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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Cartoons and Caricatures of the Civil War


There was nothing funny about the Civil War. For slaveholder, for abolitionist, and for America's entire black population, the war was a matter of deadly earnest. For those determined to hold a disintegrating political union together at any cost, as for those equally determined to break away, the ideals and issues at stake were no joking matter. And for soldier and sailor, for whom the fortunes of war promised equally death or glory-to say nothing of those they left behind at home and to whom many would never return-the pronouncement of General William Tecumseh Sherman that 'War is hell!' rang with a solemnity that cast a chill over the life of the nation. Small wonder that sober-minded persons were wont to shake their heads in puzzled dismay to discover that the nation's chief executive had the disturbing tendency to reduce the most profound issues-even his own reelection-to 'a little joke.'

'If I couldn't laugh, I would cry,' the president had remarked to those who had been critical of what they called his frivolity. In the homely stories, and in his quaint ability to see the ludicrous as well as the tragic in the course of events, the president found relief from the burdens of office and the tensions of war, and found a perspective that restored his sense of proportion and his faith in the country's destiny. And so, in fact, did the nation: through the droll vignettes with which they decorated their stationery, in prints and paintings and sketches, and most of all in the cartoons that had begun to appear in the pictorial weeklies of the day. Little by little, people and artists and journalists evolved an often humorous shorthand by which they, like their president, reduced their hopes, their anxieties, and their griefs to manageable proportions.

Then, as now, cartoons and caricatures served these ends in a variety of ways. For the people, as for their embattled chief executive, the burden of anxiety often hung heavy over the life of the nation. Reverses at the front, and frustration with bureaucratic venality and inefficiency, could easily give way to discouragement, cynicism, and despair. It was at just such moments that the cartoonist's droll commentary on politics, on military life and discipline, and on the social scene brought a chuckle that relieved tension and afforded what a later writer would call 'a momentary stay against confusion.'[1]

Figure 1. 'A Little Joke,' Harper's, 17 September 1864.

But much of the cartoon humor of the period had a far more pointed objective and an underlying seriousness of purpose beneath its humorous veneer. There was nothing gentle or gentlemanly about the satire and parody with which journalists and cartoon artists pilloried their subjects. For example, a cartoon in the 22 October 1864 issue of Frank Leslie's Weekly Illustrated Newspaper (hereafter cited as Leslie's) roasts Lincoln's Democratic rival in the presidential race, the discredited General George B. McClellan. Depicted as a duck hunter, McClellan is shown holding onto his lucrative army commission (a 'bird in hand') while stalking the elusive presidency (the 'bird in flight'). Similarly, in a spate of stationery vignettes and cartoon prints from early in the war, bulldog Union General Winfield Scott is shown taunting greyhound Jefferson Davis over the South's failure to capture Washington, D. C., the 'bone of contention.'

Figure 2. 'Going into Action-New Style,' Leslie's, 10 September 1864.

But if cartoon humor was used in order to pillory, it was also used to praise. In the hard-fought battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, Union Commander David G. Farragut had climbed into the rigging of his flagship, the Hartford, lashed himself to the mast, and damning the torpedoes had led the Union fleet to victory-a strategy the Leslie's cartoonist commended to the less intrepid of Farragut's colleagues. Likewise, when General Sherman presented the captured southern city of Savannah to the Union as a Christmas present in December of 1864, the Leslie's artist, in the issue of 14 January 1865, drew a rather grim-looking 'Santa Sherman' slipping the captured city into the stocking of the sleeping president.

Satire, praise, relief from tension: all these themes run through the cartoons of the period. But as the art of journalistic cartooning advanced with the war itself, a fourth function came to dominate: the cartoon as editorial, proposing or critiquing political and social policy. Early in the war, for example, the president made it abundantly clear that his primary objective was the defense of the Constitution and the preservation of the Union. Personally opposed to slavery, Lincoln had nevertheless moved cautiously in the matter of emancipation-too slowly, in fact, to suit many of his party. When, in 1861, he had repudiated an unauthorized emancipation measure taken by political General John Charles Frémont,[2] his course was severely criticized by the abolitionist artist at Leslie's, who accused Lincoln of 'dropping Sambo' in order to lighten the sinking ship of state. Likewise later in the war, when the Union military effort seemed to be getting nowhere, Harper's Weekly (hereafter cited as Harper's) employed a similar visual metaphor when it advised the president in the 10 January 1863 issue to drop Secretary of War Stanton and General Halleck from the ship of state, as well.

In fact, everybody had advice for the president-especially journalists. In the 1860s it is still too early to find cartoons appearing in the daily newspapers. Nevertheless, at the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion, political cartooning was already well established as an art form. British cartoonists such as Gillray and Rowlandson had won an appreciative audience in America with their caricatures of George III and the excesses of regency England, and the work of Daumier was not unknown in this country. Political prints had played a role in American life since the days of the Boston Massacre; but in 1861 the cartoon, as an art form for the people, was still in its infancy in America. Influenced, perhaps, by such British artists as Leech and Tenniel in the highly successful Punch, a few American publishers, especially the Harpers and Frank Leslie in New York, began in the 1850s to issue illustrated weeklies, which occasionally included cartoons. The outbreak of the war, with its highly charged emotional issues, gave immediate and lasting stimulus to this new form of journalistic art.

Figure 3. 'Lincoln Drops Sambo,' Leslie's, 12 October 1861.

Not all the earliest efforts were successful, and many early examples were really little more than illustrated text. It was not long, however, before American practitioners of the cartoonist's art were finding the right balance between picture and words. A cartoon may be defined as a form of journalistic shorthand that relies chiefly on its immediate visual impact and employs a minimum of text. Particularly effective in this respect is a cartoon entitled 'A Job for the New Cabinet Maker,' which appeared in a February 1861 issue of Leslie's. In an apt union of drawing and text, the artist makes a single, easily-grasped point: the significance of Lincoln's choice of advisers for the repair of a fast-disintegrating Union.

Figure Figure 4. 'A Job for the New Cabinet Maker,' Leslie's, 2 February 1861.

Figure 5. 'Sinbad Lincoln and the Old Man of the Sea,' Leslie's, 3 May 1862.

In addition to simplicity, the successful cartoon must also employ clarity of allusion. To an 1860s audience, allusion to the Arabian Nights in a cartoon entitled 'Sinbad Lincoln and the Old Man of the Sea' would have left no doubt whatever about what the Leslie's artist thought of Gideon Welles's administration of the Navy Department, particularly with its inclusion of the Confederate Merrimac and the Alabama hovering unopposed on the horizon. In both of these, which I consider successful cartoons, the picture itself tells a dramatic story, and one whose message is easily comprehended in a one-line caption.

Far less successful is another Leslie's shaft aimed at the actually very efficient and scrupulously honest secretary of the Navy. Faced early in the war with the stupendous challenge of creating an effective navy and blockading force virtually out of nothing, Welles soon found that the government naval purchasing agents, in collusion with a number of venal New England politicians and congressmen, among them the vice president and the chairman of the Senate Naval Committee on Naval Affairs, John P. Hale, were profiteering on a lot of virtually useless old hulks that they were foisting off on the government. Welles had dismissed them all and appointed his own brother-in-law, George D. Morgan, a New York merchant-banker, sole agent for the department. Despite Morgan's honesty, reliability, and a commission rate much lower than that of the venal government agents, Leslie's (22 March 1862), in a cartoon showing Welles seated at a lavish dinner given by his brother-in-law, accused Morgan of using his influence to live in luxury at government expense. Its message dependent entirely on a lengthy caption, and with no dramatic impact of its own, this cartoon represents a specimen of what a good cartoon should not be: merely an illustration of text. Much more effective is another anti-Morgan cartoon by J. H. Howard, captioned '"Hail (Hale) to the Chief" Contractor).' Punning on the well-known presidential march, and with reference to the popular novel Oliver Twist, Senator Hale is shown apprehending Morgan, the government pickpocket, while Welles as Fagin looks on.

Figure 6. '"Hail (Hale) to the Chief" (Contractor),' Leslie's, 15 March 1862.

Welles, whose full white beard and long, ill-fitting wig made him look like a slightly dyspeptic Santa Claus, was often the butt of caricature. But despite an appearance that lent itself readily to parody, it was Welles and his navy that gave the North its first significant victories in the anxious early months of the war. Harper's, more sympathetic to the administration than its rival, was quick to celebrate the capture of Port Royal in an effective cartoon ( 2 November 1861) entitled 'A "Smash" for Jeff.' Punning on a term now no longer current even among the drinking population, the president of the Confederacy is shown being handed a draught that will prove hard to swallow, as a fleet of Union vessels floats aggressively in his tumbler. A 'smash' was a popular cocktail of the day, composed of spirits and flavored with mint. Clear to readers of the Civil War era, the force of this excellent cartoon is somewhat diminished for modern audiences, for whom an allusion essential to its complete appreciation is no longer current.

Part of a successful cartoon's appeal is often its play upon the events of its day. With the passage of time and changes in language and social customs, many time-tied allusions lose their force, as new concerns capture the public's attention and old ones are forgotten. Nowadays, for example, probably only devoted equestrians would recognize an allusion to the 'Rarey system,' evolved in the 1850s by John S. Rarey for the handling of horses, especially those considered unmanageable. Famous in his day for his rendering the vicious racehorse Cruiser docile and submissive through gentle persuasion, Rarey and his methods provide the basis for a Leslie's cartoon (26 January 1861), in which horse-handler Buchanan is puzzled that his policy of conciliation has failed to pacify the rebellious colt South Carolina.

Similarly, the ladies on the Leslie's subscription list would have had no trouble spotting a reference to 'Stewart's,' which would be lost on most late twentieth-century readers. In 1862, New York City drygoods merchant Alexander T. Stewart opened what was then the largest department store in the country, where he catered to the needs of the world of fashion. Among those who had accounts at Stewart's was Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, as well as her young rival Kate Chase. Small wonder that in the drawing room depicted in a 6 June 1863 cartoon, a suitor's reference to Confederate cavalryman J. E. B. Stuart's raids and charges is misunderstood by his fashionable fianc�e as a comment on the rates and prices at Stewart's grand emporium!

Some timely allusions remain current today, however. While few of our contemporaries remember Rarey, and Stewart's is no more, Tom Thumb and that irrepressible showman P. T. Barnum live on in the popular mind. As one failed northern general after another replaced the ineffectual McClellan in 1862 and 1863, it was Barnum who, according to the Leslie's cartoonist, had the solution. Capitalizing on popular interest in the much-publicized wedding of 'General' Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, a 28 February 1863 Leslie's cartoon depicts Barnum offering the President and his horrified advisers the services of 'General' Thumb and 'Commodore' Nutt, another dwarf in Barnum's entourage. Mercury is still a matter of medical concern. But times have changed, and with it things like medical practice. Nowadays the mere suspicion that one has ingested mercury compounds is enough to warrant a visit to the nearest poison-control center. A century and a half ago, however, mercury compounds were freely used as cathartics and in the treatment of venereal diseases. Source of nervous tremors, gangrene, rotten teeth, and a host of other complaints, mercury compounds like calomel are probably responsible for the oft-repeated comment that the cure is worse than the complaint. For his attempts to reform military medical practice and eliminate mercury salts from the pharmacopoeia, Surgeon General William Hammond got himself court-martialed and dismissed from the army in 1864-but not before he had won the praise of the Leslie's cartoonist (1 August 1863), who depicted him as Hercules slaying the hydra Calomel.

Similarly, the 'black-draft,' a compound of senna and magnesium sulfite, was the mid-nineteenth-century equivalent of castor oil. As disagreeable as its modern counterpart, its name and effect provided an ideal vehicle for Leslie's commentary on the New York draft riots of 1863, in which the homes of black families and their white advocates were wantonly pillaged and several African-Americans murdered in a mob protest against conscription. Here, nurse Lincoln scolds naughty Gotham for resisting the draft (draught), when sister Penn(sylvania) had taken it like a lady.

Conscription has never been popular; but feeling was particularly bitter during the Civil War over a provision of the draft law that allowed the wealthy conscript to hire a substitute for the sum of $300. The South, with virtually no home-published magazines circulating during the conflict, produced few cartoonists of its own. A Baltimore dental surgeon with a flair for sketching, however, produced a series of scathing caricatures of Lincoln and the Union cause. Signing his work V. Blada, Albert J. Volck heaped scorn on the Union dandy whom he depicts as buying a substitute from among the dregs of society. Harper's indictment (30 Augusr 1862) of the draft-dodger was more genteel than Volck's, but equally pointed. To a young suitor's exultant news that he has found a substitute, his fianc�e responds coldly: 'So have I!'

Figure 7. 'Naughty Boy Gotham,' Leslie's, 29 August 1863.

Allusions to literary classics and folk sayings have survived the passage of time better than cartoons based on references to the contemporary scene. Modern audiences have no trouble identifying with the president's relief at finally discovering in General Ulysses S. Grant the 'new broom' that sweeps clean. Likewise, based on a tale from Aesop, the phrase 'sour grapes' is as current today as it was in the 1860s. In several war-vintage stationery vignettes, Jefferson Davis is depicted as the fox gazing longingly at the 'Washington grapes,' which, though tantalizingly near, prove to be always just beyond his reach.

Figure 8. 'The Impending Crisis,' envelope vignette, ca. 1862-1864.

To people of my generation, the allusion of an envelope vignette ridiculing Confederate naval pretentions, entitled 'The Impending Crisis,' would probably still be clear today. I was raised on a diet of Mother Goose, as, I suspect, were many of my contemporaries. Not so, however, with my younger colleagues, who are more familiar with Dr. Seuss!-and when I tried this cartoon on some of them, only one was able to spot the reference at all; and none were able to recall the rhyme in its entirety. So, here it is, with a woodcut from an 1860s McLoughlin Brothers edition:

Three wise men of Gotham
Went to sea in a bowl:
And if the bowl had been stronger,
My song would have been longer.

Figure 9. 'Three Wise Men of Gotham,' Mother Goose, Mother Goose's Melodies (New York: McLoughlin Bros., ca. 1860).

Cartoonists on both sides of the conflict appealed to the classics to parody rival leaders. As we have noted above, Surgeon General Hammond was likened to Hercules slaying the hydra in a rare cartoon of praise. But there was nothing laudatory in J. E. Hayes's parody of Davis, Stephens, and Beauregard, whom he depicts as the Devil's own cattle. In an 1861 envelope vignette, the artist has grouped them behind a steaming caldron, and has placed in Davis's mouth the witch's question from the opening scene of Macbeth: 'When shall we three meet again . . .'-herald of tragedy and disaster. Not to be outdone, the Confederate sympathizer and master of invective A. J. Volck cast Lincoln in the role of Don Quixote, and the Confederate nemesis Benjamin F. Butler as Sancho Panza.

There was nothing gentle or genteel about political parody. Then, as now, brass knuckles were at least as common as kid gloves, and many an artist made his point with a pen dipped in gall. For many, the entire war could often be reduced to a contest between the rival presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Early in the war, for example, J. H. Tingley, employing the metaphor of the prizefight, issued a series of patriotic envelopes in which he predicted a victory for 'Abe' in five rounds. Significantly, in scenes 2 and 4, the most prominent positions are given to the champion's managers, Secretary Seward and General Scott, who were, in 1861, believed by many (including themselves) to be the real head of the government.

Nowadays the heroic image of Lincoln as statesman and martyr has become well-enshrined in our national folklore. But this view of our sixteenth president was far from universal among his contemporaries, even in the North. Branded by the Leslie's cartoonist (12 October 1861) as a moral coward for his apparent abandonment of the slaves, Lincoln began his term in office accused of physical cowardice as well. Informed of a plot to assassinate the President-elect as he traveled through Baltimore on his way to the capital, Seward, Scott, and other loyal leaders had urged Lincoln to alter his schedule and travel to Washington by a special train ahead of the rest of the presidential party. Reluctantly, Lincoln had acceded to their demands, passing through Baltimore incognito and arriving unheralded at the seat of government. In a series published in the inauguration-week issue of Harper's (9 March 1861), the cartoonist chronicled the 'Flight of Abraham' in highly unflattering terms.

Confederate sympathizer A. J. Volck, living in Baltimore at the time, was even more pointed in his commentary on Lincoln's 'snub' to his native city in a cartoon depicting the president-elect peering in terror from the partially-opened door of a railroad boxcar. Unforgiving and unrelenting in his hatred of Lincoln and of what he considered abolitionist aggression, Volck continued to pillory Lincoln throughout the war. In one vicious sketch, for example, the president is shown composing the Emancipation Proclamation, with pen dipped in the Devil's inkpot, his feet trampling the Constitution, and a picture of Saint John Brown looking on-a sharp contrast with the traditional Carpenter version of the same scene.

Figure 10. 'Jeff Davis's November Nightmare,' Leslie's, 3 December 1864.

Despite its parody of Lincoln's arrival in Washington, however, Harper's was not unmindful of the tangled mess the new president had inherited from the inept Buchanan.[3] Little by little its view of the president improved, and by 1864 the magazine was happy to announce (26 November 1864), in an attenuated sketch of the Rail-splitter from Illinois, that with a Republican victory in the November elections, the country would have 'Long Abraham Lincoln a little longer'! Even Leslie's, more often critical of the Lincoln administration than its New York rival, had been won over by the time of Lincoln's reelection, announcing his November victory in a similarly punning cartoon entitled 'Jeff's Nightmare.'

Figure 11. 'King Jeff the First,' Harper's, 4 January 1862.

But if-at least at the North-the cartoonists' rendering of Lincoln evolved from skeptical, through guarded, sympathy, to unalloyed praise as the successful termination of the war became apparent late in 1864, the image of Davis as 'Jeff the Traitor' is unrelieved by any trace of sympathy, even in defeat. In a stationery vignette titled 'Jeff's Coat of Alms,' for example, the pirate's skull and crossbones, paired with rattlesnake and moonshine, proclaim in punning fashion the South's unsuccessful attempts to secure financing from abroad and the poverty of its resources at home, where taxes had to be paid in kind. Asserting that Davis and his cronies intended to prosecute a futile rebellion regardless of its ruinous effect on the southern people, the Harper's cartoonist leaves no doubt as to what he thought of the policies of 'King Jeff the First.'

Figure 12. 'Cotton Is King,' stationery vignette, version 2, Stimson & Co., ca. 1861.

But all this was nothing to the obloquy heaped on the Confederate president at the end of the war; for northern cartoonists were not, like their commanding general, gracious victors. If, in 1861, Mr. Lincoln had sneaked into Washington in disguise, in 1865 Mr. Davis had fled the rebel capital laden, it was asserted, with what was left of the Confederate treasury, and dressed, some said, as a woman! Both assertions were exaggerations, but neither Harper's nor Leslie's let him forget it. By one, he was shown as 'Arming [in hooped skirt] for the Final Struggle,' and by the other he was depicted as making a last desperate effort to court European 'Recognition'-in skirts. Throughout the war, the hope-or threat-of foreign recognition of Confederate legitimacy loomed large in the minds of politicians both North and South-and cartoonists here and abroad made the most of the issue. Vastly outclassed in terms of naval resources and threatened with coastal blockade, southern armies and statesmen early in the war pinned their hopes on winning both ships and recognition in sympathetic European capitals.

Officially Queen Victoria's government remained neutral; but public officials sympathetic to the South closed their eyes when British shipyards found that there was money to be made in outfitting Confederate commerce raiders (privateers), and when British merchants found it profitable to run the blockade, especially to secure the cotton required to feed the voracious appetites of the Manchester mills.

Old England is mighty; Old England is free:
She boasts that she ruleth the waves of the sea; . . .
She cannot, O Cotton! she cannot rule thee.
Lo! Manchester's lording thy greatness shall own,
And yield more to thee than he would to the Throne: . . .

By mid-1864, however, it had become evident to Union and Confederacy alike that European recognition of the southern government was unlikely; and despite pessimism in some quarters and the apparent military stalemate before Richmond, it was also becoming clear to many that superior Union forces were bound to triumph. Early in the war, perhaps in reference to the massive frame of its commanding general, Winfield Scott, the elephant came to represent Union strength. And while the Confederacy, in the person of Jefferson Davis, was at first represented as a greyhound (or sometimes as a cur!), it wasn't long before the greyhound had become a donkey. It is commonly asserted that Thomas Nast invented the elephant and the donkey as political symbols in the election of 1872. He may have popularized them, but he did not invent them. They were first used together nearly a decade earlier by the Hartford-based Kellogg Brothers in a Civil War cartoon print.

Figure 13. 'Remove the Salmon . . . ,' Harper's, 16 July 1864.

Despite growing Union momentum by mid-1864, however, Lincoln's reelection was by no means assured. Dissidents within his own party hoped to replace him with someone more sympathetic to their views on abolition and the military reconstruction of the South. Frémont, whose early and entirely unauthorized emancipation measures had been repudiated by the President, mounted an abortive campaign to replace Lincoln as the Republicans' nominee in 1864. Unsympathetic to his self-promotion, 'Dr. Jonathan' in a 2 July 1864 Harper's cartoon is shown diagnosing the Pathfinder as suffering from a severe case of sore-head.

Figure 14. 'From Our Special War Correspondent,' Harper's, 15 April 1865.

Salmon P. Chase 1826, the darling of the abolitionists, lost his post as Treasury secretary by angling for the presidency from his cabinet position. His political demise was celebrated by Harper's in a 16 July 1864 punning cartoon in which Lincoln instructs his waiter to 'remove the Salmon and bring me a Tod.' David Tod, Lincoln's nominee to replace Chase, had been rejected by the Senate, occasioning the waiter's response: 'The Tod's out; can I bring you something else?' The Harper's cartoonist wisely refrained from trying to pun on the name of Chase's actual successor, Senator William Pitt Fessenden-though some reference to the 'Main(e) course' might have been managed! [4]

Figure 15. 'A Man Knows a Man,' Harper's, 22 April 1865.

Successfully renominated, Lincoln found himself opposed by the man whom he had dismissed from the head of the Union army, George B. McClellan . Caricatured for its 'peace-at-any-price' platform, the Democratic campaign was reduced by both Harper's and Leslie's to the level of a circus act in which the standard-bearer is engaged in attempting various impossible political feats.

Despite opposition from the Copperheads and their Tammany allies, Lincoln had triumphed in November, and by early in 1865, with Wilmington, the last gap in the blockade, closed by the navy, and with Virginia and the deep south securely under Union control, the wreck of the Confederacy seemed near. Early in April, the president had journeyed south to visit personally the defeated rebel capital and congratulate victorious Union troops. From City Point he had telegraphed the simple dispatch: 'All seems well with us.' Three days after Harper's had published his famous message, the president lay dead of an assassin's bullet. The war had been won; the slaves were free. But in the weeks that followed, it would be the cartoonists who would remind the country of the tremendous task still before them, as set out in Lincoln's second inaugural address: 'to bind up the nation's wounds.'

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[1] Robert Frost, 'The Figure a Poem Makes,' preface to Collected Poems of Robert Frost (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1939).

[2] 'Frémont, while in command of the Department of the West, 'on his own initiative issued a military proclamation declaring free the slaves of all persons in Missouri supporting the Confederacy.' Dictionary of American History, s. v. 'Emancipation Orders, Frémont and Hunter.'

[3] 'Winding off the Tangled Skein,' Harper's Weekly (30 March 1861), 208.

[4] At the time of his appointment, Fessenden was serving as a United States senator from Maine.