Picturing the Civil War 2: Sentimental Soldiers

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.

Figure 1. "The Soldier’s Dream of Home," Currier & Ives, 1862.

Figure 1. “The Soldier’s Dream of Home,” Currier & Ives, 1862.

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.

Figure 2. "The Soldier’s Dream of Home,"  Envelope Collection, New-York Historical Society.

Figure 2. “The Soldier’s Dream of Home,” Envelope Collection, New-York Historical Society.

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.

Thomas Nast, "Christmas Eve," Harpers Weekly, January 3, 1863.

Figure 3. Thomas Nast, “Christmas Eve,” Harpers Weekly, January 3, 1863.

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.

Figure 4. Thomas Nast, "The Emancipation of the Negroes, January, 1863-The Past and the Future," Harper’s Weekly, January 24, 1863.

Figure 4. Thomas Nast, “The Emancipation of the Negroes, January, 1863 “The Past and the Future,” Harper’s Weekly, January 24, 1863.

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.


  1. Mary Niall Mitchell
    Posted November 7, 2009 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad that Professor Fahs has chosen to explore the theme of sentimentalism here. To address the question about how to get students to somehow relate to these images in some way without suggesting that they easily match modern sentiment, I think asking them to think about the political nature of these images gives them a way to both situate the pictures within time and place-that is, squarely in the past-while also giving them an analytical tool they can apply to present-day images of war and the homefront. For instance, whose war is this anyway, if we judge from these pictures? Perhaps I’m wrong, but the soldier sleeping in the first image looks like an officer. And the sentimental images of home certainly suggest middle-class comforts. So, while we are talking about images that instill nationalistic feeling, many of these sorts of images are really aimed at only a portion of the fighting force and their families. (There was, of course, considerable discontent in the North and desertion in the South on the part of the working class.) So, how much of what we understand of the Civil War is rooted largely in the experiences of the middle class because they had the means to produce and purchase these representations of the war? And what images of the war might illuminate the perspective of working-class Americans? And how did their attitudes differ from or dovetail with the middle class?

    That said, another way to look at the politics of these images is to consider the subversive nature of sentimental images. Uncle Tom’s Cabin might be the gold standard here, but certainly Thomas Nast, working for Harper’s Weekly, was using sentimentality to make political points–like the viability of black families, or even the binding together of the homefront and the battlefront as a commentary on the nature of this war.

  2. Posted November 7, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    A great point is being brought up about the sentimental aspect of the “home” image. Sentimentality can be a wonderful conduit for students to make an emotional connection to the Civil War experience–many of my students have family members serving overseas, so their wartime experience is more visceral than most students today.

    That said, the ideal “home” concept often masks important subplots that are also worthy of study. Nast’s use of sentimentality to make political points is a good case in point. Furthermore, many of the soldiers’ may have an idealized home that was never so great–no even really existed. For the newly-enlisted black soldiers in the Union Army, a home is something of which they have a scant idea. The Confederate concept of home, especially for the plantation masters and the farms along the main battlefields, would clash with a severe reality. And how many Five Points Irish and Germans would have actually WANTED to return to their hovels in lower Manhattan?

    Mary’s points about the subplots of these images definitely fits in here.

  3. Shirley Wajda
    Posted November 10, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    What I am reminded of by the images of soldiers dreaming of home is the recognition during the Civil War of homesickness/nostalgia as a medical condition–Professor Fahs’ point about sentimentalism being “itself a reality of feeling and thought for Americans at the time” wasn’t dismissed as trite or somehow inconsequential to “real” history.

    Mary Niall Mitchell’s observation about class led me to view the Nast print in a new light. In all the images I can recall of middle/upper-class white families and the idea of home, fathers and mothers are dressed pretty formally–coat and tie, for example, for fathers. This differs from images of working-class laborers, who wear open shirts, rolled shirt sleeves, etc. Here, the emancipated African American family appears in working clothes.

  4. John McClymer
    Posted November 11, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I have often used the Nast “Emancipation” illustration. I find it works best with students in conjunction with a later drawing of his, “The Union As It Was,” a comment on the rise of the KKK and kindred organizations. Again there is a black family in the center, but no dwelling. The school house is aflame. A victim of lynching dangles from a tree. A book with the alphabet lies on the ground.
    The political message is plain. “The Union As It Was” echoes the Democratic Party’s 1864 campaign. “This is a White Man’s Government” is linked to another sort of sentimentality, that of “The Lost Cause,” which the skull and crossbones make clear that Nast did not respect. The rise of white supremacy would prove “Worse than Slavery.” Because students can decode this image quite readily, using it with “Emancipation” and asking them to contrast the hope in the one with the desperation depicted in the other produces lively and productive responses.
    Students notice the extended family at the center of “Emancipation,” three generations gathered around the stove and contrast that with the father, mother, and child alone and defenseless in the wake of white violence. This provides a way of discussing the efforts freedmen and women made to reunite with family during and immediately after the War. This, in turn, connects with earlier discussions of life in bondage.
    Students notice the public schools in both illustrations. This provides a way of discussing their absence in the slave South and their centrality to northern plans for reconstructing the South. In fact, the images on the right of “Emancipation” sketch out some key northern ideas of what a properly reconstructed South would look like.
    Since Nash described the situation in the postwar South as “worse than slavery,” students also study the images on the left of “Emancipation” with fresh eyes. The “Black Codes” passed in the summer and fall of 1865, often described in the North as a way of reintroducing bondage, now contrast with those northern hopes for Reconstruction.

  5. Donna T Ray
    Posted November 11, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    The insights offered to-date are very helpful. What are some of the other forms of evidence (letters, speeches, essays, etc.) that teachers have used in the classroom (successfully or not) that problematize teaching with these images?

  6. Posted November 11, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    The counter argument of the sentimentality of home, like so many “counter” perspectives, needs more digging and more primary sources than the prevailing attitudes.

    One object I use is the ballad “Paddy’s Lamentation”. The ballad is a mournful song about Irish immigrants wanting a new life in America, when in fact they find death and despair as conscripted soldiers in the Civil War. In the end, the narrator curses his new country, only wanting to return to “dear old Dublin.”

    I like using it because the prevailing attitudes of “home” and “longing” run counter to many attitudes that existed at the time. Many soldiers, like the Irish in the song, joined up to fight because it was a life-or-death decision that was out of their hands. To them, the meaning of “home” can be very different.

  7. John McClymer
    Posted November 12, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I just finished looking up “Paddy’s Lamentation.” I want to thank Luciano for the suggestion. In response to Donna’s question about evidence to use to problematize teaching with these images, I use this from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He had been in the field for three years, and been wounded three times, before finding himself in the Wilderness in the Spring of 1864 on Grant’s staff.
    “The duties & thoughts of the field are of such a nature that one cannot at the same time keep home, parents, and such thoughts as they suggest in his mind at the same time as a reality–Can hardly indeed remember their existence–.” But, he adds, “Still your letters are the one pleasure & you know my love.”
    Holmes problematizes the images for us. This letter also describes and explains the mental effects of the war on those fighting it. He was going to finish the Wilderness Campaign and then, “if I am alive, I shall resign” his commission. He had done his duty.

  8. Alice Fahs
    Posted November 12, 2009 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Great comments, all. Very useful. Mary Niall Mitchell has started us down a fruitful path here thinking about representations of class in Civil War images. Images of working-class men and women in Harper’s Weekly during the war were often negative–e.g., images of Draft Riots rioters on the streets of Manhattan. The Irish in particular were represented in almost bestial terms–just as they had been before the war.

    If positive images published in the popular media had a middle-class bias, how do we teach the experiences of other classes? I think analyzing such ballads as “Paddy’s Lamentation” is very useful–a great suggestion from Luciano D’Orazio. Other famous wartime poems, such as the viciously racist “Sambo’s Right to be Kilt,” help to show stereotypes attached to the Irish, while simultaneously illuminating anti-black attitudes.

    There are many visual “silences,” however, when it comes to images of working-class soldiers during the war. Perhaps daguerreotypes of ordinary soldiers can at least help to give a sense of self-presentation by non-officers–even if they can’t help us answer many questions about working-class experience of the war. Thus I would go back to photography once again to explore aspects of Civil War experience not captured by the idealized images of lithographs and Harper’s Weekly illustrations.

    John McClymer’s suggestions are very helpful–the pairing of the Nast images is a great teaching idea. And the Holmes quote reminds us how far removed images of the war (like “The Soldier’s Dream of Home” lithograph) could be from soldiers’ lived experiences on the battlefield.
    In the hospital, though, soldiers’ thoughts clearly turned incessantly to home–as both Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott attested.

  9. Posted January 10, 2010 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    I also found John McClymer’s pairing of Thomas Nast images to be very helpful and certainly reflective of the changing attitude toward emancipation between the moment of its immediate aftermate (as evinced by the Jan. 24, 1863 image) versus the more sober realization of what did not come to fruition.

    One worthwhile note about the later image, however, that is not mentioned here, is its date of publication. On his course webpage connected to this lesson ( McClymer notes that the Nash cartoon of “The Union as it Was” came out “two years later” after this “Emancipation” image was published.

    However, after doing a bit of digging around, it turns out that Nash’s cartoon of “The Union as it Was” was in fact published by Harper’s in October 1874 (

    In spite of this small quibble, I’ve found McClymer’s website and suggestions here to be immensely helpful. Thank you, John. Hopefully putting this image in the context of later Reconstruction helps contextualize its despondent tone more clearly not only for Nash personally, but for Radical Republicans more generally.