The word “Sensation” as used at time of the Civil War connoted a thrilling experience or violent, emotional feeling; it was also used to describe a person or event that excited such a response. The term was even applied to literary works: a “sensation drama” was a play of the type that would later be known as melodrama. Tenniel’s composition recalls just such a “sensational” work of art: Charles Deas‘ (1818–1867) painting The Death Struggle, ca. 1845, which depicts a white pioneer and an American Indian warrior, both armed with knives, locked in fatal combat at the brink of a cliff. While it is doubtful that Tenniel would ever have seen the original painting, it may have been familiar to him through engraved reproductions.
The Northern brother, identified by his stars-and-stripes clothing, loses his balance as the rotten branch of the “Union” tree to which he clings breaks under the strain. Both he and his Southern brother, attired in a stars-and-bars uniform, are so consumed with hatred for each other that they seem oblivious to the yawning chasm of mutual bankruptcy into which they are about to fall.