American Collections blog

34 posts categorized "Civil War"

31 January 2013

Oil, Ambergris and the Grand Ball of the Whales

2013-01-07 14-55 vanity fair 1861 page #12
Public Domain Mark

This work (Grand Ball given by the Whales), identified by The British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.

There was a certain amount of spluttering over the porridge this morning, as the Today programme's John Humphrys discussed reports of discovery of whale vomit on a Morecambe beach, and speculated briefly on the possibility of somehow farming sperm whales for this valuable commodity, more pleasantly also known as ambergris. Long-sought-after for its rarity and use as a base for perfumes, this lump of grey waxy emission is a reminder of the special status of whales and their relationship to human culture.

The early connection can be seen in this folio from the British Library Catalogue of Medieval Manuscripts:

Birthwort and Ambergris

Egerton 747, f. 7, 'Birthwort and Ambergris'. Guidance on use of this image.

But a more recent - and American - reminder can be found in the cartoon at the top of this post, taken from Vanity Fair in 1861, and which we hold at the Library.  'The Grand Ball given by the Whales' depicts a celebratory pod of whales, who are heartily cheered by the the striking of 'rock oil' at Drake's oil well in Pennsylvania.  No longer, the sperm whales believed, would their precious spermaceti oil be hunted for use in candles and lubrication of the delicate machines of the industrialised north. 

It tool a while for oil to become established as lighting and heating fuel and a propellant, but against the backdrop of the Civil War, a startling, and massive, infrastructure was put in place (extraction, refinement, distribution, sales...), and the American talent for marketing was put to work inventing and explaining how the new fuel could offer brilliant light for homes, offices and factories.  At one point, U.S. consuls were provided with details of newly-designed kerosene lamps and instructed to advertise them in the capitals of the world.  Oil tankers were invented, removing the need to rely on leaky oil barrels (which stripped the poor horses that pulled them in carts of their hair), naval engineers began to speculate on converting warships to petroleum, rather than relying on great coal stations, and vast new docks and sumps were constructed.  Legislation had to be passed in both countries after a series of fires at oil merchants and their warehouses (there was also a relatively well-founded scare about the inflammatory properties of oil lamps). 

And, unlike the potential olfactory use of ambergris, all of this smelled pretty bad.


09 January 2013

The Great Comet of 1861 and the Civil War

Stargazing was a great success on the telly and under the skies last night; and Lincoln did very well at the BAFTA award nominations.

As a doff of the cap to these two facts, here's an August 1861 political cartoon from Vanity Fair, 'The Great Comet of 1861'.  Playing on the comet that was visible with the naked eye over the US in 1861 as war broke out (the comet was first sighted in Australia in May, and designated C/1861 J1), it depicts General Winfield Scott, the union general who advocated war as the only means to bring the seceded states to heal.  (Note the bayonets in Scott's celestial tail.)



Public Domain Mark

This work (The Great Comet of 1861), identified by The British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.

Scott's strategy, which aimed to constrict the southern states like a snake, gaven birth to its popular name, the Anaconda Plan, which in turn led to other cartoons:


Public Domain Mark
This work (Scott's Great Snake), identified by the Library of Congress, is free of known copyright restrictions.


07 January 2013

Our Great Iceberg Melting Away

Another in our occasional series on the polar regions: we can now reveal that Abraham Lincoln is to blame for global warming.  Or at least James Buchanan change.  (From Vanity Fair, 9 March 1861).

2013-01-07 14-55 vanity fair 1861 page #13

'Our Great Iceberg Melting Away', Vanity Fair, 9 March 1861,

Public Domain Mark
This work (Our Great Iceberg Melting Away, by Stephens), identified by The British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.


01 January 2013

Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

At 14.00 EST today (19.00 GMT here in London) bells will ring out in churches, universities, and other organisations in Massachusetts to mark the moment when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day, 1863. Sadly we don't have any bells to ring but we're providing a link to the Library's copy of the Leland-Boker Authorized Edition of the Emancipation Proclamation (1864), recently released as part of our US Civil War digitisation project.  The signatures at the foot are in the hands of Abraham Lincoln, John Nicolay (Private Secretary to the President) and William Seward (Secretary of State).

There's more about the Proclamation on our Americas Collections Highlights pages, and it's available on Images Online.  The original proclamation is in the National Archives in Washington. The Smithsonian also provides an introduction.

And a very Happy New Year to everyone!

27 November 2012

A Disputed Boundary: mapping the Gadsden Purchase Treaty


Map illustrating the disputed Boundary between the United States and Mexico (New York, 1853) Maps 71495.(25)

Public Domain Mark
This work (Map illustrating the disputed Boundary between the United States and Mexico, by creator: G. Schroeter; producer: British Library), identified by The British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.

This map is being digitized as part of the US Civil War project.  It predates the war, of course, but is a record of the western expansion that helped to spark it.  It shows the disputed territory between New Mexico and Mexico following the Treaty of Gaudaloupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexico-American War of 1846-48.  The Mesilla Valley offered an important potential railroad route to the West via a Southern route (important to the slave states), but the treaty was based on an out-of-date map favoured by the United States.  New surveys demanded by the treaty revealed the error.

In 1847, a British bank had brought rights to the land, leading to fears of British influence in the American hemisphere (the fears of which Mexico used to good effect with its negotiations with the States), while the Gold Rush of 1848 gave the potential route even more importance. In 1853, the newly elected Pierce administration, which included the future Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, favoured a more bullish policy towards southern expansion and, taking advantage of economic and political turmoil within Mexico and the New Mexico governor's claim to the disputed territories, James Gadsden purchased six packages of lands for $15 million.  Mexico unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Britain to become involved in the negotiations, and the treaty was ratified in 1854.  The US Army took possession of the lands, and became responsible for suppressing the Apache tribes noted on the map (under the terms of the Guadalup-Hidalgo treaty, the US was responsible for protecting Mexican citizens from Apache raiding parties; for their part, the Apaches had been resisting Mexican intrusion into their lands for the best part of three centuries).

The Southern Pacific Railroad, which headed west from Los Angeles, was completed in December 1881.

(Detail of Maps.71495(25) above)

31 August 2012

The radical life of Moncure Daniel Conway

Eccles Centre Writer in Residence, Sheila Rowbotham, writes,

I really should have known more about the life of the American anti-slavery  campaigner and freethinker, Moncure Daniel Conway. I have  been going to meetings in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London since the 1960s. I have the historian’s habit of wondering where the names of places and buildings come from, yet I failed to make the connection.

Because I am currently writing about two women who, in the 1880s, were members of Bristol Women’s Liberal Association , after all these years I started to investigate after finding a reference to him speaking in  the Victoria Rooms on ‘Women and Evolution’ on March 26th 1885.

The Bristol women were radical; they had links to the Garrisonian wing of  anti-slavery, inclined towards Irish Home Rule and were staunch supporters of women’s suffrage as well as being opposed to  the Contagious Diseases  Acts whereby women could be forcibly examined  for venereal diseases and confined in ‘lock’ hospitals. However as I read about Moncure Conway I wondered how much his audience knew of his extraordinary life.

From a wealthy Virginian slave-holding family, he began to ask questions after reading Emerson. In 1854, while he was studying at Harvard , a runaway slave was arrested in Boston and, after failing to obtain his release legally, abolitionists attacked the jail. A deputy sheriff was killed and with polite Boston reeling in shock, a defiant William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the U. S Constitution in protest. These startling events affected the young son of a slave-owner deeply. He turned against his father and brothers, siding with his mother and sisters who opposed slavery. In 1862, during the Civil War, he helped some of his father’s former slaves to escape to Ohio  where they  established the Conway Colony.

Breaking even with the broad and tolerant tenets of Unitarianism, he moved towards humanism and free thought. But Moncure Conway went  further.

When I read his Autobiography, Memories and Experiences in the British Library I was intrigued to find him embracing the dangerous French woman novelist George Sand who had supported the 1848 revolution and was associated with free love. Emerson had given him Sand’s Lelia to read when Moncure Conway went to lecture in Britain in 1863, but  it was not until several years later  that he met her, experiencing ‘awe’ at being in her presence..

His tribute is remarkable: ‘Margaret Fuller and Mrs Browning were both in this brain of George Sand; nay, all the aspiring and discontented women known to me in America – poets, orators, reformers – were all the offspring of George Sand, endeavouring to build in the New World a palace for Woman ..’

He admired the radical suffrage agitators Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ernestine Rose. In Britain he made contact with the Bright- Priestman  family nexus who were early campaigners for suffrage. Sandra Holton has written  with  scholarship and sensibility about their influence which was marked in Bristol.

An inveterate networker, friend of Oliver Wendell Holmes as well as Emerson in the U.S., Moncure Conway recounts how he collected European dissidents of every hue. He knew the most diverse radicals; the Cambridge Republican mathematician, W.K. Clifford and the utopian Scot, Thomas Davidson who inspired  the Fellowship of the  New Life from which the Fabians grew.

His autobiography enables us to glimpse how individuals transcend assumed  boundaries. After the defeat of the French Commune, the anarchist anthropologist, Elie Reclus, took him ‘to a room in Bloomsbury where the Communards were wont to gather – a poor place; but I was impressed by their intelligent and benevolent countenances’.

Conway Hall, of course, would not be accepting any spirits into its rationalist premises, but still I can imagine how those Communards might well waft discretely through the gallery from time to time, hob-nobbing with George Sand, Margaret Fuller, Tom Paine, the Bristol Women’s Liberal Association , and, the sociable Moncure Daniel Conway himself.


27 July 2012

The Siege of Atlanta


Public Domain Mark 
This work (Map illustrating the Siege of Atlanta, by the U.S. Forces under command of Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman) [Maps 72580.(4)], identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.

A slightly tenuous link for this week's Civil War map, which is a plan of the Siege of Atlanta in 1864.  It's a few days after the 148th anniversary of the start of the campaign, the eventual success of which proved to be a great morale boost for the north, and helped to seal Lincoln's 1864 electoral success.  We wouldn't like to suggest that London is under seige (indeed, your correspondent is doing his best to welcome the world to the UK during the opening ceremony this evening), but simply note that Atlanta, like London, is an Olympic city.

Maps 72580.(4) (detail).  Gone with the Wind comments welcome...

And on the Olympic theme, don't miss the British Library's official (and free) Olympex: Collecting the Olympic Games exhibition or the brilliant Writing Britain exhibition, which is part of the simultaneous Cultural Olympiad, if you are in town during the next few weeks.  And if you are in front of a TV this evening, keep an eye out for a curator rather out of his comfort zone after the Parade of the Athletes.


19 July 2012

Know Your (Union) Generals


Public Domain Mark 
This work (The Field of Battle and Prominent Union Generals, Creator: Ensign & Bridgman, New York; Producer: The British Library), identified by The British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.

I promised some more maps from the U.S. Civil War project, so here's another one, The Field of Battle and Prominent Union Generals [1864?].  And Mr Sherman, it's time for your close-up:



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