"Coffroth the Copperhead" - Congressman Alexander Coffroth and Fake News in 1863
Updated: Jul 4, 2019
“Coffroth. Alexander Coffroth.”
You may be familiar with the name Coffroth if you’ve seen the 2012 film, Lincoln. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, played by actor Tommy Lee Jones, repeatedly makes fun of the Pennsylvania representative’s unusual name.
But what you may not know is that A.H. Coffroth was the real Democratic representative from Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional District through the end of the Civil War.
In the 38th Congress, Coffroth’s district covered a wide swath of southern Pennsylvania from Coffroth’s native Somerset County through Adams County, including Gettysburg. When he took office in early 1863 as one of the youngest members of Congress, the Fulton Democrat lauded him for his abilities to take on government bureaucracy. “Red tape don’t stand long when his energetic impudence, and persistent energy come into contact with it,” wrote the editors.
Within months of taking office, the 35-year-old lawyer faced his first political crisis that tested his patience and ability to stand up for himself.
Years before the scene re-enacted in Lincoln, where Coffroth is intimidated by Republicans to vote with them in support of the 13th Amendment, Coffroth watched a scandal roar to life and threaten to consume his young political ambitions.
Coffroth became the victim of a political firestorm caused by the Republican Harrisburg Evening Telegraph in the days following the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 11, 1863, the Telegraph published a story about Coffroth’s alleged attempts to find recompense for Adams County farmers from the U.S. Army in regards to fences and buttermilk consumed by Union soldiers. The Telegraph alleged that the congressman sought out Army authorities in the Susquehanna Department at Harrisburg for recompense.
The editors poured out the following vitriol toward the representative of the 16th district:
A Terrible Outrage.
Coffroth, the copperhead Congressman from the Adams district, was in the State capital today, seeking some official before whom he could pour out a protest against the action of certain Federal soldiers. It seems that after the bloody battle of Gettysburg, where the fate of the nation was settled in the blood of its bravest sons, and where the national authority was vindicated by the laying down of thousands of noble lives, free offerings to the Union that the Union might survive the threats of traitors – it seems that, after all this, some of our soldiers used the fence rails of certain farmers in the vicinity to build fires by which to warm their weary limbs in the chilling darkness which followed the day of that fearful battle; and it also seems that they refreshed themselves by drinking the buttermilk of some of the farmers of Adams County, without first deigning to settle for the beverage.
This is an outrage which Coffroth seeks to redress. What matters it to him, that the men who are guilty of this “gross excess” periled their lives in beating back the rebel invader? That don’t pay for the fence rails and the buttermilk!
What matters it if the rebels had succeeded in gaining a footing in Adams County, to devastate and destroy all within its limits? Still that don’t justify a Federal soldier to warm himself by the fire of a copperhead’s fence rail or quench his powder parched throat with a quaff of a copperhead’s buttermilk.
The Telegraph gleefully reveled in raking Coffroth over the coals by informing its readers that they delighted in giving “Coffroth joy on the subject of fence rails and buttermilk.”
Other Republican newspapers quickly piled on. The Potter Journal and News Item of Coudersport compared Coffroth’s patriotism to another member of Congress who suited up with the Pennsylvania militia, noting “the difference between loyal and disloyal."
A Republican newspaper within Coffroth's 16th district, Alexander K. McClure’s Franklin Repository, doubled down and ramped up the rhetoric, writing this venomous jab at Coffroth on August 5, 1863:
Brig. Gen. Alexander Hamilton Coffroth, from this district of course, had his share in the glory of Gettysburg. He unfortunately did not get there until after the battle was over, doubtless owing to bad roads or delayed trains; but when he did get there he valiantly berated the Union troops for burning a few rails and drinking buttermilk and rush to Harrisburg to recover damages.
All of this must have shocked Coffroth, who had not traveled to Gettysburg or Harrisburg in the wake of the battle. According to Coffroth, the entire scandal amounted to malicious slander.
On August 11, 1863, Coffroth published the following letter in the Valley and Spirit and Times of Chambersburg to defend his honor, noting the Telegraph story of July 11 and the Repository piece:
This falsehood first appeared in the Harrisburg Telegraph of the 11th of July, but the editor of that paper had the manliness to retract and make the amends on the 25th of July last [author’s note – I haven’t been able to locate this retraction]. The author of the article in the Repository knew it was false when he wrote it.
I have not been at Gettysburg since the great battle of the nation was fought. – nor have I since seen a single person who lives in Adams county. I defy the editor of the Repository to give his author – to produce a single person who saw me at Gettysburg since the battle; or who heard me “valiantly berate the Union troops" - or who asked me to present a bill for any damages done in Adams county – or the officials to whom these bills were presented. If he can produce such person, then, he stands acquitted of any malicious desire to injure me, but if he cannot, let him be branded as a malicious slanderer.
I would not have noticed this slander if it had appeared in any paper outside of this congressional district, but coming as it does from a paper edited by Col. McClure I have thought proper to publish this reply.
His awfully severe satire I pass over with contempt, simply saying Col. McClure condescends from the position of a gentleman when he publishes such slang.
Truly yours, etc.
The congressman’s letter elicited a response from McClure in what is likely one of the most insulting letters of apology written in Pennsylvania political history. In fact, it smacks of the name-calling and harsh language that saturates political dialogue in the 21st century.
The Franklin Repository published a response on August 24, 1863, maintaining their sarcastic tone, but retracting their claims about Coffroth, before ending with an insult that is surprising to see in print:
Brig. Gen. Alexander Hamilton Coffroth, M.C., has written a letter – the common folly of all weak brethren, and sometimes committed by men of even middling sense. He insists that he wasn’t at Gettysburg at all, either at or after the battle, nor has he seen a single person from Adams County – from which we infer that he means to controvert the idea that he got fuddled on the buttermilk question or confused on Adams County worm-fence, and that he didn’t “berate the Union troops.”
On one point however, he leaves no room for inference – the Editor of the Repository must “be branded as a malicious slanderer.” We don’t much object to such compliments from the average members of Congress – indeed think it rather creditable; but as the Gen. might be taken by kindred men at his own estimate of himself, and thus rank him as eloquent in loquacity and prodigious in all the elements of greatness, we are disposed to take issue with him on the “malicious slanderer.”
We wouldn’t slander the General for several reasons. Uttering falsehoods is always to be reprobated; but shooting such costly ammunition at nothing and very little o fthat, would be unpardonable alike in theory and practice. Mistakes may happen however, particularly when editors talk of fools according to their folly; but we disclaim the “malicious” and apologize to any extent.
We therefore withdraw everything we have said about his visit to Adams County, and making claims for damages, because since the publication we have been satisfied it was not correct. If ever we meet the tinker we shall apologize to him, and if the Gen. desires, we will make a general apology to all the owners of worm-fences in Adams County. We assure him that he shall not complain of any half-way work in the matter.
If he will only write some forty letters or so and post us up fully, he shall have the amplest restitution that can be made in the language.
Seriously – General, do stop making an ass of yourself [author’s emphasis]. There’s nothing original in it. You’re not the first of the sort that has blundered into Congress to make a respectable constituency blush!
This is apparently where this particular feud ended, marking a brutal start to Coffroth’s congressional career. This scandal and subsequent political squabble over the veracity of the claims leveled against Coffroth demonstrates the venom being used during this crucial part of the Civil War. While discourse in newspapers often aired towards incivility before the conflict, several years of bloody, internecine conflict smashed through barriers of norms and led to this remarkable exchange from the summer of 1863.
Coffroth continued on as representative for the 16th district, and as portrayed in Lincoln, voted with Republicans in favor of the 13th Amendment.
The History of Bedford and Somerset Counties published in 1906 briefly summarizes his role during the Civil War:
He constantly stood for the higher interests of the nation at large, exhibiting the broadest patriotism and unflinching courage in the Union cause, and was among the very few Democrats who commanded the admiration and personal confidence and friendship of the illustrious war president and his cabinet.
Coffroth’s political career continued until 1881, when he returned to his law practice in Somerset County. He passed away in September 1906.