Tag Archives: Civil War

The SS Sultana: A Heartbreaking yet Forgotten Tale of Disastrous Proportions


On April 27th 1865, the American steamboat the SS Sultana met a tragic end on the Mississippi River. The magnitude of this disaster (like all others of its kind) is incomprehensible, and yet… many remain unaware of its existence. The sinking of the SS Sultana is considered the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. 

April 1865 marked a turning point in American history – the Civil War had finally come to an end, and people, desperate for solace and healing, began to rebuild their lives. The SS Sultana, a wooden side-wheel steamboat, was built in 1863 and was originally designed to transport both passengers and cargo up and down the Mississippi River. But with the end of the war came the responsibility of transporting thousands of Union soldiers back to their homes in the northern states. This seemingly innocuous task would end in a disaster that would claim more lives than the sinking of the infamous Titanic in 1912.

On April 24, 1865, the SS Sultana was docked at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where it began taking on an unbelievable amount of Union soldiers, many of whom were recently released prisoners of war from Confederate camps in Andersonville and Cahaba. As the soldiers boarded the steamboat, their excitement and anticipation filled the air. These weary men were finally going home to their families and friends, and the SS Sultana was their ticket back to freedom.

One day before the tragedy, the Sultana stopped at Helena, Arkansas, where photographer Thomas W. Bankes took a picture of the grossly overcrowded vessel.


The SS Sultana was 260 feet long and 42 feet wide, and was designed to carry a maximum of 376 passengers. However, the pressing need to transport the soldiers along with gross negligence on the part of the captain (Captain J. Cass Mason – an experienced steamboat pilot), owners and ticket-masters led to a severe overcrowding of the vessel. Approximately 2,300 passengers boarded the steamboat, including soldiers, civilians and crew members. The boat’s capacity was pushed to its limits, with soldiers stacked on every available surface, even sleeping packed in like sardines on the decks.

Despite the overcrowding, the true catalyst for the impending disaster lay in the steamboat’s boiler system. Prior to the Sultana’s arrival in Vicksburg, a leak had been discovered in one of the boilers. Instead of properly repairing or replacing the damaged boiler, a temporary patch was applied – a decision driven by greed and expediency, as the captain and the ship’s owners did not want to lose out on the lucrative government contract for transporting the soldiers. This choice would ultimately lead to the deadliest maritime disaster the United States has ever seen.

Tragedy struck after three full days on the river, on the night of April 27th, when the steamboat was about 7 miles from Memphis, Tennessee. At around 2 in the morning the hastily patched boiler exploded, instantly killing the captain and at least 500 people, followed in quick succession by the explosion of the two other boilers and even more destruction. In a mere instant, the once-bustling vessel was transformed into a scene of utter chaos and devastation. The explosion ripped through the heart of the Sultana, killing hundreds of passengers instantly, hurling others into the cold, dark waters of the Mississippi River, and setting the wooden steamboat on fire. 

Many of the injured survivors found themselves caught in the river’s swift currents, clinging to debris or trees and fighting for their lives. Even more of them succumbed to drowning or hypothermia. Rescue boats (mainly other steamers) from Memphis rushed to the scene (though the earliest to arrive wasn’t for a half hour after the explosions) – but the chaos, darkness, fire and smoke made their efforts difficult and mostly unsuccessful. As dawn broke, the grim reality of the disaster became clear. The SS Sultana, once a beacon of hope for these soldiers, was now a smoldering mass sinking into the Mississippi River.

By the time the Sultana had burned to the waterline and finally sank, an estimated 1,200 to 1,800 lives were lost. This made the SS Sultana disaster the deadliest maritime disaster in American history. The Sultana tragedy shook the nation, as thousands of families mourned the loss of loved ones who were supposed to be finally returning home from a gruesome war where they fought for their country.

Despite the sheer magnitude of this disaster, and though several men involved with the boat were court-martialed, no one person was ever held formally accountable. The death of the Captain and crew made it extraordinarily difficult to place blame, and with the United States still reeling from the aftermath of the Civil War, the SS Sultana did not necessarily receive the place in US history that it ought to. So today, 158 years to the day of this tragic accident, we bring attention to it and to the lives so needlessly lost. 


This Civil War item was published in 1865, the same year of the SS Sultana disaster. Meant to be carried in the pockets of Civil War soldiers, this little “convenient pocket manual for soldiers in the army and navy” includes a Soldier’s Calendar, a Pay Table and details, objects, principles and plans of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, as well as religious hymns and psalms, meant for civil war soldiers. See it here.


The California Gold Rush, Slavery, and the Civil War


On January 24, 1848, Swiss immigrant John Sutter’s employee James Wilson Marshall found gold at the Sutter Mill. The result was the largest migration in American history, along with bitter debate over the issue of slavery. California would eventually enter the Union as a free state, but not because its delegates thought slavery an abomination. Figures like Hinton R Helper, himself a failed prospector, only exacerbated strained relations between the North and South.

Territory of Untold Value

When the US and Mexico went to war over California in 1846, the region’s population included about 6,500 Californios of Mexican or Spanish descent; 700 mostly American foreigners; and about 150,000 native Americans (whose population had been cut in half since the arrival of Spanish conquistadors). The war


Published pseudonymously, “The Miner’s Ten Commandments” reminds miners to respect the Sabbath–a rule that had fallen out of practice in many a mining town.

was ended in favor of America on February 2, 1848, with the ratification of the Treaty of Guadelupe Hildago. Neither side was aware of Sutter’s discovery, so the incredible value of the territory was not yet completely clear.

Indeed, people as close as San Francisco were quite skeptical until entrepreneur Sam Brannen marched through the city waving around a vial of gold. By the middle of June, San Francisco was a ghost town; most men had gone south to the mines. Military governor Colonel Richard B Mason took a tour of the gold fields shortly thereafter. IN his report, he noted that two miners had found $17,000 in gold in three days at Weber Creek. A team of six miners and fifty Native Americans had mined 273 pounds of gold. Sales at Sam Brannen’s mercantile exceeded $36,000 in May, June, and early July combined. Mason sent the report to Washington, DC with a tin of gold as additional proof. It wouldn’t arrive for months.

Word arrived sooner in places that were accessible by ship from San Francisco. Immigrants immediately began arriving in droves from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Peru, Chile, China, and Mexico. Europeans followed. When the first accounts of newfound wealth appeared in East Coast newspapers in the summer of 1848, they invited much incredulity. It wasn’t until December 5, 1848, when President James K Polk announced Mason’s report in his State of the Union address, that Easterners began to take the Gold Rush seriously. The exodus began almost immediately. Men headed West in record numbers, hoping to escape the wage labor economy and strike it rich. Women were mostly left at home to raise families, tend farms, and run businesses on their own. Countless families took out loans or spent their life savings in pursuit of their dream.

The Gold Rush Undoes Many a Prospector

By 1849, the non-native population of California had reached almost 100,000. Prospectors soon learned that mining was grueling, dangerous work. It wasn’t uncommon for them to die of disease, accident, or even malnutrition. Hiram Pierce held a funeral for one young man who died of gangrene after accidentally shooting himself in the leg. Despite these conditions, miners continued pouring into California. And how could they resist? In 1849, mined gold was valued at $10 million. The following year, that figure was $41 million. In 1852, $81 million worth of gold was mined in California. (Not everyone was convinced that this westward migration was worth the risk; in 1849 Edgar Allan Poe even undertook a bizarre hoax to dissuade people from going.)


‘Das Goldland Californien’ (1850) includes the sad tale of one German emigrant who lost his fortune in his quest to strike it rich.

Competition grew increasingly fierce, and soon Anglo-American miners were growing territorial. They often resorted to violence, forcing others of different nationalities from their land. As the surface gold disappeared, miners found themselves with no option but to work for larger mining corporations with the technology to mine gold deeper underground. A wage labor economy had again emerged, and after 1852, revenue from gold fell steadily until 1857, when it held at about $45 million per year.

Helper_Land_GoldThe vast majority of men who went in search of gold failed to strike it rich. One such failed prospector was Hinton Rowan Helper. Born on December 27, 1829 outside Mockville, North Carolina, Helper was apprenticed to a printer. He went to the gold fields in 1850 and returned after only a matter of months. Helper said that after working the same claim for three months, he’d made less than 94 cents Though Helper didn’t find gold, the experience did give him material for Land of Gold: Reality vs Fiction (1855).

Helper’s account was hardly reality; he garbled and fabricated statistics to support his argument. Gary F Kurutz, Director of the Special Collections Branch at the California State Library and author of a descriptive bibliography on the Gold Rush, calls Land of Gold “one of the most famous, oft-quoted, and entertaining books of the Gold Rush.”

California Slavery Divides Congress

Helper also took up another hot-button national issue: slavery. He advocated the expansion of slavery to California, scolding the “meddling abolitionists” who interfered with whites’ ability to exploit blacks to work the mines. Racism ran deep in California, and one would think that Helper was not alone in his pro-slavery sentiment. Such was not the case; the issue was much more complicated. White southerners had first brought slaves to California mines in 1849, but that practice wasn’t popular. However, no laws banned slavery in the early days of the Gold Rush.

After the US won California, a bitter dispute ensued over whether the state should be a free or slave state. There were fifteen states in each category, and California would tip the scales. By September 1849,


Details of the 1849 Monterey convention are among of the most important documents in California history. This is a Spanish translation.

California delegates were tired of waiting. They gathered in Monterey and voted to enter the Union as a free state. This wasn’t because they supported the abolition of slavery. On the contrary, many delegates were miners who hailed from the South. The majority felt that slaves actually had an unfair advantage in mining work because they were more accustomed to heavy labor. Thus, they voted against slavery for their own financial gain.

However, in Washington, DC, the North and South were deadlocked. Debate raged on for six months, and in one instance one senator even pulled a pistol on another. Finally Congress reached the Compromise of 1850: California would enter the Union under the state delegates’ terms, as a free state; New Mexico and Utah would become territories, and the legality of slavery there was undecided; the slave trade was banned in Washington, DC; and the Fugitive Slave Law was strengthened. California would ratify its own version of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1852.

A Racist Abolitionist

By this time, Hinton Helper had moved to New York. The issue of slavery remained at the forefront of US politics, and Helper didn’t help matters when he published The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It in 1857. Helper’s thesis was that slavery impeded the economic development of the South because it Helper_Hinton_Rowanhelped to concentrate wealth in the landed class. He wrote in defense of non-slave owning Whites, whom he saw as economically disadvantaged, and who comprised about 75% of the white population of the South. But Helper’s publication had unintended consequences; it was adopted as an abolitionist work and helped to get Abraham Lincoln elected in 1860. Some experts even place The Impending Crisis of the South alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in terms of its influence as abolitionist literature.

The Impending Crisis of the South includes about 150 pages of statistics from the 1850 census, which Helper had hoped would illustrate the economic disadvantage of the slave states. These had little influence. But what did stick with readers was Helper’s branding Southern slaveholders as “robbers, thieves, ruffians, and murderers” and his exhortations that slaves should escape from their owners by violence if necessary. The summer after the book was published, New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett gave President Buchanan a copy and warned him that “There is gunpowder enough in that book to blow the Union to the devil.”

A Help for the Republican and Abolitionist Cause

Conflict over slavery again reached a fever pitch, as it had when California entered the Union. Then Republican party leaders moved to print a compendium of The Impending Conflict of the South to distribute in the 1860 presidential campaign. The “Speakership Fight” in the House of Representatives resulted, lasting from December 5, 1859 to February 1, 1860. The battle gave Helper’s book far more national attention than it really deserved, as did the resulting endorsement from the Republican party.

Lincoln won the election, even though he wasn’t necessarily the most popular candidate. For example, California citizens increasingly sympathized with the South as farming overtook gold mining. Yet Lincoln won in California because Democratic votes were divided between Northern candidate Steven Douglas and Southern candidate John Breckenridge, while Republicans were unified in their vote for Lincoln.

In January 1861, the Herald declared that Lincoln’s victory had been due to “this very work of Mr. Helper, and kindred speeches and documents.” Much later, historian James Ford Rhodes would note that the book “proved a potent Republican document, especially in the doubtful states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois, where it was easier to arouse sympathy for the degraded white than for the oppressed Negro.” Helper’s screed had had unintended consequences. The author found himself suspect in the South and scorned in the North. He couldn’t find employment, faced public ridicule, and feared physical violence. Helper turned to Abraham Lincoln for a consular appointment, which Lincoln granted. In November 1861, Helper went to Buenos Aires as the consul to Argentina. While there, he married Maria Louisa Rodriguez.

When Helper returned from Argentina, he settled in Asheville, North Carolina. He would later live in New York and St. Louis. He wrote five other books, three of which were extremely racist. By 1890, Helper’s grip on reality had all but evaporated. His wife had gone blind and returned to South America with the couple’s only son. Alone, Helper grew more and more unstable. He committed suicide and was buried in a donated, unmarked grave. The Authors Society of New York paid his funeral expenses.

Hinton Rowan Helper made a mark on history that he never could have predicted. His own history shows how inextricably the events of regional and national history are so often intertwined. Helper’s work proved a malignantly divisive one, exacerbating the conflicts that pushed the nation to the brink of Civil War.

Related Reading: 
The Six Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe
Louisa May Alcott: Abolitionist, Suffragette, and Mercenary 
Charles Dickens the Copyright Confederate
A Collection of Confederate Literature
Clara Barton: Heroine of Civil War Nursing and Record Keeping

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Louisa May Alcott: Abolitionist, Suffragette, and Mercenary

Louisa_May_AlcottWhen Louisa May Alcott published Little Women in 1868, she immediately found the fame and fortune she’d sought since childhood. The legendary author is best remembered for this and other children’s books, but her true authorial passion was for writing cheap thrillers. Unbeknownst to most of her adoring readers, Alcott undertook her now classic novels only as a means to support her family. Indeed, Alcott has proven a much more complex individual than most of us would guess.

A Childhood of Privation

Born on November 29, 1832, Louisa May Alcott was the second of four daughters. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, hailed from a distinguished Boston family. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a farmer who’d educated himself in philosophy. The members of the Alcott family were quite progressive for their time. In 1834, Bronson set up a school with a controversial co-ed curriculum. He managed to find students, but the community was soon turned off by his disciplinary tactics and frank discussion of religion. The final straw was when Bronson refused to dismiss a black student he’d admitted. White parents withdrew their children from the school, and Bronson was forced to shut down.


The progressive curriculum at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School

The family remained ardent abolitionists, participating in the Underground Railroad. When she was seven years old, Alcott opened an unused stove to discover a former slave hiding inside. The man was initially terrified that he’d been discovered, just as Alcott was frightened to find a man in the oven. Alcott taught the man to write his letters. This experience and others would eventually compel Alcott to serve in the Civil War so that she could contribute to ending slavery.

Among the family’s closest friends were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Alcott grew up with their mentorship, studying in Emerson’s library and getting botany lessons from Thoreau. Despite this rich intellectual life, the Alcotts were quite poor. Bronson worked hard, but didn’t pay much attention to actually earning a living. His family often subsisted on nothing but bread and water, and they frequently moved–by the time they settled at Orchard House in 1858, the family had had around thirty temporary homes, and they could afford the home only with the support of relatives and Emerson, who wished Alcott’s sister Beth to pass her last days in comfort and security.


Fruitlands was strictly vegetarian. Residents were not even supposed to till the soil, as they might injure a worm.

When Alcott was ten years old, the family undertook a radical experiment. Bronson co-founded the utopian community of Fruitlands with English reformer Charles Lane. Their goal was to survive without animal products or any commodities that had been generated by slavery, including coffee and tea. After only six months, the project had obviously failed. The Alcotts were completely destitute, and Bronson was on the brink of suicide. Alcott resolved that she would one day be rich and famous. At first she wanted to be an actress, and she soon began writing, directing, and acting in plays.

Early Financial Responsibility

Alcott began keeping a journal when she was eight years old, and she wrote her first novel at age seventeen. Heavily influenced by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the novel would not be discovered and published until over a century later. Though Alcott wrote prolifically in her off time, she also worked hard as a teenager to help support her family. She had a series of jobs: teacher, governess, laundress, and even household servant. Her mother took work with an unemployment agency, and the family encountered women who had to take the roughest jobs. Moved by the plight of these illiterate immigrant and African American women, Alcott, her mother, and her sister Anna offered free reading and writing instruction.

Bronson, on the other hand, did little to support the family. He embarked on a long speaking tour–only to return with a single dollar in his pocket. The family, it seemed, would never escape poverty. The family’s dire straits gave Alcott a unique vantage point as a female author; most women writers of the era came from much more privileged backgrounds. It also hardened Alcott’s resolve “to turn my brains into money by stories.” In her early twenties, Alcott began writing romances for local papers. She rapidly learned how to tailor her writing for different markets and to experiment with different genres.

A Scandalous Little Writing Habit

Alcott also knew that writing such sensational stories would tarnish her own reputation, and she was not confident in the quality of her writing. She wrote these stories either anonymously or pseudonymously, thus protecting her own reputation. Harriet Reisen, author of Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women,’ noted in an interview with NPR, “Louisa made herself a brand. She suppressed the fact that she had written pulp fiction that included stories about spies and transvestites and drug takers.”

It wasn’t until after her death that the full breadth of Alcott’s work was revealed. But Alcott found writing such potboilers quite thrilling, admitting that when she wrote them she slipped into a kind of “vortex” where time, food, and sleep simply didn’t exist. Scholars hypothesize that these stories were also an excellent outlet for Alcott, who never married and spent much time worrying about her family’s well-being.

Heeding the Call to Duty

Then the Civil War broke out in 1861. Alcott reported to the Concord town hall, where she sewed uniforms and made bandages. As soon as she turned thirty, Alcott entreated family friend Dorothea Dix to let her become a field nurse even though she wasn’t married. Dix relented, and Alcott went to Washington, DC, where she ministered to soldiers after the Battle of Fredricksburg. Alcott fell prey to pneumonia and typhoid fever, cutting short her tenure as a nurse. Her treatment included doses of calomel, which contained mercury. It left Alcott weak and sickly for the rest of her life.

Unable to continue serving as a nurse, Alcott decided to support the war effort through her writing. She adapted her letters home into Hospital Sketches, and the book immediately became a bestseller. It represented a dramatic departure from Alcott’s other authorial endeavors–and it was published under her real name. The book’s success renewed Alcott’s confidence and resulted in new interest in her writing.

A Parisian Affair

Alcott had always wanted to travel, and in 1866, she had the opportunity to travel to Europe as a companion to an invalid. In Switzerland, she met Ladisas Wisniewski, a Polish freedom fighter who was thirteen years her junior. The pair managed to overcome the language barrier, passing a fortnight together in Paris. Cavorting with a twenty-year-old man without a chaperone certainly raised a few eyebrows, but Alcott dismissed the allegations of impropriety, pointing out that she was 33 years old.

Alcott affectionately called Wisniewski “Laddie,” and he would be one of the inspirations for the character of Laurie in Little Women. The other was Alf Whitman, who was also much younger than Alcott. The two met at the Concord Dramatic Union (now the Concord Players), where they played Dolphus and Sophy Tetterby in Charles Dickens’ Haunted Man. Alcott doted on Whitman, and the two remained friends long after Whitman had married and had children. Alcott wrote to Whitman, “I put you in my story as one of the best and dearest lads I ever knew. ‘Laurie’ is you and my Polish boy [jointly].”

Challenging Gender Stereotypes

Though Alcott would have multiple ambiguous relationships with younger men, she claimed never to have loved them. In an 1883 interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, Alcott said, “I am more than half persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body…because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least with any man.”

Alcott’s choice to remain a spinster was an unusual one for the time, even for a woman who had become a caregiver to her family. Yet Alcott had seen how dependent her mother had been on her father–and how poorly her father had provided for the family. “I’d rather be a spinster and paddle my own canoe,” she once wrote. That same sense of independence drove Alcott to campaign tirelessly for women’s suffrage. She attended the Woman’s Congress of 1875 in Syracuse, New York. In 1879, Alcott successfully campaigned for women’s suffrage in the election of the Concord school committee. The men of the town boycotted the vote, and Alcott was one of twenty women to cast a ballot.

Resigned to Writing “Moral Pap”

Alcott returned from Europe to find her family, predictably, in debt. Now able to “earn more from my pen than from my needle,” Alcott decided to write her way into fortune. She wrote in her journal in May, “Father saw Mr. Niles [of Roberts Brothers publishing house] about a fairy book. Mr. N wants a girls’ story, and I began Little Women. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this kind of thing. I never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting.”

Alcott went about Little Women methodically over the course of a few weeks, with none of the joy she found in her thrillers. The first edition was published in 1868, when Alcott was 35 years old. It met with instant success, and Alcott’s fate as a writer was essentially sealed; she would build her career writing what she considered “moral pap for the young” because that’s what would support her family. Though Alcott was not upset to be “the goose that laid the golden egg,” she took a rather cynical view of her writing: “Money is the means and the ends of my mercenary existence.”

Alcott_QuoteBecause Little Women was so obviously based on Alcott’s own childhood, her family gained celebrity along with her. Bronson was quite fond of the attention. Now wealthy and widowed, he sported fine clothes and toured the country as “The Father of the Little Women.” He started publishing (very verbose) volumes of philosophy. Alcott built him the Concord School of Philosophy, so that he could again enjoy lecturing to an audience. His exploits were curtailed by a stroke, and he was forced to retire to a beautiful home in Louisburg Square, provided by his dutiful daughter, who visited almost every day. Alcott, however, wanted nothing to do with fame–perhaps because she saw so little merit in the books that had made her famous. Tourists shamelessly came calling at Orchard House, and Alcott would often pretend to be her own maid to avoid their attentions.

Then tragedy struck the Alcott family yet again. Alcott’s sister Anna Alcott Pratt had married into a wealthy family. While she was in Europe, her husband died unexpectedly, leaving her with two small children and no income. To ensure their financial comfort, Alcott again put pen to paper, this time writing Little Men. She assigned the royalties to her nephews, who would live with her until she passed away ten years later. When her sister May died in childbirth a few years later, Alcott took custody of the infant, who was named after her. Nicknamed “Lulu,” the child would call Alcott “Mother” and live with her until Alcott’s death.

When Alcott’s own health began to fail, she sought both traditional treatment and explored alternative medicine. In 1888, she went to a Roxbury convalescent home, convinced that proper rest would extend her longevity. That March, she visited her father for what she knew would be the last time. He passed away on March 4, 1888, and Alcott followed two days later.


Charles Dickens the Copyright Confederate

In 1854, Sigmund H Goetzel arrived in Mobile, Alabama and immediately got to work setting up a bookstore. A German immigrant who’d been naturalized as a US citizen, Goetzel was intent to establish himself as a prominent member of the city and a vital member of the publishing community. During the Civil War, Goetzel’s publishing house would make waves regarding international copyright law–an issue near and dear to Charles Dickens’ heart. That copyright policy likely contributed to Dickens’ decision to support the South during the Civil War.

An Enterprising Publisher

Goetzel set up shop with silent partner Bernard L Tine, who owned a local clothing store. They called their outfit SH Goetzel & Company. Goetzel would drop the “& Company” once he repaid his debt to Tine in 1863, five years after their partnership had actually expired. Though he remained in the business only eight years, Goetzel proved quite industrious, publishing not only maps and broadsides, but also pamphlets and a number of books. Although many of the books were simply reprints of English or northern titles, a significant number were also original titles.


Confederate-era sketches of Mobile, Alabama, from Harpers Weekly

By 1860, the publishing industry in Mobile had grown by leaps and bounds, probably due to increased wealth and an influx of residents. The city was prosperous and cosmopolitan; approximately 50% of its white, male residents were foreign born. Meanwhile in the late 1850’s, Goetzel had consistently garnered praise for the high quality of his publications. SH Goetzel & Company was a thriving part of the Cotton City.

The onset of the Civil War in 1861, however, presented new challenges. Materials, particularly paper and ink, became increasingly difficult to procure from the North, and Union blockades prevented the import of materials from Europe. Goetzel’s main competitor, William Strickland & Company, was driven out of business due to accusations that the firm’s principles were “incendiaries,” that is, abolitionists. By the middle of the war, publishers and printers had either shuttered their shops, or stretched the limits of their ingenuity; thus, wallpaper became a common book covering material when paper and other materials ran out.

Copyright Controversy

Yet Goetzel persevered, anxious to prove to the world that the Southern publishing world would not be undone. His first endeavor was a new edition of William J Hardee’s Hardeen’s Revised and Improved Infantry and Rifle Tactics, which Hardee had revised at the request of Jefferson Davis. Goetzel soon found himself embroiled in a copyright lawsuit, as the work was immediately pirated both in the North and the South. He began printing “THE ONLY COPYRIGHTED EDITION” directly over the title.

Edward_Bulwer_LyttonThe following year, Goetzel announced that the firm would issue an edition of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story. Scheduled to start in time for Christmas and New Years, it was issued in numbers. Goetzel published the numbers with such astonishing rapidity, that editors at the Mobile Advertiser and Register noted that the printer’s resources “exceeded expectations.”

By this time, the Confederate States of America had already established a strong stance on international copyright. On May 21, 1861, the CSA Copyright Act was ratified, granting reciprocal copyright and royalties to foreign-born authors. The legislation was a calculated move, designed to appeal particularly to the British, French, and Germans. And it did garner goodwill tin Europe, particularly in England, where Charles Dickens and other authors had been proponents of copyright law reform for decades.

Dickens_Great_Expectations_Confederate_EditionThus Goetzel had indeed written to Bulwer-Lytton to obtain permission to print A Strange Story and offer him a payment of $1,000. But thanks to the blockade, the letter never arrived. Bulwer-Lytton announced that the only royalties he’d received had come from his New York City Publisher, Harper & Company. Goetzel wrote a letter of self-defense to the editor of the Mobile Advertiser and Register, arguing that he’d sent Bulwer-Lytton payment and had only recently received confirmation of its arrival.

These issues did little to slow Goetzel’s prodigious output. In 1863–the height of the war–Goetzel published five new book-length titles, along with a map, three pamphlets, and a handful of reprints of earlier titles. One of these was an edition of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which was bound in wallpaper. It’s now an incredibly scarce volume. The following year, Goetzel executed six new titles, each about 320 pages.

Dickens’ Sympathies Shift to the Confederates

Dickens_American_NotesThe Civil War had aroused vehement debate in England. Charles Dickens, then the editor of the popular periodical All the Year Round, simply couldn’t remain neutral. Furthermore, Dickens had already taken a decidedly anti-American stance following the debacle of his first visit there. Though American Notes only cast aspersions on the American institution of slavery and the press, Dickens was much more aggressive in Martin Chuzzlewit. The works only served to alienate him further from his American audience.

Dickens personally published on the war in All the Year Round only once, on March 1, 1862. He simply republished a number of controversial passages from American Notes with the following note: “The foregoing was written in the year eighteen hundred forty-two. It rests with the reader to decide whether it has received any confirmation, or assumed any color of truth, in or about the year eighteen hundred sixty-two.” The comment implies disdain for both the North and the South. But it also served to vindicate Dickens’ original (and somewhat unpopular) stance in American Notes.

But All the Year Round saw at least 25 pieces about the Civil War. Ever the attentive editor, Dickens carefully supervised every aspect of his publications. That extended to the publication’s political stances which we know thanks to his public announcement following the mid-war printing of Charles Reade’s serialized novel Very Hard Cash, which attacked the Commissioners on Lunacy (which included Dickens’ dear friend John Forster). Dickens said that he took responsibility for the political stances presented in All the Year Round–with the exception only of noted authors’ serial novels that appeared in the periodical.

Appealing to His Readership

Dickens relied on All the Year Round for a substantial portion of his income and had to consider his readers’ interests to ensure sales. Therefore he leaned toward narratives and “true accounts” of the Civil War, rather than news and political commentary. On December 29, 1860, a summary review of Frederick L Olmstead’s A Journey into the Back Country appeared. The book chronicled the most horrifying aspects of slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley, the least cultured area of the South. The review descried the South’s purported intention to reopen the slave trade.

An article published on July 13, 1861 denounced the South for commissioning privateers to harass British ships delivering goods to the North. Such interference with foreign trade was simply a barbarous tactic. Then on October 26, 1861, a story about an English doctor who treats a runaway slave appeared. It includes all the usual elements: bloodhounds, sketchy Southerners, and a doctor who notes how “wonderfully” the Southerners’ minds have been warped by slavery. A West Virginian character in the story opines, “I only wish we could have a hand on them philanthropists (abolitionists)…A load of brushwood and a lucifer-match will be about their mark, I calculate.”

Spence the English Confederate

By the end of the year, however, the editorial bent of All the Year Round had become decidedly pro-Southern. What happened to change Dickens’ mind? First, he read James Spence’s The American Union, Its Effects on National Character and Policy with an Inquiry into Secession as a Constitutional Right and the Causes of Disruption. Dickens’ copy is inscribed by Spence himself, and the work would deeply impact Dickens’ view of the war.

Historian of the South Frank Lawrence called Spence’s book “the most effective propaganda of all by either native or Confederate agent.” Spence also became active in agitating for the South among England’s working class. He would organize meetings and rallies to counter those held by the Foster-Bright abolitionist groups. So Dickens wasn’t the only British citizen swayed by Spence; he was simply one of multitudes–but perhaps the only one with such a public platform for endorsing Spence’s views.

Dickens was so anxious to review Spence’s book in All the Year Round, he mentioned it more than once in his letters to his assistant editor. After it finally appeared (in not one, but two issues), he was dissatisfied with it. Written by Henry Morley, the review harshly criticizes the Northern cause and contends that the United States is too large to govern honestly and effectively.

A Change of Heart

Dickens was so taken with Spence’s arguments that he espoused them almost unquestioningly. In a letter to his Swiss friend WF de Cerjat on March 16, 1862, Dickens outlines his own views on the war…which are almost entirely borrowed from Spence. He argued that abolition was merely a pretext for other economic aims and “in reality [had] nothing on earth to do” with the Northern war effort. He went on to say, “Any reasonable creature may know, if willing, that the North hates the Negro, and that until it was convenient to make a pretense that sympathy for him was the cause of the war, it hated the abolitionists and derided them up hill and down dale.”

Spence grounds his arguments in the tariff debated that had gripped America even before the South had seceded from the Union. The Morrill tariff, passed on March 2, 1861, replaced the Tariff of 1857, which strongly favored Southerners. The Morill tariff, in contrast, gave preference to industrial workers and placed the South at a considerable disadvantage (hardly a surprise, given that by the time of its ratification, the Southern representatives had left Congress). It also impeded trade with Europe. Two subsequent tariffs during the Civil War helped raise necessary funds for the war.

While Dickens openly adopted Spence’s views, there’s another reason he may have shifted his allegiance: international copyright law. After all, his perspective shifted after the CSA’s Copyright Act had been ratified. And Dickens had long advocated stronger international copyright law; indeed, his first visit to the United States was spoiled because he refused to dismount his copyright law hobby horse and act graciously toward his American hosts and interlocutors. Instead, Dickens pushed his agenda at every opportunity, even using a dinner in his honor as a platform to galvanize fellow authors to his cause.

This issue would have been an emotional one for Dickens, but not one that would garner him much empathy from readers. Better, then, to repeat other, more popular arguments. Thus, it’s quite possible that Dickens privately sympathized with the South because the South seemed to sympathize with his own cause. Whatever his motives, the Confederate imprint of Great Expectations remains a work that will undoubtedly continue to evoke questions and enrapture collectors.

Related Posts:
A Collection of Confederate Literature
How the “Dickens Controversy” Changed American Publishing
Charles Dickens Does Boston
The Two Endings of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’

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A Collection of Confederate Literature

On March 11, 1861, delegates from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas gathered in Montgomery, Alabama. Their purpose: to ratify the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. The document was–not unsurprisingly–similar to the US Constitution, even using some of the same language.

But the Confederate Constitution gave the states much more autonomy and power than the central government. For example, while a presidential item veto existed, states had to consent to the use of any funds or resources by the federal government. The Confederate Constitution also set six-year terms for the president and the vice presidents, and precluded the president from serving two consecutive terms. And slavery was “recognized and protected” in all slave states and territories, while foreign slave trade remained illegal.

Both France and Great Britain considered entering the fray on the side of the Confederates. But they never acknowledged the Confederate States of America as its own independent, autonomous entity, and the Confederate States crumbled in April 1865.

A Selection of Confederate Literature

For collectors of Americana, the Civil War is a perennially popular area of focus. Within that specialization, the depth and breadth of material available makes it possible to further specialize in a sub-section of Civil War literature. The works and records of the Confederacy offer a fascinating, enlightening, and sobering look into one of the bloodiest periods in American history. Even this sub-specialty has incredible scope, stretching to include works written both before and long after the war itself.

The Italian Bride

Levy-Italian_brideSamuel Yates Levy wrote this play in honor of Eliza Logan and had it printed for private distribution in 1856. Logan was a popular actress in the mid-nineteenth century, and her father, Cornelius Logan, acted as her manager until his death in 1853. Though Logan was born in Philadelphia, she made her name in the antebellum South, with many lucrative engagements in cities like Savannah. Meanwhile, Levy would go on to become a Confederate officer during the Civil War, slightly unusual because he was Jewish. Research indicates that this volume’s recipient was a fellow officer from Georgia. Details>> 

Great Expectations

Dickens_Great_Expectations_Confederate_EditionDickens’ first visit to America ended less than well. The legendary author returned to Britain and published two American Notes, which criticized the United States, most notably for permitting the institution of slavery. (He further alienated American readers with Martin Chuzzlewit.) Dickens’ strong opposition to slavery and his keen sensitivity to social injustice made him an unlikely ally of the Confederacy. But after a close reading of James Spence, who was not only a writer for the London Times, but also a pro-South merchant, Dickens revised his opinion. In All the Year Round, he spoke out in defense of the South on the subject of the Morrill Tariff, noting that the ariff had “severed the last threads that bound the North and South together.” This first Confederate edition of Great Expectations is exceedingly rare in the trade, with no copies having come to auction in the past thirty years. Details>>

Carrie Bell

Carrie_BellCaptain MC Capers wrote the lyrics to the Confederate tune “Carrie Bell,” while T. Von La Hache composed the musical accompaniment. Capers was formerly of the “Macon Volunteers” and had also participated in the Indian Wars in Florida (1836). During the Civil War, Capers was in command of Company G, 1st LA Heavy Artillery Regiment of the CSA. In July 1863, he was promoted to major, seeing service at Vicksburg and elsewhere in the South. Details>>

A Legal View of the Seizure of Messrs Mason and Slidell

Legal_View_Seizure_Mason_SlidellThough this pamphlet was published under the pseudonym “Pro Lege,” it’s thought to be the work of Virginia statesman Francis Rives. He delves into the issues regarding seizure at sea during the US Civil War. The matter came the the forefront when Captain Wilkes, acting on his own cognizance, boarded the British vessel Trent and took two individuals, Mason and Slidell, captive. The two were acting as Confederate diplomats. Wilkes’ bold move was locally applauded, but the British were indignant and on the verge of entering the war against the Union forces. Seward released the two gentlemen and told the British that Wilkes had erred and acted without proper authority. Published in 1861, this pamphlet looks at the diverse international maritime legal issues and the ramifications of Wilkes’ act. Details>>

General Orders No 30

General_Orders_No_30Containing “An Act to Organize Bands of Partizan (sic) Raiders” and “An Act to Further Provide for the Public Defence,” this document was published in April 1862 by the Confederate War Department. It authorized the president “to call out and place in the military serve of the Confederate States, for three years, unless the war shall have been sooner ended, all white men who are residents of the Confederate State, between the ages of 18 and 35 years old.” Details>>

Life of General Stand Watie

Life_General_Stand_WatieThe only Indian brigadier in the Confederate Army and the last Confederate general to surrender, Stand Watie was no stranger to conflict. Long before the war, Watie and his brother, Elias Boudinot, had published the Cherokee Phoenix. Watie also acted as a signatory to the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which called for the removal of the Cherokee people from Georgia to “Indian Territory” (which eventually became Oklahoma). During the Civil War, Watie consistently distinguished himself in battle, refusing to surrender until June 23, 1865. His grandniece wrote the biography Life of General Stand Watie. The first edition is rare in the trade; only one other copy has come to market in the last fifteen years. Details>>

The Princess of the Moon: A Confederate Fairy Story

Princess_Moon“‘I am the Fairy of the Moon,’ said she, ‘and having witnessed your grief I desire to serve you. What would you have?'”

The Princess of the Moon is a relatively scarce juvenile with strong fantasy elements. The bias of the author, Cora Semmes Ives, is obvious, and she clearly wanted the Civil War to end differently. Published in 1869, this volume illustrates that Confederate sympathies certainly didn’t dissolve with the Confederacy. OCLC records three institutional holdings, though we found a few additional ones. Details>>

John Brown and Wm. Mahone

John_Brown_William_MahoneWritten by George W Bagby in 1880, this pamphlet’s half-title is “An Historical Parallel, Foreshadowing Civil Trouble.” The political tract, anti-Grant and anti-Malone, was issued during Malone’s 1880 run for US Senator for Virginia. Bagby proposes an odd connection among Grant, Mahone, and Confederate guerilla John S Mosby. He also predicts a civil war worse than that of the early 1860’s. “Miserable South!…despised by all the world, and for no crime but that you Christianized a race of savages thrust upon you by mercantile greed–how sad is your fate!” Details>>

The James Boys in Arkansas; or, After Confederate Gold

James_Boys_JayHawkers_Confederate_GoldThe concept of Confederate plunder was a popular one that survived the end of the Civil War. It inspired this 1895 dime novel, which plays on the notion that Confederate rebels had hoarded ill-gotten wealth. According to Bragin’s Dime Novels Bibliography, author Frank Tousey “practically revolutionized the dime novel field…[and here in the Detective Library was] the finest James Boys stories. The second title proves but a teaser, comprising only three pages of text and informing readers that the entire tale can be found in Issue No. 671. This is considered a scarce title of outlaw fiction; OCLC records only one institutional holding. Details>>


Clara Barton: Heroine of Civil War Nursing and Record Keeping


“We have captured one fort—Gregg—and one charnel house—Wagner—and we have built one cemetery, Morris Island. The thousand little sandhills that in the pale moonlight are a thousand headstones, and the restless ocean waves that roll and breakup on the whitened beach sing an eternal requiem to all the toll-worn gallant dead who sleep beside.”

-Clara Barton, Morris Island

The Library of Congress commemorates the sesquicentennial of the Civil War with an incredible exhibition of about 200 artifacts from the period—many of which have never been seen before. Last week we were honored to attend the exhibit, and to sit in on a fascinating conversation between filmmaker Ric Burns and Harvard President Drew Gilpen Faust. The two recently collaborated on making a documentary from Dr. Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. 

Faust’s book focuses on the ways that the Civil War significantly shaped the way we grapple with death—both personally and pragmatically. At least 2% of the population died during the war, making it the most fatal of all the wars in American history. Several significant figures emerged in this struggle. For example, Edmund Burke Whitman, an abolitionist who’d come from Kansas, took it upon himself to collect information about missing soldiers and the locations of unmarked graves. A quartermaster during the war, Whitman would go on to become the Superintendent of National Cemeteries after the war ended. 

Barton’s Role during the Civil War

But Whitman wasn’t the only one to feel a higher duty to identify the lost and fallen. Born in Massachusetts in 1821, Clara Barton grew up to be one of the most distinguished nurses in the United States. Perhaps best known for founding the American Red Cross, Barton also played a pivotal role during the Civil War—not only as a nurse, but also as a record keeper.

Barton first came to Washington, DC in 1854, where she took a position at the US Patent Office. She worked there for three years, until her abolitionist views made her to controversial and she returned to New England. But 1861 saw her back in the capitol, and when the Civil War broke out Barton was one of the first volunteers to arrive at the Washington Infirmary.

After Barton’s father died, she left the city hospital to care for soldiers in the field. What she found here reflected the scene in battlefields all over the country. There was a dizzying shortage of medical supplies, and Barton purchased supplies with donations and her own money. (Congress would later reimburse her for these expenses.)

Barton also quickly discovered what would turn into one of the greatest challenges in the nation’s recovery: there were no processes for documenting the wounded, the dead, the buried; no protocol for notifying families if a loved one had been wounded or killed. Barton immediately set about collecting as much information as possible. She would post lists of the missing and solicit input directly from the soldiers.

The Nation Faces a New Challenge

It became readily apparent that the isolated efforts of individuals like Whitman and Barton would not be enough. In March 1865, Abraham Lincoln appointed Barton General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. Her mission was to respond to inquiries from family members who were searching for loved ones. To do this, Barton sifted through all the prison rolls, hospital records, and casualty lists she could get her hands on. These documents weren’t always accurate.


Take, for instance, the case of John Shuman. He joined the Union Army in August 1862, but died of dysentery in August 1863. Shuman left behind an extensive correspondence with his family, which offers a fascinating glimpse into Civil War soldiers’ daily lives. Though the family name appears to be “Shuman” in the letters, the local census lists the family as “Shurman.” Furthermore the office responsible for removing John’s remains identified him as Shuman, but the grave marker and index at the cemetery list him as “Sherman.” The history of John’s infantry, published in 1895, calls him “John Shewman.”

Many soldiers in the war were not so lucky; they were not identified. Whitman and Barton again led the charge, independently insisting on the identification and marking of soldiers’ graves wherever they could be tracked down. Eventually it was thanks to their efforts that our national cemetery system was developed and implemented.

Barton would go on to distinguish herself as the founder of the American Red Cross and a true pioneer in the field of nursing. But her contributions during the Civil War were an equally significant accomplishment. What do you believe is Barton’s greatest achievement?