If it’s good for nothing else, war is good for reading. Troops often find that books provide the perfect antidote to the hours of boredom that bookend the moments of pure terror. Soldiers on the home front discover that books provide a means of escape from the anxiety of knowing that loved ones are in harm’s way. And so it was during the Civil War.
The years 1845-57 saw “the greatest boom the book business had ever seen,” wrote publishing historian John Tebbel. Previously books had been available mainly to the elite, but as cheaper books— many priced at less than a dollar—entered the market, a new audience of readers quickly appeared. With the nation’s literacy rates fairly high—an estimated 70 percent in the South and 90 percent in the North—those readers continued their habits into the war years and embraced a wide variety of reading material.
Scotsman Sir Walter Scott was dead long before the Civil War—he died in 1832—but his influence remained, especially in the South. As James D. Hart noted in The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Tastes, “If Scott did not shape Southern culture, he surely appealed to the region in which, during the bitterest days of the war, the Richmond Examiner could editorialize, ‘While it is not for the South to fight with any mean advantage, it is time for her to abandon those polite notions of war which she has got from the Waverly Novels.’” Scott, the man who had pioneered the historical novel with the series of books named after the first, Waverly, contributed much to the South’s self-image of cavaliers and chivalry—his notions about clansmen and fiery crosses, wrote Hart, might have even inspired the practices of the Ku Klux Klan.
Victor Hugo was another popular foreign author, although he was very much alive during the Civil War. His Les Miserables, published in 1862, was perhaps the most popular novel of the war years. It was so popular, in fact, that the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia started calling themselves “Lee’s Miserables.”
Scott and Hugo are still widely read today, but many popular books from the war era proved to be much more ephemeral, none more so than the “dime novels.” Brothers Irwin and Erastus Beadle and their partner, Robert Adams, introduced this genre of cheap fiction in 1860 when they paid author Ann Stephens $250 to reprint a story of hers, Malaeska, or the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, that had appeared in The Ladies’ Companion in 1839. The Beadles ran an ad in the New York Tribune that read, “BOOKS FOR THE MILLION! A Dollar Book for a Dime!! 128 pages complete, only Ten Cents!!” Malaeska was a huge success, its sales eventually totaling 300,000 copies. The Beadles followed it with Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier, by Edward S. Ellis. Helped by a teaser ad campaign that asked, “Who is Seth Jones?” the book’s sales reached 500,000. Although the Beadles’ dime novels never reached such dizzying numbers again, they always sold consistently, especially to Civil War soldiers. “The dime novels exactly suited their tastes,” wrote John Tebbel, “and it was not long before they were being shipped to the Army in bales.”
During the war, Southern women in particular derived comfort from reading. “Books were one of the very few sources of enjoyment remaining to women deprived of husbands and lovers, of adequate food and clothing, and even of news of the whereabouts and safety of kin,” wrote Drew Gilpin Faust in Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Popular novels by women writers offered a means of escape.
Lucy Buck offers a typical example. She and her five sisters liked to read out loud to each other in the parlor of their home in Front Royal, Va. They enjoyed European authors such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Hugo, but they also liked homegrown writers. One of them was Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, a Virginia judge who predicted civil war in his 1836 novel The Partisan Leader. Another Southern author was Augusta Jane Evans, who published her first novel, Beulah, in 1859. That novel about a young girl’s search for religious faith had sold 30,000 copies by 1863. After the war Evans had another success with St. Elmo, which also grappled with issues of faith and redemption.
Buck recollected being so caught up by Marion Harland’s novel Alone that she was greatly startled when a pair of Union soldiers arrived to search for Confederates. Harland was the pen name of Mary Virginia Terhune—another product of the Old Dominion—and Alone was her first novel. It eventually sold 100,000 copies and launched Terhune on a career that included some 25 other novels as well as 1871’s Common Sense in the Household, A Manual of Practical Housewifery.
The most successful female novelist of the period was Harriet Beecher Stowe. She had published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, but the novel’s effect still reverberated; a second, largely forgotten novel about slavery called Dred, published in 1856, did not have nearly the same impact. Stowe changed her setting to New England for The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), but neither that nor anything else she wrote had the incendiary effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Theodore Winthrop was a popular novelist of the 1860s, who also had the unfortunate distinction of having all his novels published posthumously. Winthrop had been unable to sell them while he was alive, and he had a fatal encounter with Confederate bullets at the 1861 Battle of Big Bethel. Three melodramatic novels, Cecil Dreeme, John Brent and Edwin Brothertoft, had some success, though their author did not live to enjoy it. Winthrop turned an old adage on its ear. For him it was “perish and be published.”
No book, no matter how enveloping it was, would allow its readers to escape from the harsh realities that surrounded them on anything more than a temporary basis. But in the midst of a war that traumatized the lives of millions, even temporary escape was a powerful motivation.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.