In this second part of our forum, I’d like us to consider a few widely-circulated popular images during the Civil War that allow us to think about prevailing cultural beliefs at the time. I will be concentrating entirely on the Union here.
The Civil War was, of course, a “home front war” one in which battle front and home front were tightly linked in a number of ways. Early in the war, for instance, before the government had been able to organize sufficient war support, the supplies provided by those on the home front (in the form of uniforms and foodstuffs, for instance), were in fact vital to the fighting of the war. But of course in addition to providing supplies early in the war, those on the home front were expected to provide material support in the form of people soldiers.
At a time of intense localism– most Americans had never traveled far beyond their own communities, after all, and at the start of the war people said the United States are not is the idea that families should give their sons to the abstract entity of the nation created a number of ideological problems. How to justify sending men far away in order to kill? How could families be made to accept the loss of their sons and husbands and brothers?
A vast propagandistic literature during the war addressed these concerns– but so, too, images worked to address the fundamental paradox of the war: that families needed to sacrifice what was most precious to them in order to save the Union. The first image here, The Soldier’s Dream of Home (Figure 1), was a popular 1862 Currier & Ives print that imagined an unbroken link between soldier and home.
At a time when sentimental domesticity was a prevailing mode of thought, the image reassured the viewer that soldiers had not become killers, but instead remained connected to their homes: we see a soldier asleep on the ground in camp, an envelope containing a letter from home next to him, while in the “bubble” at the top of the print we see his dream, a joyful reunion with his wife and child. The image at once reassures the viewer that soldiers have not fundamentally changed, and provides a narrative “happy ending” to the war within the dream itself. You will no doubt find additional meanings within the “narrative” of this print.
So popular was this visual idea that the soldier was dreaming of home (as of course many soldiers were), that it was even expressed in printed envelopes, which became patriotic collectors’ items early in the war (the fad died down by 1863). The envelope below (Figure 2), depicting a Zouave (Zouaves were soldiers identifiable by their colorful uniforms) asleep on the ground, offers a variation of the Currier & Ives print in its design.
How do we discuss such images with our students? In my view, such images allow us to ask questions about the universal vs. the particular in understanding experiences of war. Do these images portray a different domestic experience of war than we are familiar with today? Or do they instead speak to a universal experience of war? Images can be extraordinarily useful in teaching Civil War history: they simultaneously closely link us to the past while also creating a disquieting sense of “otherness” through style and mode of expression. I would be interested in your thoughts on this point, and how you help your students to engage with the past without deciding that either the past is “just like today” or, on the other hand, that the past is so foreign that it has no relationship at all to their present lives.
These are clearly sentimental images– and as sentimentalism has emerged as an interesting topic within the comments on this forum, it is well worth remembering that the Civil War occurred during a period of popular sentimentalism, with many popular authors writing of the importance of heart and home, and of relationships that expressed and valued emotion. Indeed, the emotive domesticity of the Civil War era– the intense emphasis on the importance of home would not be matched again until the 1950s, with its own version of Cold War domesticity. Figure 3 below is a wonderful sentimental image, a two-page illustration by Thomas Nast from a January 1863 Harper’s Weekly, that again emphasizes the tight links between home front and battle front. By this time in the war, Harper’s Weekly was reaching hundreds of thousands of readers; its fast-increasing circulation had everything to do with its multiple illustrations, which allowed Americans to visualize the war.
Notable about this image is not only the tender connection made visually between husband and wife, who face each other (and note once again that the soldier is reading a letter from home), but also the complex messages given by the smaller images in the four corners. On the upper left, Santa Claus is about to go down the chimney of the home where the wife kneels praying; on the upper right, Santa Claus distributes presents to eager soldiers in camp. These are cheerful, playful images, to be sure. But on the lower left and lower right, battles on land and sea are depicted; and in the middle of the image on the bottom, fresh graves are a sober reminder of wartime death, giving the image a serious cast. As with many Thomas Nast images, there are undercurrents and shadows here.
If sentimental domesticity was an important means of imagining soldiers far from home, it was also an important way of visualizing Emancipation, as the January 1863 Harper’s Weekly illustration by Thomas Nast (Figure 4) reveals. In emphasizing the domestic, Nast of course drew upon a long abolitionist literary tradition protesting against slaves– disrupted family and home life– expressed not only in slave narratives but also in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
With complex “story” illustrations of this kind, Harper’s Weekly often felt compelled to provide a written narrative explaining the illustration. I include part of that explanation below because it can be interesting to think about what is not encompassed by such description. The meanings of images, after all, often “spill over” beyond the boundaries of such prose.
In the centre of the picture is a negro’s free and happy home. Here domestic peace and comfort reign supreme, the reward of faithful labor, undertaken with the blissful knowledge that at last its benefit belongs to the laborer only, and that all his honest earnings are to be appropriated as he may see fit to the object he has most at heart– his children’s advancement and education.
On the wall hangs a portrait of President Lincoln, whom the family can not sufficiently admire and revere. They regard him with feelings akin to veneration, and in each heart there is honest love and gratitude for him. Near this is a banjo, their favorite musical instrument, a source of never-ending enjoyment and recreation.
At the top of the picture the Goddess of Liberty appropriately figures. The slaves have often heard of her before, but have rather regarded her as a myth. Underneath is old Father Time, holding a little child (the New Year), who is striking off the chains of the bondman and setting him at liberty forever.
On the left are incidents of everyday occurrence in slave life; and, in happy contrast, on the right we see some of the inevitable results of freedom and civilization.
There is more to this description from Harper’s Weekly– but nothing more about the family circle that is at the center of the image. There are several questions for students to be posed about that central grouping: how realistic is such a Victorian scene in depicting the comforts of home for newly-freed slaves? How realistic is the family grouping in the aftermath of slavery? Why does the prose mention the husband but not the wife? Why has Nast chosen to depict Emancipation in this sentimental way for his Northern, primarily white, audience? There are many more questions beyond these, of course. I would be interested in your own responses to this image.
To conclude: sentimentalism was an important mode of visually rendering the war. We moderns have a tendency to dismiss sentimentalism (as overwrought, overemotional, etc.). But in approaching the Civil War, we should understand that sentimentalism did not just obfuscate the “reality” of war: it was itself a reality of feeling and thought for Americans at the time.
Next time, we will discuss some distinctly non-sentimental imagery of the war.