Book Review: Funny Thing About the Civil War: The Humor of an American Tragedy

Funny Thing About the Civil War: The Humor of an American Tragedy. By Thomas F. Curran. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2023. Softcover, 222pp. $39.95

Reviewed by Jon-Erik Gilot

From its earliest days, the Civil War brought pomp, pageantry, patriotism, uncertainty, fear, and, yes, humor, both intentional and otherwise. And while it was difficult to find much anything laughable when the bullets began flying and casualties mounted at places like Fredericksburg’s Sunken Road, Gettysburg’s Slaughter Pen, or Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle, the conflict was replete with examples of humor. From Lincoln’s well-known amusing tales, to the generals, newspapers, artists, and common soldiers who used humor to lighten, understand, or explain their difficult circumstances, people of that era, much like many of us today, used jokes, puns, and humorous stories to lighten uncomfortable situations and make the seemingly unbearable bearable. In Funny Thing About the Civil War: The Humor of an American Tragedy, historian Thomas F. Curran ably examines the funny side of the Civil War as presented from the mid-19th century to the present.

Curran divides his book into three accessible sections. Each section contains several essays (nearly thirty throughout the book). Part I examines humor among wartime writers, including the well-known Petroleum V. Nasby (David Ross Locke) and Hosea Biglow (James Russell Lowe), as well as some who were more obscure. Curran explores how mid-19th century writers used literature, poetry, prose, and verse to combat, criticize, and cope with the dirtiness, death, destruction, and disease of the Civil War.

In Part II, Curran covers expressions of humor during the postwar years. After the shooting ended, in many cases, individuals’ personal accounts largely dominated the publications that were starting to appear widely about the war. Often with these works the war’s surviving participants sought to cement their legacy in the great struggle. As publishers started printing memoirs (some posed as fiction), regimental histories, newspaper columns, and serials, these forms of literature became more popular and common. Through veiled humor, some veterans and writers of this period continued to battle their former adversaries, while others sought to embrace an elusive reconciliation. Several works from this era continue to shape our understanding of the Civil War (or at least how the authors wanted us to understand the Civil War), including Century Magazine’s Battles and Leaders of the Civil War series, Corporal Si Klegg and his “Pard,” by Wibur F. Hinman, Sam Watkins’ famous Company Aytch, and other books and short stories by authors such as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and George W. Bagby.

Part III continues to explore postwar memory using “modern technologies and new platforms,” including cinema (on both the big and small screens) and print. This section may be of particular interest to the many Civil War enthusiasts who came to the subject through the many motion picture interpretations over the past half century. Beginning with Birth of a Nation through several recent Civil War zombie films (Confederate Zombie Massacre! or Curse of the Cannibal Confederates, anyone?), movies and printed publication in the 20th and 21st centuries have inserted humor into both serious and less-than-serious depictions of the Civil War. An excellent recent example of the modern humorous vein found in Civil War-era productions is the Showtime network’s The Good Lord Bird mini-series, starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown.

As one might expect with this topic, the author possesses a good sense of humor himself, inserting several quips and measures of levity throughout the book. Funny Thing About the Civil War is a fun and engaging look at the use of humor in understanding the Civil War in literature, memory, and popular culture.

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