On Civil War Era Pictorial Envelopes


Click here to see the pictorial envelopes collection.

During the American Civil War, pictorial envelopes were one way that letter writers displayed their political sentiments. Purchased in camp by soldiers and at home by their families and friends, these statements of loyalty typically portrayed images of bravado and inevitable victory. The artwork had a cartoonish-quality about it, with inaccurate facial features and exaggerated behaviors being typical of the genre. Some of the envelopes depict Union President Abraham Lincoln as everything from heroic, dignified, and reasonable to a buffoon and warmonger.

Many of the Lincoln envelopes from the New York Historical Society online collection promote the President as the savior of the Union, unflappable and in command. One series of envelopes published by J.H. Tingley show Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis in a dramatic five-round boxing match of sorts. Icons of their cause surround each contestant; behind Lincoln are Republican leaders, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, a squad of ramrod-straight soldiers and the Capitol building, which bears an oversized flag. Politicians, an unidentified military officer, a bale of cotton and symbols of the South’s “peculiar institution” such as slaves and slave-catcher dogs accompany Davis.

As the “contest” unfolds, Lincoln appears confident and resolute. His chest is large and puffed out, his face is serene and he points his leading foot aggressively toward Davis. The envelope portrays Davis as nearly hysterical with fear, stooping and cowering while raising his hands to protect his face, all the while crying out “LET ME ALONE!” The match develops predictably from that point, with Lincoln not so much pummeling the Southern president as humiliating him by tearing away the backside of his trousers. It may be that illustrating the “peace-loving” President bloodying the leader of the Secessionists seemed too belligerent. In round three, the cowardly secessionists flee while the North stands unflinching, and Lincoln appears triumphant before his entourage. The final two episodes further depict the Union restored and jubilant, with a statesmanlike Lincoln pledging, “You shall all have my impartial, constitutional and humble protection.”

 Other envelopes similarly tout Lincoln as determined and resolute, and do not hesitate to put words in his mouth to prove it. One image attributes to Lincoln this “theory”: “The Rebellion must be put down, and that speedily, cost what it may.” It is unlikely that Lincoln ever uttered such a comment, and one is left to wonder if the artist truly understood the meaning of “…cost what it may.”  In another depiction, a childish Jefferson Davis wildly rides a hobbyhorse while Lincoln says: “Look here Jeff Davis, you have rode that Secession Hobby about long enough – I am going to put a stop to it now.” On these envelopes, the Federal president is calm, confident and in charge. This glorification of Lincoln may reach its apogee when he is drawn as a comet racing across the heavens (“The Star of the North”), with stars as a backdrop and the stripes of the flag as the comet’s tail.

 Sometimes symbolism is used to deliver the message. One such piece shows a Union cannon, resting on a pedestal boldly adorned with Lincoln’s name, firing on a shoddily-built house labeled “DISUNION”; in another, Lincoln is an industrious pharmacist who has the prescription for secession. Other portrayals are more cartoonish in nature. For example, one envelope shows two images of the face of a member of the “Southern Chivalry”, one smug and self-assured “after reading the Southern account of the terror stricken North” and the other “After reading Presid’t Lincoln’s Message, calling for $400,000,000 and 400,000 men.” The second rendering of the man’s face is comic in its appearance, as he seems to have literally exploded with fear and trembling at the words of Abraham Lincoln. Another envelope presents a red flag upon which a leg, identified as Lincoln’s, appears to kick Davis in the pants. Not all of the envelopes are this aggressive, however.

 More than a few of the images place Lincoln in the context of the power of his office and the authority of the constitution. In one, Lincoln resides, along with General Scott, at the top of a circle of portraits that reflect the leadership of his Administration. The portrayal is heavy on gravitas, reflecting the responsibility and power of the presidency. Flags decorate the circle, underlining the administration’s commitment to the Union. In one instance, the envelope draws gravity from the past by adding Andrew Jackson’s famous nullification-era toast (“The Federal Union – it must and shall be preserved”) to portraits of Lincoln and Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin.

 In two envelopes from Lincoln’s 1864 reelection campaign, broad platform-type statements are included to project a sense of principle and duty. One states “…it is the highest duty of every American to maintain against all their enemies, the integrity of the UNION…” while the other advances the “Suppression of the rebellion by force of arms. Unconditional surrender the only terms.” The message is: “We (and therefore President Lincoln) will never give in to secession”. Another image calmly predicts that Lincoln “…will steer the old Ship of State safely through the breakers of Secession and Disunion”.

 Some of the envelopes depict similar messages but with lighter vehicles. One such piece shows Lincoln and Scott refusing to share the Union with the mangy “old dog” Jefferson Davis. Another puts Lincoln and a silly-looking Davis on a seesaw; Lincoln appears to be heavier than the Confederate leader, who seems about to fall. Lincoln mocks him, saying “Why Jeff, old boy, you will never be able to keep a Hotel, if you don’t stick better than that”. Again, the illustration shows Lincoln to be serious and dignified in the presence of treason, such as on the envelope that proposes a new coin for the Confederate States. Taunting slave owners, the coin’s motto is: “Owe Ever. Pay Never.”

 Not every portrayal of Lincoln is positive, though. One envelope clearly takes the Southern position, claiming cotton as a “throne” that defeated the British at New Orleans and will also defeat “Ape Lincoln”. “Ape Lincoln” could be a reference to the characterization of Lincoln as a gorilla, a common epitaph at the time, or an attack on Lincoln’s perceived Black Republicanism, or even both. Whatever the meaning of the insult, Lincoln is brushed aside as a Johnny-come-lately who will be defeated by the invincible King Cotton. Another image decries the coming of war, for which it seems to blame Lincoln and Confederate General Braxton Bragg. Early in the war, before other Confederate names stepped forward to occupy headline writers, Bragg was a common target for Northern editorialists. Perhaps this is because many at the time believed Bragg to be a close friend of Davis, though historians do not believe that now. In a sillier depiction, a farcical Lincoln is being shot by a cannon. In a more subtle attack on Lincoln, a “Review of the army” delivers portraits of both Lincoln and Union commander George McClellan, both surrounded by martial symbols. The artist draws McClellan’s image closer to the viewer, while Lincoln's is set farther back; McClellan also seems more poised and confident than does the president. In this pairing, Lincoln is clearly in a supporting role.

 Generally, though, the envelope art views Lincoln positively. More than once, the illustrations promote him as a man of the people, with one prewar piece coming right out and saying it: “The peoples’ candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln.” In this image, he appears common-faced, almost soft-skinned, yet still dignified, surrounded by flags and a liberty cap. Another envelope is less direct, being satisfied to quote Lincoln as promoting the “Constitution and the Union – harmony and Prosperity to all.” Who could argue with that platform? One artist decides to deny reality altogether, turning back the clock on Lincoln’s face and rebellion. In this depiction, the President is young, innocent and almost buoyant. The message is hopelessly optimistic: “Secession! Non est.” Just like that, Lincoln is a handsome thirty-year-old, and secession does not exist. Most envelope artists were not quite so delusional, though. A conciliatory print has a more realistic rendering of Lincoln before a backdrop of flags designed to sway emotional attachment to the Union. Lincoln is quoted as saying, “Whatever our politics, the Constitution must be sustained.” Which interpretation of the Constitution is to be sustained the artist does not say. Four years of slaughter would be more telling.

 The ebb and flow of fortune in the Civil War produced endless editorializing about Abraham Lincoln – much of it negative. The envelopes on display here, however, reveal little of that. Almost uniformly, they depict President Lincoln as a hero, a man of honor, or at least, more right than Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It is as if the envelopes, often carrying much awaited news from loved ones at home to cold, hungry, and perhaps demoralized soldiers, needed to refrain from any honest assessment of the war and politics. In this venue, it was as if the truth had become too painful to say and thus the publishers used patriotism to paint over a universe of suffering.


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