Patriotic Covers and Northern Attitudes about Slavery

ECW welcomes back guest author Leon Reed

Patriotic envelopes (also known as covers) provide important insights into public opinion in the Civil War. These envelopes were made for profit by commercial printers, who would have carefully tracked what was selling and what wasn’t. If an envelope on a fallen martyr sold well, printers would probably celebrate the next fallen martyr. If an envelope about nationalist icon Andrew Jackson didn’t sell, we weren’t likely to see one on Daniel Webster. Prominent postal historian Ken Lawrence observed “Wars are won and lost not only by the clash of arms, but also in the hearts of the people. In the American Civil War, decorated envelopes played a significant part in influencing these people’s hearts.” More than 100 years earlier, another author writing in a 1913 issue of the same magazine said “Few people realize, until they study these seriously, what an excellent idea of the temper of the people of that day is disclosed by a chronologically arranged collection of these covers … These extravagant and ridiculous drawings, often printed in colors, all served to accentuate public feeling and were the means of disseminating political information not otherwise attainable.”

The covers suggest that there was a basic hostility to the idea of slavery and that northerners considered slavery a cause of the civil war. Two covers depicted manacles, one labeled “Confederate Bonds,” a double entendre swipe at the Confederacy’s sketchy finances as well as slavery and the other referring to “jewels,” reportedly belonging to the “First Families of Virginia.

Several others referred to the brutality of the institution. One showed a slave being whipped and was labeled “the Persuasive Eloquence of the sunny south.” Another showed a slave being whipped appealing to an indifferent John Bull (England), who is only concerned with southern cotton.

One of the first overt acts taken by the Union to interfere with slavery was Major General Benjamin Butler’s May 1861 action when three slaves escaped to his command at Fort Monroe. Butler, a clever trial lawyer in civilian life, thought up a way to finesse the Union policy that escaped slaves should be returned to their masters. Rather than dealing with their status, he announced to federal authorities in Washington that he had confiscated them as “contraband of war,” much as he would confiscate a cannon. And, when a southern officer approached the fort under a flag of truce to request the slaves’ return, Butler replied in mock astonishment that since Virginia claimed to be an independent country, he couldn’t possibly have any obligations under the Fugitive Slave Act.

Butler’s clever ploy clearly appealed to the public and printers produced hundreds of covers on the theme of contraband, including at least three of freedmen celebrating their status as “contraband” and at least two showing slave owners being frustrated in their efforts to recover their “property.”

Printers could move very quickly. Two envelopes with the image below exist with the postmark June 8, 1861, barely two weeks after the incident.

The attitudes shown toward blacks, whether enslaved or contraband, can most kindly be described as “patronizing.” One cover shows the “elderly slave as trusted family retainer” advising the young master that he’ll regret it forever if he pulls down the American flag. The drawings show exaggerated features, especially lips, and the figures speak in patois, with expressions like “Bress de Lor.’”

The “n-word” is used pretty freely and the humor is at a crude level.

But the covers do dispel the stereotypical views of the loyal slave who loved his or her master or the passive slave waiting to be freed. Besides the covers showing formerly enslaved people celebrating their status as “contrabands,” there were several that showed the slaves taking matters into their own hands and making good their escape.

One particularly amusing and pointed cover was produced by Magnus of New York. During the fall of 1861 and spring of 1862, when the “On to Richmond” sentiment was at its highest, he produced a series of covers with the theme “Movement of the Army from Washington to Richmond,” showing soldiers marching, in camp, receiving pay, and other scenes. One cover with the same title showed contraband camp followers, which became common with all the federal armies as slaves attached themselves to passing armies and tried to stay with them, sometimes performing menial services such as cooking or laundry.

In summary, patriotic covers provide some insights into public attitudes about a broad range of war issues including military progress as well as political and economic issues. Regarding the institution of slavery, the public showed distinct hostility toward slavery from the very beginning. While no covers showed overt abolitionist sentiments, many depicted slavery as a brutal institution and the public showed a high level of interest in the actions first taken at Fortress Monroe in May 1861 to confiscate slaves who made good their escape.

The covers showed no support for granting slaves human rights, but they also avoided the later stereotype of the “slave who loved his master” and waited passively for emancipation. In fact, several covers show slaves taking action to make good their own escape.

4 Responses to Patriotic Covers and Northern Attitudes about Slavery

  1. What a terrific article. I have several Ellsworth covers, but the collection you have shared is fascinating. Maybe someday we will be able to come to grips with “dialect.” As demeaning as it seems, as it is, it shows up so often. In some sort of defense, even John Hay wrote poetry using the dialect of deep New England. Nice job!!

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