Civil War Humor (review)
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Civil War Humor. By Cameron C. Nickels. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Pp. xvii, 162. $28.00 cloth)

The first scholarly monograph on the comedy of the Civil War, Civil War Humor not only examines some of the more significant humorous popular culture of the era but does so within appropriate sociohistorical and sociopolitical contexts, making Cameron Nickels's study of interest both to humor scholars and cultural historians. Among the bounty of materials in Nickels's book are more than sixty illustrations and thirty-odd humorous texts produced between 1861 and 1865, all representative of the issues of the Civil War. A compact book with an introduction and four chapters—"Humor and the Civil War Presidents," "Humor on the Home Front," "Civil War, War Humor," and "The African American in Civil War Humor"—Nickels explores songs, illustrations (many graphic and most with a sociopolitical agenda), poems, valentines, pictorial envelopes, sheet-music covers, and fiction, the products of his sustained and meticulous archival research. Stating his purpose to investigate "humor published during the war and . . . its role in shaping and reflecting the cultural imagination about it," Nickels persuasively shows that "humor shaped much the same rhetoric and iconography of serious popular literature" (p. xii). Moreover, his presentation of the comic materials and concise and incisive analysis of them engage (and keeps engaging) readers while at the same time exposing them to a diverse range of humorous texts, many of them unfamiliar.

In his substantive introduction, Nickels accurately outlines how advances in printing proved effective in marketing war propaganda to the general reading public more quickly. This, too, was the "hey-day of illustrated journalism" he writes, and Union periodicals such as Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Yankee Notions, Harper's Weekly, Frank Leslie's Budget of Fun, and Vanity Fair, and Confederate ones such as Southern Illustrated News, Southern Punch, and the short-lived Bugle Horn of Liberty produced much of visual humor in what was becoming veritably a "paper war" (p. 12). [End Page 99]

In his first chapter, Nickels observes, "The most fundamental purpose of humor in any war is to define the enemy, to put him in his comic, satiric place and thus make him and the cause he stands for laughable" (p. 17). Much of the humor about the leaders Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis he features does just that. Depending on the venue, Union or Confederate, the emphasis was to caricature these presidents, Nickels describing them as "the living embodiment of everything wrong with the other side" (p. 24). Some of the cartoons debunking the presidents were scathing and unflattering, some of the Davis ones depicting him after escaping from Richmond as cross-dressing, disguised in his wife's clothing, and labeled "The Shero," "Jeff in Petticoats," and "The Belle of Richmond" (p. 36). The illustrated Confederate periodicals, on the other hand, predictably portrayed Lincoln with demeaning racial epithets such as "Aperaham," "Ape Lincoln," and the "Old Baboon" (p. 39).

In chapter two, Nickels distinguishes between Union and Confederate humor, aptly noting that the latter focused on "privations and other adversities as a way of coping with them" (p. 53). An amusing example of Confederate scarcity is an 1863 bogus announcement from the Selma (Ala.) Sentinel asking the ladies of that city to preserve their urine so it could be converted into potassium nitrate, an ingredient needed for gunpowder. While men wrote most of the Civil War humor, Nickels uncovers two key sources of women's humor, including some issues of the Waterford (Va.) News, an "underground" newspaper edited by Quaker women and Union sympathizers who presented humorously protofeminist materials from a female perspective, calling attention to the shifting roles of women brought on by the war. The other, comic valentines, offered a rich fund of female-generated satire directed against "shirkers, martial posturing, and chicanery" (p. 11).

Chapter three covers topics such as draft evasion, battle experiences, boredom of camp life, and soldiers' fear of imprisonment, wounding, or killing. Humor, Nickels argues, helped to soften these wartime realities. Satire, with a humorous veneer, was directed against [End Page 100] Union and Confederate generals and lesser officers, ridiculing their special...