Reading at the Front:
The Civil War


“[A] man hungry for something to read will do the same as a man hungry for something to eat; if he can not get good he will take bad.”
Daniel Wait Howe, Civil War Times, 1861–1865, 1902.

“Some are pursuing old Waverlys, and others amusing themselves with Harper’s cuts, one has a volume of Shakespeare with his mind following intently the dramatic play of Edward ‘three times.’”
Daniel L. Ambrose, History of the Seventh Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry, 1868.

“That library back of the railing has many interesting books, find the one you like, have it recorded, and return it in five days.”
Lemuel Moss, Annals of the United States Christian Commission, 1868.


s the large and increasingly active reading public took to their Northern and Southern corners at the outbreak of the Civil War (1861–1865), they took their reading habits with them.  Moving from a unified Republic largely littered with books and papers to cramped and miserable military quarters bereft of the most basic of creature comforts was unimaginable for many men.  They, like the women who nursed them, escaped into novels, benefited from manuals, and eagerly sought news from home.  For those left behind—mostly Northern and Southern women, children, and the elderly—isolated behind lines of war, the news and letters were like balms to the soul. [figure 6.1] Men sat in camp and read what was at hand, while those at home read what they could about their reading men in camp and in battle. [figure 6.2]

In camp, with much time on their hands as they awaited the call to battle, men had access to all sorts of reading matter.  Bibles, and the religious reform tracts that complemented them, were ubiquitous, but books on warfare, classics, histories, and novels were also generously represented. [figure 6.5]  The newspapers and periodicals so well loved before the war remained popular and “were passed from one soldier to another until literally worn out.” [figures 6.3-6.4]

Much work went into ensuring that these fighting men had access to printed texts.  These books were acquired from the publishing industry that printed cheap dime novels and increasingly timely news, from the U.S. Christian Commission that sought to save souls, and from the Union and Confederate armies who wanted to divert men from the horrors of war and provided camp “libraries” in canteens and hospitals.  Some men brought books with them, others bought their own books or papers or acquired them through conquest, still others traded at night with daytime enemies, and a few especially enterprising literary soldiers published their own newspapers on the backs of wallpaper or wrote their own stories on scraps of paper.  Even prisoners usually had access to print in some form or other, if only the standard Bible and religious tracts. [figures 6.6-6.7]         



“The mail arrangements for this department are miserable.  Our letters are often wet and sometimes unsealed when we receive them.”
Harry F. Jackson, in Back Home in Oneida: Hermon Clark and his letters (Syracuse, NY: 1965).

“But let me say if those who envy the war correspondent were once brought into close contact with all the realities of war—if they were obliged to stand the chances of getting their heads knocked off by an unexpected shell or bored through with a minie ball,—to stand their chances of being captured by the enemy,—to live on bread and water, and little of it, to sleep on the ground, or a sack of corn … to walk among the dying and dead … to hear all around sighs, groans, imprecations, and prayers—they would be content to let others become the historians of war.”
Charles Carleton Coffin, in Famous War Correspondents, 1914. 

As much as men escaped into books and periodicals, nothing was more longed for than letters from loved ones back home. As early as mid-1861, the United  States Army required that female nurses working in Union army hospitals be able to read and, even more important, to write.  One newly recruited nurse wrote, “Too inexperienced to nurse, I went from one pallet to another with pencil, paper, and stamps in hand and spent that [first] night in writing letters from the solders to their family and friends.”  Thousands of letters such as these and letters from the soldiers’ own hands survive, attesting to a great many things, but certainly to the citizens of a literate nation reaching out to one another through words when words were all they had. [figure 6.12]

At home, letters from soldiers were often slow to be received and, upon receipt, terribly out of date. To keep abreast of the happenings at the front, a cadre of eyewitness correspondents flocked to scenes of battle.  Lack of censorship allowed for unprecedented access.  New York newspapers filled one-third of their space with news of war made much timelier via the telegraph, even with the severed lines and governmental takeovers of the wires.  Newspapers and periodicals across the now-divided nation, with the significant exception of Godey’s, which ignored the war altogether, had their authors, publishers, and presses attuned to matters of slavery, secession, war, and abolition.  Thus, even in a country sorely divided, North and South did band together, if only in reading about each other. [figures 6.13-6.14]  







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