You’ve probably heard this joke: “A lawyer and a snake are lying run over in the road. What’s the difference between them?” Answer: “There are brake marks over the snake.”
The lawyer joke circulating in Lewiston, Maine in autumn 1862 went something like this: “What do you call a copperhead lawyer tossed into jail?”
Answer: “A good start.”
One day in fall ’62, Gardiner attorney John L. Hunter dropped by Camp Keyes in Augusta to visit a soldier friend. Three nine-month infantry regiments — the 21st, 23rd, and 24th — formed at Augusta that autumn, and by now some men regretted their decision to help save the country.
As he talked with his friend, Hunter learned “the soldier regretted … he had enlisted” and “that he did not want to be mustered in or go to the war.”
A member of the Kennebec County bar since 1858, Hunter told his friend “that if he did not want to go, he was not obliged to,” but did not explain how this could happen, noted the Hallowell Courier.
Wham-mo! Before Democrat Hunter could say “habeas corpus” or whistle “Dixie,” Republican state officials tossed him into “an unwholesome hole [i.e. a jail cell], kept [him] 18 hours without food or drink, denied a sight of his wife, who begged to see him, and then hurried to a fort!” screamed William H. Simpson, “editor and proprietor” of the anti-Lincoln Administration Republican Journal of Belfast.
Oh, the shame! The indigity! “The treatment which Mr. Hunter underwent at the hands of the State officials … would have been cruel toward a convicted felon,” Simpson claimed. “And this toward a man proven to be innocent!”
Innocent? Not so far, hollered other Mainers. By “instigating or encouraging desertions,” Hunter had committed “no higher crime” amidst the military personnel at Camp Keyes, stated the Lewiston Journal.
Besides, “Hunter was a bawling apologist of secession,” the LJ bellowed. “Without invitation [he] sneaked into Camp Keyes,” where new recruits regretted their haste to enlist, “and took advantage of this dissatisfaction to volunteer his advice to such as he could gain audience.
“If Hunter had been caught” dispensing such advice “in McClellan’s camp (then somewhere in Virginia), he would have been shot the same day,” the LJ claimed.
Readers could almost hear the pro-Republican LJ publisher hissing, “Yes! Yes!”
The paper excoriated the Republican Journal, referring to Simpson’s Friday-published weekly as “a paper which pretends to be loyal (?) to the Government. For shame, O Republican Journal …!”
State officials shipped Hunter to their favorite destination for copperheads and deserters, federally garrisoned Fort Preble in Cape Elizabeth. Investigating the claims against Hunter, the dispassionate Hallowell Courier publisher cited Hunter’s conversation with his soldier friend and commented, “but this seems to be the head and front of Mr. Hunter’s offence at the barracks.”
A U.S. provost marshal soon “examined the case.” Sifting through the evidence and ignoring the blood-curdling editorializing floating down the Androscoggin River from Lewiston, he ordered the unfortunate Hunter released and declared him innocent of whatever charge Augusta had levied.
“He might have been imprudent” in giving the wrong advice to the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, but innocent he was, the provost marshal referred to Hunter, who went home a copperhead hero.
Afterward, Simpson just had to slap the LJ around in ink. The Lewiston paper thought itself “high minded, honorable … to heap abuse on a victim of this worse than Austrian tyranny [whatever that meant],” he snarked on Friday, October 31.
“If it is shameful to say a few words in defence of a man under those circumstances and in condemnation of his oppressors, then is the Journal entitled to cry ‘for shame’ to us,” Simpson wrote.
Source: For Shame! Republican Journal, Friday, October 31, 1862
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Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.