Tag Archives: Reconstruction

HOW A CIVIL-WAR CARTOONIST TAUGHT US TO SEE SANTA

Does the name “Thomas Nast” ring a bell with you? Specialists in U.S. history know him well, but otherwise he’s not much remembered today. But even though we don’t recall him, his influence is all around us at this time of year. I think of Nast every time I pass a mall Santa or tune in to yet another Hallmark movie focused on the North Pole. The reason is simple: Thomas Nast is the artist who showed us what Santa Claus really looks like.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Born in Germany, Nast came to America as a child in the 1840s and quickly showed an aptitude for art. By his early twenties he was working as an illustrator and cartoonist for several prominent national publications, most notably Harper’s Weekly, the self-described “journal of civilization” which as early as 1860 had a circulation upwards of 200,000. Nast was first and foremost a political cartoonist, and he quickly became widely known for his cartoons attacking municipal corruption–most notably his campaign against New York City machine boss William Tweed, who fell from power in 1871, in no small part due to Nast’s devastating campaign against him.

I know Nast best, however, for his cartoons pertaining to the politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Here are a few of my favorites that I have long used in my classes dealing with that period of U.S. history:

nast-chicago-convention“Compromise with the South” appeared in the September 3, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  Less than a week before, northern Democrats had met in convention in Chicago and declared the war a failure.  The party platform called for an immediate ceasefire to be followed by negotiations with the Confederacy with the goal that “peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union,” a roundabout way of communicating the party’s willingness for the southern states to return to the Union with slavery intact.  In the center of the cartoon, Confederate president Jefferson Davis clasps hands with a maimed Union veteran to ashamed to raise his head.  Davis’s boot rests squarely on a Union grave marked by a headstone which reads, “In Memory of Union Heroes who have Fallen in a USELESS WAR,” while “Columbia,” meant to be seen as the female embodiment of America, weeps beside the grave.  A staunch Republican, Nast was ridiculing the Democratic platform as a betrayal of Union soldiers and an abandonment of southern blacks.

Nast1“This is a White Man’s Government” appeared in the September 5, 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The title was inspired by the motto of the Democratic ticket in the upcoming presidential election pitting Governor Horatio Seymour of New York against the Republican nominee Ulysses Grant. Determined to portray the Republican Party as radical in its advocacy of civil rights for former slaves, Democratic campaign ribbons proclaimed “This is a White Man’s Country: Let White Men Rule.”

Nast was insinuating that Democratic rule would be built on an unholy triumvirate of objectionable elements. Numerically the largest consisted of ignorant northern Democratic voters, most of them semi-civilized, uneducated recent immigrants who had opposed the war. (Nast’s portrayal of Irish individuals in his cartoons is almost always grossly demeaning. The Irishman on the left, wielding a club labeled “The Vote,” has all the features of a monkey.)

Second in number would be southern white Democrats, almost all of whom had been disloyal to the Union during the late war. (The figure in the middle is supposed to be former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, first imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.)

The third and smallest element is here represented by a New York City financier named August Belmont, a behind-the-scenes power broker in the Democratic Party. Belmont stands for Fifth Avenue types who had gotten rich during the war and who were willing to buy up the votes of the urban rabble to promote their nefarious schemes. (Notice that Belmont is clutching a wallet stuffed with cash for that purpose.)

Underneath the three lies a prostrate black Union veteran, dressed in uniform, clutching the U. S. flag, and reaching out for the ballot box. Nast was arguing for black civil rights by reminding readers that thousands of southern blacks had risked their lives in support of the Union, in stark contrast to the pillars of the Democratic Party.

Harper's Weekly,  October 24, 1874

Harper’s Weekly,
October 24, 1874

Much the same message comes through in this untitled Nast cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in October 1874. The phrases at the top of the cartoon are all pointed references to the Democratic Party. “The Union as It Was” was a popular slogan of the 1864 Democratic presidential campaign of George McClellan. “This is a White Man’s Government,” as we have already seen, became the primary Democratic rallying cry of the Seymour campaign four years later. “The Lost Cause,” just above the skull and crossbones, refers to diehard former Confederates’ conviction that their cause had been just.

The two white figures that frame the cartoon (labeled “White League” and “K.K.K.”) stand for two white supremacist organizations that terrorized former slaves in the wake of emancipation and Confederate defeat. These contrast starkly with the central focus of the cartoon, two grieving African-American parents weeping over their slain child.

A spelling book lies on the ground near spatters of blood, and in the background are scenes of a lynching and a burning school house. In describing the scene as “worse than slavery,” Nast was telling readers that a Democratic victory would mean the end of Reconstruction and the abandonment of four million former slaves to virtual re-enslavement.

But Nast wasn’t always so sympathetic in his portrayal of African Americans. To be sure, the artist shared the predominant Republican position that the former slaves would be exploited and even brutalized if left to the mercies of the southern white Democratic majority. But as time passed Nast became increasingly disillusioned by political corruption in the Grant Administration and increasingly disenchanted with Republican efforts to install black officeholders in the white majority South.

The drawing below, entitled “Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State,” appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly the same year as the previous Nast cartoon (March 14, 1874). It purports to illustrate an alleged episode in South Carolina, the one former Confederate state where, if only for a brief period, African Americans constituted a majority in the state legislature. However much southern blacks might deserve federal protection from white terrorism, Nast seems to be saying, they are far from ready to participate fully in their own government.

Nast3

But Nast didn’t only produce cartoons about politics. His association with Harper’s Weekly lasted from the early 1860s through the mid-1880s, and during those two-plus decades he also contributed thirty or so drawings of Santa Claus. It was only after their favorite cartoonist had brought him to life that Americans agreed on what Santa looked like.

Of course Clement Clark Moore had described “the right jolly old elf” in his 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Readers had learned from Moore about Santa’s twinkling eyes and merry dimples, his soot-tarnished clothes, and–how to put this delicately?–his less than rock-hard abs. And yet it was the cartoonist Nast who translated Moore’s poetic lines into the visual image we take for granted today.

"Santa Claus in Camp" (detail), from the cover of Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863

“Santa Claus in Camp” (detail), from the cover of Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863

But first Nast had to figure out for himself what Santa looked like. His initial attempt came in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War. In “Santa Claus in Camp,” Nast sketched Santa as a large man decked out in red, white, and blue and delivering presents, not to sleepy children, but to Union soldiers. (I call this version “Yankee Doodle Santa.”) In an early post-war rendering (the 1866 cartoon “Santa Claus and His Works”), Nast portrayed Santa more in keeping with the description in Moore’s poem. This Santa is clothed in a dark suit and is literally the size of an elf, so short that he had to stand on a chair in order to reach the stockings hanging from the mantle.

As the years, passed, however, Nast’s Santa grew in stature and exchanged his brown suit for a red one. The 1880 sketch below is probably Nast’s best known Santa and is still reproduced even to this day.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper's Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper’s Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

BASED (EVER SO LOOSELY) ON A “TRUE STORY”—MATTHEW MCCONAGHY AND THE “FREE STATE OF JONES”

This weekend I caught a showing of The Free State of Jones, a movie about a comparatively unknown chapter in the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, starring Matthew McConaughey.  Since I’ve spent nearly three decades teaching and writing about this period of American history, I thought I should check it out.

free state3

I should say up front that, as a historian, I have a love/hate relationship with historical movies.  On the one hand, I’m generally thankful for any cultural influence that directs our attention to the past.  If a fraction of the viewers who turn out to see Free State are inspired to dig deeper—maybe even to read a serious work of history about the period—then I suppose I should be thankful, and to a degree, I am.

On the other hand, however, the medium is generally bad at conveying complexity—and history is nothing if not complex—while the need to turn a profit reinforces the tendency to emphasize entertainment at the expense of accuracy.  I know I should be thankful when Hollywood encourages us to pay attention to the past, but I am always left wondering whether the movie in question does more harm than good.  In particular, I worry about the implicit lessons that historical movies teach us about what history is and what it means to think historically.

At bottom, I think there are two common audience reactions to movies that claim to be “based on a true story,” and neither one of them is good.  The first is to take the claim at face value and assume that, in watching the movie, we have just learned something reliable about the past.  I’m reminded of a story that Sam Wineburg tells in his wonderful book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  Wineburg, an educational psychologist at Stanford who has spent most of his professional career studying how we think and learn about the past, tells a story of watching the movie Schindler’s List when it first debuted.  When the heart-wrenching film about the holocaust had ended and the subdued audience began to file silently out of the theater, Wineburg heard one viewer whisper to his wife, “I never understood what happened then until now, right now.  Now, I know.”

This scares me.  I worry that our entertainment-obsessed culture will only take the past seriously when it is packaged in two-hour-length segments of gripping entertainment.  And I worry even more that we will confuse these two-hour-length segments for the past itself.  History is not the past but an argument about the past, ideally grounded in logically compelling historical evidence.  Historians don’t discover the past “as it actually was” in the archives; we do our best painstakingly to recreate it, weaving interpretations that are always imperfect and always debatable.  Any movie “based on a true story” is similarly offering an interpretation, with the difference that there won’t be footnotes and a bibliography; we’ll be invited to accept the interpretation on faith.

So one common response is to take the claim of historical accuracy at face value and assume that we are learning something true; the other is to take the claim at face value and question whether accuracy even matters.  Read the “critical reviews” that have appeared over the past few days and you’ll find that this is the ubiquitous message.  Reviewers praise the movie for director Gary Ross’s “unusual respect for historical truth” and then move directly to the political implications of the movie’s message or the quality of its artistry.  Did the pacing lag?  Was the plot too sprawling?  Was McConaughey really wearing dental prosthetics?  “Of course,” I can hear you replying.  “That’s what movie critics do.”  But when a movie claims to be teaching us about the past, I fear that critics’ calculated indifference to historical accuracy reinforces one of the besetting historical sins of our culture: to evaluate history on the basis of its artistry or political usefulness, rather than its truthfulness.

free state4

Oh well—end of sermonette—let’s talk about The Free State of Jones.  The movie focuses on an area in southeastern Mississippi that became famous for its resistance to Confederate authority.  The soil in this region of Mississippi was not well-suited to the production of cash crops, and most of the white families who settled Jones County were small farmers who concentrated on livestock growing and had little connection to slavery or the cotton economy.  When the state held a referendum on secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency, the white male voters of the county originally opposed secession by a large majority, but when the state as a whole overwhelmingly endorsed disunion, they quickly fell into line.

The exigencies of war have a way of exposing the faults lines of communities at war, however, and pretty soon the support of Jones County’s yeomen for the Confederacy began to erode.  The imposition of conscription in the spring of 1862 had a lot to do with this, as did the subsequent passage by the Confederate Congress of a ten-percent “tax-in-kind” on all agricultural products.  Soon, the white yeomen of the region believed that they were caught up in a “rich man’s war” in which slaveless farmers would be forced into military service while their families were brought to the brink of starvation by a heartless government interested only in the welfare of large plantation owners.

Over time, more and more of the white Confederate soldiers of Jones County fled the front lines and returned home.  These deserters would provide for their families as best as they could, and “lie out” in nearby woods and swamps whenever Confederate troops were rumored to be nearby.  Increasingly, they also interfered with Confederate tax agents sent to confiscate a portion of their crops and livestock.  Eventually, their resistance to Confederate authority became more organized, thanks in part to the leadership of farmer Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey).  When Confederate authorities sent troops into the region to regain control, Knight’s band participated in a series of bloody skirmishes.  Whether Knight and his “company” ever formally declared their independence from the Confederacy is highly debatable, but their disenchantment with the Confederacy and willingness to resist Confederate authority with force is undeniable.

So what is the historical value of The Free State of Jones?  I have taught a course on the American Civil War a couple of dozen times over the years, and one of the themes that I stress in each one is that we cannot begin to understand the Civil War accurately as long as we see it as a straightforward struggle between a unified South and a unified North.  Both regions experienced extensive internal dissent, and coming to grips with this transforms our understanding of the war’s contemporary and long-term significance.  The Free State of Jones explodes the myth of a solid Civil-War South, and I think that’s valuable.

A second theme that I always stress in Civil War courses is that, while northern victory resulted in the end of slavery, the question of what “freedom” would mean for former slaves was not remotely settled when Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, nor would it be settled for decades to come.  At least a third of The Free State of Jones involves the post-war Reconstruction era—a period Hollywood almost never acknowledges—and the movie effectively hammers home the reality that the official demise of slavery did little to weakens the ubiquitous racism that had been a bulwark of slavery for at least a century and a half.  This also, is valuable.

But the movie is also full of all kinds of historical inaccuracies and outright silliness.  Many of the movie’s errors are trivial:  the real Newton Knight was 24 years old in 1862 when the movie begins, about half as old as Matthew McConaughey.  A villainous Confederate colonel wears three stars on his collar, which was the insignia of a lieutenant general.  At a poignant moment in the movie, Knight’s followers lower a Confederate battle flag that is ubiquitous today but would not have flown over a Mississippi courthouse in 1864. (The flag was primarily employed by the Army of Northern Virginia during the war and did not become synonymous with the Confederacy until the 1920s.)  Not much here to get worked up about.

Other of the movie’s inaccuracies probably help to make the movie more entertaining. The best example here would be the battle scenes.  According to Victoria Bynum, the historian who is by far the leading expert on Jones County’s civil war, there were at least a dozen skirmishes between Knight’s followers and Confederate troops during the latter half of the Civil War, but they were invariably small affairs involving a few dozen individuals at most and never exacting more than a handful of casualties.  One of the first major “battles,” for example, just before Christmas 1863, resulted in Confederate casualties of one dead and two wounded.  I assume that in a culture utterly inured to violence, director Gary Ross thought that the less bloody reality would simply bore the audience.

free state6

If the battles in Jones County were typically small skirmishes, they also mostly pitted white males against white males, with few exceptions.  The film, on the other hand, insists on portraying Knight’s band as a “racially and sexually integrated paramilitary utopia,” in the words of one trenchant review.  This is Hollywood fabrication.  Bynum stresses that both enslaved blacks and white women were important to the success of the Jones County resistance, but in ways that, while still heroic, were more prosaic.  Both slaves and the resisters’ wives supported Knight’s company in invaluable ways, but primarily by smuggling food to the deserters when they were lying out and by alerting them to the approach of Confederate soldiers.  Director Gary Ross has them in the thick of the fighting.

The most ridiculous scene in the movie comes when Knight has planned an ambush of Confederate soldiers monitoring the funeral of a recently-hanged deserter.  The funeral procession consists primarily of middle-aged farm wives who, when the signal is given, pull revolvers from their shawls and, quite literally, begin blowing the heads off of Rebel soldiers at point-blank range.  The later portrayal of a shoot-out at the county seat features rifle-toting wives in their bonnets charging Rebel troops, loading cannon, and otherwise striking fear into the heart of the Confederate army.  This is manufactured out of whole cloth.

THE FREE STATE OF JONESWhat bothers me most about the movie, however, is not the minor inaccuracies or even the inanities but the egregious way that Ross has made the entire story into a simplistic morality play.  Newton Knight is delivered to us as a noble Robin Hood with twenty-first century racial sensibilities who would probably be a Sanders supporter if he were alive today.  The real Newton Knight did father at least five children with a former slave who became his common-law wife, but the movie’s depiction of Knight’s racial views is almost entirely conjecture, and Ross has chosen to skip over well documented episodes in Knight’s life that would complicate his heroic persona.  (There is evidence that he murdered his brother-in-law in cold blood during the war, for example, as well as testimony suggesting that he urged his mixed-race children to “pass” as white rather than challenge southern mores unnecessarily.)  On the other hand, every Confederate character in the movie is either a non-entity (enlisted men with no lines) or smarmy villains devoid of decency.

History can be a wonderful framework for moral reflection, especially when we allow our engagement with the past to expose our own hearts.  The best histories of slavery and the Civil War force us to confront our own propensities for moral compromise and injustice.  We need to see white Confederates—even white defenders of slavery—as three-dimensional humans no more prone to sin and self-justification than we are.  We need to get to know them well enough and gain enough understanding of their circumstances to confess that we might have behaved in the very same way if set down in their shoes.  The Free State of Jones just encourages us to feel superior.

HOW A REPUBLICAN CARTOONIST TAUGHT US TO SEE SANTA

Does the name “Thomas Nast” ring a bell with you? Specialists in U.S. history know him well, but otherwise he’s not much remembered today. But even though we don’t recall him, his influence is all around us at this time of year. I think of Nast every time I pass a mall Santa or tune in to yet another Hallmark movie focused on the North Pole. The reason is simple: Thomas Nast is the artist who showed us what Santa Claus really looks like.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Born in Germany, Nast came to America as a child in the 1840s and quickly showed an aptitude for art. By his early twenties he was working as an illustrator and cartoonist for several prominent national publications, most notably Harper’s Weekly, the self-described “journal of civilization” which as early as 1860 had a circulation upwards of 200,000. Nast was first and foremost a political cartoonist, and he quickly became widely known for his cartoons attacking municipal corruption–most notably his campaign against New York City machine boss William Tweed, who fell from power in 1871, in no small part due to Nast’s devastating campaign against him.

I know Nast best, however, for his cartoons pertaining to the politics of Reconstruction (1865-1877). Here are a few of my favorites that I have long used in my classes dealing with that period of U.S. history:

"This is a White Man's Country," Harper's Weekly, September 5, 1868

“This is a White Man’s Country,” Harper’s Weekly, September 5, 1868

“This is a White Man’s Government” appeared in the September 5, 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The title was inspired by the motto of the Democratic ticket in the upcoming presidential election pitting Governor Horatio Seymour of New York against the Republican nominee Ulysses Grant. Determined to portray the Republican Party as radical in its advocacy of civil rights for former slaves, Democratic campaign ribbons proclaimed “This is a White Man’s Country: Let White Men Rule.”

Nast, a staunch Republican, suggested that Democratic rule would be built on an unholy triumvirate of objectionable elements. Numerically the largest consisted of ignorant northern Democratic voters, most of them semi-civilized, uneducated recent immigrants who had opposed the war. (Nast’s portrayal of Irish individuals in his cartoons is almost always grossly demeaning. The Irishman on the left, wielding a club labeled “The Vote,” has all the features of a monkey.)

Second in number would be southern white Democrats, almost all of whom had been disloyal to the Union during the late war. (The figure in the middle is supposed to be former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, first imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.)

The third and smallest element is here represented by a New York City financier named August Belmont, a behind-the-scenes power broker in the Democratic Party. Belmont stands for Fifth Avenue types who had gotten rich during the war and who were willing to buy up the votes of the urban rabble to promote their nefarious schemes. (Notice that Belmont is clutching a wallet stuffed with cash for that purpose.)

Underneath the three lies a prostrate black Union veteran, dressed in uniform, clutching the U. S. flag, and reaching out for the ballot box. Nast was arguing for black civil rights by reminding readers that thousands of southern blacks had risked their lives in support of the Union, in stark contrast to the pillars of the Democratic Party.

Harper's Weekly, October 24, 1874

Harper’s Weekly,
October 24, 1874

Much the same message comes through in this untitled Nast cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in October 1874. The phrases at the top of the cartoon are all pointed references to the Democratic Party. “The Union as It Was” was a popular slogan of the 1864 Democratic presidential campaign of George McClellan. “This is a White Man’s Government,” as we have already seen, became the primary Democratic rallying cry of the Seymour campaign four years later. “The Lost Cause,” just above the skull and crossbones, refers to diehard former Confederates’ conviction that their cause had been just.

The two white figures that frame the cartoon (labeled “White League” and “K.K.K.”) stand for two white supremacist organizations that terrorized former slaves in the wake of emancipation and Confederate defeat. These contrast starkly with the central focus of the cartoon, two grieving African-American parents weeping over their slain child.

A spelling book lies on the ground near spatters of blood, and in the background are scenes of a lynching and a burning school house. In describing the scene as “worse than slavery,” Nast was telling readers that a Democratic victory would mean the end of Reconstruction and the abandonment of four million former slaves to virtual re-enslavement.

But Nast wasn’t always so sympathetic in his portrayal of African Americans. To be sure, the artist shared the predominant Republican position that the former slaves would be exploited and even brutalized if left to the mercies of the southern white Democratic majority. But as time passed Nast became increasingly disillusioned by political corruption in the Grant Administration and increasingly disenchanted with Republican efforts to install black officeholders in the white majority South.

The drawing below, entitled “Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State,” appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly the same year as the previous Nast cartoon. It purports to illustrate an alleged episode in South Carolina, the one former Confederate state where, if only for a brief period, African Americans constituted a majority in the state legislature. However much southern blacks might deserve federal protection from white terrorism, Nast seems to be saying, they are far from ready to participate fully in their own government.

"Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State, Harper's Weekly, March 14, 1874

“Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State, Harper’s Weekly,
March 14, 1874

But Nast didn’t only produce cartoons about politics. His association with Harper’s Weekly lasted from the early 1860s through the mid-1880s, and during those two-plus decades he also contributed thirty or so drawings of Santa Claus. It was only after their favorite cartoonist had brought him to life that Americans agreed on what Santa looked like.

Of course Clement Clark Moore had described “the right jolly old elf” in his 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Readers had learned from Moore about Santa’s twinkling eyes and merry dimples, his soot-tarnished clothes, and–how to put this delicately?–his less than rock-hard abs. And yet it was the cartoonist Nast who translated Moore’s poetic lines into the visual image we take for granted today.

"Santa Claus in Camp" (detail), from the cover of Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863

“Santa Claus in Camp” (detail), from the cover of Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863

But first Nast had to figure out for himself what Santa looked like. His initial attempt came in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War. In “Santa Claus in Camp,” Nast sketched Santa as a large man decked out in red, white, and blue and delivering presents, not to sleepy children, but to Union soldiers. (I call this version “Yankee Doodle Santa.”) In an early post-war rendering (the 1866 cartoon “Santa Claus and His Works”), Nast portrayed Santa more in keeping with the description in Moore’s poem. This Santa is clothed in a dark suit and is literally the size of an elf, so short that he had to stand on a chair in order to reach the stockings hanging from the mantle.

As the years, passed, however, Nast’s Santa grew in stature and exchanged his brown suit for a red one. The 1880 sketch below is probably Nast’s best known Santa and is still reproduced even to this day.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper's Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper’s Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

REMEMBERING THE END OF THE CIVIL WAR

At the encouragement of the National Park Service, yesterday churches, temples, schools, courthouses and other public buildings took part in “Bells Across the Land,” ringing their bells in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, an event usually remembered as signaling the end of the American Civil War.

My institution, Wheaton College, had planned to participate up until the last minute, when a tornado watch convinced the administration that it probably wasn’t wise to send someone up into the bell tower of Blanchard Hall, which was erected just before the Civil War began.  Even so, the event got me to thinking about how we remember the end of the war.

I’ve been teaching on the Civil War to college students for more than a quarter of a century now, and one of the things I always stress is that it’s utterly unhistorical to end any history course in 1865.  The reason for this is simple.  Although northern victory in that conflict had guaranteed the preservation of the Union, it was not at all clear what kind of union had been preserved.  Two crucial and closely related questions had not been resolved and would not be resolved for years to come.

The first was the question of what northern victory would mean for white southerners.  How would the place and power of the South in national affairs be affected? What would become of the prewar planter class?  Would there be a fundamental alteration in the structure of southern society?  Would the relation between whites and blacks in the former slave states change appreciably, and if so, how?

The second question, inextricably related to the first, concerned the meaning of northern victory for the former slaves.  By the time that Lee and Grant sat down in Wilmer McLean’s parlor to discuss terms of surrender, slavery’s imminent demise was obvious to almost everyone.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 had already effectively liberated at least a third of the Confederacy’s slave population.  Then in January 1865 the U. S. Congress had followed Lincoln’s decree with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  When that measure was ratified, and it almost inevitably would be, the institution of slavery would be constitutionally prohibited throughout the land.  And yet what would “freedom” mean for southern blacks?  Would the federal government act to protect the former slaves from the white majority?  Would the “freedmen,” as they came to be called, have a recognized right to choose their own employers and be paid fairly for their labors?  Would “freedom” include a modicum of civil equality–equal access to education and the courts, for example?  Might “freedom” possibly include the right to vote, at least for black males?

Not one of these questions had been determined by the time that the weary veterans of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia stacked their arms and headed for home.  We tend to forget that fact–if we were ever aware of it–or maybe we just don’t care.  At any rate, it is unlikely that Americans will lavish nearly as much attention on the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, a point nicely made by Columbia historian Eric Foner in this New York Times editorial.

All of this brings to mind one of my most favorite books about the Civil War, and I’ll close by recommending it enthusiastically to anyone at all interested in what happened after the shooting stopped.  The book I have in mind is A Year in the South, by Stephen V. Ash.  A Year in the South is one of those rare books that works on numerous levels.  It is a meticulously researched monograph by a first-rate academic historian that simultaneously reads like a novel and commands a broad audience.

Year in the South

Ash subtitles his book “Four Lives in 1865,” and his goal is to recreate the experiences of “four ordinary people in an extraordinary time,” the twelve months in 1865 that witnessed the death of the Old South and the gradual dawning of a new order.  The author follows the lives of four very different civilians who left detailed memoirs or, in one case, a wartime diary. Samuel Agnew was a minister and son of a wealthy Mississippi slaveholder; Yankee troops raided his community countless times and a pitched battle was fought on the family plantation. Louis Hughes began the year laboring as a slave in the Alabama state salt works and ended it as a free man in Ontario, Canada, having determined that he could never truly be free on American soil. Cornelia McDonald was a middle-aged war widow living as a refugee in the upper Shenandoah Valley; the war had destroyed her comfortable, middle-class existence, and by 1865 she and her seven children lived on the brink of starvation. John Robertson was a teenager from East Tennessee, a Confederate sympathizer in a staunchly Unionist region.  Early in the war Robertson had served in a secessionist home guard unit that terrorized local loyalists, and by 1865 he had become a target of revenge-minded Unionists and feared for his life.

The late eminent historian David Potter once observed that hindsight is both the historians “chief asset” and “main liability.”  Because we know what came afterward, it is almost impossible for us to regain the sense of uncertainty and contingency that historical figures experience as they live their lives one day at a time.  In A Year in the South, Stephen Ash masterfully recaptures that sense of uncertainty.  None of these figures has the slightest idea what Confederate defeat will mean for their lives.  In driving this point home, Ash powerfully conveys the ubiquitous sense of upheaval and uncertainty prompted by the collapse of the Old South and the gradual, chaotic emergence of a new social order. Above all, he conveys the extremes of emotion unleashed by this ambiguous transformation: exultation, indignation, anxiety, hope.

A Year in the South engages the heart as well as the mind. Readers will feel as well as think along with these four southerners, vicariously exploring a crucial historical period from the perspective of human beings who lived through it.

THE “NASTY” ORIGINS OF HOW WE SEE SANTA

Does the name “Thomas Nast” ring a bell with you?  Specialists in U.S. history know him well, but otherwise he’s not much remembered today.  But even though we don’t recall him, his influence is all around us at this time of year.  I think of Nast every time I pass a mall Santa or tune in to yet another Hallmark movie focused on the North Pole.  The reason is simple: Thomas Nast is the artist who showed us what Santa Claus really looks like.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Born in Germany,  Nast came to America as a child in the 1840s and quickly showed an aptitude for art.  By his early twenties he was working as an illustrator and cartoonist for several prominent national publications, most notably Harper’s Weekly, the self-described “journal of civilization” which as early as 1860 had a  circulation upwards of 200,000.  Nast was first and foremost a political cartoonist, and he quickly became widely known for his cartoons attacking municipal corruption–most notably his campaign against New York City machine boss William Tweed, who fell from power in 1871, in so small part due to Nast’s devastating campaign against him.

I know Nast best, however, for his cartoons pertaining to the politics of Reconstruction (1865-1877).  Here are a few of my favorites that I have long used in my classes dealing with that period of U.S. history:

"This is a White Man's Country," Harper's Weekly, September 5, 1868

“This is a White Man’s Government,” Harper’s Weekly, September 5, 1868

“This is a White Man’s Government” appeared in the September 5, 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  The title was inspired by the motto of the Democratic ticket in the upcoming presidential election pitting Governor Horatio Seymour of New York against the Republican nominee Ulysses Grant.  Determined to portray the Republican Party as radical in its advocacy of civil rights for former slaves, Democratic campaign ribbons proclaimed “This is a White Man’s Country: Let White Men Rule.”  Nast, a staunch Republican, suggested that Democratic rule would be built on an unholy triumvirate of objectionable elements.

Numerically the largest consisted of ignorant northern Democratic voters, most of them semi-civilized, uneducated recent immigrants who had opposed the war.  (Nast’s portrayal of Irish individuals in his cartoons is almost always grossly demeaning.  The Irishman on the left, wielding a club labeled “The Vote,” has all the features of a monkey.)  Second in number would be southern white Democrats, almost all of whom had been disloyal to the Union during the late war.  (The figure in the middle is supposed to be former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, first imperial wizard or the Ku Klux Klan.)  The third and smallest element, here represented by a New York City financier named August Belmont, a behind-the-scenes power broker in the Democratic Party, stands for Fifth Avenue types who had gotten rich during the war and who were willing to buy up the votes of the urban rabble to promote their nefarious schemes.  (Belmont is clutching a wallet stuffed with cash for that purpose.)  Underneath the three lies a prostrate black Union veteran, dressed in uniform, clutching the U. S. flag, and reaching out for the ballot box.  Nast here is making a powerful argument for black civil rights by reminding readers that thousands of southern blacks had risked their lives in support of the Union, in stark contrast to the pillars of the Democratic Party.

Harper's Weekly,  October 24, 1874

Harper’s Weekly,
October 24, 1874

Much the same message comes through in this untitled Nast cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in October 1874.  The phrases at the top of the cartoon are all pointed references to the Democratic Party.  “The Union as It Was” was a popular slogan of the 1864 Democratic presidential campaign of George McClellan.  “This is a White Man’s Government,” as we have already seen, became the primary Democratic rallying cry of the Seymour campaign four years later.  “The Lost Cause,” just above the skull and crossbones, refers to diehard former Confederates’ conviction that their cause had been just.  The two white figures that frame the cartoon (labeled “White League” and “K.K.K.”) allude to two white supremacist organizations that terrorized former slaves in the wake of emancipation and Confederate defeat.  The central focus of the cartoon shows grieving African-American parents holding their (apparently) slain child.  A spelling book lies on the ground near spatters of blood, and in the background are scenes of a lynching and a burning school house.  In describing the scene as “worse than slavery,” Nast was telling readers that a Democratic victory would mean the end of Reconstruction and the abandonment of four million former slaves to virtual re-enslavement.

But Nast wasn’t always so sympathetic in his portrayal of African Americans.  To be sure, the artist shared the predominant Republican position that the former slaves would be exploited and even brutalized if left to the mercies of the (Democratic) southern white majority.  But he became increasingly disillusioned by political corruption in the Grant Administration and increasingly disenchanted with Republican efforts to install black officeholders in the white majority South.  The drawing below, entitled “Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State,”  appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly the same year as the previous Nast cartoon.  It purports to illustrate an alleged episode in South Carolina, the one former Confederate state where, if only for a brief period, African Americans constituted a majority in the state legislature.  However much southern blacks might deserve federal protection from white terrorism, Nast seems to be saying, they are far from ready to participate fully in their own government.

"Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State, Harper's Weekly,  March 14, 1874

“Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State, Harper’s Weekly, March 14, 1874

But Nast didn’t only produce cartoons about politics.  His association with Harper’s Weekly lasted from the early 1860s through the mid-1880s, and during those two-plus decades he also contributed thirty or so drawings of Santa Claus. It was only after their favorite cartoonist had brought him to life that Americans agreed on what Santa looked like.

Of course Clement Clark Moore had described “the right jolly old elf” in his 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”  Readers had learned from Moore about Santa’s twinkling eyes and merry dimples, his soot-tarnished clothes, and–how to put this delicately?–his less than rock-hard abs.  And yet it was the cartoonist  Nast who translated Moore’s poetic lines into the visual image we take for granted today.

But first Nast had to figure out for himself what Santa looked like.  His first attempt came in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War.  In “Santa Claus in Camp,” Nast sketched Santa as a large man decked out in red, white, and blue and delivering presents, not to sleepy children, but to Union soldiers.  (I call this version “Yankee Doodle Santa.”)  In an early post-war rendering (the 1866 cartoon “Santa Claus and His Works”), Nast portrayed Santa more in keeping with the description in Moore’s poem.  This Santa is clothed in a dark suit and is literally the size of an elf, so short that he had to stand on a chair in order to reach the stockings hanging from the mantle.  As the years, passed, however, Nast’s Santa grew in stature and exchanged his brown suit for a red one.  The 1880 sketch below is probably Nast’s best known Santa and is still reproduced even to this day.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper's Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper’s Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.