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Friendly Persuasion

directed by William Wyler, 2000

Political analysts were somewhat startled when President Ronald Reagan presented a copy of the 1956 classic Friendly Persuasion to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev at a state dinner in 1988. Why, they wondered, would the world’s leading conservative icon so strongly endorse a film with pacifism as its main theme? Reagan explained that the movie, set in southern Indiana during the Civil War, portrays “not just the tragedy of war, but the problems of pacifism, the nobility of patriotism, as well as the love of peace.”

Director William Wyler’s Oscar-nominated film, released on DVD in 2000, has enjoyed a modest resurgence in popularity lately. It is an entertaining and often delightfully funny production that also tugs hard on the heartstrings. The storyline is based loosely on Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan’s raid through Indiana in the summer of 1863. The protagonist, Jess Birdwell (played by Gary Cooper), is the patriarch of a Quaker family living in Vernon that is opposed to warfare on religious grounds. His son Josh (Anthony Perkins) struggles with his family’s pacifist convictions and joins the Home Guard against their wishes.

The turmoil caused by Morgan’s foray into the Hoosier state is historically accurate. But though the Rebels did skirmish with Home Guard troops (most notably at the Battle of Corydon on July 9), it was essentially a militarily insignificant effort. Advance knowledge that Morgan’s Raiders were on the prowl helped prevent major bloodshed, with the Home Guard positioned and ready when the Rebels arrived, steeled perhaps by knowledge that Federal troops were on their way to help. Morgan, wrongly believing he was already outnumbered, skirted the town and escaped without any major trouble. The “battle” at Vernon that is depicted in Friendly Persuasion is a product of the author’s imagination, introduced into the plot to create high drama. Josh Birdwell faces a climactic crucible of conscience when one of his comrades is felled by a Rebel bullet.

Friendly Persuasion may not be historically accurate and realistic in every detail, but it is informative entertainment that addresses an often-overlooked spiritual and sociological aspect of the Civil War: citizens who chose not to fight for religious or philosophical reasons.


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here