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Contraband, Conspiracy, and Political Cartoons: New Works in The American Civil War Collection

Posted on 09/19/2016

154FE302DA7FE3C8.jpgThe current release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society, includes:

  • an unusual Christmas story instructive of the need for faith,
  • an elaborate account of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln,
  • and a lithographic collection of caricatures, or political cartoons, from the years surrounding and including the Civil War.

Contraband Christmas. By N.W.T.R. With illustrations by Hoppin. (1864)

N.W.T.R are the initials for Nathaniel William Taylor Root (1829-1872) who appears to have been particularly interested in preparing Civil War-era boys for military service. The illustrator is Augustus Hoppin who has previously been featured here for his comical works Carrot-pomade and Hay Fever.

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This tale takes place in Rhode Island and entails the Greene family and their three children the eldest of whom is a soldier in the Union Army. When he had last visited his family on leave, he had brought with him a black man who remained with the family to whom he was introduced as Chrismus. When asked, he explained that his former master had named him thus because he was born on Christmas Day twenty years earlier.

The author describes a loving family who are decent and generous but not particularly burdened by religious obligations. In contrast to the Greene’s religious attitudes, Chrismus began to long for the comfort of participation in the church of his former master. He began to struggle with a question: “Freedom among strangers, or bondage among friends?”


As the tale unfolds, the author’s purpose becomes clearer. Grave illness strikes their son at war. Chrismus leads the younger son to church, and prayer is introduced into the Greene household. Christmas Day brings great joy to all, perhaps most especially to Chrismus. Religion triumphs, and the once indifferent family embraces it. And thus, this once cynical narrative evolves to a morally uplifting, heaping serving of redemption.

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The Great Conspiracy. A book of absorbing interest! Startling developments. Eminent persons implicated. Full secret of the assassination plot. John H. Surratt and his mother. With biographical sketches of J.B. Booth and John Wilkes, and the life and extraordinary adventures of John H. Surratt, the conspirator (1866)

The anonymous author asserts a certainty that he has uncovered all of the facts concerning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He appears to cite few authorities for some of his descriptions of the assassin’s early life, but the fact that this imprint was published the year after the president’s death and its inclusion of letters and testimony must have made it a compelling read for many Americans. The author describes the youthful John Wilkes Booth as:

a daring rider, and never saw a horse that he was not anxious to mount. He excelled in all boyish exercises, ran, leaped, and on occasions could box, but he never shone as a scholar. Even then he was a singular boy, at times fitful and melancholy or penitent for his offences. He was never violent though frequently stubborn. He was silent and quiet…and he never told anyone where he was going or what he meant. He had a singular antipathy for cats, and shot all these animals in the vicinity.

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There ensues a description of a brief life on the stage that was largely a failure and was ended by bronchitis, but not before he was stabbed by a spurned woman in Alabama resulting in “the marks of this wound he would carry to his death.”

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There may be no great revelations concerning the events immediately surrounding the president’s murder, but there are intriguing passages about the character and behavior of the plotters:

Booth….exercised a kind of magnetism over the person with whom he conversed, and no one could resist his fascination. This was the secret of his influence over Harold, Atzeroit and Payne. A mass of curling, jetty hair crowned his square forehead and brows; such was his physique. A person who saw him after death, remarked that his features were still beautiful, but it was evident that he had undergone a great struggle, and was now at rest….

The death of the President was his “ruling passion,” and Booth could scarcely have been considered sane on this point. He inherited a morbid tendency to derangement from his father.

Some pity may be felt for a man haunted with this idea, and who atoned for it by a sudden and violent death, preceded by the most agonizing tortures, as during his last ride he had not one moment’s ease, cut off in the bloom of youth. The most severe moralist and bitter foe must drop a tear…

To which this writer responds, not I. However, these excerpts provide an introduction to the author’s perspective which makes for compelling narration.

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American Caricatures Pertaining to the Civil War: Reproduced from the Original Lithographs Published from 1856 to 1872, with Introduction (1918)

This imprint consists almost entirely of American caricature lithographs from the mid-nineteenth century. The introduction provides the context.

Political caricature, like the newspaper press, is a comparatively recent method for the expression of opinion and criticism, though it antedates the modern newspaper which reviews in editorials the actions of those in power…

The caricatures reproduced in this volume date from 1856, and include the most important of those which were issued between that year and 1872. All have been photographed direct from the originals in the possession of a collector…

This collection is, unquestionably, of permanent historical value and of more than passing interest. Our ancestors had a rough and ready way with them of expressing their likes and dislikes, especially in the heat of electoral campaigns; but they said what they honestly thought; and it is this sincerity of expression which so appeals to us, despite its lack of artistic finish and even crude vulgarity. As draughtsmen, the artists of these caricatures were not of the most accomplished order, but there is no mistaking their intention, nor are we left in any doubt as to the identities of the individuals satirized, nor the meaning of the moral they desired to convey.

In the heat of our current electoral campaign, it may be particularly timely to peruse these relics of an earlier time. A small sampling follows:

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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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