“The 30th day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. …”
What is now known as Memorial Day—a day to remember those U.S. military personnel who died while serving—was originally known as Decoration Day. Below are a selection of images from Harper’s Weekly published during the first decade after General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic first called for this official day of national mourning in 1868.
A happy Memorial Day to you and yours from all of us in Notre Dame’s Special Collections!
Rare Books and Special Collections is closed today (May 30th) for Memorial Day and will be closed on July 4th for Independence Day. Otherwise, RBSC will be open regular hours this summer — 9:30am to 4:30pm, Monday through Friday.
During June and July the blog will shift to our summer posting schedule, with posts every other Monday rather than every week. We will resume weekly publication on August 1st.
Reflecting on the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, one can find historical parallels. A recent addition to the Hesburgh Library, a collection of Harper’s Weekly magazines from the 1850s to the 1890s, reveals that late-nineteenth century Americans were also worried about how to stay safe during epidemics. The magazines document events during turbulent periods of American history: the Civil War, Reconstruction, and multiple epidemics. Numerous articles, cartoons, and advertisements reflect widespread concerns for how best to combat national health crises.
In 1858, a group of rioters attacked a hospital, known as “The Quarantine,” that held patients with smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera; at least two men died. The rioters feared that the quarantined patients represented a threat to the local community rather than necessary protection, as it was believed that disease spread through a miasma in the air.
Since bacteria had yet to be discovered and cures were not readily available, others looked to make a profit from those desperate to stay well. One 1864 advertisement for “Dr. T.B. Talbot’s Medicated Pineapple Cider” suggests that consumers snuff pineapple cider to cure the influenza. The fine print notes that customers might have to wait six months before being cured.
In 1879, America attempted to combat the rising cases of yellow fever by creating a National Board of Health, which ceased operations by 1884 due to various funding and operational issues.
Despite these ups and downs it is also clear that in the midst of national anxieties, people found joy in life. For instance, each edition of Harper’s Weekly included a section of new chapters of ongoing novels. One of the most popular authors to publish a chapter-a-week was Charles Dickens, whose novels featured prominently in Harper’s Weekly.
The newspaper also frequently printed stories from far-off places; the images provided a taste of the world beyond America for those unable to travel.
Advertisements for the latest Parisian fashions, recipes for the at-home chef, and poetry accompanied news of politics and warfare. During the height of the Civil War, one cartoonist took a break from political imagery to joke about the ever-widening skirts of women’s’ fashion.
The Harper’s Weekly collection reminds us that while many things have changed and some haven’t, we have always found ways to endure.
COVID Policy Update: For fully vaccinated Notre Dame faculty, staff, students and visitors, masking is now optional indoors on campus. Those students, faculty, staff and visitors who are not fully vaccinated must wear masks inside campus buildings, including in Rare Books & Special Collections spaces. Anyone who would prefer to wear a mask in any setting is welcome to do so.
Living as we do in a world of live broadcasts and instant social media, it can be hard to remember just how long it could take information to reach parts of our nation in earlier days.
In last week’s post, we shared two letters from Special Collections written by James Monroe Meek to his wife Elizabeth in March 1869, focusing on his description of the events surrounding the first inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant as President of the United States. At the start of the first of these two letters, Meek indicates to his wife that he had received on the previous evening (March 3rd) a letter that she had written February 28th. This transit time is as good as—or perhaps better than—what we would expect today.
For those without a family member or friend to write home, there were of course various serial publications that conveyed the news of the world to the world. By the second half of the nineteenth century, newspapers typically covered such a significant event as an inauguration fairly quickly, thanks to recently expanded telegraph lines and railways—at least for those living in a city served by those technological advances.
Today’s elections, nearly everyone agrees, have become fiercely, even bitterly, partisan. In 1860, as southern states teetered toward secession, the presidential race divided along partisan and regional lines. Republicans, who were from the north and west, supported Abraham Lincoln, while Democrats split north and south; the former followed Stephen Douglas and the latter John Breckinridge. John Bell, the third party Constitutional Union candidate, took a few states in the upper south. Yet, in what was a bitter contest, the rhetoric of one of Lincoln’s campaign biographies was deliberately calm and unabashedly high-minded.
Rare Books and Special Collections holds a scarce piece of campaign literature from the 1860 presidential race—The Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin—a book of more than 400 pages that introduced many Americans to Lincoln and his running mate for the first time. Our copy has an original cover and several illustrations, one of which is an engraving of Lincoln based on a photograph taken by Mathew Brady, the New York City photographer.
The volume appeared immediately after the June Republican convention in Chicago, where Lincoln had been chosen as the party’s presidential candidate. It contained a short biography of Lincoln written by a very young William Dean Howells (1837-1920), who would in later years, become a writer, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and arbiter of American literature. The Lives and Speeches also held selected speeches of both men, including Lincoln’s February 1860 speech at the Cooper Institute in New York City, where he laid out his argument that slavery must not extend into the western territories. He ended with the stirring refrain, “Let us have faith that right makes might . . . let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” (p. 213)
Howells, who was at the time a 23 year-old journalist in Columbus, Ohio, interviewed people close to Lincoln to create a portrait of the candidate that emphasized the party’s Free Soil ideas. From friends who knew Lincoln since he was in his early 20s, Howells offered a narrative that included Lincoln’s self-made story, but also impressed on readers that the candidate had been supported along the way by people who recognized his abilities and character. After explaining in some detail how Lincoln had honored a financial debt as a young (and still poor) man, Howells summed up the incident with partisan boosterism, “that the old neighbors and friends of such a man should regard him with an affection and faith little short of man-worship, is the logical result of a life singularly pure, and an integrity without flaw.” (p. 43)
A few pages later Howells summed up his research by assuring his readers, “by the testimony of all, and in the memory of everyone who has known him, Lincoln is a pure, candid, and upright man, unblemished by those vices which so often disfigure greatness, utterly incapable of falsehood, and without one base or sordid trait.” (p. 48)
Howells also took pains to reassure readers, for whom Lincoln was relatively unknown outside of Illinois, that his opposition to slavery was long-standing, clear, and aligned with the Republican party’s 1860 platform. As proof, Howells pointed to an 1837 protest Lincoln had voiced in the Illinois Legislature against a resolution for suppressing abolition societies.
As a campaign piece must, Howells’ biography painted Lincoln as the principled candidate. Howells declared, “throughout his Congressional career, you find him the bold advocate of the principles which he believed to be right. He never dodged a vote. He never minced matters with his opponents.” (p. 57) Howells underscored Lincoln’s exemplary public record through his speeches, which gave the impression that “he has not argued to gain a point, but to show the truth; that it is not Lincoln that he wishes to sustain, but Lincoln’s principles.” (p. 65) To drive home the point that the candidate’s character connected to the presidency, Howells quoted Lincoln directly. “[Slavery],” Lincoln said, “forces so many really good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”’ (pp. 75-76) For Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, in which “all men are created equal,” was the nation’s foundational document and this ideal drove his ambition and service.
In a four-way race, Lincoln won less than 40% of the popular vote but 180 of 303 electoral votes, a decisive victory.