Civil War Political Cartoons: Behind the History

Updated November 4, 2021
The Union Must be Preserved at All Hazards Political Cartoon Cartoon

Cartoons haven't always been used to bring humor to the Sunday newspapers; rather, throughout history, they've been used to illustrate the pulse of contemporary society. Civil War political cartoons did just that, offering a unique perspective on the beliefs and thoughts of various sides of the war. While not many of these are put to market every year, the vast digital collections and in-person exhibits that you can see are invaluable resources to help you gain a new view on a well-documented time.

What Is a Political Cartoon?

Political cartoons, also called editorial cartoons, use humor and satire to relay messages relating to the politics and current affairs of the time in question. Although many political cartoons are humorous, their main purpose is to provide commentary on a specific situation and to try to sway the viewer's opinion to that of the cartoonist. Often, viewers don't even realize that the techniques used in an editorial cartoon have the subliminal power to change their point of view.

Political cartoonists of the Civil War used many of the same techniques, and various combinations of techniques, as those used by cartoonists today. Several of the most popular techniques political cartoonists used in their craft include:

  • Exaggeration
  • Symbolism
  • Caricatures
  • Irony
  • Drawings
  • Analogies
  • Labeling
  • Text

Political Cartoons of the Civil War

Unlike the images of early photographs, political cartoons of the Civil War were based more on the viewer's imagination than on the reality depicted in the daguerreotypes, cartes de viste, and ambrotypes of the era. The cartoonists' renditions of the military events of the war and the political, racial, and social happenings of the times provide a glimpse into the tumultuous years of the conflict while highlighting the strong viewpoints that existed on either side.

The Copperhead Party-In Favor of a Vigorous Prosecution of Peace

From the first shots fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 to the surrender of the Confederate Army by General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, editorial cartoonists chronicled the war using satirical drawings. Several of the most important topics include:

  • President Abraham Lincoln
  • Political elections
  • Secession from the Union
  • Military personnel
  • Military battles
  • Slavery
  • Emancipation
  • Abolitionism
  • Racism

These cartoons are of great interest to historians, as well as to collectors of Civil War ephemera and those that collect military items from the Civil War, such as Civil War rifles, uniforms, or flags.

According to a 1942 survey of political cartoons from the Civil War period, most of the cartoons that have survived reflect pro-Union sentiments, with nearly all of those published in Confederate texts having been lost in the Reconstruction era. If you were a strapping young person during the Civil War, you wouldn't have gone looking through the newspaper for these political commentaries; rather, you'd be picking up the latest edition of Harper's Weekly or Vanity Faire to get a feeling of what controversies were currently happening in the capital.

Some of the prolific political cartoonists whose work was published throughout the Union and Confederate states were:

  • Thomas Nast
  • Adelbert John Volck who signed his work V. Blada
  • David Hunter Strother
  • Sir John Tenniel
  • Joseph E. Baker
  • Benjamin H. Day, Jr.
  • J. E. Baker

Political Cartoonists of the Civil War

Although the years leading up to, during, and after the Civil War, were filled with diverse opinions and beliefs, the number of political cartoons representing the North and South was far from equal. Most of the editorial cartoons were published in New York City and stressed strong Northern viewpoints, as previously explored.

New York City, home to booming lithography and newspaper industries, had a high literacy rate and a strong newspaper readership. The popularity of New York's seventeen daily newspapers, including the Times, Tribune and Herald, combined with others such as Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, provided New York political cartoonists' ample venues for their visual satire.

In his book Blue & Gray in Black & White, author Brayton Harris writes of the number of active newspapers in existence on the eve of the Civil War, further clarifying the reason for the vast imbalance of political cartoons depicting Southern viewpoints and opinions. According to Harris:

  • There were nearly 2,500 newspapers at the time, with approximately 1,700 published in the North and 800 in the South.
  • The North had approximately four times the total circulation.
  • Approximately 373 daily newspapers were published, with almost 300 of them published in the North.

Things That Civil War Political Cartoons Show

Civil War political cartoons' relevance goes well beyond the two-dimensional. They provide a uniquely specific perspective on sociopolitical and cultural events of the period and can give you a sense of what issues people were fixated on, even amid the overwhelming national turmoil they were embroiled in. When you're looking at these political cartoons, you can take an art history approach, and try to discern a few things from them based on the text, both visual and literal. Here are a few guiding points to consider when you're viewing these political cartoons:

Abraham Lincoln getting the best of Jefferson Davis in a boxing match
  • What is the source's background and bias? Even if you don't know the illustrators' background, you can glean what type of person they might have been or what their life was like based on what they drew. The things they were most comfortable drawing about can tell you about their social status, gender, level of wealth, and so much more.
  • What isn't there? The absence of something is almost as meaningful as its inclusion. If all of the images included were specifically added to tell a story, then what can you learn about what the artist deliberately chose not to include?
  • What are they saying about themselves? Oftentimes, political cartoons can tell as much about what the 'side' drawing the image thinks about themselves as much as it can about what they think about their opponents. Are they framing themselves as saviors, religious leaders, or courageous soldiers?

Civil War Political Cartoons Can Be Triggering

As a result of the fundamental aspects of the reasoning behind the Civil War, many of these political cartoons deal with race and gender in highly offensive, repugnant ways. Coming from the perspective of the white male elite, these illustrations can absolutely be harmful and triggering for people who are unjustly represented in their artistic attempts at satire. Thus, it's incredibly important to keep this in mind if you're faced with teaching about this subject or thinking about finding some to own for yourself. It may be easy for some people to divorce these images from their cultural contexts and racist implications, but in doing so, you're continuing the cycle of racial violence that was penned into these illustrations. Thus, it's best to be sensitive, respectful, and conscious of how you're viewing these illustrations and what information you're gathering from them.

Can You Collect Political Cartoons?

While most people tend to see examples of these political cartoons in their history text books in school or displayed in museum collections, there are the rarer few who like to collect these prints when they stumble across them. Authentic prints from the 1860s are the most historically significant, and will be worth the most amount of money.

The secession movement - Currier & Ives

However, you can find a multitude of reprints of classic lithographs from the early to mid-20th century. While these are more abundant than the originals, they're worth substantially less than their rarer counterparts.

In general, these prints have sold for around $20. Interestingly, this is far less than a lot of artifacts from the Civil War period, meaning that collectors just aren't that interested in having these pieces in their private collections. Here are some recently listed and sold authentic cartoons for you to have an idea of what the digital market currently looks like:

Where to View Civil War Political Cartoons Online

There're a lot of places to view the political satire of the Civil War, which is enlightening, informative, and at times disquieting. Here are just some of those places:

Get a Non-Violent Perspective on the Civil War

Civil War political cartoons can offer you unique access to the political war happening simultaneously to the actual battles being fought across the American landscape. Although these images aren't devoid of harmful intent and discriminatory prejudices, they do reflect a side of the Civil War that not many people consider--the bureaucratic side. For all of those Civil War buffs who proclaim to know the date of every battle, spend some time combing through these political cartoons and see what new things you can discover about this defining period in American history.

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Civil War Political Cartoons: Behind the History