Drawing Civil War Soldiers: Volunteers and the Draft in Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1861-64

By Kuhn, Martin | Journalism History, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Drawing Civil War Soldiers: Volunteers and the Draft in Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1861-64


Kuhn, Martin, Journalism History


News illustrations and editorial cartoons in Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, the two major illustrated news weeklies of the time, have been credited with directly aiding Civil War enlistment efforts in the North. This article uses illustrations and editorial cartoons published from 1861 to 1864 in both weeklies to demonstrate that while they supported voluntary enlistments and bounties, Harper's supported the Civil War draft while Leslie's did not. The difference in editorial positions regarding the draft was heightened by coverage of the draft riots in 1863. Harper's played down the riots and limited coverage primarily to a two-page spread depicting ape-like, Irish rioters committing acts of violence. Leslie's carried considerably more coverage, depicting less chaotic "rioters" and used riot illustrations on its cover.

On April 13, 1861, a Union officer at Fort Sumter in South Carolina sent the following message to a Confederate officer, "I will now state that I am willing to evacuate this fort upon the terms and conditions offered by yourself on the 11th instant, at any hour you may name tomorrow, or as soon as we can arrange transportation."1

Those words, signifying the surrender of the fort, triggered a swell of patriotism not unlike the one that enraptured Americans following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The attack on Sumter stirred emotions that led tens of thousands of Northern men to enlist in the Union Army. Six days later, on April 19, 1861, the New York Seventh Regiment marched down Broadway to board ferries on its way to defend the Capitol. Patriotic New Yorkers crowded the parade route, shouting and cheering, and the streets were lined with flags and banners. A story about the event in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper described the regiment as "The gallant seventh . . . it is the gallant, dashing, soldierly spirit, the promptitude in emergencies and the devotion to duty which has ever characterized it where it stands so high in the love and in the estimation of our citizens."2 Similar scenes were playing out all across the Northern states. As historian James Geary noted, "In the North, new recruits were caught up in a festive air created by rallies and speeches that were organized in their wards and townships."3 Many in the North expected the war to be over quickly. Men volunteered for three-month tours and fully expected to put down the uprising and return to normal life within that time.

These expectations were premature. For example, on the day that the crowd in New York cheered their gallant Seventh, a crowd in Baltimore, a Northern city with Southern sympathies, fired upon the Sixth Massachusetts as the troops were changing trains.4 The shooting would prove to be only the first of a series of defeats and frustrations for the Northern soldiers, and after the Confederate victory at the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, it was obvious that the Union was in for a protracted war that would require an immense number of troops for longer terms of service. Over time, attitudes in the North began to shift. The patriotic fever that had gripped it began to cool, and the number of men volunteering to serve began to shrink. This led President Lincoln to start looking for a way to conscript able-bodied men into the Union army for three-year tours of duty.

Thought to play a significant role in sustaining patriotic feeling and encouraging volunteerism were the two major illustrated news weeklies: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (Leslie's) and Harper's Weekly Journal of Civilisation (Harper's). Each claimed to have a national circulation. Historian William E. Huntzicker described the vital role of the illustrated weekly during the Civil War when he wrote in 2000, "Hundreds of thousands of Americans read the illustrated magazines weekly. The special artists and reporters provided succinct, tightly written copy around strong illustrations.

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