Cameron C. Nickels of Staunton, Virginia is professor emeritus of English at James Madison University and the author of the recently published Civil War Humor. In his thorough account of wartime humor, Nickels studied broadsides, newspaper journalism, sheet music covers, lithographs, political cartoons, light verse, printed envelopes, comic valentines, humor magazines, and penny dreadfuls both from and for the Union and the Confederacy.
Below, Nickels offers commentary on the subject of his book.
The title of your book, Civil War Humor, seems like a contradiction. What is humorous about war?
One of the things that humor does is to provide a way of coping with the vicissitudes of life by making them laughable. The outbreak of the Civil War dramatically altered all aspects of life North and South, and the mass media popular responded with what I call a “paper war” that shaped and mediated those changes in the popular imagination.
Humor about soldiers also provided comfort for those at home. The quip, “United we sleep, divided we freeze” appeared in newspapers on both sides, expressing with some wit a real hardship on the part of the soldiers but also an implicitly patriotic solidarity for survival that would comfort those on the home front.
Were there differences between Union and Confederate humor?
The most obvious difference is that there was more of it in the North simply because of the resources – engravers, printing presses, paper and ink – to produce it in a variety of form and the infrastructure to distribute it. Not only did the South lack these resources from the beginning, but the great majority of the war was fought there. There were similarities in what humor took up, but to different degrees.
The most significant, poignant even, difference that emerged between humor in the Union and the Confederacy was not so much in the subject as in the underlying tone, maybe mood. In Confederate humor, particularly in the last two years of the war, there is the often the sense of a nation that could not and would not be defeated by an outside enemy but a nation inexorably enervated by war itself. And humor could acknowledge that without defeatism or cowardice, evoking laughter that was perhaps fatalistic but nonetheless defiant – “absurdist” in the modern, existential sense of that term.
How were African Americans treated in the popular literature of the Civil War era?
The African American portrayed in humor was a minstrel caricature from pre-war popular culture literature that played a new role in the paper war given the implications of the “real” war. In Northern humor, slaves comically turned the table on their owners: the chorus of one highly popular song summed it up: “De massa run, ha, ha! De darkey stay, ho, ho!” A popular cartoon featured a slave headed north stopping to thumb his nose at Jefferson Davis.
Enlisted in the North as soldiers beginning in 1863, African Americans made a significant contribution to the Union cause that humor exploited as the ultimately ironic victory over an enemy stigmatized as aristocratic slave masters.
The end of the war called for a serious examination of the radically new place of African Americans in the economic, social, and political life of the North. Popular literature sentimentalized those implications for the most part; humor was a way to laugh at them, if not laugh them off.
Civil War Humor is now available from UPM.