I’ve been busy lately preparing a series of lectures on late nineteenth century political life. As I was searching the rich collection of images and audio files (yes, there are audio samples of speeches by Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Teddy Roosevelt!), I came across this political cartoon. It really captured my attention.
It appeared in Harper’s Weekly on September 3, 1864. The date is important.
As you know, these were incredibly dark days for the Union. The war showed no sign of slowing down, the Election of 1864 was quickly approaching, and Lincoln did not think he would succeed. In fact, about a week before this cartoon was published, Lincoln drafted his well-known “Probable Failure Memo.”
The 1864 Democratic platform called the war a failure and criticized emancipation. They advocated a cease fire with the South and called for negotiations.
Many within the Union thought the Democrat platform made sense. Prominent politicians of both parties, vocal newspaper editors, as well as mothers, fathers, friends, and families of the soldiers called for an end to the bloodshed. Go to the negotiating table, they said, and end this devastating conflict.
Thomas Nast directed this political cartoon to the folks who called for “Compromise with the South.”
As with any political cartoon, the symbols throughout this piece are incredibly significant.
The cartoon is divided in half. Nast reserves the left-hand side for the North, while the right depicts life in the South.
The Union side features a tattered American flag hanging upside down in an obvious signal of distress. Images of a ravaged Northern city, a home on fire, and a dead body complete the background.
The foreground is more complicated. A Union soldier on crutches is missing a leg. His head hangs low and he holds his hat in his hand. He shakes a Confederate soldier’s hand, but notice their embrace. The Union soldier merely holds out his hand, while the Confederate soldier maintains a firm grip.
A sobbing woman kneels beside the soldier, but notice: she is at the foot of a grave. The tombstone reads, “In Memory of the Union Heroes” who fought “in a Useless War.” The woman is Lady Columbia, a common nineteenth century representation of the United States. Both the Union soldier and Lady Columbia seem to recognize the scene for what it truly is. This is no “Compromise with the South,” this is a Union surrender.
The right side of the cartoon depicts the South. The Confederate soldier, who looks a lot like Jefferson Davis, stands tall with his head held high. He has a firm grip on the handshake and rests his foot on the grave of the Union dead. Notice too: his foot has broken the sword that represents Union power.
Nast saves his most powerful commentary for the images in the background. While the Confederate flag is tattered, it is flying right-side up. But on close examination, there is writing on the flag. The words are hard to make out, but they list several supposed crimes the South had committed throughout the sectional conflict.
There are dead soldiers and civilians in the background, but three people are among the living in the South. A man in a Union uniform, a woman, and a young child. On close examination, they are all African American. They are in chains. With the Union surrender, they are re-enslaved.
The Republican Party reprinted this powerful political cartoon and used it during the campaign of 1864.