Image analysis essay- what Civil War story does the image tell? Winter Humanities Core '15
|Picture reference: Compromise with the South image from Harper's Weekly
The Other Story of the Civil War
History frequently tells a Civil War story of a strong Union army, one where the Northern states were always going to win. Textbooks and teachers do not teach the alternate side of the Civil War- when the Union was losing its battles and on the verge of collapse or submission to the South. Although Harper’s Weekly argues Thomas Nast’s interpretation of the picture was sympathetic to the North’s cause in the Civil War, the image warned the North of what would happen if the South won the war, in regards to the imminent Northern defeat at the time the picture was published. Nast used “Useless War” to describe the Civil War if the Confederates had ended up winning, and the “memory” was meant as sarcasm: people will not remember something “useless”. Therefore, Nast is trying to convey that nobody will remember the North’s effort in the Civil War if they lost, showing how a Union win was not always guaranteed.
At first glance, this picture seems to be a piece of Southern propaganda. It looks like it is slashing at the Northerners, depicting a Confederate soldier disrespecting the Union grave by stepping on it. The soldier’s posture is straight, and his facial expression almost looks smug. There is a broken sword, under his foot, the point of which says “power”. The word “Northern” can be faintly made out on the top half. Assuming this sword belongs to the Union soldier, because the Confederate soldier already has a whip, in his left hand and a sword hanging behind him, stepping on the sword, on top of the grave is a sign of disrespect. It is as if the Confederate is dishonoring both the dead and alive of the Union side. Nast also tries to say the South has broken the North’s power. Additionally, the Confederate’s posture looks as if he is pulling the battered Northern soldier over to the South. There is destruction and fire on the North, but the South seems to be relatively free of damage, showing the North’s distraught state. Most importantly, the flags in the top two corners show pro-South sentiments- the Union flag is upside down, in a sign of distress, and the Confederate flag in the right corner is comprised of statements that were formatted to look like newspaper headlines-in capital letters. The content was all angry, and all regarding the north.
The Northern soldier is amputated on his right leg, and his arm, shaking the Confederate soldier’s hand, looks like it has no energy- it is limp, and he has given up. The Northern soldier’s face is hidden, most likely in shame, or perhaps disgust, that he must compromise with the other side. His other arm, holding his cap, is in a sling. He is broken all over, and as the broken sword on the grave suggests, also powerless, which is why his hat is off. It is a show of deference to the South- one of retreat, defeat, or acceptance.
In reality, Nast’s image was published in Harper’s Weekly, a magazine with strong Northern views. Therefore, the ambiguity with this picture is not where the loyalty lays, but what Nast was trying to convey. On close observation, the caption “Dedicated to the Chicago Convention” is on the bottom. This cartoon is Nast’s response to Lincoln’s results, or lack of, at the Democratic National Convention. Additionally, this image was printed at a time when the North was not doing well in the war. A Southern win and Northern surrender seemed imminent. It seems like Nast was trying to warn the North what would happen if they compromised. It is almost like Nast was saying that the end of the war could not be satisfactorily reached through compromising with the South.
Another interesting aspect of this image is the tombstone, which Nast strategically places it in the center of the image, as if to draw attention to it. The shadow on the tombstone is noticeable, because there is no light source in this image. The sun is noticeably absent. The way the shadow of the arms falls onto the headstone implies the sun would be behind the Northern Union soldier. However, behind the Union soldier is a mess of fire, broken walls and fences, and smoke. The sun being able to shine through the smoke and dark clouds is highly unlikely. One thing about the shadow is that it is slanted, diagonally and down. It is as if the shadow is slashing through the words, like the “no” symbol, insinuating that the “heroes” are not “heroes” at all, but actually men who simply died in vain for their cause.
Another noticeable aspect of the tombstone is the words on it. The five main words there are “memory”, “Union soldiers”, and “useless war”. The full message reads “In MEMORY our UNION SOLDIERS who fell IN A USELESS WAR”. The larger words, when strung together, form a more or less complete message- to remember the Union soldiers, in a useless war. Here, Harper’s Weekly says Nast used the wording because “if compromise with the Confederacy is pursued, then Union servicemen will have sacrificed their limbs and lives in vain, and black Americans will be returned to slavery” (Kennedy). In accordance with their belief that Nast was actually encouraging the North to resume fighting, and continue fighting stronger than they were before, Harper’s Weekly was trying to encourage the North to not give up hope.
Contrarily, Nast intended this image as a warning to the North. He tried hinting that the Northern soldiers need to collect themselves and win the war; if they didn’t, the soldiers’ memory would be nothing more than that- a memory, and a fading, useless memory. People will not remember something useless, so over time, the memory of the fallen heroes will fade into nothing, and the grave will be the only proof the soldiers existed at all.
Also, there are columns of short lines, which I interpreted as names of the soldiers who died in the war. This is a mass grave for all of the soldiers, and there is a lady at the side of it, weeping. She appears to be holding on to the stone with one hand, using the other to cover her face. This lady represents Columbia, the poetic symbol of the United States. She is on the Union’s side, and weeping, which could symbolize Nast’s opinion on what side of the war the government was joining. Also, Nast signs his name in the lower left hand corner, possibly signaling that he sides with the North. The tombstone has fine lines running through it, and they look like cracks. The tombstone could represent a cracked or broken memory of the soldiers that would eventually disintegrate into nothing, because as the pieces get smaller, they are easier to break and lose.
If the South won the war, as Nast depicts in the image, white supremacy would reign, as the Confederate soldier’s proud posture could insinuate. If, as according to Harper’s Weekly, the soldier is Jefferson Davis, the captain of the Confederate army, it would be fitting for him to look proud and triumphant, since his army was winning. There are three people in the background, a man, woman, and their child. The woman is angrily looking North and holding their child. The man is looking up, to the sky, as if he is in prayer. His posture is distressed. The man and woman are chained together, and they seem unready to accept whatever fate they may soon have to face.
The fire behind the Northern side is notable, because most of the war was fought in the South, and therefore, if this was a realistic depiction of the war, the fire and destruction should be on the southern side. All the smoke and ashes cloud the North in darkness, perhaps representing mystery and uncertainty over who might really win the war. Additionally, the framing of the center image is in a dome shape, like a fortune teller’s crystal ball. It’s like Nast was using the cartoon to foretell the future, and showing what would happen if the North ended up compromising with the South. The image reflects the future and how the United States would be changed if the Union did not win the war.
Outside the frame of the dome, there are two flags- one in each top corner of the image. The left side has an upside down Union flag; the right side, an upright Confederate flag. On the Union flag, phrases such as “emancipation of slaves” can be faintly made out. An upside down flag, according to Cornell Law, is “signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property” (LII). Nast used the upside down flag as a sign of distress for the North, and the messages on the flag. Accompanied with the crystal ball framing, the flag shows the extreme severity of the situation. If the North compromised with the South, everything the North fought for would be gone, and then everything would be over. The slaves’ emancipation would never happen, and the Union soldiers would not be remembered in history.
This picture shows a different aspect of the Civil War than the one students are taught from elementary school through high school in history classes. Here, Abraham Lincoln is not the great hero who helped win the Civil War. Contrarily, he is the one being scrutinized and examined for his actions at the conference. At the time of publication, his next term as president was uncertain. He himself was not confident he would even get the nomination for the ballot in the next election. The cartoon Thomas Nast produced for Harper’s Weekly depicts a hidden story not taught in textbooks-one where Abraham Lincoln is not a hero, and the North might not win the Civil War.
"4 U.S. Code § 8 - Respect for flag." Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2015. <http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/4/8>.
Kennedy, Robert C. "Cartoon of the Day “Compromise with the South”." Harper's Weekly. N.p.,
3, Sept. 1864. Web. 31 Jan. 2015. <http://www.harpweek.com/09Cartoon/BrowseByDateCartoon.asp?Month=September&Date=3 >.