The “Civil War Visual Culture” unit of the Tennessee Virtual Archive showcases a wide variety of Civil War-related materials: sheet music covers, professionally designed lithographs, flags, hand-drawn letters, military drawings, and other images. These items represent some of the ways in which a tragic era in America’s history was experienced by contemporaries and interpreted by subsequent generations.
Tennesseans experienced the Civil War in their state in a variety of different ways. Perhaps most notably, soldiers left their homes—from the Mississippi River to the mountains of East Tennessee—to either preserve the Union or defend the Confederacy’s right to leave it. Civilians, left at home to carry on the daily tasks of life, were often thrust into responsibilities virtually unheard of just a few years before (see the Civilian Life in the Civil War for more images on this subject).
Some representations of war depict immediate responses to events. In Civil War Drawings from the Tennessee State Museum, James C. Kelly discusses the impact of a growing visual culture in America on the cusp of civil war:
The American Civil War was the first conflict to receive adequate pictorial documentation by men on the spot. Immediately one thinks of the photographer, and, indeed, the Civil War was the first war to be extensively photographed. But one could only photograph what stood still…the American public, during the War, wanted action scenes, and photography could not supply it. For that they still relied on the artist’s pencil.
Although it does not depict action on the battlefield, one drawing in this collection shows Federal troops apparently drilling on the public square of a city, most likely Nashville. The scene provides a priceless impression of the experience of living in the captured city. On one side of the square, a man drives a mule-led wagon, perhaps with supplies for the troops. Two horseback officers confer with one another while other soldiers appear to split wood or prepare food nearby. The sketch, while apparently not produced by a professional hand, allows us to view an image not captured by any photographer’s lens.
Other images in this collection let us see exactly what soldiers witnessed on the battlefield. Woodbury, Tennessee’s St. John Guards fashioned a company flag that suggested the Confederacy’s first official flag, known as the “Stars and Bars.” Such banners were integral in the war to develop company pride and cohesion. Just as they do today, flags used in the Civil War were infused with significance beyond the apparent simplicity of several pieces of fabric.
While artists often employed the pencil to sketch “action scenes,” the pencil was also used for much more utilitarian and urgent purposes. Army commanders and their officers required detailed plans of battlefield geographies in order to manage troops effectively and plan for engagement. Similar sketches, included in this collection, portray military encampment in present-day East Nashville and military prisons at Johnson’s Island and Fort Delaware.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a well-known and successful publication with a national audience, provided many Americans with their earliest visual impressions of the battlefront. The newspaper, which was published weekly from the 1850s until the early 1920s, provided an alternative to local town and city newspapers, most of which did not publish many photographs or illustrations in the mid-nineteenth century. The extracts from this publication are drawn primarily from 1862 and depict troop movements and action in Tennessee. TSLA also holds a German-language edition of Frank Leslie’s, which shows a picture of captured Confederate troops near Bridgeport, Tennessee.
Founded in the post-Reconstruction era, the Chicago print company Kurz & Allison helped shape the memory of the Civil War by mass producing a series of battle-themed art prints. The company released a print titled The Fort Pillow Massacre in the early 1890s. That famous image, shown here, reflects a more Northern perspective on a controversial event of the Civil War. Indeed, Kurz & Allison’s dramatic depiction of the Fort Pillow atrocities probably shaped national opinions about this battle. Interestingly, such prints were produced the same decade as the seminal Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which paved the way for many decades of segregation across the South.
In the decades after the war ended, its legacy was portrayed in various ways. This collection features ten sheet music covers to display how this unique format was often employed to reflect issues in the popular imagination. The Civil War and the Reconstruction era provided an opportunity for music publishers to cater to the powerful collective memory of war that ran throughout the nation. In the South, this often translated into an intense nostalgia for the Old South and the “Lost Cause.” Sheet music with titles like “The Bonnie Blue Flag” exemplified the sense of loss felt by many Southerners.
Though the “Lost Cause” sentiment spread across the South in postwar years, perhaps the most concrete reminder of the true cost of war surfaced in the soldiers’ graves that dotted the South. An image from the Wainwright Collection shows the practical approach taken in designing resting places for soldiers in Chattanooga. The plans for the gates and fence provide a permanent physical manifestation of the bloody four years—a toll taken by both North and South—that lingered for years in the collective mind of the reunited nation.
Kelly, James C. Civil War Drawings from the Tennessee State Museum. Nashville: The Tennessee State Museum Foundation, 1989.