“An Especial Prize to the Boys:” Union Soldiers and the Illustrated News (Part 2)

This is the second of two posts regarding the relationship between Union soldiers and the emerging illustrated press during the Civil War. Part 1 may be found here.

Soldiers were evidently grateful to receive the illustrated weeklies. Albert O. Marshall of the 33rd Illinois noted the receipt of a “neat box… full of Harper’s and other good and instructive magazines” from the Rockford Female Seminary. The act was described as “true, unassuming kindness… [which] will always be remembered.”[i] Whilst in camp at Whites Ford, Maryland, William Wirt Henry, an officer in the 10th Vermont Infantry, told his wife Mary Jane to ask “King Brown [that] if he has any old pictoral papers… he might put them in to fill the box.” He noted: “we always turn over all the papers and Magazines we officers buy, after reading them to the sick boys in the Hospital, and they are very thankful for them.”[ii] The pictures allowed soldiers to better comprehend and represent their circumstances, providing them a lens through which to observe events otherwise invisible to them.

In recanting their experiences to the home-circle, the pictorial papers provided a visual accompaniment to their textual accounts. Franz Wilhelm von Schilling of the 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery wrote to a friend of the innovative “revolving tower[s]” being utilised in naval combat in the war. He accompanied the letter with a personal sketch based upon an image from “an illustrated newspaper showing these vessels in fight against Charlestown and Fort Sumter.”[iii] In 1863, from Morris Island, South Carolina, Alvin Coe Voris wrote of the sight of Fort Sumter. Confident that his wife had been familiar with the images reproduced in the newspapers, he wrote “Sumter looks like a vast pile of ruins – not unlike the views given in the illustrated papers.”[iv] Others applauded the sketch artists for their illustrations in their letters home, George Oscar French wrote to his friends at home in June 1864:

“I advise you to get Harpers Weekly of the 11th June. All the pictures about the Army of the Potomac are very good – We fought in that terrible “Salient”… Dead men were there who had been there 7 days – Some of our boys thought they were darkies. Near that solitary tree on the right of the picture Lt Glazier lost his arm & Col Warner was wounded Not 20 feet from me.”[v]

French states the accuracy of the artwork contained in Harper’s, using them to provide a foundation for him to layer his own experiences of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House with the written word. For the readers at home, the illustrations gain greater significance, as they can map French’s experiences onto pictures that otherwise might not bear the same level of personal importance. However, French admits a limitation of the images by describing the condition of the dead bodies found in the salient. Their grotesque forms are absent from the popular newspapers’ visual record of the battle. Misrepresentation caused issue among the rank-and-file.

Thomas Nast, ‘Press in the Field,’ Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 8, April 30, 1864, pp. 280-81

As McPherson noted in his aforementioned essay on the press and army morale, soldiers had a “love-hate complex toward the illustrated papers.”[vi] Their fascination to engage with pictorial media may have resulted as much from a desire to mock the news as to learn from it. Some soldiers found the depictions of combat “so stylised and sentimentalised that [they] ridiculed them.”

Alfred Waud’s early sketches were so ingrained with the styles of Grand Manner European military history painting that they appeared as fantasy. In a drawing of a Union charge at the Battle of Fair Oaks in June 1862, Waud depicted “nearly five hundred men in a perfect line, every man running with the same leg forward, every bayonet levelled at the same angle and height.” Accordingly, when the issue reached the Union camps, veterans of the battle “howled with derision.”[vii] Soldiers that mocked the newspaper artists were well aware of the charge frequently levelled against reporters that they were boosting the reputation of a particular officer or regiment in return for special favours.[viii] Alvin Coe Voris launched into a damning attack of the illustrated newspapers’ habit of boosting the reputation of incompetent leaders:

“Admiral A. wishes to win his laurels easily… He knows it is much easier to write than fight his way to glory. He employs an artist and… The pictorials represent him a la Neptune, with fifteen inch guns protruding from his breeches pockets, horse pistols in his boot legs, mortars in his cap, with a cutlass forty feet long in his right hand… Fifty dollars makes “Frank Leslie” believe all this… The point is gained, he is a hero. Immortality stares him in the face… The General employs the same agencies… and he too, goes to glory.”[ix]

Voris’ comments reveal a damning assault on officers who purchased their masculinity and heroism from newspaper sketch artists with money rather than with bravery, but many more applauded recognition where it was due.

Ultimately, Federal soldiers’ resentment of the illustrated news appears slight in comparison to their love of the new medium. Soldiers were afforded accessible images that broadened their understanding of the chaotic conflict and that provided greater ballast to their claims about their own experiences. If a regiment might find itself the subject of a national pictorial newspaper, the soldiers were immensely proud. Alexander G. Downing of the 11th Iowa Infantry proudly penned in his diary on April 22nd, 1865 that “Our camp looked so fine that the staff artist of Harper’s Weekly took a picture of it for the paper.”[x] So enamoured with the craze were the soldiers that they emulated pictorial media when creating their own regimental newspapers. Pliny A. Jewett of Company E of the 1st Connecticut Cavalry took on the role of editor for his regimental newspaper, ‘The Blower,’ during the war. Though crudely produced, the paper included an illustrated masthead and a comic page, with caricatured figures addressing a variety of war themes including gambling, new recruits, fugitive slaves, and the decline in value of Confederate currency.[xi]

Consequently, through the accounts left by the soldiers themselves, an army obsessed with imagery is revealed. Whether by consuming, applauding, lambasting, or emulating the illustrated news and its pioneering journalism, it is apparent that the advent of pictorial media provided new means of engaging with the daily events of war which had not been possible in preceding conflicts.

[i] Albert O. Marshall, Army Life: From a Soldier’s Journal: Incidents, Sketches and Record of a Union Soldier’s Army Life, in Camp and Field, 1861 – 1864 (Joliet, IL: Printed for the Author, 1884), p. 53

[ii] William Wirt Henry, ‘letter, to Mary Jane Henry, Head Quarters 10th Vt, Camp at Whites Ford Md, Apr. 5th, 1863,’ University of Vermont Special Collections, http://cdi.uvm.edu/collections/item/cwvhsHenryWilliam53

[iii] Franz Wilhelm von Schilling, to Alexander, ‘Fort Monroe, Sept 5th, 1863,’ Schilling, Franz Wilhelm von, Papers, 1863, Mss1Sch335a6, Section 3 (folder 1), VHSMC

[iv] Voris, to Lydia Voris, ‘Morris Island, Sept. 14, 1863,’ Voris, Alvin Coe, Papers, 1863, Mss1V9154a, VHSMC

[v] George Oscar French, letter, ‘to Dear friends, Camp on the Chickahominy, Near Cold Harbor June 10th,’ George Oscar French Letters, VHS, http://vermonthistory.org/research/research-resources-online/civil-war-transcriptions/george-oscar-french-letters

[vi] James M. McPherson, ‘“Spend Much Time in Reading the Daily Papers”: The Press and Army Morale in the Civil War,’ This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 158

[vii] ibid.

[viii] Thompson, The Image of War, p. 77

[ix] Voris, to Lydia, ‘Folly Island, June 10th, 1863,’ Voris Papers, 1863, Mss1V9154a, VHSMC

[x] Alexander G. Downing, Downing’s Civil War Diary (Des Moines, IA: The Historical Department of Iowa, 1916), p. 269

[xi] Pliny A. Jewett, ‘The Blower,’ handwritten regimental newspaper, ca. 1863, Jewett Family Papers, Mss2J5565b, Section 2, VHSMC

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