Home Front Daily Life in the Civil War North

Victoria here…I have written earlier on this blog about programs at Chicago’s Newberry Library, and while I am far away at the moment, I want to tell you about an exhibition on display there until late March, if you have the chance to get to Chicago by then.

Views of the Newberry Library in the Autumn of 2013
“Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North” marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War, 1981-1865.  The exhibition is interesting and well organized, and it may be of particular interest to readers of this blog because of the position of Great Britain.  Less than a century after separating from Britain, would the USA survive or break apart? 

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, ca. 1855
Artist: Francis Cruikshank

British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) was said to be more sympathetic to the cause of the secessionist states, probably for several reasons, especially including the importance of southern cotton to the textile mills of Britain.  Yet, the grains that traveled east across the Atlantic from Northern ports were of equal concern.  Most of the controversy was played out in diplomacy concerning the shipping, blockades, embargoes, neutral rights, etc. on the high seas.  President Lincoln needed to keep Britain on his side, or at the least prevent the British from directly supporting the Southern States

Samuel Colman Jr., Ships Unloading, New York, 1868
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
From the Library’s Text Labels:  “Samuel Colman’s Ships Unloading depicts a busy New York port, where a ship known as the Glad Tidings is docked. The ship’s most important cargo was cotton, the mainstay of the South’s slave economy and New York City’s most important export. But since the early war years, the Glad Tidings had been instrumental in facilitating a free labor model of the cotton trade that aimed to replace slavery with wage work. The crops the Glad Tidings brought to New York had been grown and harvested in the South by wage-earning ex-slaves. Colman’s painting is therefore a reminder of epochal historical change. In the foreground, a black worker and two white counterparts tend to a cotton bale that has spilled open, while a single white worker wrestles with another bale. On the left edge of the painting a banner reads “London and New York,” reminding viewers that the South supplied the vast majority of raw cotton for the English textile industry through the port of New York. Visible only under considerable magnification are the words “New York Petroleum Co.” painted across the head of the barrel facing the viewer, foreshadowing the presence of the commodity that would fuel the engines of American commerce, and warfare, for generations to come.”


Albert Bobbett, Edward Hooper, and Louis H. Stephens, “Principle vs. Interest” from Vanity Fair
New York: Louis H. Stephens, April 13, 1861
Newberry folio A 5 .93 v. 3

Again from the Newberry’s texts: ‘In “Principle vs. Interest,” England’s John Bull casts a sidelong glance at the seated Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, who appears as a cotton broker. Bull turns his back on the black male figure, signaling that England’s abolitionist principles will not stop it from acting on its commercial interests. Characteristic of cartooning style at that time, the slave is literally encased and flailing helplessly in a cotton bale.’

Many other exhibits refer to activities in Chicago and elsewhere in the North during the Civil War. 

“Group of Chicago Zouave Cadets” from
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, NY, July 28, 1860

According to the exhibition, ‘More than 70 US Army volunteer regiments fashioned themselves “Zouaves,” borrowing the term and the uniform from French Army regiments serving in North Africa during the mid-nineteenth century. Instantly recognizable in their colorful garb, Zouave regiments sported tasseled fezzes, short, open jackets trimmed with braid and baggy pants, often in brilliant red. Sheet music, periodicals, and parades featuring precision drills contributed to the popularity of the Zouave regiments.

This Zouve-style silk dress worn by Sarah Cadwallader Logan Knowland, 1865-66, particularly interested me for the carefully stitched pleating and fine fabric.  I find it interesting that military styles often influence women’s fashions.

Dress, based on Zouave Style,
Chicago History Museum,


“Home Front” is open through March 24, 2014.  Among other exhibits are paintings by Winslow Homer and Frederic E. Church; first editions by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Louisa May Alcott; sheet music from Chicago-based music publishers; and  displays about changing roles of women and children. 

 Lilly Martin Spencer, The Home of the Red, White, and Blue ca. 1867-68
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago

Lilly Martin Spencer was born in Exeter, England, to French parents; the family emigrated to the U.S. when she was 8 years old in 1830.  Her husband, Benjamin Rush Spencer,  married in 1844 in Cincinnati, devoted his life to her artistic career.  Lily Spencer’s popular paintings focused on daily life, particularly of women.  After the Civil War,  she was well known for depicting the results of the war and the changes it brought in the American family.  In the scene above, the mother in white — said to be a self-portrait — and her daughters in red and blue assist the poor.  The man at the left seems to be a wounded war victim.  the painting is seen as m allegory of how women are repairing the war-torn nation.

Another aftermath of the war is simply and effectively shown below.

Fruit Piece: Apples on Tin Cups

    William Sidney Mount, Fruit Piece: Apples on Tin Cups, 1864
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
According to the Library text, “William Sidney Mount’s Fruit Piece: Apples on Tin Cups depicts two weathered tin cups, known as “dippers,” each with an apple sitting atop. The tin cups were standard issue for Union soldiers, who often wore them dangling from their belts as they marched, or on their saddles as they rode into battle. These cups were objects of war, yet by placing them in this domestic setting, Mount’s painting suggests that the distance between battlefield and home front could easily collapse. The artist donated his painting to the 1864 Great Metropolitan Fair in Manhattan, where its sale helped the US Sanitary Commission raise money.”
“Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North” was organized by the Newberry and the Terra Foundation for American Art. the Library’s website is here. The Digital Exhibition is here.

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