Literature: Civil War and American Letters

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Literature: Civil War and American Letters


A Nation Divided. The Civil War sharply interrupted American literary activity. Although several major authors of the American Renaissance continued to write after the war ended, most had done their best work by 1860. The Civil War was traumatic, and the debate over slavery that preceded it challenged the notion that America was founded on the democratic ideal set forth in the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal. The widely held idea of America as a nation free of European immorality and excess was further undermined by widespread political corruption in Washington, D.C.; by the growing industrialism that moved people from farms to cities and led to bitter quarrels between workers and employers; by increased immigration, which spawned ethnic animosities; and by westward expansion, which triggered conflicts with Native Americans.

No longer could Americans look to the future with optimism; the events surrounding the Civil War prompted them to assess their world directly and honestly.

The Little Lady Who Started the War. The daughter of renowned preacher Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was born in Litchfield, Connecticut. She was first a student and later a teacher at Hartford Female Seminary. After Stowe and her husband, seminary professor Calvin Ellis Stowe (1802-1886), moved to Brunswick, Maine, in 1850, her sister-in-law challenged her to write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is. Stowe responded with Uncle Toms Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, which was published serially in 1851 and 1852 in the National Era, an antislavery periodical. Though her novel depicts some of the benign aspects of slavery of the relationship between master and slave, it emphasizes the inequities and cruelty of slavery. Published in book form in 1852, Uncle Toms Cabin was a major best-seller. By the outbreak of the Civil War Americans had bought some three million copies. Many scholars maintain that no book has ever had a more direct and powerful influence on American history than Stowes novel, which inflamed opposition to slavery in the North and thus became a force in bringing about the Civil War. When Stowe visited the White House in 1862, President Lincoln exclaimed, So this is the little lady who made this big war!


The best-known novel about the Civil War is The Red Badge of Courage (1895) by Stephen Crane, whose descriptions of battle were so realistic that some veterans of the war were convinced that Crane must have fought beside him. In fact, Crane was born in 1871, some six years after the war ended. Some actual veterans of the Civil War did write fiction in which they drew on their battle experiences, most notably Ambrose Bierce, John Esten Cooke, and John William De Forest.

Ambrose Bierce , who served in the Union army for most of the Civil War probably had more firsthand battle experience in that war than any other American writer. He fought in several major battles in Tennessee, some of the bloodiest of the war, including the battles of Shiloh (April 1862), after which he was commended for bravery; Stones River (December 1862), where he rescued his commanding officer from the field; Chickamauga (September 1863); Missionary Ridge (November 1863); and Kennesaw Mountain (June 1864), where he received a serious head wound. After returning to active duty in autumn 1864, he fought in two more major battles in Tennessee before accompanying Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on his March to the Sea. Long after the war Bierce remained obsessed by his battle experiences, commenting in 1887, I never hear a rifle-shot without a thrill in my veins. I never catch the peculiar odor of gunpowder without having visions of the dead or dying. He used his war experiences in about twenty-five short stories, including One of the Missing, A Son of the Gods, A Tough Tussle, Chickamauga, One Affair at Coulters Notch, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and Parker Addison, Philosopher. Many of these stories were written more than twenty years after the end of the war and were collected in his Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1892) and Can Such Things Be (1893). He also wrote nonfiction and poetry about the war.

John Esten Cooke, who served in the Confederate army, fought in a howitzer brigade at the first battle of Bull Run (July 1861) before being commissioned a lieutenant in Gen. Jeb Stuarts cavalry, serving until the end of the war. He drew on his war experiences for the popular romantic novel Surry of Eagles Nest (1866), the first published novel about the war, and four other works of fiction: Fairfax (1868), Mobun (1869), Hilt to Hilt (1869), and Hammer and Rapier (1870). He also wrote nonfiction about the war as well as biographies of Stonewall Jackson (1863) and Robert E. Lee (1871).

John William De Forest, served in the Louisiana campaign of early 1862 and fought in the Shenandoah Valley campaign (autumn 1864), spending a total of forty-five days under fire. Though it was published after Surry of Eagles Nest, De Forests Miss Ravenels Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867) was written before Cookes novel and is generally considered the first novel written in English to be based on the authors firsthand battle experiences. De Forests novel is also considered a pioneering work of American realism. During the Reconstruction period De Forest worked for the Freedmens Bureau in Greenville, South Carolina, and later used his experiences there as background for his 1881 novel, The Bloody Chasm.

Source: Karen L. Rood, ed., American Literary Almanac, from 1608 to the Present (New York & Oxford: Facts on File, 1988).

Honest Abe and the Gettysburg Address. The political achievements of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) assured his lasting fame. He also made no small contribution to American letters with his extraordinary eloquence, which was best exemplified by his Gettysburg Address, the famous speech in which defined the war as a national rededication to the egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln delivered the address on 19 November 1863, at the dedication of a national cemetery on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the Union armies had driven back Confederate forces in the only battle fought on northern soil, a decisive and costly engagement. The chief speaker was Edward Everett (1794-1865), a noted orator and former Harvard professor, who regaled those present with two hours of extravagant oratory. President Lincoln, who had been invited to make only a few appropriate remarks, delivered his Gettysburg Address in just a few minutes, so quickly that a photographer taking his picture barely finished his preparations on time to catch the president as he left the platform. Lincoln thought his speech was a failure, as did most of the newspapers, but even then a few recognized it as one of the most historically important speeches ever delivered by an American.

Whitman with the Troops. Early in the Civil War Walt Whitman learned that his brother George was wounded and had been hospitalized in Washington, D.C. He found George nearly recovered but saw other soldiers badly in need of care. He stayed in Washington, working as a government clerk and serving as a hospital volunteer. The suffering he saw had a lasting influence on his poetry, directly inspiring the volume of poetry he called Drum-Taps. In 1871 he published Democratic Vistas. In this work, instead of the exuberantly praising American democracy, as he had in 1855, Whitman urged Americans to look critically at their society and to work hard to keep it healthy. After the war Whitmans books began to sell well. In 1873 he became ill, suffering the first of several paralytic attacks. He retired to Camden, New Jersey, where he lived out the remainder of his life as an invalid and was frequently visited by literary pilgrims seeking out the good, gray poet.


Van Wyck Brooks, The Times of Melville and Whitman (New York: Dutton, 1947);

Marcus Cunliffe, The Literature of the United States (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1954);

Benjamin T. Spencer, The Quest for Nationality: An American Literary Campaign (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1957).


Literature: Civil War and American Letters