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A Nation Divided.  The Civil War in contemporary prints
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Publication formats of Civil War prints


Contemporary prints and maps provided the main graphic material that the public had access to during the Civil War. These printed images appeared in a number of publication formats, some of which allowed for distribution in the hundreds of thousands and some of which were produced in only small numbers. Some formats were designed to provide accurate and current information and others were intended as patriotic and decorative images. To appreciate any Civil War print, it is important to understand how and for what purpose it was issued.

[ Illustrated Newspapers | Magazine prints | Separately issued prints: Popular prints, Better quality prints | Portfolios | Book illustrations ]

Illustrated newspapers

Illustrated newspapers, filled with wood engraved images, were first produced in England in 1842 and a decade later they made their appearance in America. Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, and Harper's Weekly built large circulations, some over 100,000, with their combination of timely articles, wide ranging subjects, and graphic illustrations, many drawn on the spot at events and locations around the world.

These characteristics made them especially able to satisfy the public's demand for current information about the actors and events of the war, so in the early 1860s their circulations grew significantly. Frank Leslie reported that despite losing the Southern market, his subscription list was doubled because of the war.

Leading up to bombardment at Fort Sumter and extending well into the aftermath of the war, each weekly issue of these publications included stories and pictures about the war. So many different images were printed in such large numbers that the majority of the Civil War images viewed by the public--both in the North and in the South, as well as in the rest of the world--were those published in illustrated newspapers.

These newspapers sometimes used available photographs as the source for their images, but they also sent out artists into the field. These artists made first-hand renderings of people, places, encampments and even--unlike photographs--of the battles themselves. Just after the war, Harper's Weekly claimed that its artists had worked "in the field, upon their knees, upon a knapsack, upon a bulwark, upon a drum-head, upon a block, upon a canteen, upon a wet-deck, in the gray dawn, in the dark twilight, with freezing or fevered fingers" in order to provide images "quivering with life, faithful, terrible, romantic, the value of which will grow every year." (June 3, 1865) And while there was often some artistic license involved, most of these images were quite truthful.

Once these images were drawn by the field artists, they were promptly sent back to the publishers, who were able to have the wood blocks prepared in short order (cf. print processes page), so that these prints were usually published within days of the events depicted. Thus these newspaper illustrations were a generally accurate and very timely source of graphic information for the general public, and similarly, they provide us today with some of the best contemporary documentation of the war.

Magazine prints

There were not a lot of magazines issued at the time that contained prints about Civil War. Magazines were not as quick to produce as the illustrated newspapers, so their prints could not be as current, and the market most magazine publishers were aiming at was one where the readers generally wanted to think about other things that the terrible conflict.

Separately issued prints

A separately issued print is one published as a separate sheet of paper, not as part of a larger publication. These prints were, therefore, unprotected by any sort of binding or cover, and their survival rate is the lowest of any other Civil War prints. Some separately issued prints were issued in large numbers, but others were issued in small runs, which combined with their low survival rate means that they are among the rarest Civil War prints.

Popular prints

Popular prints were those that were designed to be graphically attractive to the general public and issued at low cost, the publishers intending them to be purchased in large numbers by the middle and lower strata of the population. These prints were made by lithography and many were hand colored to make them more generally appealing. These prints were usually of small size and priced at just a few cents each. They wre sold in print, frame, and book shops around the county, as well as by itinerate peddlers.

This sort of popular war print had made an earlier appearance in the United States during the Mexican-American War two decades before, so the popular print publishers had experience in making these prints and knew there was a market for them. The firms of Currier & Ives of New York, the Kelloggs of Hartford, and many others produced large numbers of popular prints of the Civil War.

The goal of the publishers of these prints was to get an attractive and interesting image of a person, place or event out to the public as soon as possible so that they could sell large numbers of these prints while interest remained strong. It was easiest to do this using non-specific, generic images of, say, charging soldiers on horseback waving their swords or wave after wave of brave foot soldiers marching in line with guns firing. The publishers often would try to make the image a bit specific to the alleged subject, for instance using a photograph for the face of the general or modifying the scene to match a newspaper description. However, these images were not in any way seriously accurate.

The fact was that the accuracy of the images was of only secondary importance to the commercial print publishers. Of more import to the publishers was that the portraits and battle scenes were dramatic, inspiring and portrayed from a patriotic viewpoint. This would make them more desirable to the public and so better sellers, which was the bottom line for these prints.

This should not, however, be seen as a criticism of these prints, for the way they were used by the public made this emphasis appropriate. Where the public generally looked to the illustrated newspapers to get current and accurate information, they looked to these popular prints as patriotic icons, to be passed around or hung on display. Thus it made sense that the graphic impact was more important than accuracy.

This point is nicely made by Mark Neely and Harold Holzer in their excellent The Union Image, where they wrote (p. 20):
"Photographs might arouse curiosity, and woodcuts in the illustrated press could provoke shock or stimulate admiration, but people hung engravings and lithographs in their homes for all to see. They hung them there for themselves, to be looked at over and over again. Prints provided decorative beauty and inspiring sentiment, things that journalism and photography did not offer. People bought prints that reflected their values, commitments, and ideals and used them as modest domestic altarpieces in that most sacred room of the Victorian home the family parlor. Prints were not sources of news along; they were sources of inspiration."

While there were not nearly as many of these prints produced as the illustrated newspaper images, they were issued in large numbers, often in the many thousands. These prints decorated (at least in the North) homes, taverns, blacksmith shops and the like and they were an important part of the graphic background during the war.

Better quality separately-issued prints

There were other separately issued prints which were of a higher quality. These were often of a larger size, they were usually based on a first-hand drawing, often by a participant in the event depicted, and they were intended to be both graphically powerful and accurate. These prints were generally produced either as steel engravings or lithographs.

These prints were produced in much smaller numbers than the popular prints, often in the low hundreds, and they were mostly aimed at a market which consisted of the participants or families of participants in the events shown. Or they might be prints showing a Civil War encampment or hospital or even prison, aimed to sell to those who had spent time in those locations.

These prints, being more elaborately and carefully produced than the popular prints, had a longer time lag between the events shown and the publication. A number of these prints were even issued after the war was over. However, as they were intended more as mementos than news prints, this was not an issue with the buyers.

As the prints were sold mostly to those who were familiar with the subjects, these print had to be reasonably accurate or they wouldn't sell. Though the printmakers did usually intend to make money from these prints, they were often produced simply because an artist had been at the place or involved in the event and decided to try his hand at producing a print showing this. This means that unlike the popular prints--which usually depicted only the best known places and events--some of these better quality separately-issued prints have more obscure subjects. Thus these prints, which are very rare, are some of the most interesting and valuable in filling in the Civil War pictorial record.


A number of portfolios were produced containing a series of Civil War prints. These were not really books, as they did not contain much, if any text, but they were usually issued with a cover and with the prints bound together. Sometimes, as well, they would be issued loose in some sort of portfolio box or folder.

These portfolios were similar to the coffee table books of today, intended to be out on display to be looked at after dinner or at the club. The publication of these portfolios was usually driven by the desire of an artist to document the war in a richer format than a single print could provide. This publishing format was more expensive to produce and to buy, and portfolios do not not seem to have been that popular, for few of them were made.

Book illustrations

Civil War prints in books, where the prints provided illustration for text, were usually issued after the war. It took considerable time to write the text, produce the prints and then publish the book, and few had the time to do this during the war. However, once the war finished, quite a number of war histories and memoirs were produced, so near-contemporary book illustrations of the Civil War are fairly common.

Some of these were based on first-hand drawings and some were drawn by artists who attempted to make them as accurate as possible, but others were less than correct. Publishers of these books were often more concerned with what the readers wanted to remember of the war than on providing an accurate, and often unpalatable, truth.

The advantages of steel engraving--the fact that thousands of impressions could be produced without wear and the ability for fine detail--made this one of the most popular print process for book illustrations. Wood engravings, which could be printed on the same press as the letter typeface, were also commonly used in books. Wood engraved images appeared both as separate page prints and interspersed within the text. Steel engraved images, because they had to be printed from a separate press, were usually on separate pages from the text.


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