Columbia and Her Sisters: Personifying the Civil War

By Johnson, Allison M. | American Studies, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Columbia and Her Sisters: Personifying the Civil War


Johnson, Allison M., American Studies


A month after the bombardment of Fort Sumter and the beginning of hostilities between the Union and the newly formed Confederacy, Columbia, the female personification of the United States, slumbers peacefully amid the tumult. S.J.A.'s poem "Not Dead" (1861), printed in Harper's Weekly, the leading periodical of the day, begins with an epigraph taken from a "motto on a New York banner"-a flag most likely designed and produced by local women for a regiment: "The Union is not dead but sleeping."1 Through the "dark night of wickedness" caused by the rebellion, the people of the North must guard both "our Union and our liberty." S.J.A. calls on "each soldier's arm to grasp the sabre," since only the return of "each star by traitor bands disgraced"-each seceded state-will allow the Union to "joyously" awake from her slumber and "never sleep again." The personified Union's slumber and intact state promise hope for future reconciliation and reunion but also warn of her vulnerability and need for protection. These characteristics make S.J.A.'s womanly Union representative of a wartime trope ubiquitous in print and visual culture on both sides of the conflict. Analogous female personifications of the Confederacy and, more often, individual states appear in Southern periodicals and illustrations; despite their similarities to Northern counterparts, they serve categorically opposed rhetorical purposes. While Columbia, traditionally interchangeable with the goddess of liberty, represents the Northern states and the hope of reunifica- tion, a group of Southern sisters imagines a new nation separate from the body politic of the Union.

Though Uncle Sam would replace Columbia as the most popular American personification by the beginning of the twentieth century, Columbia reigned supreme in the antebellum United States and during the Civil War era. Patriotic poems, cartoons, and illustrations calling for renewed determination and dedication to the cause of defeating the Confederacy habitually invoke the embattled and all-encompassing Columbia. Columbia's Confederate sisters, personifications of a fledgling nation and its constituent states and cities, wage a rhetorical war for legitimacy and for the ability to represent embattled femininity. Symbolic women call their nations to a war that only men may fight; however, they also face the threats of invasion and violence. Consequently, sexuality and nationalism are closely intertwined: to defend the nation-state is to shelter female bodies from rapacious enemies and to retain the purity and structural integrity of national borders and codes of law.

Closely tied to the rhetorical work of symbolic femininity is the actual war work of American women. As Drew Gilpin Faust notes, the Civil War necessitated the involvement of women and inspired a "discussion of women's appropriate relationship to war-and thus to society in general."2 Women on both sides of the conflict served as nurses, fought as soldiers, operated as spies, raised money and collected supplies for hometown regiments, and knitted socks for soldiers.3 Popular literature of the time reflects this involvement and service; alongside poems and articles detailing the heroic valor of soldiers, verses commemorating the service and suffering of nurses at the front and mothers, sisters, and lovers at home assert the significant contributions of actual women to the war effort.4 The bodies of women in Civil War literary and visual culture, encroaching on the territory of men, touched by the violence of conflict, and physically involved in the work of war, are very often revolutionary.

Whether removed from the battlefront or in the thick of the action, female forms assert the presence of real women's bodies in the process and progress of war. They also inhabit similar roles and express similar emotions to those inhabited and performed by Northern and Southern female personifications. This overlap allows for a reconfiguration of the public and the domestic as clearly delineated spheres. …

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