...using documents, images, maps and online tools
Here are my thoughts on the cartoon, through the lens of Werner's seven ways to "read" a visual text. Re: Political cartoon: Columbia Demands Her Children! c.1864, Boston, by Joseph E. Baker
INSTRUMENTAL (resource): The web site includes a brief summary of the cartoon. Reader would need to also be aware/familiar with the fact that Lincoln had ordered in the Enrollment Act of July 1864 that 500,000 new recruits be conscripted, and that any portion assigned to each state that did not voluntarily sign up would be drafted. Also required knowledge: the Civil War had begun in April of 1861; many battles had been fought, and the number of dead and wounded had by any standard been tremendous.
NARRATIVE (storyline): This cartoon, as in earlier ones by different artists (see “Columbia Confronts the President” Jan.1863, Harper’s Weekly), makes reference to Lincoln’s familiar habit of relating to current problems by telling humorous stories from his home-spun past, but it also jabs deeper at the rumor that Lincoln had joked (most unlikely) while visiting the Antietam battlefield, supposedly making light of the tremendous cost recently paid there in human suffering. The war had been dragging on for over three years, and even though the Confederate armies were on the defensive, there was no end in sight, at least not in the near future. Lincoln’s apparent lack of concern for the cost is not reflected in a determined Lincoln bent over maps and troop models, concentrating on how to most swiftly achieve victory, but rather a nonchalant Lincoln with his books of nondescript titles, and his little legendary candle for reading them into the night (is he so unaware that it is catching his sleeve on fire?).
ICONIC (icon): This cartoon was modeled on what was by then a familiar motif during the Civil War, that of the President being called to task by a female representation of the Union, called “Columbia.” For example, as mentioned above, “Columbia Confronts the President,” published in January 1863 after the bloody battle of Antietam, pictures Columbia accusing the President for the tremendous number of Union casualties suffered during that battle and perhaps to that point during the Civil War.
Columbia has large shield on her back – recalling the legacy (which would have been well known by the readers of this cartoon) of the ancient Spartan, who would – after having fought the battle – come home either with his shield, or on it – i.e., no retreat from the task at hand, no matter how dire the situation… and he had been given his shield, and that command, by his mother.
EDITORIAL (editorial): The cartoonist is asserting that fighting the War, or at least, fighting the War the way it is presently being fought, is not worth “it.” In reference to the Spartan-like shield icon, the cartoonist is implying that the Union, despite the terrible cost, is not cowering or shirking its duty, but Lincoln – with his too casual appearance and inappropriate comment – is not taking the War seriously enough. As long as he supplies the cannon fodder, Lincoln has left the rest of the war – and its problems – to his generals.
INDICATIVE (index): In the past, war had been considered a glorious undertaking, almost certainly a necessary part of a young man’s rite of passage to manhood, but this war was different, and the North was sick and tired of it, and there seemed to be no end in sight. The “Lady Columbia” figure in the earlier cartoon previously mentioned looks more ephemeral, almost like an angel or ghost, whereas in this later cartoon she appears more solid and present. Perhaps the artist is inferring that now, a year and a half later, the situation, having been ignored or at least taken too lightly, has grown even more serious and must be addressed much more forcefully. By July 1864, Grant was Lincoln's man to lead the Union army, and Grant's strategy was mainly one of attrition, willing to risk and lose tens of thousands of Union soldiers if it also meant significantly wearing down the Confederates who did not have nearly the same access to ready replacements as did the Union. Also, in the earlier cartoon, Lincoln has “back-up” – a military officer (is that a red nose?) and a (hand-wringing) politician, but in “Columbia demands her children!” Lincoln is all alone, implying that the decision and responsibility for the war and the growing weight of its miserable cost is his alone.
OPPOSITIONAL (positioning): “Columbia” would most likely here symbolize the Union rather than the entire country (Union plus Confederacy), but the Enrollment Act had been amended (the reader would need to know) to include conscripts from each of the rebelling states as well (except Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana).
A retort to this cartoon might be one of a determined Lincoln pointing an accusing finger at Columbia turning her back, and Lincoln, with his arms around two beaten and bleeding slaves, saying, “What about them and their children?!!” Another might picture Lincoln on his knees, sobbing and praying for the soldiers’ sacrifice, in a Garden of Gethsemane motif which would have been very familiar to readers of that day, an angel offering comfort to Lincoln during this most trying time, implying that things would get worst before they would get better, but they would then soon have their victory too.
REFLEXIVE (mirror): Lincoln’s height and other physical characteristics were easy targets for cartoonists; here, his tall, lanky form is carelessly draped over a chair, making him look awkward and nonchalant about the serious matter at hand. If someone were to draw a political cartoon with me in it, I wonder about what physical traits or personal characteristics would be emphasized.
Columbia reminds me of how someone’s mom might react. I wonder how my mom would feel if she was in that place, or how I would feel if I was a mom (or a dad) and my son was involved in a war, or had been killed or wounded in war.
I really enjoyed this exercise and the mental challenge of looking at one visual text (ok, two) from so many different angles. I hope to integrate this into my teaching next week. - charley