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Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North

Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North

by Peter John Brownlee, Sarah Burns, Diane Dillon, Daniel Greene, Scott Manning Stevens

More than one hundred and fifty years after Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, the Civil War still occupies a prominent place in the national collective memory. Paintings and photographs, plays and movies, novels, poetry, and songs portray the war as a battle over the future of slavery, often focusing on Lincoln’s determination to save the Union, or


More than one hundred and fifty years after Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, the Civil War still occupies a prominent place in the national collective memory. Paintings and photographs, plays and movies, novels, poetry, and songs portray the war as a battle over the future of slavery, often focusing on Lincoln’s determination to save the Union, or highlighting the brutality of brother fighting brother. Battles and battlefields occupy us, too: Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg all conjure up images of desolate landscapes strewn with war dead. Yet the frontlines were not the only landscapes of the war. Countless civilians saw their daily lives upended while the entire nation suffered.

Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North reveals this side of the war as it happened, comprehensively examining the visual culture of the Northern home front. Through contributions from leading scholars from across the humanities, we discover how the war influenced household economies and the cotton economy; how the absence of young men from the home changed daily life; how war relief work linked home fronts and battle fronts; why Indians on the frontier were pushed out of the riven nation’s consciousness during the war years; and how wartime landscape paintings illuminated the nation’s past, present, and future.

A companion volume to a collaborative exhibition organized by the Newberry Library and the Terra Foundation for American Art, Home Front is the first book to expose the visual culture of a world far removed from the horror of war yet intimately bound to it.

Editorial Reviews

Joshua Brown
"Framed by the era's visual arts and burgeoning commercial visual culture, these essays offer an unusually imaginative and probing interdisciplinary exploration of—in the succinct phrase of one of its authors—the 'porous boundaries' between the battle front and home front during the Civil War. Home Front's contributors position the reader to see through nineteenth-century eyes, capturing traces of the war in quotidian activities, traumatic events, and the ways their meanings were explicitly and covertly conveyed in fine art, cartoons, prints, sheet music, illustration, pictorial news, decorative stationery, and photography. Informed by the latest scholarship on the home front and the visual record of the war, this book is rich in insight and observation—not to mention an array of evocative images, many of which have long been hidden in the archives."
Maurie D. McInnis
"In the sesquicentennial remembrances of the Civil War, much attention has been paid to battles and soldiers, presidents and politics. Home Front is the first book to delve deeply into the visual culture of the Civil War era to explore not just the war itself, but also the impact of that war on those left behind. By presenting a wide variety of visual and cultural materials in conversation with one another, the authors bring a new perspective on how those on the Northern home front dealt with the crisis of the war and its aftermath. These essays provide an important addition to the national collective understanding of the impact of that war on American culture."
Frances M. Clarke
 "In fascinating and highly original ways, Home Front delves into the visual culture of the Civil War North. It is the first truly interdisciplinary study of this culture, drawing on experts from multiple fields. It is also the first to examine the war's entire visual output—from lithographs and poetry to paintings and cartoons. Bringing to life the look and feel of the era, it is a must read for anyone interested in the Civil War's impact on American life."

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University of Chicago Press
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8.60(w) x 10.60(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Home Front

Daily Life in the Civil War North



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-06185-6



The Home at War, the War at Home

The Visual Culture of the Northern Home Front

Not long after the end of the Civil War, game manufacturer Milton Bradley issued the Myriopticon, a miniature toy panorama that unrolled the history of the "Rebellion" in some twenty-two colorful pictures copied from illustrations that had appeared in Harper's Weekly magazine during wartime. The design of the foot-square cardboard box mimicked a proscenium stage draped in patriotic bunting. It came with play tickets, a mock advertising poster, and a script for the narrator, to be read aloud as he or she turned the cranks that scrolled from scene to scene. The instruction booklet recommended that the show take place in a darkened room with a candle to provide dramatic backlighting for the scenes as they glided by.

One young enthusiast wrote to tell Bradley that neighbors flocked to his house to enjoy multiple repeat performances of the show. The child wanted Bradley to sell more of the devices, so "as to make it less crowded in our parlor." So vividly authentic were the tableaux that an older brother who had been in the war "says it is just as your game represents it to be." The Myriopticon embodied the very theater of war itself, scaled down to a manageable size, commodified, and packaged as parlor entertainment. It stood witness to the ways in which the far-off conflict had infiltrated and changed daily life—even after it was over. It is difficult to imagine a more evocative representation of the war at home.

Designed to replay the war over and over again, the Myriopticon enshrined and preserved its remembrance, which has lived on to this day. One hundred and fifty years after it began, the Civil War still occupies a prominent place in the national collective memory. Our cultural productions tend first to portray the war as a battle over the future of slavery, or to focus on Lincoln's determination to save the Union, or on brother fighting against brother. Battles and battlefields occupy us as well. Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg all conjure up images of desolate landscapes strewn with war dead. Both North and South experienced unprecedented suffering. Forces for both sides described the war as a "harvest of death." Yet many depictions have neglected the war's influence on home fronts across the divided nation. Battlefields were not the only landscapes altered by the war. Soldiers were not the only ones who suffered. Countless individuals, whether near to the battle lines or far from them, saw their daily lives altered by the war.

While scholars in American history and literature have studied many different aspects of the Northern home front, art historians and museum curators have, with few exceptions, focused largely on the theater of war itself, as represented in media ranging from painting to photography and mass-circulated wood engravings in popular magazines. Thus, powerful images such as Timothy O'Sullivan's Harvest of Death—a raw, grisly, and shocking photograph of corpses strewn about the Gettysburg battlefield—have become canonical and authoritative, as have paintings such as Winslow Homer's 1866 Prisoners from the Front, a now classic representation of Union triumph and Confederate defeat.

The fact that such images have acquired iconic status speaks to a nagging problem that has provoked debate since the 1860s. Writing in the latter days of the war, New York critic Clarence Cook puzzled over the fact that the war had exerted such a "very remote and trifling influence" on American art. Only a widely scattered few had pictured aspects of the conflict, but the "chief body" of American artists had "gone on painting landscapes and genre pieces and portraits as if the old peace had never been interrupted." Cook had no ready answer to this conundrum. In our own era, art historians have attributed that seeming escapism or elision to a "crisis" that boiled over when mechanized modern warfare starkly defied the capacity of traditional history painting to represent it: high ideals, theatrical posing, and noble self-sacrifice no longer seemed to fit the picture. While many artists whom Cook failed to credit did paint the leaders and battles of the war, only the pitiless stare of the photograph or Winslow Homer's deadpan gaze seemed capable of confronting the antiheroic realities of a brutal conflict with what now strike us as truly modern eyes.

By contrast, Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North reveals another side of the war. This volume, companion to the exhibition mounted jointly by the Newberry Library and the Terra Foundation for American Art, is the first to comprehensively examine the visual culture of Civil War–era home fronts in the North. It asks whether those artists on the home front—those who, as Cook saw it, simply went on as before—sought only to avoid the awful truth by burying their heads in the sand of landscapes far removed from battle, or if they yearned only to take nostalgic refuge in scenes of ordinary American life that seemed to escape war's disruption. Avoidance of the war may have been the mode of some. But the war left its mark on many others, whose consciousness of the prolonged crisis impelled them to rethink and reshape conventional pictorial categories in ways that subtly or not-so-subtly referenced the war's haunting presence on home fronts rural and urban, far-flung and close by, domestic and institutional. Just as the war intertwined with political and economic networks, it did so with those of fine art and visual culture more generally of the Northern home front. Thus, paintings and other depictions that at first glance appear to have little or nothing to do with the war reveal on further inspection telltale traces of its shadow. Others allude to it outright but in the process betray tensions and ambiguities that hint at the war's heavy social and historical toll.

The essays collected here closely examine the mid-nineteenth-century American paintings that form the core of the exhibition. However, we also go much further, embedding these works in a dynamic visual context that illuminates, amplifies, and complicates their meanings and connotations. Frederic Church's 1861 painting Our Banner in the Sky, for example, is an allegorical landscape in which a smoldering red sunrise morphs into a dramatic vision of the American flag, waving in tatters over a dark and desolate wilderness. The trunk of a leafless tree serves as flagstaff; directly above it, an eagle soars. Spurred by the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861 that had torn the Union flag to shreds, Church painted Our Banner in the Sky to stir patriotic fervor at the moment of national rupture, the dawn of war. Scholars have singled out this work as a classic illustration of the ways in which Hudson River school painters used nature as vehicle to communicate political, national, social, and religious messages in symbolic terms. Not surprisingly, Church's work also has figured in discussions of American painters' attempts to address the crisis of the war in oblique and emblematic language.

One critically important visual matrix for Our Banner in the Sky has largely escaped attention, however. The New York branch of the publishing firm Goupil & Co. bought the copyright and produced a lithograph after Church's painting. Although few copies now survive, Goupil's recorded profit of $1,500 as of August 18, 1861—just four months after combat began—suggests that the print was extremely popular. Church's visionary imagery did not stand alone: viewers would have perceived it as a single coordinate in a visual landscape then so thoroughly blanketed by the patriotic image of the flag that it amounted to an epidemic of "flag mania." Indeed, Goupil's rival, Sarony, Major, and Knapp, quickly issued Our Heaven-Born Banner after a painting by one William Bauly, who flagrantly parroted Church's flag and sky imagery, only replacing the bare tree with a Zouave sentry standing at attention with bayoneted rifle aloft; under the colors of the blazing firmament lies the stricken fort. Appended beneath the print were the first lines of Joseph Rodman Drake's "The American Flag," which declaimed the identical vision in stirring lines of verse:

    When Freedom from her mountain height
    Unfurled her standard to the air,
    She tore the azure robe of night
    And set the stars of glory there.
    She mingled with its gorgeous dyes
    The milky baldrick of the skies,
    And striped its pure celestial white
    With streakings of the morning light.

In poetry and printmaking alike, conflating elevated landscape art with patriotic passion brought the war into many a Northern parlor.

The phenomenon extended well beyond the world of prints. Flag propaganda, often showing a soldier brandishing the banner in triumph, proliferated in newspapers, magazines, and broadsides as well—the message always one of hope and ultimate triumph even during the darkest days of the war. More ubiquitous still was the icon of the Union flag that adorned scores, perhaps hundreds, of sheet music covers with titles such as Unfurl the Glorious Banner or The Bonnie Flag with the Stripes and Stars. To reckon with Our Banner in the Sky in such a context—as opposed, say, to that of a landscape-painting exhibition, or a book on Civil War-era painting more generally—is to gain a different, richer understanding of its relevance, its immediacy, and its enormous appeal for the contemporary home-front audience in the North.

As with Church's painting, the conjunction of both elite and popular home-front artifacts shapes both this book and the exhibition upon which it is based. Throughout, we juxtapose war-era paintings from the collection of the Terra Foundation with a wealth of material drawn from the Newberry Library's collection, including popular prints, illustrated newspapers, photographs, maps, magazines, sheet music, fashion plates, letters, diaries, advertisements, and other ephemera. This approach not only enriches our interpretation of the individual objects, but it also generates a fresh understanding of the ways in which the war per se—largely unseen here—so profoundly affected and infiltrated the lives of all who lived through it. With these pictorial and textual constellations, the essays take viewers behind the scenes, into the backstage of the war's theater and its aftermath. Together, they offer a vivid portrayal of the ways in which ordinary Northerners dealt with crisis and calamity, and—ultimately—strove for healing and renewal.

Given that thousands of books and scores of exhibitions have focused on the Civil War, the published visual record is correspondingly vast. Yet by and large, painting and popular visual culture remain segregated in different registers. For example, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Civil War in Art, the magisterial 1993 survey by Harold Holzer and Mark E. Neely Jr., concentrates almost exclusively on paintings that represent every aspect of the war: generals, heroes, battles, domestic life, North and South. In The Union Image: Popular Prints of the Civil War North (2000), those same authors survey mass-market images—as the title alone makes manifest. On that end of the visual spectrum as well is Alice Fahs's groundbreaking The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature North and South, 1861–1865 (2001), which reproduces an array of popular prints, illustrations, and cartoons, and reminds readers that wartime visual culture did not evade but engaged with the realities of war. Fahs does not interpret these prints, illustrations, and cartoons as aesthetic objects in their own right, however, nor does she discuss contemporary paintings. Civil War photography also occupies its own niche as a specialized subfield in the literature, from Alan Trachtenberg's now-classic "Albums of War: On Reading Civil War Photographs," originally published in Representations (1985), to William C. Davis's The Civil War in Photographs (2002).

This highly interdisciplinary book stands alone in assembling an array of materials on pictorial aspects of the Civil War rarely if ever studied or interpreted in dialogue with each other. Seen together, they open a new window onto a world far removed from the horror of war and yet intimately bound to it. We explore the Northern Civil War home front through a number of lenses to ask, for example, how did the war influence household economies and management? What was its impact on production and consumption at home? How did those on the home front contribute to the war effort—or keep the war at bay? How did the absence of young men from the home or the presence of wounded veterans in public alter daily life? How did the war disrupt life on fronts remote from the centers of cultural production? Why were Indians on the frontier pushed out of nation's consciousness during the war years? What did wartime and immediate postwar depictions of landscapes communicate about the nation's past, present, and future? And finally—and most fundamentally—to what extent did the war transform the ways in which people lived, thought, and worked?

Art historian Peter John Brownlee's contribution traces the implications of wartime cotton trade in the artworks and other visual materials that came to represent it. Opening his essay with Samuel Colman's Ships Unloading, New York (fig. 11), Brownlee examines the complex visual culture that depicted cotton, slaves, and contraband to reference the radical social, political, and economic transformations at the heart of the conflict between North and South. Literary scholar Scott Stevens's essay studies traumatic events on the frontier, the Civil War's forgotten backcountry, where American Indians struggled to protect and defend their own home front, increasingly a place of lawlessness and danger in the face of land- hungry settlers. Using a rich array of illustrations, paintings, and photo graphs—including Eugene Benson's Indian Attack (fig. 26)—Stevens traces the course the Dakota War and the New Mexico Campaign to reveal their disastrous consequences for Indian peoples. In recounting and analyzing that violent and tragic history, Stevens restores the Indian Wars to their rightful place in national memory of the period from 1861 to 1865.

On another front, historian Daniel Greene writes on Chicago's deep connections to the war, focusing on the flow of war-related goods, information, and relief through the city. In particular, he examines the work of the US Sanitary Commission in Chicago, highlighting the gendered dimensions of war relief and detailing the crucial roles played by such figures as E. W. Blatchford, Mary Livermore, and Jane Hoge, whose tireless travels from home front to battlefront and back underscore the physical and emotional bonds that linked those far-distant zones of action. Art historian Sarah Burns also considers the gendered dimensions of the home front during war in her analysis of Lilly Martin Spencer's The Home of the Red, White, and Blue (fig. 58), which celebrates but at the same time questions the agency of women in stitching together the tattered nation, symbolized by an American flag that lies in two pieces on the ground. Weaving Spencer's work into a constellation of related images, Burns discusses how visual culture responded to and represented women and their children—their lives, their work, their traumas, their activism, their patriotism—during and after the momentous war. Finally, art historian Diane Dillon explores the complex meanings of autumnal imagery on the Northern home front during the final years of the conflict and its immediate aftermath. Dillon considers a group of paintings—landscape and still life—that at first glance appear unrelated to the war. Her essay demonstrates that, despite appearances to the contrary, these works incorporate layers of public and private meaning that yoke them to the war and illuminate, once again, the war's capacity to twist and subtly alter even the most idyllic of genres.

Excerpted from Home Front by PETER JOHN BROWNLEE, SARAH BURNS, DIANE DILLON, DANIEL GREENE, SCOTT MANNING STEVENS. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Peter John Brownlee is associate curator at the Terra Foundation for American Art. Sarah Burns is professor of art history emeritus, Indiana University, Bloomington. Diane Dillon is director of scholarly and undergraduate programs at the Newberry Library. Daniel Greene is vice president for research and academic programs at the Newberry Library and an affiliated faculty member of the history department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Scott Manning Stevens is director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies at the Newberry Library.

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