Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Contemporary Account of America's Civil War

It’s the Fourth of July weekend -- an unfortunate time to discover the paucity of Americana in my collection. Still, I think that this book -- which I unearthed at an antiques store with a fairly good book section in nearby Deerfield -- speaks to a crucial moment in our nation’s history that, while not dating all the way back to our founding, still centers on what has come to be known as the last real battle of the American Revolution.

The book is The Great Rebellion; A History of the Civil War in the United States, written by New Yorker Joel Tyler Headley (1813-1897) and published by the American Publishing Company (APC) through their headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut, as well as their branch office in Columbus, Ohio, and their affiliate R. C. Treat in Chicago. On the title page, APC claims that the book was sold “by subscription only”, meaning it was retailed directly from the publisher to buyers who had seen it advertised and pre-paid for their copy. This copy is of the 1866 edition and includes two volumes sold as one book. Volume I was originally published by the firm of Hurlbut, Williams, & Company in 1862 (only two years into the war, making the use of the term “History” in the title slightly optative). About the 1862 edition of Volume I, Bisonscat Books notes:

At this volume’s publication Volume II was still being fought on the battlefields. According to the Publisher's Notice before the Preface, "Volume I contains a history of the origin of the war and its progress during a period of eighteen months, up to the last of the June, 1862. Volume II completing the history and containing valuable statistics, will be prepared as fast as the receipt of authentic material by the author will permit, and be issued within six months after the close of the war, or sooner if practicable and deemed expedient." This notice was dated Nov. 1st 1862, between the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg. You get the impression they did not think the war would last another two and a half years.

There is, unsurprisingly, no publisher’s notice before Volume I of the 1866 edition. Subsequent editions of Volume I, published again by Hurlbut, appeared in 1863 and 1864. An independent edition of Volume II first appeared in 1866, designed to accompany the 1864 edition of Volume I. Simultaneously, the two-volumes-in-one 1866 edition (to which my copy belongs) appeared. Many later reprints followed, from various publishers. Headley’s work was evidently to the satisfaction of his readers because it was followed by similar works, from various other publishers, in the ensuing thirty years (Heroes and Battles of the War, 1861-1865; Our Navy in the Great Rebellion; Our Army in the Great Rebellion; Farragut, and Our Naval Commanders; Grant and Sherman; etc.).

While Volume I of the 1866 dual edition lacks the publisher’s notice Bisonscat speaks of, there is one at the start of Volume II, in which APC delineates its patriotic vision for the book, speaks with extravagant praise of their product, allude to its publication delay (and ensuing cost overruns), and dismiss the competition. The notice is long, but worth quoting in full:

It is with no ordinary satisfaction and confidence that we issue this Second Volume of the History of the Great Rebellion. No other History of this mighty and memorable conflict, has won so large a favor from the American people. Mr. Headley's genius has here found a subject worthy of, and demanding its amplest resources; and he has successfully risen to the height of the great occasion. He here completes a historic record, that will be read with amazement and the deepest interest by present and future generations—the record of the sacrifices and successes of a people, sacredly cherishing the traditions and legacies of the Fathers and Founders of their Republic, and shrinking from no cost of treasure and blood necessary to subdue the most causeless and criminal insurrection against human rights and human freedom, that ever challenged a nation to the bitter and bloody arbitration of the battle field.

Ours is no dry and dreary compilation, which, even if read, can be of little profit, save to a few minds. It is not the speculations of the political theorist or philosopher, upon the causes and obscure agencies culminating in this atrocious conspiracy against the best human Government. But, it is the vivid and faithful portraiture—by an author of surpassing genius for historic delineation—of all the important events in our Civil War. From it may be got the clearest and most adequate idea of the spirit of the nation, and of the sweep and shock of its armies during these four eventful years of heroism and glory. It is a splendid and faithful panorama of a great people in arms, inspired with a sublime enthusiasm for Law and Liberty. It shows the prominent actors in the Tragedy which has held the gaze of the civilized world—some of them incompetent or unfaithful and disappearing in defeat or dishonor—others grand, heroic, moving to victory or honorable death, blessed with the prayers and love of all true patriots, and crowned with their gratitude and homage.

The delay in the completion of the work, though a pecuniary detriment to us, will however be compensated by important advantages to our subscribers. If it had been issued at the close of the conflict, it must have been written, as were some other Histories, without the aid of the official reports of Generals Grant and Sherman—the only reliable sources of information respecting the last, great and decisive campaigns of the War.

No History can possess perfect accuracy. Authorities of apparently equal claims for credence often differ, and time not infrequently makes disclosures that modify statements and judgments once regarded correct. Special effort has been made to authenticate the statements of this work by a comparison with every accessible authority, and we are confident that it has no superior, and, we think, no equal in fidelity of historical narration.

The official reports of Generals Grant and Sherman are documents of such national and enduring interest and value, that every reader of this History will desire to have them in a permanent form. We have thought that such would be grateful to us for furnishing them, and fitly associating them with the concluding part of the History of a War, which these able Chieftains by their strategy and leadership brought to a glorious end.

We have employed the very best Artists in the production of the fine steel engravings which embellish this volume, and though these have been executed during the period of high prices, no expense has been spared to secure in them the highest degree of excellence. The engravings of the two volumes taken together constitute a series of elegant and varied illustrations unequaled in any other History of the War.

In view of its size, its valuable portraits and other illustrations, its elegant typography, and the general excellence of its mechanical execution, we are conscious of having more than fulfilled the pledges made to our subscribers, and in anticipation of their entire satisfaction, send forth this work.

The 1864 edition of Volume I -- which was bound directly into the 1866 dual edition -- also included a statement of the publisher’s intentions for the venture, but this was in the form of an advertisement and series of testimonials (similar to the blurbs on modern book-jackets, but these much longer and less diplomatically vague) that appeared on the last printed leaf of the book (interestingly paginated as the first leaf of Volume II in the 1866 dual edition). The endorsements come from newspapers across the northeast (especially New York) and also include words of praise from Reverend C. B. Crane and Reverend Dr. M. B. Anderson (president of Rochester University). Again, because of the details it offers about the book’s goals and value (as advertised by the publisher), its implied view of historiographic procedure (reduction, clarification, comprehensiveness [which is apparently not considered at odds with reduction or clarification], proximity, and evocation) and the importance of what we today would call the “embedded” reporter, and, finally, some telling words about the printing history itself (including, for example, its simultaneous publication in a foreign language to ensure accessibility to one of the largest immigrant demographics in the northeast at the time), I believe the advertisement also bears quoting in full:

The magnitude of the subject of the present work -- the Great Rebellion in the United States -- being not only the Great Event in American History, but the most fearful tragedy of modern times, is of itself calculated to render this book one of the most exciting and interesting ever offered to the public. The publishers, fortunately, have been enabled to enlist the eminent and splendid talents of the Hon. J. T. Headley, who is well known to the public as the most brilliant and popular writer of Military History of modern times. In depicting the numerous battles and warlike scenes of the present contest, his power of vigorous and stirring description finds full scope. His great and remarkable talent for condensation by which he is enabled to render his narratives vivid, comprehensive, and full, in fewer words than almost any other writer, is invaluable in disposing of the immense mass of materials relating to the present subject. To more fully qualify himself for the work, he passed several months with our armies and obtained valuable information through his acquaintance with many of the most distinguished officers of the Army and Navy.

The work will embrace a comprehensive account of the whole contest, neatly printed from a beautiful, clear, new type, on good paper, and will be illustrated with numerous fine Steel Engravings, representing the most important and exciting scenes in the war, from original Designs by Darley and other eminent artists, together with life-like Portraits of leading actors on both sides; engraved expressly for this work, at great expense. It will contain over one thousand pages, royal octavo, handsomely bound in two volumes, and be furnished to order, only through our authorized traveling Agents.

To meet the wants of a portion of the public the publishers have prepared an edition of the work in the German language, which will be issued in the same style as the English.

In view of the above facts, the undersigned offer the present work, believing that they are thus rendering an important and valuable service to a discerning public. Confident that it will secure a patronage in some degree commensurate with its merits, they offer to intelligent, energetic agents, who will engage in its sale, a very profitable and useful employment.

The advertisement is signed by Hurlbut, Williams, & Co. of Hartford and E. B. & R. C. Treat of Chicago. I find the final paragraph’s commingling of nationalistic duty with a profit-guarantee to the firm’s booksellers an appropriately American touch.

The man in whom Hurlbut & Co. invested so much praise was a native New Yorker and the son of a Presbyterian preacher. Headley (shown to the right) followed in his father’s footsteps at first, graduating from Union College in 1839 and enrolling at Auburn Theological Seminary, where he was eventually ordained. His attempts to provide devotional leadership to a congregation in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, however, ended up inducing a nervous disorder and gave up the occupation to travel in Europe in 1842. Upon his return, he took up his pen and began to write history books about America and New York in particular, and he ended up as associate editor of the New York Tribune (a job he secured through the abolitionist who would later write a competitive account of the Civil War, Horace Greeley). In October, 1850, his book Sacred Mountains was famously skewered by Edgar Allen Poe in a rather cruel review in the Southern Literary Messenger that took issue, most of all, with the author’s religious credentials and their influence upon his writing:

THE Reverend MR. HEADLEY — (why will he not put his full title in his title-pages?) has in his "Sacred Mountains" been reversing the facts of the old fable about the mountains that brought forth the mouse — parturiunt montes nascetur ridiculus mus — for in this instance it appears to be the mouse — the little ridiculus mus — that has been bringing forth the "Mountains," and a great litter of them, too. The epithet, funny, however, is perhaps the only one which can be considered as thoroughly applicable to the book. We say that a book is a "funny" book, and nothing else, when it spreads over two hundred pages an amount of matter which could be conveniently presented in twenty of a magazine: that a book is a "funny" book — "only this and nothing more" — when it is written in that kind of phraseology, in which John Philpot Curran, when drunk, would have made a speech at a public dinner: and, moreover, we do say, emphatically, that a book is a "funny" book, and nothing but a funny book, whenever it happens to be penned by Mr. Headley.   

    We should like to give some account of "The Sacred Mountains," if the thing were only possible — but we cannot conceive that it is. Mr. Headley belongs to that numerous class of authors, who must be read to be understood, and who, for that reason, very seldom are as thoroughly comprehended as they should be. Let us endeavor, however, to give some general idea of the work. "The design," says the author, in his preface, "is to render more familiar and life-like, some of the scenes of the Bible." Here, in the very first sentence of his preface, we suspect the Reverend Mr. Headley of fibbing: for his design, as it appears to ordinary apprehension, is merely that of making a little money by selling a little book. 


"Quack" is a word that sounds well only in the mouth of a duck; and upon our honor we feel a scruple in using it: — nevertheless the truth should be told; and the simple fact is, that the author of the "Sacred Mountains" is the Autocrat of all the Quacks. In saying this, we beg not to be misunderstood. We mean no disparagement to Mr. Headley. We admire that gentleman as much as any individual ever did except that gentleman himself. He looks remarkably well at all points — although perhaps best, EXAS — at a distance — as the lying Pindar says he saw Archilochus, who died ages before the vagabond was born: — the reader will excuse the digression; but talking of one great man is very apt to put us in mind of another. We were saying — were we not? — that Mr. Headley is by no means to be sneered at as a quack. This might be justifiable, indeed, were he only a quack in a small way — a quack doing business by retail. But the wholesale dealer is entitled to respect. Besides, the Reverend author of "Napoleon and his Marshals" was a quack to some purpose. He knows what he is about. We like perfection wherever we see it. We readily forgive a man for being a fool if he only be a perfect fool — and this is a particular in which we cannot put our hands upon our hearts and say that Mr. Headley is deficient. He acts upon the principle that if a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing well: — and the thing that he "does" especially well is the public. [zing!]

In 1855 Headley took a break from writing and began a career in politics as a member of the New York State Assembly, leading to his appointment as New York’s Secretary of State from 1856 to 1857. Upon leaving politics, Headley returned to the writing that had given him so much comfort after his stressful days as a preacher, and he took up a medical practice in Linn County, Iowa. It is from this period that his account of the Civil War dates and many of the accounts that are given in his Great Rebellion first appeared in newspapers and serial publications of the 1860s, including many in Harper’s Magazine. Up until his death in 1897, Headley apparently also travelled around the country, delivering lectures on historical and religious topics (on April 10, 1896 he gave an address titled “The Sunny Side of Life” at a high school commencement in Greenfield, Indiana; it was, according to the town history, “not very kindly received by a great many people” and letters protesting the speech continued to appear in the local paper up to two years after the event).

As every bibliophile knows, the appearance of a book is only part of its appeal: a truly desirable volume has something to offer, also, to the senses of touch and smell. My copy of Headley’s Great Rebellion certainly satisfies those criteria; it is pleasingly hefty but tightly bound in a full sheep leather that has become, with age, remarkably soft and smooth, and its odor is one of antique authority, that musty exhalation of paper and ink that is more than a century old. Black morocco labels and thin gold bands hug the spine, with the title and author in all majuscules.

The pages measure 15.5cm x 23cm, and while the publisher’s advertisement may have stipulated that the book would be printed on “good paper”, the stock used was evidently highly acidic (nearly every copy for which I can find a description -- including mine -- is plagued by a high degree of foxing throughout) and particularly prone to adverse reactions from the steel-plate engravings (though the usual sheet of tissue paper was bound in between the illustrations and the facing page of text, the chemicals from the engraving were so strong that they have seeped through multiple pages, both before and after the plate, resulting often in ghostly images of the war haunting some of the pages like persistent specters).

The signatures of the gatherings are expressed numerically. Not counting the illustrative plates, which have been inserted at various places within and between gatherings, the book may be collated as 8o royal: [#2] [18]-[318] 328-746; $1. Two blank fly-leaves, an initial and final, are also present, conjugate to the front and back paste-downs. The unsigned middle gathering (gathering 31) is the initial gathering of Volume II. The sequential signatures reveal that the book, though following the previous editions of both volumes for its copy, was printed as a whole in one volume as one job. The printer maintained the pagination of the original two separate volumes, however, with the first running from [1]-506, inclusive of the blank # gathering and the preliminaries, and the second running [1]-702, inclusive of the publisher’s advertisement between the two volumes. 

The 74 illustrations (36 in Volume I, 38 in Volume II) may have been newly engraved for the book, as the publisher proclaims, but they were based on a number of various works of art, some well known and some very obscure. The engraver was George E. Perine of New York, a fairly prolific steel-engraver of the nineteenth century who seems to have specialized in historic scenes and portraits. The sources of Perine’s engravings range from German-born landscape painter, lithographer, and newspaper and book illustrator William Momberger to Bostonian portrait engraver and banknote designer Oliver Pelton, amongst a host of others (lending the book's illustrations a slightly disconnected feel in terms of style). Approximately two-thirds of the plates present portraits of generals, officers, and politicians connected to the conflict (Union and “Rebel” -- Headley scrupulously avoids the term “Confederate”, captioning the portrait of Jefferson Davis as “President of the so called ‘Confederate States’”), the remainder showing key battles and gatherings of troops, such as the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, the Bombardment of Fort Sumter, the Battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac (“First Conflict between Iron-Clad Vessels”), Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and the entrance of the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Regiment (“Colored”) into Charleston (shown at the top of this post). The frontispiece of Volume I is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln; the frontispiece of Volume II is a portrait of his Vice President, and subsequently President following Lincoln’s assassination (thus, President when Volume II was completed and published), Andrew Johnson.

As noted above, the text-block of the book is tight and the binding sound, though there is foxing throughout. Besides this, there is no damage to the pages at all. The front board is beginning to come slightly loose and the cords are beginning to show from the inside. The cover has the usual chipping and the spine has a few small tears in the leather. The sole reader’s mark in the book is a contemporary-hand inked “The” on the upper outer corner of the inside front cover. However, an early reader did leave a make-shift bookmark -- a scrap of fabric with a blue and red pattern printed on it -- stuffed between pages 202 and 203 of Volume I (the Union’s capture of the fort during the battle of Belmont).

The book itself follows a detailed chronological structure in relating the events of the War. Thoughout, the account is extremely biased, showing an unquestioned loyalty to the Union cause (as well as Headley's propensity, loathed by Poe, to be overly-florid and hyperbolically poetic -- consider his account of Lincoln's assassination, shown below), even though Headley apparently harbored some racist sympathies of his own (during his time in office he was a member of what was called, at the time, the American Party, a group founded originally as the “Know Nothing Party”, whose principal platform planks centered on instituting state-sanctioned Protestantism, protecting “middle-class values”, promoting nativism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-immigration legislation, and banning alcohol; the party fractured over the issue of slavery, with many devout Protestants unable to reconcile their faith’s disapproval of the practice with the party’s claims of white supremacy).

The chapters are each broken into small sections explicating the specific events that occurred on the dates for that chapter. Volume I consists of 39 chapters covering the events before 1861 that led to the War up to McClellan’s assault on Richmond in June, 1862. The volume begins with the author’s four page preface on the horrors of civil war and a summary of what led to the conflict (“Those make a great mistake who suppose it grew out of a desire merely to perpetuate slavery. Slavery was used as a means to an end -- a bugbear to frighten the timid into obedience, and a rallying cry for the ignorant, deluded masses. The accursed lust of power lay at the bottom of it.... The great, moving cause was the desire of power--slavery the platform on which they worked their diabolical machinery.”) At the end there is an appendix on the agreement regarding the exchange of prisoners, reached by General Dix (Union) and General Hill (Confederate) at Haxall’s Landing on July 22, 1862. 

Volume II spans 42 chapters, resuming the narrative in June, 1862 with the events leading up to the Battle of Gaines’ Mill and ending in May, 1865, just after the assassination of Lincoln and with the return of Grant and Sherman’s armies to Washington and the issuance of Secretary Stanton’s armistice order. The volume concludes with several appendices, including a chart detailing -- for purposes of the impending Reconstruction -- the national debt as of February 1, 1866 (a gross amount of $2.7 billion, but a net of only $107 million after the nation’s coin and currency reserves were factored in), Grant’s official 49-page report of July 22, 1865 on the events of the War’s final years (including copies of correspondence between generals on both sides), Sherman’s official January 1, 1865 report on his extremely controversial campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas, and a chart giving the total number of men committed to the Union army by each state since April 1, 1861, helpfully broken down into columns showing the appropriate number furnished on the date of each of the 11 calls-to-arms issued by the government (in total, New York tops the list at 381,686 and “Dakota” is at the bottom with 181; Massachusetts  ranks sixth with 123,844).

Headley's work was not the only one to claim a comprehensive account of the War, but it was certainly among the most popular and, to his credit, probably the most comprehensive and thoroughly documented of its time. Its closest competitors in the year after the fighting ended would have been Thomas Kettell’s History of the Great Rebellion (also issued with steel engravings and with maps, which Headley’s book lacks) published in Hartford by L. Stebbins in 1865 and of course Horace Greeley’s enormously influential The American Conflict (which looked beyond the military and political events of interest to Headley and Kettell and included a substantial, damning “moral” study of the “drift and progress of American opinion respecting Human Slavery from 1776 to the close of the War for the Union), published also in Hartford (!) by O. D. Case in 1866. If there were time -- or if I were so inclined -- it may be of interest to put some of the events of the War, as presented in these three books, side-by-side for comparison’s sake...though, of course, since all three books were written by “the winners” (as the cliche goes about the writing of history) and since all three drew from the same documentary sources, I presume they will be mostly concordant in their details.

Very often when we seek historical information about an important event, we turn for convenience’s sake to the secondary sources of modern scholarship; while these can be illuminating and can help put things into perspective, there is nothing quite as rewarding as returning to a primary source, like Headley’s account of the Civil War, or those of Kettell and Greeley -- books written, not just in the aftermath of the conflict, but actually in the midst of it.

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