Civil War History 47.1 (2001) 78-80
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The Union Image:
Popular Prints of the Civil War North
To say that this volume is clearly a labor of love in no way diminishes its great scholarly strengths. Veterans of several collaborations on Civil War images, Mark E. Neely and Harold Holzer have produced a fascinating, visually spectacular study of prints that circulated in the North during and after the war. [End Page 78]
At the heart of The Union Image are its wonderful illustrations. Neely and Holzer have assembled 146 etchings, lithographs, and chromolithographs, including 23 that have been reproduced in color. Many of the illustrations fill entire pages of this coffee table-sized volume, and all are accompanied by extensive captions. These mass-produced prints--ranging from patriotic imagery to iconographic portraits to biting political cartoons--bring to life the world of the wartime North, as observed by the rank-and-file consumers of this popular, and decidedly democratic, art form. To inspect the images is to come to a better understanding of what women and men on the home front experienced during the war. The authors have done us a great service in collecting both the familiar and the forgotten into a single volume, and in demonstrating how and why the historian can make better use of these sources in understanding popular culture.
Befitting the artists' own emphasis on content, Holzer and Neely have arranged their analysis topically, interwoven with a consideration of chronological developments. From the first publication of Currier and Ives' "Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor" the producers of popular prints stressed patriotic themes--and rapid publication --over an attention to minute detail. In the war's first feverish months, as Northerners rallied around the American flag, the printmakers made the flag central to their own patriotic imagery. Before long, this iconography gave way to celebratory portraits of the conflict's first military heroes, including George McClellan, Franz Sigel, and the martyred Elmer Ellsworth. With time these portraits were joined by more ambitious images based on personal observations of camp life, including the early work of the young Winslow Homer. Such images, the authors argue, illustrated their subject much more fully than the stiffly posed wartime photographs of soldiers in camp.
The printmakers also produced a wide assortment of images of life at home. Many of these had patriotic themes, encouraging stoicism in the families of soldiers or celebrating the home-front voluntarism of refreshment saloons and sanitary fairs. Meanwhile, the portrayals of naval scenes provided a particularly interesting--and understudied--sub-genre of wartime prints. In a particularly interesting chapter the authors unpack the "visual vocabulary of denunciation" in wartime political prints, with an emphasis on the election of 1864.
Although The Union Image emphasizes wartime prints, a final chapter explores a variety of Civil War "battle prints." In this section, the authors stretch the narrative into the late nineteenth century with a close examination of the famous Kurz and Allison battle scenes, as contrasted with Louis Prang's more self-consciously artistic military prints. In a brief, optimistic epilogue the authors explore the ways in which the Emancipation Proclamation and the military contributions of black soldiers recast the public imagery of African Americans in the war's final year.
The Union Image does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of Civil War printmaking. Such a book presumably would have followed a different structure, organized around the various art forms and printmaking establishments. (In fact, a glossary of basic terms might have aided the novice reader.) Nonetheless, the volume is [End Page 79] sprinkled with observations about wartime printmaking as both art and business. Holzer and Neely are particularly attentive to the accuracy of these popular prints. Holzer, in fact, inspected the uniform worn by Elmer Ellsworth to determine that his fatal...