Popular Literature during the Civil War


With the formation of the Confederacy at the beginning of the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Southern literary establishment foresaw the dawning of a new literature. Southern audiences would no longer, in the words of the editor of the Richmond-based Southern Illustrated News, be compelled to read “the trashy productions of itinerant Yankees.” Instead, he predicted, the region would enjoy “Southern books, written by Southern gentlemen, printed on Southern type, and sold by Southern publishing houses.” And, indeed, by the end of 1862 that newspaper made the claim that the Richmond firm of West & Johnson had published more books from original manuscripts during the past year “than any firm in Yankee land.” Nevertheless, the output of belles letters in the Confederacy was what historian Elisabeth Muhlenfeld has characterized as “the perennial poor relation of Southern literature.”

Few writers had time for serious literary work. Authors were, of course, expected to support the Confederate war effort and the fiction and poetry of the war was intensely martial and polemical in tone. According to an editorial in an 1863 issue of the Richmond Courier and Semi-Weekly Compiler, Southern literature had “the ring of steel; its color is … blood red and its perfume is that of sulfur and nitre.” At best, the propagandistic nature of Confederate writing encouraged an examination of regional identity that was to bear fruit early in the twentieth century with the coming of the Southern Literary Renaissance. But at the time, Henry Timrod of South Carolina might be considered the only Southern writer of any distinction associated with the war. In addition, military invasion—Union general William Tecumseh Sherman was careful to destroy printing presses left in his wake—was, of course, a major blow to Confederate publishing. The Union naval blockade caused severe shortages of paper, ink, and other printing supplies. Rampant inflation harmed book sales and, by 1864, Richmond’s printers were occasionally called upon to man the city’s defenses.

John Esten Cooke

Southern writers were active, however, and many were read. As early as 1862 “instant histories” of the war were appearing and, following Virginian John Esten Cooke’s 1863 biography of Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, accounts of the lives of Confederate heroes became increasingly popular. During the war’s final two years, such sentimental novels as Virginian James Dabney McCabe’s The Aide-de-Camp; a Romance of the War (1863), Augusta Jane Evans’s Macaria; or Altars of Sacrifice (1864; for which Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard had provided a detailed account of the First Battle of Manassas [1861]), and Alexander St. Clair-Abrams’s The Trials of the Soldier’s Wife: A Tale of the Second American Revolution (1864) began to attract Virginia readers.

The Georgia humorist Charles Henry Smith, writing under the pseudonym Bill Arp, was the South’s most popular writer. The literary quality of such offerings was poor, but they did provide escape and a measure of inspiration for Southerners demoralized by the war. Both Cooke’s Life of Stonewall Jackson and Evans’s Macaria were banned in the Union army, and confiscated copies were burned. Both writers, Union commanders felt, offered an entirely too compelling assessment of the Confederate cause and its champions, and, they feared, were likely to sway their soldiers’ sympathies toward the South.

An astonishing quantity of poetry was written and published in support of the Southern war effort. Although most was of the sort that George William Bagby, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, referred to as “trash in rhyme,” the work of Henry Timrod; Paul Hamilton Hayne; Francis O. Ticknor; Father Abram J. Ryan; John Reuben Thompson; and Margaret Junkin Preston, Stonewall Jackson’s sister-in-law, was represented in the best of the genre. Almost all of the South’s wartime poetry was shot through with intense patriotism. The elegy for the heroic dead—such as Thompson’s “Ashby,” “Burial of Latané,” and “The Death of Stuart,” and Preston’s “Dirge for Ashby”—was perhaps the most popular theme. James Ryder Randall’s “Maryland, My Maryland” and John Williamson Palmer’s “Stonewall Jackson’s Way” were set to music and became two of the most popular war songs of the South.

Charles H. Smith (Bill Arp)

Most Southern writers were so little known, however, that when the Southern Illustrated News printed Hayne’s “The Southern Lyre,” a paean to Southern poets, the editor was forced to comment that “it is not remarkable that Southern readers should be ignorant of Southern writers when we remember that the Yankees have hitherto had the making of the common-place books of Prose and Poetry, and have been careful to exclude from their pages all Southern effusions.”

More eagerly read than Southern fiction or poetry were such English writers as William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. West & Johnson published a translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in 1863–1864 that caught the fancy of the Army of Northern Virginia, which, in response, dubbed itself “Lee’s Miserables” after its commander, General Robert E. Lee.

Literary magazines edited and published in Richmond included the Magnolia Weekly, Smith & Barrow’s Monthly Magazine, the Southern Illustrated News, The Age, the humor magazine Southern Punch, and, the most prestigious of the lot, the Southern Literary Messenger. Few, however, outlasted the war.

  • Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
APA Citation:
Cutrer, Thomas. Popular Literature during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/popular-literature-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Cutrer, Thomas. "Popular Literature during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, February 05
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