Monthly Archives: July 2012

Women on the home front and scrapbooks

Jeanie Attie on women and the Civil War home front

Women dressed as soldiers, served at home, worked as nurses, etc.  Women went through these experiences at a time when there were anxieties about gender and race issues.  In addition, class played a role in determining how people reacted to the war itself.  As historians, we know less about reactions from rural and slave women and yet we need to learn more about these individuals in order to get a better picture of the broader national reactions to the war experience.

Americans on both sides claimed they were fighting to preserve the world as it was – a place of gender divided households and society were part of that idea.  Women helped with nationalism certainly and perhaps existed as the perfect blend of home and public life.  In the south, sentimental visions of white womanhood in the south were important, especially ideas like women as symbol of property, etc and this fact was complicated further because of female slaves.

In concert with the elevation of women, the needs and demands of real women were mostly ignored.  Tributes to female valor existed, but true problems like food, rights, pay, etc were ignored.  Women were very much busy with the war  – Mary Marsh of Brooklyn commented that it took all of her time to read the news in May 1861.  In addition, feminists noted that women all over were transformed of war – check a publication like the Mayflower to get a sense of what women were thinking.

Attie noted that property equals power and influence and while some males may not have had property, they could, by serving in the military offer the ultimate sacrifice.  So how can women get this access to power?  Perhaps 400-1000 women served in the Unite States army, with maybe 150 in the Confederacy.  Why so few?  Perhaps because armed women made people nervous – food riots were a true example of the power of women in this way as Richmond women were reported to have been armed with pistols, repeaters, axes, Bowie knives, etc.  Northern women fought using weapons in New York City riots to preserve racial-ized space.  Were people thinking about Dickens and a “Tale of Two Cities” when they worried about women?  The book was very new at the outset of the war, so perhaps not.

Poor women felt marginalization in real economic terms.  The war was economically problematic for these women and they did not have property rights while they still had decision making rights as the men were fighting – so taxes, etc were all issues with which they had to deal.  For some women, relief was seen as entitlement; if the government could take husbands, then government could also provide relief.  In terms of jobs, some women became professionals or worked in sewing and arsenals.  Most women were employed as subcontractors and were paid far less than what was required to live
Southern women faced serious problems – the blockade and invasion created a number of shortages and everyday something was out; these shortages complicated the simplest of day to day tasks.

As one might expect, civilian morale was up and down because war front news was one thing, but actual food, poor relief, etc was another.  Females signed government issued money as a job – literally by hand – these jobs were seen as a type of welfare in a time of deprivation.

Women were portrayed as providers of charity but they were in need of charity themselves as well.  If women could step in and run the daily life, how could this impact how people viewed women’s rights?  When linked to the rights movement emerging before the war, there was, in this war time existence, some possibility for change?  Attie asked us to consider what changed for a place like New York City?  The Civil War was a revolution that did not change everything, especially for women.  Riots could produce change but such change was limited and not permanent.  Another change used by Attie, for example, asked us to consider the question of married women’s property rights – were these rights really economic determinants?  If the first women’s property rights came about in Mississippi in 1839, what was their purpose?  Attie argued that the rights were put in place in order to protect family property from creditors.

In the aftermath of the war, women did start thinking about other ways to address problems or issues of concern in daily life – eg, “ok, we didn’t get the vote, but maybe we can work on property issues, or communal cooking in apartment living so not everyone has to work inefficiently, etc.”  The readings combined with Pr. Attie’s spirited lecture gave us a lot to chew on regarding the issue of home front life and women.

Ellen Gruber Garvey speaks on Civil War Scrapbooks

I found this discussion particularly fascinating given that in the modern era scrapbooking is such an interesting hobby to watch.  There are all types of tools, albums, decorations, themes, etc. that one can pursue in order to “present” ones life in mixed media through scrapbooking and that idea of presenting an image or editing a past was covered by Pr. Garvey’s discussion.

Americans of the mid nineteenth century were overwhelmed with printed material and so, argued Garvey, they wrote with scissors and re-purposed stories and articles so as to process it on their own.  Both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass kept scrapbooks – Lincoln’s (facsimile here) has reports on his debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858 and he used Democratic press clippings so as to compile the opposite view on how the debates went!

Some people may have kept articles to shape their own view of the war – it may have been a critical view or a more positive one depending on the purpose.  The question was raised as to whether anyone read these again?  Regardless, the action of collecting and organizing meant that people were engaging with material in a different manner than simply reading.  For example, the Edward Neufville Tailer journal at the New-York Historical Society reflects some of these ideas as Tailer replaces some of his writing with more and more clippings and his journal covers 1848-1917!

People began scrapbooks at the opening of the Civil War and perhaps that act of preserving provided people with an idea that they had some “control” over events.  Garvey pointed out that there are differences between southern and northern scrapbooks, sometimes as a result of materials.  Paper shortages make a big difference and in the southern states, the newspapers were in demand to be used for other things (pulp, bedding, etc).  Often, paper circulated through many hands before making it to scrapbooks.  Moses Solomons of Savannah, GA put together a large amount (483 pages, currently housed at Duke) recording articles on Beauregard’s victories.  The scrapbook acts as a reservoir of emotions ranging from tirades against Lincoln, accounts of loyal slaves, poems of spirit related to the southern war effort, etc.  Meanwhile, Bostonian Henry Ingersoll Bowditch began his scrapbook in 1863 after his son died and the collection included a variety of things like the bloody glove his son wore when he was killed and a series of poems that Bowditch read and embraced noting that the poetry in a way spoke for the heart of the nation.  Garvey asked us to consider that both sides could the same poems and see them in the same sentimental ways.  For instance, Solomons and Bowditch both use one particular poem to great effect.  When read alongside diaries, scrapbooks such as these can be very revealing as to the mindset that is inhabited by the people of the day.

A final thought that tickled my fancy – I was unaware that Mark Twain patented a self-adhesive scrapbook, having missed that fact on my original swing through our readings.  A classic Twain reaction to the product: “It economizes on profanity!”

Georgia B. Barnhill on prints and ephemera at the home front during the Civil War

Georgia Barnhill of the American Antiquarian Society offered several initial comments on the kinds of prints that people would have had in their homes, things like “The Night After the Battle” and a few we later looked at in the Klingenstein Library in the New-York Historical Society.  When such prints enter collections now, they are often damaged because people actually put them up!

Barnhill gave us a number of examples of the types of material that might be purchased in the home and I’ll highlight a few examples.  A portrait of a specific battle might indicate a family member’s survival or perhaps martyrdom?
The soldier’s grave from Currier and Ives or Caldwell might serve as a substitute for a real grave and the family could commemorate their loss.

Two images that might be paired would be “The Soldier’s Home, The Vision,” a common trope indicating her husband will come home a victorious hero, and “The Soldier’s Dream of Home.”  The latter came in a variety of versions that sometimes looked like “The American patriot’s dream” and centered on, again, the return of the male figure, occasionally promoted to the officer’s ranks.

I was particularly interested in a couple of maps that we got to take a look at that were marketed for public consumption.  One was “A true plan of the battle near Leesburg, VA” –  this was a relief cut that survived the war despite being made by a southern artist.  Prang in Boston produced an amazing “Balloon view of the southern states,” in 1861 and Perrine’s New Topographical War Map called to mind the World War Two era maps in my mother’s house as she and her siblings plotted the positions of battles and her brothers’ travels in the war.  John B. Bachelder, “Gettysburg battlefield,”  by Endicott in 1863 would have given people a good sense of that particular battle as well.

By the last years of the war there was a drop off in terms of the numbers of items published as the war continued and Americans demonstrated some “war fatigue.”  That being said, the war produced a large number of envelopes, wall hangings, maps, and other images that people used to create their own images of the war.  After being advised to check out this book by Steven Boyd on patriotic envelopes of the Civil War we spent some time looking at samples of the envelopes themselves!

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More on Cartoons and our visit with Louis Masur

Our day began with a seminar from political cartoonist expert Richard West explaining lithography and other 19th century cartoon work.  West is the owner of Periodyssey, a western Massachusetts-based business dealing in older American periodicals.

Lithographic cartoons appeared in the 1820s, eventually replacing the more expensive copper plate engravings.  The cost and time of production was so much cheaper that talented artists in larger numbers began to come to the career.  The field was dominated by H. R. Robinson, John Childs, O. H. Bailey, and of course Currier and Ives.  The Civil War period saw about 200 lithographs produced, with about half coming from the workshops of Currier and Ives.  West discussed several additional sources of political cartoons, including Punch and Fun.  Vanity Fair was the only comic weekly published at the beginning of the war and political cartoons were generally published on the backs of illustrated news editions.  Additional sources included six New York based humor magazines with an additional two starting up printing during the war years.

West gave us a chronological overview of the cartoons, starting with the election of 1860.  These cartoons run the gambit of portraying the candidate in ways that modern political junkies are no doubt familiar to fairly blatant racist cartoons like “Heir to the Throne.”  This cartoon, highlighting what West called “the pizza and beer” of the day, was a humorous look at Abe Lincoln devouring opponents.  The timidity of James Buchanan’s leadership is clearly on display in “South Carolina’s Ultimatum,” but so too is the foolish nature of South Carolina’s decision to secede!  When Abe Lincoln came into Washington, DC there were concerns about assassination attempts – this image poked fun at Lincoln’s caution.  Once Lincoln was in office, his main commander was initially seen as strong enough to hold Jefferson Davis at bay.  Finally, there was some sympathy towards the South as they are viewed in this piece as foolhardy – there’s nothing angry in the cartoon, but rather a note that indicates leadership must be a bit stronger to keep the southern states in the union.

In discussing ribald imagery, West used several examples that were of varying degrees of “offensiveness” to both the nineteenth century and modern day viewer.  This piece from the 1852 presidential election is both visually funny and pushes the bounds of good taste with a double entendre.  Another example, also featuring Winfield Scott poked fun at Scott’s age, strategy for defeating the south, and held a clear double meaning about opinions on Jefferson Davis and the respect with which he should be regarded.

The idea of using images of the devil appealed to cartoonists as well as we can see in several instances.  “The Southern Confederacy, a fact acknowledged by a mighty prince and faithful ally” uses a frightening figure of the devil and demons alongside known imagery of southern leaders, supporters, and markers of warfare.  In “The latest from America or the New York eye duster to be taken every day” which appeared in Punch, the portrayal of Lincoln holds a vaguely demonic look as his unruly hair is brought up to resemble horns.  Adelbart Volck, a rare known artist who was sympathetic to the South, drew this piece critiquing Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  In it, he suggests that Lincoln was in league with the devil – in the background pictures of John Brown and the slave rebellion in Santa Domingo hang on the walls.  West explained to us that in reality, Volck’s work was not seen by more than a couple hundred people during the war years.  When his work was reprinted in the 1880s it became much more widely known.  In “Masks and Faces,”  Abraham Lincoln stands accused of being the devil in reality – again the cartoon was a response to the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Emancipation Proclamation -itself could be found to be treated in both a serious manner and a humorous way.   All in all, as West pointed out, there were, no doubt, mixed feelings about the fate of slaves and African Americans in general.

There were a core number of artists who worked on these pieces.  Most of these men worked within a block or two of each other and knew each other, drank together, etc.  The entire publishing industry was running here in New York City, and that is hard on some levels for us to conceive.  William Newman is often asserted as the most important because he was before the public eye the most, though his story was not well known in the aftermath of the war until West did some research.  Frank Bellew was the second most famous and was a great character.  He tended to sign his works with a triangle and apparently he did not feel a lot of passion for his subjects.  Frank Beard , perhaps more famous to us after the war, was a young guy at the beginning of the conflict.

Louis Masur
Pr. Masur reminded us that of course images matter but that the historians in the room need to remember that we cannot become obsessed with using images to only illustrate rather than interpret.  In his talk with us, Masur focused on on images of the runaway in print as well as portrayals of the negro population in the Reconstruction era.

He began with three examples of the runaway taking us from the colonial era with the convention of the profile view and running figure to the early nineteenth century.  A third example played off of these original designs and was the cover to sheet music for “The Fugitve’s Song.”  This choice showed more than just a human profile, but rather a specific person, in this case Frederick Douglass.  All images discussed had these similar ideas of movement, running, carrying clothing, and a somewhat rural scene.  This remained true after using more human features.

While some images of fugitive slaves have these similar ideas even after using more human features, they may contain deeper levels of meaning as well.  In some cases, the impact of the fugitive slave law on multiple classes brought home the point that slaves were not only human beings of varying backgrounds, but that in some instances they were wrongly pursued in relation to prosecution of the law.  When examining the image of emancipation too, historians find that there are both humanistic images and stereotypes of the supplicants, the minstrel type, etc.

The Eastman Johnson painting “Ride to Liberty” is marked on canvas that he was witness to the event near Centreville, 1862.  Masur speculated as to whether we were still nervous about images narrating reality?  Were the figures in Johnson’s piece truly becoming free?  In Kaufman’s “On to Liberty,” the figures are coming out of darkness into the light – the label at the Met describes it as a “rocky road” to freedom.  There remains a question as to who these people are and that to which they are headed?  The artist was supportive of black rights but were the figures, as speculated re: Johnson, actually going to be free and what would freedom look like?  A different type of runaway narrative offered by Thomas Moran gives the viewer a deeper, darker, more uncertain portrayal of what it meant to flee slavery.

Masur spent time on the famous Gordon photos – we looked at two different exposures of Gordon’s scarred back, clarifying along with Masur that the third image was a ‘doctored’ version of one of the first two.  Gordon’s story not only is part of a longer history of ‘before and after images’ but highlights such severe suffering that his plight and the pictures tell a story both didactic and reflective in nature.  William Carlton’s “Watch Meeting” was briefly discussed as another image of freedom as well as Susan Schulten on maps and visualizing slavery.

We closed with several images that focused on the emancipation theme – the mystery and hope of it all perhaps captured by H. W. Herrick and Thomas Nast.   Finally, we noted images of emancipation that evoked some degree of controversy such as Pezzicar’s sculpture at the Centennial in 1876 or “Freedom to the Slaves”.  Both images evoked controversy for different reasons (style, the message, in the case of the latter, authorship) and yet both purported to celebrate this massive transition in American history.  What remained unspoken in much of the art examined and in our conversation is what will happen next for the freed slaves.

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Cartoons, Historiography, and Art, oh my

This particular post focuses on a number of different points made between Thursday July 12 and Monday July 16 during our NEH Summer Institute on Visual Culture of the Civil War.

At the Newark Museum, Josh Brown discussed the transformation of cartoons during the period and focused on two images in particular that covered questions of universal freedom, one constitution, and one destiny.  Where was the country headed?  Was it to something like Kimmel and Forster’s heavily caricatured “The Miscegenation Ball,”  or somewhere else?  The same artist who produced the previous piece, also made “The end of the Rebellion in the United States,” and this image does not portray African Americans in the same manner at all, so where was the nation headed in its views?

Brown presented us with thought about how to take apart images and portrayals of a specific event as it possible relates to the questions above – he chose the draft riots in New York City of 1863.  The riots were covered in great detail – eg, illustrations from London as well as all the New York papers.  By examining one notorious incident deeply, we can start to examine questions such as how much of this is eyewitness accounts, how much is constructed, how much is memoir, etc.  What do these images show?  It may show victims and powerlessness but such images are bracketed by views that preceded and followed the events of the riots portraying people, particularly African Americans, in a more positive, powerful light.

Historiography

Bruce Levine, spoke to us on the topic of “Not Your Grand-Daddy’s Civil War: Recent Trends in Civil War Historiography.” As Levine pointed out, there is a veritable cornucopia of Civil War writing and therefore it is difficult to keep up with all of the material. Levine suggested that a good book to start with, thought it is getting a bit dated, is Writing the Civil War by James McPherson and William Cooper. In addition, The Journal of the Civil War Era, published by University of North Carolina Press and available with an online supplement, is another good source.

Over time , areas of research have included topics such as technology and relation to strategy and tactics, guerilla warfare, the role of union navy, ethnicity and the war, women, gender, life on the two home fronts, literature on Lincoln (policies, ideas, etc), ethnic regional identity, nationalism, race, racism and whiteness, international comparisons (national unification, ending slavery in Russia, etc.), relating civil war to environment, state of medicine, and most recently, examining how the country remembers the war (see Kevin Levin’s blog Civil War Memory).

Levine asked us to think about other questions we might consider. For example, what do we make of racism remaining strong in north and south in the war’s immediate AND long term aftermath? What does the war tell us about various beliefs in terms of gender? How did the beliefs of governments and their populations in other countries shape the war itself? Did the government change tremendously as a result?

Recent work has told us less about how and to what degree a strong and specifically anti-slavery segment grew in the first half of the 19th century – he asked, could more can be done here? There should be much more work on Native Americans and how the war intervened within their socieities, more on politics in the union on local and state levels, more work on border slave states and their leaders. Oddly, despite many books on campaigns, generals, etc., there remains a need for high quality military history. For example, we need a military history of reconstruction – an idea I found particularly interesting in light of our nation’s role as “occupiers” in the twentieth and twenty-first century.

Finally, Levine traced how scholarly explanations have changed somewhat over time from the 1920s through the more recent past. While he focused on one particular argument that emerged in the past and has re-emerged (the necessity of the war), I would have liked to have spent a bit more time on the interesting questions Levine raised that are listed above.

The Met with Sarah Burns
On Friday , we headed over to the Metropolitan museum of art with Pr. Sarah Burns to take a closer look at several paintings we had discussed.  While our first stop was a Lily Martin Spencer, it was “Prisoners from the Front” by Winslow Homer where we spent the most time initially.  In this piece, it is the losers who are the central focus, not the victorious, commanding officer.  The figures are “typed” so viewers can understand who everyone is more clearly.  The aristocratic pose by the main prisoner and his overall appearance indicates class, while the rustic, aged soldier suggests problems of the Southern army.  This oldest prisoner  looks resigned and apprehensive while perhaps submissive too.  The last is a country boy, and perhaps Homer is having a bit of fun with us as he might be the same figure from “Defiance.”  The hat on his head is riddled with bullet holes, inviting further comparison with that painting.

The Union guard appears very “lead soldier like;” is he meant to appear to be somewhat unfinished as if the war is not quite done?  Homer takes the time to indicate a specific unit of these soldiers and it is typically that unit that he paints into his works.  In the foreground, there are cast down guns and some Georgia pine branches underneath; one of our number pointed out that Georgia pines are trampled under Sherman’s  horse in a statue.  Ultimately though, while there is a face off portrayed in the painting, there is no real visible struggle – perhaps this is why a critic called it “true historical” art?

“The Veteran in A New Field,” we have discussed already, but there are a few additional observations to be made when looking at the original.  The uniform jacket in the lower right corner, along with the canteen atop it are markers for us to recognize that the painting contains a veteran figure.  Questions we discussed and considered –

  • Can he show his back because he is not under threat?
  • Is it indicative of a theme like beating swords into plowshares?
  • Is it possibly an elegy for the death of Lincoln?
  • Is there a grim reaper analogy?
  • Is he perhaps the sharpshooter from and earlier Homer piece completed during the war?

Critics at the time suggested that the painting was both healthful and manly yet somewhat slapdash in manner.  For example, Homer painted the cradle off to the side and the wheat appears disorganized.  One of our number pointed out that the painting reveals three different plains – air, the living field, and the crop lying askew, lending the piece an allegorical, not realistic bent.  As always, seeing these pieces in front of us has made the experience all the richer.

Homer’s “Dressing for the Carnival,” located in the same room  was originally titled “Fourth of July, Virginia.”  Initially, the piece was dismissed as a humorous portrait of negro life in the postwar southern states.  Instead, the piece evokes a lot of deeper meaning about life in the Reconstruction south.  Are these former slaves engaged in preparing for Jonkonnu when slaves left their own quarters to dance at the master’s dwelling?  The colors being sewn onto the male figure evoke some aspects of African culture – despite the male being made into a festive type character in the costume, there is an earnestness about how the women approach their work.

Sitting with Hovenden

Also in the room is one of my favorite John Brown paintings, a piece by Thomas Hovenden.  “The Last Moments of John Brown” was completed in the 1880s and contains no fewer than seven African American figures in the painting including the iconic babe in arms receiving the kiss of the doomed Brown.  The focus is on Brown as he descends the steps.  Most figures peer at him or in some cases push towards him; the soldiers hold some people back, but in a subtle manner.

I believe Brown’s arms are somewhat bound so as to limit freedom – I wonder if this was actually the case in 1859, because he was, by most accounts, accepting his fate.  The painting is quite large (77″ X 66″) and I wonder why?  What was its intended audience?  Was Hovenden calling to mind the forgotten issues of the war?  The piece was commissioned by Robbins Battell long after the hanging and even after formal reconstruction has ceased.  Finally, a colleague at the institute shared with me that Hovenden was married to a daughter of abolitionists – she grew up in PA perhaps a stop on the underground railroad – so perhaps all of these factors combined to result in the creation of the piece.

I have used this image in my classroom for a number of years in concert with other John Brown images ranging from photographs to other paintings t0 modern portrayals for advertising and in connection with sporting events.  Discussing the evolving images of John Brown alongside reading primary documents connected to his life and actions has made this particular aspect of history come alive more for my students.

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NEH Summer Institute, Newark Musuem, part deux

Part Two, Newark Museum

We took some time to travel into the galleries at the Newark Museum and this gave me an opportunity to not only look at “Near Andersonville” up close, but also spend some time searching for images related to my particular subject of interest, Native Americans as portrayed during the Civil War era.  I was pleased to find a painting by Alfred Miller, “Shoshone women watering horses” as well as a piece by Alan Fisher, “Indians visiting the old hunting grounds” which come from prior the 1860s.  In the aftermath of the Civil War era, the Newark Museum displayed two additional examples including a sculpture by Edmonia  Lewis, “Hiawatha” 1868 and a ledger drawing by either an Arapahoe or Cheyenne in 1874.  These images, combined with some additional pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New-York Historical Society might provide the basis for my work on visualizing natives in the era.  These two weeks have given me an opportunity to get started on what hopefully will be a larger, rewarding project.

Sarah Burns and curator Holly Pyne Connor spent time with Lily Martin Spencer’s, “War Spirit at Home” , arguing that the painting can be described as somewhat subversive for the time period.  It is largely a family portrait, the mother holding a newspaper indicating victory at Vicksburg 1863.  Spencer completed the work in 1866 and was a very busy, important painter whose family life was chaotic (she had 13 children).  Sarah Burns talks about the tomboy motif  in the painting, which loosely resembles a piece featuring boys ‘training” in a martial manner.  The young girl in Spencer’s portrait has kepi on her head, and is unkempt as well as imagined to be making noise – all attributes that place her not in the ‘typical’ life/world of the 19th century middle class girl.  It was suggested that elements of this painting were somewhat autobiographical, so I asked Holly to expand on the subversive nature of the piece.  If, I wondered, it portrays elements of Spencer’s life and she had a chaotic experience, where was the subversiveness, especially given that the painting did not sell?  These are the types of questions that interest me because while I can see the point that a painting containing images not typical of women of the 19th century would be ‘against the grain,’ if the piece was not displayed in public or sold and it was linked to the artist’s personal life, I wonder whether Spender’s intent was anything beyond a fun image of her life.  Given our conversation with Sarah Burns after lunch, (which is described below), I’m fairly confident I can agree with both Sarah and Holly that there is a deeper meaning to Spencer’s painting.

Interdisciplinary opportunities in study & teaching
Our afternoon began with a close examination of “Home of the Red, White, and Blue,” by Lily Martin Spencer (1868ish).  This easel painting is about 24X30 and it contains colors that represent the union flag, children, a mother, an organ grinder, grandparents, a wounded veteran, and an Irish nursemaid among other items.  There are transparent messages such as the sewing basket on the flag which is in two pieces.  Sarah Burns made a reference to a Harriet Beecher Stowe essay on how women are the real architects of society in relation to the torn flag in need of repair.  This image is, perhaps, a postwar landscape of change.  Pr. Burns thought that the flag seems awfully important and considered what was the association of women and flags during the war years?

Spencer bases the flag and painting on well-established modes of gender expression and traditional roles.  It was women who fabricated flags and regimental colors.  You can see this idea in Currier& Ives pieces, Thomas Nast, E.C. Kellogg, or Winslow Homer.  Burns sees sees the women making havelocks by Homer as an important, connected piece to the general views of women in American society.  We were show examples of women and their roles in the war effort, such as the sheet music, “We’ll go down Ourselves”.  Women were also employed at armories in the United States – “Filling Cartridges,” Winslow Homer July 20, 1861; Pr. Burns asked us to consider whether images like this suggest a merging of the home and battlefronts?  This idea is particularly important when the Allegheny Arsenal explodes on the same day as Antietam, September 17, 1862.  Another interesting site on this explosion and its impact on women appears through the National Archives.

Going back to Martin’s painting, there is the question of why the flag is torn – is it wounded? Is it a feminized casualty of war? The flags were associated with the female body and the veteran, whose boot barely touches the flag is wounded as well, so the woman takes more of a leadership role?  Perhaps this idea is better demonstrated in Homer’s “Our Watering Places,” August 26, 1865
which would have been reflected as well in a popular song, “The Empty Sleeve,” (1865/1866).  Other questions emerge – is the organ grinder, typically an immigrant but after the war sometimes a wounded veteran, revealing something of social change?  Is there a relationship between veterans with wounds in a “disgraceful bondage”  And finally, what is a woman’s peace after the woman’s war?  Is it as Thomas Nast imagined – the women’s kingdom at home? or perhaps Eastman Johnson’s “Mother and Child” captures the story?  What’s certain is that in Lily Martin Spencer’s “Home of the Red, White, and Blue,” women hold pride of patriotic place and the veterans are in the shade – whether that reflected the United States more broadly after the war is certainly a point of debate.

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NEH Summer Institute, Newark Musuem

Peter Wood, Duke University professor emeritus, spoke to our group on a variety of topics surrounding the background on Winslow Homer, his personal life, his usual styles, and some examples of his work including outdoor, childhood scenes, wind, and seascapes.  Homer’s art skills led to him being recruited by the illustrated weeklies during the Civil War and his famous 1866 painting of prisoners confirmed his status as a preeminent American painter.  As Wood pointed out however, Homer also painted African American subjects, and critics and historians alike did not know what to make of these works of art because art historians knew very little about the reconstruction period and historians knew little of Homer’s work.

We were fortunate to be able to travel to the Newark Museum to hear Professors Peter Wood and Sarah Burns discuss art and art history and the nature and challenge of making interdisciplinary connections.  In addition, this beautiful small museum holds some wonderful pieces, including the main focus of our morning discussion, Winslow Homer’s “Near Andersonville.” (Link and scroll down to “A Living Painting” for information on podcasts)
As Professor Wood pointed out, Homer did paint a number of watercolors and oils that used African Americans as central pieces or subjects – “The Gulf Stream,” 1899 is an example and Wood has written and spoken on this piece and its possible larger meanings since about 1981.  More importantly, this painting sparked Wood’s interest in the portrayal of blacks in Homer paintings.  A prime example would be “Weaning the Calf,” 1875 – is it a simple c bucolic childhood scene or a reconstruction era piece as commentary?

To better understand the possibilities, Professor Wood offered us a number of background observations on Homer, starting us with some brief biographical comments and then examining a piece entitled “Arguments of the Chivalry,” a lithograph produced in 1856, that is a comment on the fate of Charles Sumner.  At the time, Homer was a lithographer’s apprentice working on sheet music, but this piece was perhaps a sign of what was to comes from Homer in terms of adding meaning on multiple levels.  Homer’s early work included pieces in
Harper’s Weekly representing Abraham Lincoln in an engraving based on the Cooper Union photograph by Matthew Brady and “Expulsion of Negroes and Abolitionists from Tremont Temple” , printed on December 15, 1860.  Two additional examples include “The Seceding Mississippi Delegation” released on February 2, 1861 and “Dixie,” a pencil and gray water color from November 23, 1861 in which the keg label reads “contraband.”

Black southern culture was new to both soldiers and artists alike and there is some question as to how the public might have viewed portrayals like Homer’s “A Bivouac Fire on the Potomac” or “Pay Day in the Army of the Potomac”.  Wood argued that Homer was making, in some instances, deep comments about the presence of blacks in relation to this war.  The latter image, for example, seems to be a clear commentary on Abraham Lincoln’s role as the ‘sutler’ and George McClellan’s irritation at Lincoln’s decision to give out ‘supplies’ (emancipation) to blacks.  In a related comment, Wood recommended that we examine a book by Glenn David Brasher about the peninsula campaign and how the black population was caught in between the two warring governments and armies.  Professor Wood offered an additional possibly multi-layered meaning in an engraving “Shell in Rebel Trenches”,  January 17, 1863.  Is Homer putting you inside the head of both blacks and getting you behind enemy lines?  Given the date of the engraving, is it possible that Homer is conceiving of the Emancipation Proclamation as a “cultural bombshell” and therefore that particular metaphor is used in this engraving?  Homer’s experience at Harper’s Weekly working alongside someone like Thomas Nast may have influenced him somewhat.  Was Homer using symbolism he learned on the job?

The two pictures “Prisoners from the Front” and “Near Andersonville” went on sale within weeks of each other in 1866.  The former was sold and speculation is that people could accept it as representing the Civil War they understood and “knew.”  The latter image came into the hands of Sarah Louise Kellogg and she died shortly thereafter.   The painting stayed in the family and eventually disappeared into a dusty attic.  Wood wonders whether the subject matter of the painting impacted the possibility of its sale (indeed, there is speculation as to whether Homer simply gave the painting to Kellogg).  As we wrapped up our conversation on the meanings of these images and Homer’s choices in subject matter, we asked several questions.  Was Homer complicit in burial of the deeper meaning of his works?  Did people/consumers want him to move away from this kind of discussion?

Wood speculates that Homer has not forgotten the needs of discussing questions of the fate of black Americans.  When Homer paints “The Gulf Stream,” he is spending time with a black man whom he hired to take care of his father in Maine – there are photographs of them together and he was a former slave…what does it all mean?  Several of Homer’s paintings in the 1870s like “Contraband,” 1875 at the Canajohaire Library or “The Watermelon Boys,” 1876 at Cooper-Hewitt, utilize black figures and white together.  In “Taking a Sunflower to Teacher” (Georgia Museum of Art) Homer makes use of a butterfly as a transformative entity, suggesting that the young black child in the image is emblematic of the change coming to both south and north.  We know that school is involved from both the title and the placement of the school slate which holds Homer’s signature.

One of the final questions we considered was whether Homer shied away from controversy by muting his imagery and/or the meaning behind his chosen subjects.  Two examples that raise this question would be “Dressing for the Carnival,” 1877 and “A Visit from the Old Mistress,” 1876.  In the former, we wonder whether the end of reconstruction is symbolized by the closed gate and why does this appear to be the only painting of Homer’s of adult black males in the United States?  In the latter Homer is exploring the future relations between former slaves and their owner.  While it represents a confrontation, there is a sense of accommodation as well.  So, if he is addressing these kinds of issues, even in a subtle manner, does that indicate a shying away?

Part Two will focus on Lily Martin Spencer’s works of art in general and a Martin painting at the Newark Museum entitled “The War Spirit at Home.”

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NEH Readings and the Illustrated Press

Greg Downs of the City College of New York led our discussion on July 11 and it was a well-developed and far-reaching conversation in which he asked a series of good questions to “prime the pump” and then directed the participants.  I thought I would outline a few ideas and questions that we were thinking about during the morning session.

Questions we considered with a few responses mixed in:

Why examine visual culture in relation to text?  It’s important for our students – they do have a sense of visual, even if an imperfect one.  James Cook (James W. Cook, “Seeing the Visual in U.S. History,” Journal of American History 95:2 (September 2008) ) offers that the visual matters because it matters to the subject (modern and historical people care a lot about how they will be seen or perceived).

What do we do with images? What are the signs that something more interesting and productive might be happening?

Images help us see things more easily than we might in text only and we ask why are things juxtaposed against one another?  There was a reference to Beth Johns and what she has done with genre painting analysis.  I have not read this text and it is currently out of print, but a lot of the ideas expressed resonate with me, particularly given that she spends time discussing the works of George Caleb Bingham.  One reviewer indicated, Johns was most successful in “arguing that genre paintings had a social function that related in a more significant and less idealistic way to the political and cultural life of the time.”

How do we reconstruct the materiality of these images?  We have to work to put these images back into context so we can explain to students, here is how a stereoscope worked, here is how this equipment was sold, etc.  Also, we want to consider working with students on ideas like, this is what’s going on with posing people for photographs and how did people at the time see that image, etc.

We often spend time developing the concept of history as the past, history as what we do, and history as taught – we use visual evidence to help ‘reconstruct the worldview’ of historical people.  As a result, using visual evidence to write about the past is a useful tool – we can find ways to get students to understand how the image would have been seen so that students can comment about it as well.

Is the object of study the image? Is it the image in context? Is it the experience of seeing the image in the past for the first time?

There is the possibility of integrating visual history, cultural of seeing, with political narratives of the war.  For example, Alice Fahs talked about attenuated visual culture and building up southern nationalism.  When we examine these objects and their context, we try to build bridges between dominant political narrative, etc.  In doing so, do we  miss some of the great details in the ‘remediated object’?  Even if for the first time, we agreed that it is great to be able to stand in front of some of these actual objects themselves.

What codes would have been available to 19th century people?  What could they have seen that we cannot because we are not in that physical/time drawn space?

Eventually we may better understand that images made by specific people in specific contexts cannot help but reflect certain perspectives.  For example, people did sort of think – “now with photography, we do have ‘the thing itself’ so we now know what the object preserved in the image truly is.”  The public was highly conditioned to recognize gaps between representation/reality.  We wondered whether we are being played by the past in some ways – people are perhaps aware of the viewers and their images and their potential trail and what they’re revealing about themselves to future generations.  The readings are suggesting that things are not monolithic – status, class, region, gender, all of these things are factors in how African Americans and others are being represented.  When this scenario is the case, who is the audience of that piece? How did they receive it?   What did they think about this material?  In many instances, we must put the photographs in the context of other visual material – you won’t, argued one participant, get a neutral portrait of a black sitter by a white artist but did cameras change that issue in some minds of viewers or photographers?

I have long been suspicious of embedding too much meaning in images, partially because I wonder whether our interpretations and our own context are playing a very large part in our determination of the meaning extant in the images in question.  We discussed, for example, how even 1850s era photographs are differently contextualized than 1860s era images among the people of the day who may have seen both.  With that idea in mind, how do we, standing in the 21st century move backwards 150 years to understand meaning.

Perhaps a good example came as we wrapped up the first discussion session.  We were examining the case of a runaway slave named Dolly and how her image entered our consciousness because of an ad constructed by her owner, Louis Manigault.  Does the photograph of Dolly fix the image of this particular runway in a way that other runaway ads from earlier time periods do not?   – Bill Barney’s work on runaway slaves relates to why Manigault keeps this image of Dolly long after she is gone as part of a scrapbook.  It was pointed out that even with the photograph, Manigault still uses coded language, similar to what we might have seen earlier in time, to describe Dolly.

Josh Brown – Discussing the Illustrated Press

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, Harper’s, New York Illustrated
“seeing the civil war, artists, the public, and pictorial news and views”

Related to our concerns about contextualizing images, we discussed how Google searches for images has blown away the original context in which people saw these images and that can impact interpretations and meaning.  This is an issue I have long worried about in terms of the increased level of digitization of material.  It’s great to be able to have students do digital searches of the New York Times, but if the students aren’t looking at the entire pages in question, they can miss some opportunities for interpretation.

Pr. Brown spent a good amount of time explaining the background of the three main papers, all centered in New York City.  Each of these papers were modeled on the London News which had been in existence since 1842.  These papers were marketed in both the south and north despite the fact that all were based in NYC.  These papers, Pr. Brown explained, purposefully decided to ignore slavery if possible so as to not make enemies of subscribers.  For example, editorials in Leslie’s called John Brown a maniac, but their reporting on Harper’s Ferry and the ensuing trial made Southern readers angry nonetheless.

How was Reporting this War different?
Some of the important changes that emerged during this time period allowed reporters to present information within a day of its occurrence thanks to the telegraph.  The illustrated weeklies used engravings to get images across to people and they were reaching a large number of readers – circulation of the three papers hovered around and above 100,000.  It is believed that far more readers existed than the subscription numbers indicate.

While historians have recognized photography as a unique contributor to recording the war, Pr. Brown emphasized that numbers of other visual media is actually larger, yet photographs continue to dominate our imagination.  This fact may be due to the existence of large collections of combat photographs since the 1930s and may also be tied to the use of Civil War era photographs in an exhibition on photography in New York City in 1937.  We can see some of the collections of the “illustrated war” in online databases and digitized collections, two of which I have attached here.

Publications and sketched ephemera were popular across the ranks and frontlines in general in the Union army.  The publications were all subscription based, not surviving on advertising.  Many soldiers read these papers, as has been alluded to earlier, and yet not every American was a believer in the material.  One Southern reader said that the pictures in Harper’s and Leslie’s tell more lies than Satan!

The Southern Illustrated News began in September 1862 and was an eight page weekly printed in Richmond.  Southerners, wanted a record of the Confederacy at war and there was a desire to replace the unreliable Northern press.  After being cut off by naval blockade, the Confederacy could not publish something like the big three from New York City, as the Southern states did not have presses, ink, engravers, or paper!  On occasion, illustrations in the Southern papers strangely resembled the images from New York publications – substituting people for one another.

The engraver/artist Frank Vizetelly came to America after covering Garibaldi in Italy and he worked for the London press.  Vizetelly ended up depicting the Confederacy from Fredericksburg in 1862 to Jefferson Davis fleeing Richmond in 1865.  Almost all British correspondents (except William Howard Russell) were pro-Confederate.

Some artists also wrote their own perspectives and experience of the reporting itself – in some cases, these remarks told the reader how to interpret the material itself.  In addition, some artists wrote about the desire to be at the right place at the right time and provided images of themselves to give us a sense that these special artists’ lives were hard, but rewarding.  Alfred Waud is one such example – the photograph of Waud with vaguely campaign-related hats, guns, knife, and sketchpad established the image of the wartime correspondent that continues into today.

Some final thoughts
Among some of the editors, there was control so weeklies might have simply decided not to publish certain pieces of art – one such example was an Arthur Lumley sketch of union troops depicted as sacking Fredericksburg in December 1862.  Typically however, there was very little in the way of censorship (only one known example of the Union government doing so).

Artists and writers alike discovered that warfare was chaotic and fluid so it was dangerous and that very fluidity also made it difficult to represent the combat in ‘real time.’  Another challenge was that the engraving process inserted other artists into the vision of the original pieces of work.  This image on the boxwood engraving process gives a sense of some of the challenging work in getting the engraving even completed.  In addition in terms of story telling structure these engravings did not always work, eg, an audience cheering at the same instance in which people are delivering a speech.  The pictorial press lent a level of the palpable to the news of the war, giving both content and context to events that involved people’s relatives and friends.

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New-York Historical Society and Civil War photographs

Tony Lee from Mt. Holyoke College presented on issues of images from the home front versus images from the war front.  The argument was made that the differences between these two are perhaps more in the mind, because after all, what’s the difference between home front and battle front in a place like Petersburg or Vicksburg?

Pr. Lee reminded participants that one of the more interesting challenges about photographs is that we must remember that every time we click a shutter, we picture a place and time.  Questions we asked ourselves dealt with issues as to whether the 19th century audience went through the same process. Did they picture the place (the battlefield) when the image appeared either on a display or in the form of an engraving?  Were Americans prepared to ‘see’ that space/place of battle because of their exposure to various types of images both before, after, and during the war years?

In addition, we were reminded that each image we looked at that was a photograph was presenting only a portion of the tale of the era.  The bulk of the photographs are of northern scenes or camps, so southern forces are automatically limited.  In addition, we have been exposed largely to battlefield corpse scenes and these represent but a minority of the possible photographs we might examine!

We also explored good questions about how much we read into the images (portraits, landscape, etc.) and what do they mean?  For example, what was the purpose of the portrait is an interesting question.  For historians and art historians alike, considering whether the picture itself is a tabula rasa or if there is a specific purpose laid on it is important.  In one example, did the photographer ask the sitter to cross his legs or was that shot set up by the client?  Do we overemphasize the broadcasting of “the self’ when we examine portraits?

In the afternoon, Barbara Krauthamer and Deborah Willis discussed their forthcoming book and the research behind it.  Envisioning Emancipation asks questions as to how the civil war functions as an event that was shaped by African Americans while also establishing that images testify to individuals but also to collective experiences.  Many of these images are evocative of loss and therefore function as memorials.  This image connected to Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, and others taken at the Cazenovia Fugitive Slave Law Convention in 1850 is dramatic for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the challenge of shooting a large group outdoors.

The conversation ranged across a variety of examples of portraits and other shots and included thoughts on how to work with students on these images.  Ideas about sending students to look in newspapers for advertising of photographers abounded as did the notion to look in diaries and letters to see if people wrote about having their picture taken.  Were African Americans exceptional in what they attempted to achieve with their portraits or are they simply middle class in the same way that the white population was striving to be?

The final images focused on freedom as social life, religious life, and private life, including images of large baptisms, bands, people’s homes, picnics, etc.  This discussion and the connected images got me thinking about some images I have used in classes for a while.

The images I’m linking here are ones that I asked Barbara and Deborah a question about regarding homesteading on the Great Plains.  Jerry Shores and his family moved to Nebraska and took claims next to two of his brothers.  Moses Speese was one brother, Henry Webb was the other – unfortunately we do not have an image of the Webb family.  Former slaves, each brother had taken the surname of their former owners.  These families did not create the kinds of large ‘free spaces’ or communities that were mentioned today (eg, Nicodemus in Kansas) but they were still exploring emancipation in a larger geographic space than we might imagine.

What can we do with images like these when we think about story, architecture, nature, freedom?

Interested in the photographer of these images?  Learn more about Solomon Butcher and his photographs either at the Library of Congress or through the Nebraska State Historical Society.

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