by James M. McPherson

THE CONTINUING IMPORTANCE
OF THE CIVIL WAR

In the periodicals represented by this collection, the modern reader can re-live the heart-stopping moments of victory and defeat, of triumph and tragedy in the American Civil War, in the same manner and through the same media as did millions of Americans in the 1860s. Here is an unparalleled view of the most important events in American history. And best of all, everything is word-searchable individually or in any combination, by year or any group of years from 1860 to 1865. This capacity offers students, teachers and historians an opportunity to probe the issues and the passionate, partisan arguments about these issues in a way never before possible.

The Civil War continues to loom almost as large in the consciousness of Americans today as it did in the lives of those who experienced it nearly a century and a half ago. Civil War books outsell all others offered by the History Book Club. Some four hundred Civil War Round Tables meet monthly in all parts of the country to discuss the most arcane issues related to the war. Thousands of Civil War-related websites are up and running on the Internet. At least forty thousand reenactors don their wool uniforms and pick up their replica Springfield rifled muskets to travel long distances for reenactments of Civil War battles. Civil War programs are a staple of television documentaries. Millions of Americans visit Civil War battlefields every year.

Many of them also visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Lincoln's birthplace in Kentucky, and other sites associated with the American president during the Civil War. Lincoln stood forth as the leading personality featured in wartime periodicals, and since 1865 far more books have been written about him than about any other American. With the approach of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth in 2009, there is already a new upsurge of Lincoln studies. In 2000 the U.S. Congress established the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission to advise the government on ways to honor the 16th president. A major new Lincoln Library and Museum is under construction in Springfield, Illinois.

There are sound reasons for this fascination with Lincoln and that bloody conflict of 1861-1865. The Civil War was the defining moment in the American experience. It reshaped a young nation whose very survival had been threatened by the unresolved questions left over from the Revolution of 1776 and the Constitution of 1787. The two most crucial questions were: Was the United States a dissoluble confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government? And would this republic, born of a declaration that all men are created with an equal right to liberty, persist as the largest slaveholding country in the world?

Americans today take for granted the existence of the United States as a single nation. We pledge allegiance to a flag with fifty stars that stands for "one nation, indivisible." This pledge also declares that the flag assures "liberty and justice for all." But if the Civil War had come out differently, both parts of the pledge would be wrong. Indeed, there would be no such pledge. Union victory in 1865 resolved the two vital issues left unresolved by the Revolution and the Constitution. Before 1861 the right of secession had remained an open question. Since 1865 no state or responsible political leader has seriously threatened secession. Since 1865 "the monstrous injustice of slavery," as Abraham Lincoln once described it, has existed no more.

The Civil War also redefined the direction of American social and economic development. Before 1861 the United States comprised two societies: a tropical agricultural order based on plantation slavery; and a dynamic capitalist economy based on free labor. The Civil War destroyed one social order and ensured the triumph of the other. For better or worse, the crucible of war forged the framework of modern America.

That is why Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner could write, in their 1873 novel The Gilded Age, that the great conflict of their generation had "uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations."

This profound transformation was achieved, however, only at an enormous cost in lives, property, and resources. The 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the war almost equaled the number of American soldiers who have lost their lives in all the other wars this country has fought combined. On one day, September 17, 1862, more soldiers were killed and mortally wounded in the Battle of Antietam than all the United States soldiers killed and mortally wounded in combat in all the other wars fought by this country in the nineteenth century put together: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the Indian Wars. Two percent of the American people lost their lives in the Civil War; if the same percentage of the population were to die in a war fought at the beginning of the twenty-first century, American war dead would number five and one-half million.

Nearly every American family in 1861 had a relative in the Union or Confederate army or navy; most families lost one or more relatives in the war. The conflict not only went deep into the consciousness of the people; it was also fought on a scale that embraced a continent and the oceans. Armies clashed on the battlefields from Pennsylvania to New Mexico, from Florida to Kansas. The Union warship USS Kearsarge sank the famed Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama off the coast of France, while the CSS Shenandoah roamed the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea destroying Yankee whalers.

From the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 to the surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, people in both the North and South waited with feverish anxiety for news from the various war fronts. "The excitement of the war, & interest in its incidents, have absorbed everything else," wrote Virginia's fire-eating secessionist Edmund Ruffin in August 1861. "We think and talk of nothing else." At about the same time the Yankee sage Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that "the war . . . has assumed such huge proportions that it threatens to engulf us all--no preoccupation can exclude it, & no hermitage hide us."

When great battles were occurring, citizens crowded around telegraph offices and eagerly snapped up "extras" published by enterprising newspapers. As Union armies commanded by Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman began their advances in May 1864 against Confederate armies in Virginia and Georgia commanded by Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, civilians back home endured "painful suspense that unfits the mind for mental duty," as one of them put it. A young woman in Mount Vernon, Ohio, wrote to her fiancé in the Union navy that "we hardly think or talk of any thing now but the 'great campaign.' Every movement is discussed and maps are studied. I station myself at the window every morning to watch for the boy with the paper, and one of us reads it aloud to the rest." In New York City a prominent lawyer wrote in his diary in May 1864 that these were "fearfully critical, anxious days in which the destinies of the continent for centuries" would be decided.

The Impact of Illustrated Weekly Newspapers:  Leslie's and Harper's

No wonder that the circulation of newspapers doubled, tripled, quadrupled during the war. "We must have something to eat, and the papers to read," declared Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes in August 1861 as his son and namesake prepared to depart for the front in Virginia as an officer in the elite 20th Massachusetts Infantry. "Everything else we can do without . . . . Only bread and the newspaper we must have."

But words alone did not satisfy the hunger for news from the army and navy. People wanted to visualize the war, to see through the eyes of others what life--and death--were like at the front, in camp, on the march, in the halls of government. In our time such hunger for visual representation of the news is met by photographs and by television. Photography existed at the time of the Civil War. But the technology for action photographs did not exist. An exposure of several seconds in good light followed by immediate darkroom development of the exposed glass plate was necessary to produce a photograph. The equipment was expensive and cumbersome. The technology to print photographs in newspapers or magazines also lay in the future. Thus, while the Civil War produced thousands of posed photographs of leaders, generals, soldiers both alive and dead, cannons, ships at anchor, and other objects that could hold still, it produced no action photographs or unposed pictures of individuals and no photographs at all that could be published in newspapers or magazines.

Into this void stepped the sketch artists for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Harper's Weekly, and other weekly or monthly illustrated magazines, which filled the demand for action portraits of battles, marches, and all other dimensions of the war effort, political and economic as well as military. These magazines also contained news summaries, vigorous editorial commentary, feature articles, installment fiction, humor, and miscellany. In many ways they were the ancestors of Time and Newsweek of today.

The American pioneer in this field was Leslie's. "Frank Leslie" was born Henry Carter at Ipswich, England in 1821. He discovered as a youth an aptitude and love for drawing and for engraving his drawings on wood blocks, which in turn could print them on paper. Such woodcut prints were becoming popular to illustrate books and magazines. In 1842 an enterprising printer in London founded the Illustrated London News, a weekly that became the model for many such weeklies that were founded in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere in subsequent decades. Young Carter adopted the nom de plume of Frank Leslie so that his father, who wanted him to go into the family business of glove manufacturing, would remain unaware of Henry's activities. "Frank Leslie" submitted several drawings to the Illustrated London News. They were accepted. Within a few weeks he had a job in the paper's engraving department. Soon thereafter he became head of the department. From there he never looked back.

By 1848 Carter/Leslie was ready to start his own illustrated newspaper. But London was crowded with competitors so he emigrated to the United States. For several years he worked for other papers in New York and Boston. By 1854 he was prepared to strike out on his own. He started a women's fashion gazette and a short-story paper, which became the foundations of his publishing empire. In December 1855 Carter established in New York the journal that would earn him fame, power, and wealth: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Hiring the best artists and engravers, he put out high-class illustrations of sometimes low-brow journalism: crime, scandal, corruption, and boxing (then disreputable) as well as political news. Circulation mounted to 100,000. In 1857 Henry Carter legally changed his name to Frank Leslie.

By 1860 Leslie's had shed its sensationalist image and was focusing on serious news and important political issues. One reason for this development was the founding in 1857 (also in New York) of Harper's Weekly, which became a serious rival that hired away some of Leslie's artists, including the talented young Thomas Nast, whose powerful drawings helped give Harper's a distinct edge over Leslie's. Started by Fletcher Harper, the youngest of four brothers who had created a family publishing empire, Harper's like Leslie's initially sympathized with the Democratic Party, scorned abolitionism, and deplored the rise of the antislavery Republican Party. After the election of 1860 and the resultant secession of slave states, formation of the Confederacy, and outbreak of the war, these positions changed. Both weeklies became strong supporters of the Union cause and of the Lincoln administration's war policies. Harper's went farther in this direction than Leslie's, largely because of the influence of its "Lounger" editorial columnist, George William Curtis, who also became editor in 1863. A passionate antislavery Republican, Curtis championed emancipation as a Union war aim. Together with Nast, he turned Harper's into a powerful voice for freedom and racial justice.

The war years brought a large increase in circulation for the illustrated weeklies--to 120,000 for Harper's by the end of 1861. These two journals sent dozens of illustrators to the war fronts, including Winslow Homer (Harper's) and Edwin Forbes (Leslie's), two of the foremost artists of their generation. Every issue contained many woodcut illustrations by these pictorial correspondents, which became the principal medium through which the Northern people perceived and understood the war.

The Unique Diversity of the 'Lincoln and the Civil War' collection

The other American magazines featured in this digital collection could not match the circulation of Harper's and Leslie's. The Illustrated London News came close, in part because it included a lot of material about the American Civil War, the foreign news of greatest interest to the British public during those four years. Each of the other American weeklies and monthlies featured in this collection filled an important niche market. The Liberator, edited and published in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison, was the country's foremost abolitionist journal. Vanity Fair, a satirical and humorous weekly published in New York, lampooned political leaders of all factions but supported the Northern war effort. The New York Illustrated News devoted more of its space to local affairs than Harper's or Leslie's, but also paid a great deal of attention to the war in all theaters. Wilkes' Spirit of the Times was mainly a sports periodical (horse racing, field sports, baseball) and a theater review, but as the war went on it devoted more and more space to war news and commentary. Starting as a War Democrat, George Wilkes became increasingly radical as the war escalated in fury and scope. Scientific American contained little political news or war commentary in the ordinary sense, but featured many illustrated articles on weapons technology and inventions, which received a great boost in this war as in all wars.

Together the Northern periodicals included in this digital collection offer a comprehensive view of the Civil War, in words and pictures, as the Northern people experienced it from the election campaign of 1860 to Appomattox and its aftermath in 1865. And by "the Northern people" I mean not only the civilians back home who experienced the war vicariously through words and pictures, Union soldiers also eagerly snapped up newspapers and magazines with war news and pictures, because they too experienced only a small slice of the war first-hand. An English observer with the Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862 described the arrival of the army mail with a shipment of both Harper's and Leslie's. "A curious sight it was to me," he wrote, "a general rustle of opening leaves, and in a moment every man as if it had been part of his drill, was down upon the ground with the same big picture before him."

The South could not match the publishing resources, editorial and writing skills, and artistic talent of the North. The Southern people were as hungry for war news and pictures as their Yankee counterparts. In September 1862 a group of journalists and illustrators in Richmond started the Southern Illustrated News to fill the void. For two years they made a brave go of it, overcoming shortages of paper and ink and the ongoing breakdown of transportation and communications in the South before finally succumbing. The Richmond Record was even more short-lived. The same shortages and breakdowns brought an end in 1862 to the most important and venerable Southern monthly, De Bow's Review. The pro-Southern sympathies of the Illustrated London News, few copies of which found their way through the blockade into the Confederacy, could scarcely make up for these deficiencies. Nor could the openly proslavery, pro-Southern Old Guard, published an illustrated monthly in New York starting in late 1862 as a "Copperhead" anti-war, anti-Lincoln organ.  Despite supporting opposite political parties in Britain, the Liberal Fun and Conservative Punch were illustrated humor magazines that favored the Confederate cause and opposed the Lincoln administration.  The latter publication inspired the launching in August 1863 of an American version, Southern Punch, which lasted until near the end of the war.  However, it ceased publishing cartoons in August 1864 and reduced its number of pages by half that November.  Together these magazines represented a range of views sympathetic to the Confederacy, but they paled in richness and variety compared with the Northern illustrated papers.

Although political satire was scarce in the South, it was abundant in the North, even in the midst of war. The eight humorous periodicals reproduced here were all published in New York but enjoyed a wide distribution: Vanity Fair, Frank Leslie's Budget of Fun, Funniest of Phun, Comic Monthly, Phunny Phellow, Yankee Notions, Mrs. Grundy, and Nick-Nax. They lampooned political leaders of all factions, but generally supported the Union war effort. They also open a window to the nature of American wit and humor in the nineteenth century that will be of interest to students of social and cultural history.

The Civil War was precipitated by political events in the world's most politicized society. All of the periodicals described above (except Scientific American) contained a great deal of political material. The sixteen campaign newspapers for the presidential elections of 1860 and 1864, representing all parties, are ,of course, almost exclusively political. These were the most important elections in American history, for on their outcome hung the fate of the nation. Abraham Lincoln's election over three rivals in 1860 on a platform of containing the future expansion of slavery caused the deep South slave states to secede. Lincoln's re-election in 1864 over General George B. McClellan who ran on a peace platform ensured the continuation of the war to unconditional Union victory and the abolition of slavery. These campaign newspapers provide a rich and varied mix of speeches, editorials, cartoons, and electioneering propaganda that are a great boon to historians. The detailed returns for these elections plus congressional and state elections (for the Union states only during the war) are available in the Tribune Almanac, the closest thing that existed in the mid-nineteenth century to an official tabulation of election returns. This valuable Almanac also contains information on the composition of the Congresses and state governments in the Union and Confederacy, legislation, party platforms, public proclamations, and census data. It is a gold mine of information.

In addition to the 49 periodicals in the “Lincoln and the Civil War” collection, HarpWeek has selected 600 documents from Alexander Street Press’s The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries. Written between 1860 and 1865, the letters and diary entries are divided evenly between those written by authors loyal to the Union and those with Confederate allegiance. They offer the uncensored, personal views of individuals directly involved in the nation’s epic struggle. Among the wide array of voices are experienced generals and raw recruits, plantation mistresses and army nurses, cabinet members and government clerks.

Biography of James M. McPherson

James M. McPherson was born in North Dakota and grew up in Minnesota, where he graduated magna cum laude from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1958.  He did his graduate study at the Johns Hopkins University, where he earned the Ph.D. with highest distinction in 1963.  Since 1962 he has taught at Princeton University, where he holds the chair of George Henry Davis '86 Professor of American History.  He is the author of a dozen books on the Civil War era and editor or co-editor of almost a dozen more.  His Battle Cry of Freedom:  The Civil War Era won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989; his For Cause and Comrades:  Why Men Fought in the Civil War won the Lincoln Prize in 1998.  His recent publications include Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam - The Battle that Changed the Course of the Civil War (2002) and The Most Fearful Ordeal: Original Coverage of the Civil War by Writers and Reporters of The New York Times (2004). Professor McPherson served as president of the Society of American Historians in 2000-2001 and president of the American Historical Association in 2003-2004.
 

 

 

 

 

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