The effects of the Civil War are too many to enumerate. Two facts, however, are clear: the Civil War abolished slavery, and the Union was preserved. As Pulitzer Prize winner and Civil War expert James McPherson observes, Before 1861, United States was a plural noun, as in ‘The United States have a republican form of government.’ Since 1865, United States has become a singular noun.
Scholars also point to the effects of the war on big business, on westward expansion, on a new relationship with the federal government, on the birth of the solid South, and on our knowledge of how to wage war.
Suffice it to say that the Civil War continues to intrigue us; it was a turning point in the history of our country. It was a defining moment in our collective consciousness that confirmed that our nation of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The Civil War casts a long and deep shadow in American popular culture. It was the subject of the first great epic feature motion picture, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), based on Thomas Dixon’s “romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” The Clansman, first published in 1905. The 1915 reprint of The Clansman was one of the first movie tie-in books and features a film still of charging Klansmen opposite the book’s title page. President Woodrow Wilson, following a White House screening, declared The Birth of a Nation to be “history written in lightening!” The first great epic motion picture is also the most controversial film in cinema history.
With the overwhelming commercial success of Gone with the Wind (1939), the Civil War and events surrounding it became popular subject matter for the movies. Warner Bros. brought out their biggest stars, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, to head up Santa Fe Trail (1940), a mistitled chronicle of the impact of abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) (played by Raymond Massey) that included a thrillingly filmed attack on Brown and his men at the Harper’s Ferry arsenal by Union officer J.E.B. Stuart (Flynn) and a cohort of cavalry. Future president Ronald Reagan portrayed the young George Armstrong Custer, Stuart’s fellow West Point cadet. Santa Fe Trail concludes with Brown’s s chilling prophecy moments before his execution in 1859 that God would soon “purge this land with blood” in order to rid America of slavery.
Before the Civil War, many of America’s greatest writers—including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, among others—created what one modern critic characterizes as an “influential literature that demanded moral transformation from society” and thus “fanned the flames of national division,” especially in regards to the slavery question.
But when the war began, these same authors were shaken with doubts about their faith in liberty and human rights. They struggled to write in their traditional literary forms and voices. Some, like Whitman and Melville, attempted to shift their writing to accommodate the realities and ambiguities of warfare; others, like Hawthorne, abandoned literary production entirely. It was left to later generations of writers, too young to have participated in antebellum literary culture, to grapple with the true horrors of the Civil War.
Manumission Document, September 5, 1842.
This document records the manumission of a mixed-race slave named Pierre Torico, who purchased his freedom from his master, Felix Vallé for the sum of $400. Pierre Torico and Felix Vallé lived in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, which was settled by French Canadians around 1735.
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.
The famous orator, writer and activist Frederick Douglass was raised on a Maryland plantation. He learned to read from the wife of one of his masters, and was able to educate himself in secret. He escaped in 1838 to New York City with the aid of his future wife, Anna Murray, a free black. Settling in Massachusetts, Douglass was drawn into the abolitionist movement and became a lecturer. His forceful writing and speaking provided evidence that blacks did have the ability to become educated citizens and full participants in the life of the nation.
Reverend J. G. Forman, The Fugitive Slave Law: A Discourse Delivered in the Congregational Church in West Bridgewater, Mass., on Sunday, November 17th, 1850. Boston: Wm. Crosby and H. P. Nichols, 1850.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 obligated law enforcement to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave (without recourse to a jury trial) and required citizens to assist in recovering fugitive slaves. It resulted in free blacks being conscripted into slavery, since they were not allowed to defend themselves, and it also made free states and anti-slavery sympathizers responsible for enforcing slavery. Passage of the Act galvanized the abolitionist movement in the United States and hardened many people’s attitudes against slavery. This sermon is one of many speeches denouncing the Act.
Trial of Thomas Sims, on an Issue of Personal Liberty, on the Claims of James Potter, of Georgia, Against Him, as an Alleged Fugitive from Service. Boston: Wm. S. Damrell & Co., 1851.
The “Sims Tragedy” was an early defeat for Massachusetts abolitionists trying to fight the Fugitive Slave Act. Sims, a teenaged escaped slave from Georgia, was arrested in Boston in April 1851. Despite the backing of abolitionists who provided for his defense, following trial, Sims was sent back to Georgia. Sims was later sold to a new master in Mississippi, but escaped in 1863.
Iveson L. Brookes, A Defence [sic] of Southern Slavery. Hamburg, SC: Robinson and Carlisle, 1851.
Brookes was a Baptist minister who owned plantations in Georgia and South Carolina. A staunch defender of slavery, he employed overseers to manage his properties while he taught and preached in various Baptist churches and schools in Georgia and the Carolinas. In this pamphlet Brookes argues, based on the Old Testament, that slavery is an institution sanctioned by God for the benefit of the black race.
J. H. Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro “Slavery;” The First, an Inferior Race – the Latter, its Normal Condition. New York: Day Book Office, 1854.
John H. Van Evrie, a New York physician, wrote many tracts both before and after the Civil War, arguing that African-Americans were racially inferior to whites. Writers like Van Evrie argued that blacks, if freed, would be physically and intellectually incapable of joining American society.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly. Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., Cleveland: Jewett, Proctor, & Worthington, 1852.
Stowe, an active abolitionist, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in response to the Fugitive Slave Act. The novel sold 300,000 copies in its first year. Its impact can be measured by the numerous adaptations it spawned (more Americans saw theatrical versions than read the novel itself) and the vitriolic condemnations of the novel and “Anti-Tom literature” produced by slavery supporters. While critics today censure Stowe’s promulgation of racial stereotypes, there is no doubt that her novel helped to inspire and focus Northern hatred of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act.
James Redpath, Echoes of Harpers Ferry. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860.
Abolitionist John Brown attempted to incite a slave insurrection by seizing a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in October 1859. While people throughout the U.S. thought Brown a fanatic and terrorist, many uncompromising abolitionists believed that violence was necessary to rid the United States of the evil of slavery; to them, Brown was a visionary and martyr. This book, which contains writings by prominent Northern authors like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, memorializes Brown, who was executed in December 1859.
Walt Whitman, Drum-Taps. New-York: [Printed for W. Whitman by Peter Eckler], 1865
During the Civil War, Walt Whitman volunteered as a nurse in Union army hospitals. Already famous for Leaves of Grass, Whitman continued to write poetry throughout the war. Drum-Taps collects these poems, which explore themes related to patriotism, suffering, and the experience of men in battle and its aftermath.
Herman Melville, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1866.
Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, is the only major pre-Civil War writer to have actually participated in military action (he took part in a minor raid in rural Virginia while visiting a cousin who was a Union colonel in 1864). Battle-Pieces depicts what Melville called “the sacred uncertainty” and ambiguities of war, capturing the nation’s moods as it moved from innocence to experience through its collective suffering.
Oliver Optic (pseudonym of William Taylor Adams), The Soldier Boy, or, Tom Somers in the Army. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1864.
The Soldier Boy is much more typical of the literary output during the Civil War period. The reading public devoured sensational stories and patriotic tales of the military, both in books and in periodicals. William Taylor Adams wrote over 100 adventure novels for boys under the name Oliver Optic. In this book, a young teenager runs away to join the Union Army and embarks on a series of improbable adventures.
Ambrose Bierce, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. San Francisco: E.L.G. Steele, 1891.
As a teenager, Ambrose Bierce enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment, Union Army. He fought at Shiloh (1862) and was seriously wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864. His army experiences became the basis of many short stories, including “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chickamauga,” as well as the harrowing war memoir, “What I Saw of Shiloh.”
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1895.
Stephen Crane was born in 1871, but his vivid, intense, and realistic portrayal of a soldier’s experience has made The Red Badge of Courage one of the most famous literary depictions of the Civil War. Inspired by his interviews with veterans of a New York regiment, Crane likely based the battle in The Red Badge of Courage on the 1863 battle of Chancellorsville.
Women were deeply involved in the Civil War, waiting as their husbands, sons, brothers, sweethearts, and fathers went off to fight. Many women volunteered with private aid or religious groups to assist in feeding and clothing soldiers. Some followed male relatives to the battlefields. Others participated more directly in the conflict, working near the lines as domestic workers or nurses, or even in a few cases, enlisting as men.
The exact number of female nurses in the Civil War has never been determined. One estimate counts 2,000 on each side, but Union hospital documents show at least 21,000 women on the payroll during the war, acting as nurses, hospital maids and matrons, cooks, laundresses, and seamstresses. Nurses had to be literate, and therefore, most nursing positions were filled by white women of a higher social class. Nearly half of the cooks and laundresses hired by the Union army were African-Americans.
Louisa May Alcott, Hospital Sketches. Boston: James Redpath, 1863.
At the age of 30, Louisa Alcott decided to volunteer as a nurse. She was assigned to the Union Hotel Hospital, a remodeled tavern in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC. Hospital Sketches is her lightly-fictionalized account of her service, which coincided with the bloody battle of Fredericksburg. The book was especially popular because of its humorous yet compassionate portrayal of wounded, disabled, and dying soldiers. The copy displayed here was presented by Alcott to the widow of abolitionist John Brown.
Anna M. Holstein, Three Years in Field Hospitals of the Army of the Potomac. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1867.
Anna Morris Holstein left her home in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, to volunteer as a nurse. She began her duties in a field hospital during the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam (Oct. 1862), and served as a nurse at Gettysburg and other battlefields for the duration of the war. Her memoirs describe many of the wounded and dying soldiers she tended, as well as accounts of former prisoners of war which she nursed after they were released by the Confederacy.
Loreta Janeta Velazquez, The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry J. Buford, Confederate States Army. Hartford, T. Belknap, 1876.
Cuban-born Loreta Janeta Velazquez claimed to be one of a few hundred women known to have enlisted as soldiers in the Civil War. According to this account Velazquez disguised herself as “Lieutenant Harry T. Buford” (complete with false moustache and a padded coat to look more muscular) and fought for the Confederate Army at Manassas/Bull Run, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh. She also relates serving as a Confederate spy in both male and female guise.
It is not known when the first lantern projector was invented. The projector known as the Sturn Lantern, however, was developed in 1676. For years, the magic lantern, as it was most commonly known, was used for projecting images painted on glass slides. During the 1850s the hand drawn and painted images were replaced with photographs.
Many of these projectors were considered toys and fit over the chimney of a kerosene or oil lamp. The light emitted from the lamp was reflected toward a condensing lens which centered the light onto the slide. This lens tube could then be adjusted to magnify the image to the desired size. The earliest lantern projectors were kerosene lighted and included a smokestack to vent the smoke from the lamp. Otherwise, the smoke would extinguish the flame. Eventually kerosene light was replaced with electric light.
The magic lantern projector peaked in popularity about 1900, and was the precursor to the present day slide projector.
The Civil War awakened the creative faculties of American citizens, Confederate and Union alike; people cleaved to music as the expressive medium that could illustrate their anguish, that could preserve, for future generations, the history of their suffering, and boost community morale with inspiring patriotism to provide comfort during the horror of the “brother against brother” war happening just outside their homes.
During the Civil War, publishing companies throughout the United States experienced a boom in sheet music production. Leonard Feist’s An Introduction to Popular Music Publishing in America states that over ten thousand songs were published during the entirety of the Civil War. Confederate and Union sympathizers used sheet music as a cheap multifaceted tool to create a stronger sense of political and ideological unity, to communicate consolation and maintain morale. Studying the abundance of published Civil War sheet music in conjunction with other historical artifacts from the time makes the history more tangible and personal.
Jeff in Petticoats: A Song for the times
Words by George Cooper
Music by Henry Tucker
Published 1865, WM. A. Pond & Co.
Before Union General Grant seized Richmond, VA, Confederate president Jefferson Davis fled, not only with his family, but with the entire Confederate Cabinet. When cavalrymen in Irwinsville, Georgia, finally apprehended him it was rumored that he had on one of his wife’s petticoats, pantaloons, and stays in hopes of evading capture. Jeff in Petticoats is a musical rendition of this oddly humorous myth that was crafted at the end of the Civil War.
"Twas gentle eve, the stars were bright,
All nature hushed, seemed lovely,
I wandered in the moon’s pale light,
With the maid I loved so fondly,
Our vows renewed—our spirits free,
Our hearts with joy ran over;
But ah! A sad smile said to me,
"Wait love, until the war is over."
A Union solider and his love stroll down a moonlit path in a forest. This music simultaneously depicts the continuation of ordinary life and the woes of solider life. The song contrasts a moment of peaceful, harmonious nature and the possibility of new life with the continued threat of war and its ever-present promise to destroy such peace and hope.
Words and Music by George Frederick Root (1820-1895)
Published 1863, Root & Cady, Chicago
George F. Root was a partner in a highly lucrative publishing firm established in Chicago, 1858. After the outbreak of the Civil War, Root & Cady inundated the nation with spirit rallying sheet music. Root, a talented musician himself, composed several pieces of music that maintained the morale of those on the battlefront and the loved ones they left at home. Just Before the Battle, Mother is a heart wrenching depiction of a young soldier’s thoughts concerning his mother while on the threshold of battle.
Words and Music by George Frederick Root (1820-1895)
Published 1863, Root & Cady, Chicago
Just After the Battle, words and music by George F. Root, was written as a sister song to Just Before the War, Mother. The music is almost identical, rhythmically and harmonically, but the words, as evident in the title, depict the aftermath of the battle for the solider in the previous song. However, one thing remains the same, the boy’s tender thoughts of his mother.
This Great Campaign Song is Respectfully Dedicated to the Grand Army of the Republic. Grant, Our Great Commander (Song and Chorus) Adopted by Over 100 Grant Organizations
Music by Bernard Cover
Words by Maj. J. Barton
Published 1868, W.W Whitney “Palace of Music”
Despite harsh criticisms of his cold, bloody ruthlessness during the war, Ulysses S. Grant was venerated for his Union victories. Grant, the seemingly fearless General, became known as “The Hero of the Civil War” and was the popular choice for president to pick up the pieces of the Nation after the war. Grant, Our Great Commander is a campaign song rallying the supporters of Grant for president in the 1868 election. The cover has a portrait of Grant and little vignettes of his Civil War victories; The Battle of Fort Donelson (February 11-16, 18620; The Siege of Vicksburg (May 18 – July 4, 1863); Lee’s Surrender at the Battle of Appomattox Court House, and finally Grant’s succession to the White House as President.
Written and Composed by William “Shakespeare” Hays
Published 1863, Root & Cady, Chicago
William “Shakespeare” Hays was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1837. As a boy, he was an avid poet and lyricist, and was given the nickname Shakespeare after his poetry was published in his school paper. The Drummer Boy of Shiloh depicts the aftermath of the bloodiest battle of its time—the Battle of Shiloh. After heavy losses on both sides, the Union Army managed a bittersweet victory--once reinforcements arrived. Hay’s heart-rending lyrics focus on a drummer boy striving to pray before he dies. This is a ballad for all of the little boys who were members of army bands that led troops into battle.
To the Hon. J. Alfred Pearce. Maryland. Union March
Music by Hans Krummacher
Published 1860, Henry McCaffrey, Baltimore
Hans Krummacher’s Union March, published in 1860 during the “march music era”, was dedicated to James Alfred Pearce, a devoted Democratic Senator of Maryland. In 1860 those loyal to the Union, and eager to preserve it, began producing pro-Union propaganda like this sheet music hoping to touch the patriotic consciences of the American people. Secession was no longer a whispered possibility but a tangible reality threatening the Union.
The Bonny Free Flag was written after the Union victory at Vicksburg as a rebuttal to the Confederate song, The Bonnie Blue Flag, a march hailing the newly seceded nation’s first flag. The song was dedicated to Major General John A. Logan who led the first military division into The Siege of Vicksburg and who later became the fort’s military governor. Union-sympathetic sheet music dedicated to Union military leaders is actually quite rare. In comparison with the South, Union military leaders were not as loved or venerated by their populace.
General Sherman led a highly destructive campaign through the South that would forever be remembered as “Sherman’s March to the Sea”. The music was published to sway public support and approval to help sustain soldiers through the onslaught of the Civil War. Music, coupled with the brutality of Sherman’s physical and psychological warfare, aimed to prove that the Confederacy was shallow. The lyricist, Lieutenant S.H.M. Byers of the fifth Iowa Infantry, and the composer, Lieutenant J.O. Rockwell of the 97th New York Infantry, wrote this music on Christmas Day 1864, while prisoners-of-war in Columbia, South Carolina. This camp was liberated after Sherman’s march, freeing a large number of Federal soldiers.
Music by Henry Russell, 1812-1900, adapted from "The Old Armchair"
Published 1861, S. T. Gordon, New York
Henry Russell was born in Sheernes, England in 1812. After a successful career as a child singer in an Opera company, Russell studied opera composition with some of the best Italian composers from the 19th Century. The music in Traitor Spare that Flag is adapted from one of Russell’s most popular songs, The Old Armchair, which was written in 1840. With rousing lyrics by William J. Wetmore, this song rebukes the traitorous South and emphasizes the importance of the flag, a new nation’s symbol of freedom and patriotism.
Union, God, and Liberty—Our National Flag is a song that roused patriotism during a time of turmoil and disunion. The cover has a beautiful lithograph of the flag being held high by variously uniformed soldiers prepared to fight for it. S. Wesley Martin set the patriotic words of Alvin Robinson to triumphant music. This music perhaps served as a recruiting mechanism for the Union, urging able-bodied men to honorably fight to protect their family’s freedom, their mighty flag, and their precious nation.