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“The stylus of history shall make a truthful record”: Highlights from the American Antiquarian Society’s Civil War Collection

Posted on 05/19/2016

The April release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes a richly illustrated pictorial history of the war, an essay by a Scottish aristocrat on the causes of the war, and a history of the decade leading to the war written by an abolitionist correspondent from Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune whose views underwent revision and revelation. 

The Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War in the United States of America

By Benson J. Lossing, LL.D. Illustrated by many hundred engravings on wood, by Lossing and Barritt, from sketches by the author and others (1879) 

The promise of the title is not in vain. Indeed, this three-volume work is profusely illustrated. The citation assigns the imprint to the genres of Intaglio prints and Relief prints among others. Further, the citation also references many engravers and illustrators, by name, whose work contributed to the history. Appreciation of this imprint is enhanced by some knowledge of Benson John Lossing, a 19th-century American historian. 

Lossing left school at age 11 when he became an orphan and began working as an apprentice to a watchmaker and silversmith. As he learned the trade he began his intellectual life as an autodidact, first pursuing history. As he developed his talents, Lossing became an editor and illustrator in New York City. He and a partner created a wood engraving business which prospered. In time he collected more than 5,000 books and documents concerning the American Revolution and published many articles and illustrated histories of both the Revolution and the Civil War.  

In the preface Lossing writes: 

The task of making a record of the events of the late Civil War in our Republic is not a pleasant one for an American citizen. It would be more consonant with his wishes to bury in oblivion all knowledge of those events which compose the materials of the sorrowful story of a strife among his brethren, of terrible energy and woeful operations. But that privilege is denied him. The din of the conflict was heard all over the world, and people of all nations were spectators of the scene. The fact cannot be hidden. It has become a part of the history of the inhabitants of the earth, and will forever occupy a conspicuous place in the annals of mankind. What remains for the American citizen to do, is to see that the stylus of history shall make a truthful record. 

The table of contents is followed by four pages listing the 406 illustrations in Volume I:

And here are five examples:


The Confederate Secession by the Marquess of Lothian (1864) 

Lothian was a Scottish aristocrat who, by the time of his death at 37, had acquired a bevy of titles by right of descent from his noble family. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church College at Oxford University. He does not appear to have ever travelled to the United States or its rebellious southern states. His view of the war is contrarian. 

Lothian seeks to debunk the idea that the war was about the North being determined to free the slaves and “that the minority, alarmed lest their power of exercising wanton tyranny over the negroes should be taken away from them, have most unjustifiably rebelled…” 

Possibly, also, those who entertain these opinions may also believe that Congress has in America the same power that Parliament has with us; and that the States stand to the Central Government in the relation our counties do. These views have been contradicted over and over again. But still they may have some weight with those who may perhaps take a superficial interest in the subject, without caring to go at all deeper into it. 

He states that he does “not think that the question between South and North is one that ought to be decided on sentimental grounds.” And he goes on to argue that: 

The fault with which she [the South] is charged is this: that her States have inherited, through no fault of theirs, a bad institution, which was bestowed upon them by ourselves, and, in truth (this I kept out of sight as much as possible), forced down their throats, not only without consulting them, but also in the teeth of their most vehement protestations. Viewed in this light, surely she is more deserving of pity than of condemnation, at least from us. 

Lothian lays out the direction of his essay. 

If the Southerners have a right to withdraw from the Union, we ought to wish them success, even if the “peculiar institution” were as black as it is sometimes painted. And whether they have that right, depends on the answer that may be given to these three questions. If upon any one of them an affirmative is returned, cadit quaestio [the question falls.]

Have nations any right to change their forms of government? 

Is this right stronger or weaker in the case of Americans? 

Is Secession to be considered as rebellion at all? 

First Blows of the Civil War: The Ten Years of Preliminary Conflict in the United States. From 1850 to 1860. A Contemporaneous Exposition (1879) 

James S. Pike was a well-regarded journalist who was the New York Tribune’s Washington correspondent from 1850 to 1860. He was opposed to slavery, led the opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and was widely reprinted in Republican newspapers throughout the North. In 1861 President Lincoln appointed him ambassador to the Netherlands where he countered the Confederacy and promoted the Union. He was a prominent Republican Radical who favored enfranchising the freed slaves and disenfranchising ex-Confederates, at least from holding office. 

His reputation made it striking when, in the 1870s, he grew disillusioned with Reconstruction and published a notorious book, The Prostrate State, which he presented as an eyewitness account of the collapse of South Carolina under the governance of the freed slaves. Pike revealed his racism, his antipathy toward African Americans. The historian, Robert Franklin Durden, wrote a biographical study of Pike in which he concluded: 

A sweeping indictment of Republican rule in this state (and, by inference, other southern states), Pike’s dramatic “eye-witness” account gained much attention throughout the country. The book was so popular because it was seen as the work of an allegedly impartial Maine Republican and old foe of slavery who had come to his senses about the “wicked corruption” of the carpetbaggers and their “ignorant and barbaric” Negro allies. Pike’s book not only played a role in the ending of Reconstruction but was much used by historians well into the twentieth century. In fact, it was far from objective, simply reflecting Pike’s long-standing racism. 

This work by Pike was not published until 1879, five years after The Prostrate State, so it seems advised that any reader of the account of the decade leading to the war bear in mind the author’s complicated personal history and the tenor of his convictions. 

 For more information about The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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