the subject of “Our Late Unpleasantness” (for lack of a commonly agreed upon name), Rappahannock’s own Ron Maxwell has been stirring up quite a ruckus lately. Best known as the director of the films “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals,” Maxwell has recently released his newest film, “Copperhead.” The reviews, to say the least, have been decidedly mixed.

Copperhead was the name attached to Southern sympathizers in the North, and Maxwell’s movie makes his protagonist into a principled hero upholding the U.S. Constitution — rather than a racist, treasonous villain as typically portrayed in most Civil War histories.

Another Rappahannocker, conservative activist Richard Viguerie, has said he’s never seen “a movie with more references to the Constitution or a movie that better sums up our current fight to stand up for American values and get our nation back on track.” From this point of view, Abraham Lincoln is no longer a Republican President to be revered but, rather, the spiritual father of today’s “Big Government oppression.”

Rebutting Viguerie, the conservative magazine “Commentary” says that Maxwell’s “dishonest” film marks “the effective end of the modern conservative movement that William F. Buckley ushered into existence in the 1950s.” Voices on the left, as represented by an essay at theatlantic.com, concur — placing the movie in the same Lost Cause mythology as “Gone With the Wind.”

Such vigorous and provocative discourse is to be celebrated — for which we can thank Ron Maxwell. This is not to advocate that we necessarily re-fight the Civil War, but simply to point out that the Copperhead dustup is far better than what typically passes for civilized, thoughtful conversation these days — which celebrity has the best baby bump picture, whatever happened to that “American Idol” winner or whether our current President really has a valid birth certificate.

Walter Nicklin


  1. If we are ever to have an honest conversation about the American past and the American present, we must rise above the kneejerk mythologizing of the left and right and see our historical inheritance as the complex, nuanced, and very human mess that it is. (For example, one cannot find a prohibition to secession in the Constitution. And as has been often pointed out, Mr. Lincoln said he would accept a nation with slavery, if it would end the war.) And now, those of us who point out inconvenient facts such as these are labeled as “neo-Confederates” and “racists” when we are merely trying to explain the motivations of our Southern ancestors.
    Ron Maxwell has done our country a favor with “Copperhead”. And Richard Viguerie, with whom I more often than not disagree, is a great American. Congratulations to those who are unafraid of where history leads, and are unafraid of those narrow minded and bigoted journo-activists of the left and right.

  2. Another fine editorial by publisher Walter Nicklin. And my compliments and kudos to the team at The News for the excellent and attractive redesign of the print edition. As someone who’s been through that exercise, I know how complicated it can be. Takes a skilled set of hands to pull it off well.

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