Five sons of Benjamin and Ellen Bond of Wayne County, Indiana, enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. Two of them died while in uniform. But their decision to don Union blue was more complicated than it was for most young men at that time. They were Quakers. Most Quakers of military age refused to serve in the military during the Civil War, refused to pay for a substitute, and then refused to pay the ensuing fine. But about 1,200 of their fellow congregants in Indiana wrestled with their religion’s proscription against violence, weighed it against a personal conviction to serve their country, and decided to join the army.
A dramatic rendering of this very real crisis of conscience is set against the two-week “invasion” of southern Indiana and Ohio by Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry in July 1863 and forms one of the dramatic story lines in Friendly Persuasion, director William Wyler’s classic adaptation of Jessamyn West’s novel about the daily trials and tribulations of the Birdwell family, a quaint clutch of five Indiana Quakers striving to live and work among their more worldly friends and neighbors. The director wanted to shoot the film on a farm in southern Indiana, but budget constraints forced him to settle for the M&T Ranch outside Los Angeles.
Wyler, already the recipient of two Best Director Academy Awards—for Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)—probably needed persuasion to entice Hollywood icon Gary Coo – per to play Jess Birdwell, the folksy family patriarch with an abiding interest in worldly pursuits, particularly music and horse racing. But it is his wife Eliza, played with a delicate balance of compassion and compulsion by Dorothy McGuire, who serves as the family’s spiritual lodestone. She has her hands full because daughter Maddie, played by the fetching Phyllis Love, wants to remain true to her Quaker beliefs but has fallen in love with a dashing Union cavalry officer while oldest son Josh, played with chivalrous nuance by Anthony Perkins in his first film role, is torn by his abhorrence of violence, his coming-of-age feelings of masculinity, and his obligations as protector of the family.
The rural harmony of the Birdwells and their neighbors is shattered when a Union recruiting officer invades the quietude of their Sunday Meeting and announces that the governor has called for all able-bodied males to volunteer for the Home Guards and help repel the Confederate invaders. The officer asks how the young men at the Meeting can stand by idly while the homes of their neighbors are looted and their families terrorized. He poses the possibility that many Quakers were forced to confront—namely that they were hiding behind their religious tenets out of fear. Young Josh Birdwell responds honestly that this just might be the case.
When General Morgan and about 2,300 troopers reached the Ohio River at Brandenburg, Ky., on the morning of July 8, rumor and panic were already sweeping southern Indiana. Governor Oliver Morton called for 60,000 militia to be mustered in defense of the state. In the movie, Morgan’s arrival is announced by a cloud of smoke on the horizon that Jess Birdwell spies while tilling his fields. Josh Birdwell confirms that a neighboring community has been reduced to a land of ash and corpses and that he has decided to join up and fight.
In reality, Morgan did more riding and eluding than killing and burning. When his men approached the town of Corydon, about 10 miles north of the river, they encountered their first armed resistance. According to Brigadier General Basil Duke, Morgan’s brother-in-law, “We encountered a spirited resistance from a considerable body of militia, who selecting a position where the road ran between two abrupt hills, had erected a long barricade of timber, from which they opened a brisk fire upon the head of the column.”
After losing about 17 men, Morgan flanked the defenders and entered the town. From there, it was a series of hard rides, punctuated by a few small hit-and-run raids through Salem, Vienna, and Vernon, until the detachment reached Harrison on the Indiana-Ohio line.
Cooper, ever conscious of his image, lobbied Wyler for an episode where he could display the martial side of his character. So the director has Jess go down to the nearby river where the skirmish with the invading Confederates, brilliantly staged by Wyler, and collect his traumatized son. On the way, Jess encounters a bushwhacker he would like to kill. In a powerful, poignant series of scenes, Jess adheres to his Quaker beliefs and spares the bushwhacker, an event meant to dramatize a lifechanging and life-affirming experience for both men. Jess Birdwell remains true to his personal convictions just as Josh, by choosing to fight, has remained true to his.
Wyler purposefully puts the movie’s message—and an important piece of contemporary social subtext not often recognized—into the mouth of the elder Birdwell, a man straddling the conflicting worlds of piety and aggression: “A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience.” In 1956, with the Communist witch-hunts in Hollywood and elsewhere still fresh in the audience’s memory, holding a belief that ran counter to generally accepted social mores required a courage just as strong as the courage to confront an enemy with a gun. In October 1947, Cooper testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He did not name names, but he was considered a friendly witness. Cooper was politically conservative, but his vague, evasive statements before the committee raised questions about his agreement with the proceedings. Jess Birdwell probably would have done the same.
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.