First Assignment: Image Hunt: Historians Using Images: James M. McPherson’s The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era (Theme: Rapid Expansion, Slavery, and the Coming of the War)

Visuals are a very valuable tool for a historian.  Not only do they help illustrate the overall argument of a historical work, but they serve as a reminder that for the people living in the period of discussion the issues and events were very real and affected their everyday lives.  The images that follow were chosen in some ways because they effected real people living in the period before the Civil War.  Moreover I tried to select the images so that they constructed an overall theme.  The theme that I try to present is slavery agitation between the North and the South.  I begin with a little discussion of McPherson’s main argument and a couple of images describing the United States territorial growth by mid-century before plunging into slavery.  What I tried to illustrate, using images that many have perhaps not seen before is the complex relationship between territorial expansion, slavery, and the North and the South.  Lastly, I also tried to illustrate how images can be used to help illustrate a historians argument as well make a particular discussion or point much more poignant and valid.

Ever since the cacophony of guns and artillery were silenced in April of 1865, many historians, and some of the war’s participants, have tried to explain how tensions between rival sections, North and South, led to the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of thousands of American citizens.  In the years since this enormous tragedy, much has been written about the causes of the Civil War. Many theories abound as to why they war occurred. These include abject differences between North and South, the inability of the politicians of the antebellum era to be able to work out a compromise between the two sections, suggesting that it is the unwillingness of politicians in both sections to put the country ahead of their own selfish interests. Some historians have argued that the acrimony between North and South was directly linked to the ideology of free labor versus the ideology of slavery. Some have stressed the idea that the South warranted its own country because it developed its own rather unique culture. These ideas all have merit and in many ways reflect the changing approaches within the historical profession. These theories also have inherent weaknesses that cannot truly be delved upon. In this rather short amount of space. Suffice to say that if anyone of these theories proved satisfactory there would really be no need to keep looking for a satisfactory explanation. (Smith, Republicanism and the Civil War: A Historiographical Foray, 1)

The common consensus among today’s historians is that the main impetus for the Civil War was the differences between the North and the South over the institution of slavery.  Concurring with this argument, historian James M. McPherson, in The Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era, takes it a bit further, arguing that it is the caustic combination of slavery, territorial expansion, and rapid population growth, that lit the powder keg that erupted in 1860 into civil war. (McPherson, first paperback edition The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civl War Era, 8)  McPherson employs a large plethora of both primary and secondary sources to support this contention.

The original edition of Battle Cry of Freedom, first published as a paperback in 1988, contained some maps, scattered throughout the text, and two separate inserts containing various photographs and images relating to the period under discussion.  These were important, especially the maps, for explaining the slide into civil war as well as the various campaigns throughout the conflict.  In the latest edition of McPherson’s study, The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era, the historian utilizes a variety of imagery to further illustrate how tensions between North and South, as a result of rapid expansion in the west, over slavery grew to such a point that Americans were slaughtering each other by the hundreds of thousands.

One of the first images utilized by McPherson is a painting that depicts the territorial expansion of the United States across the continent.

Westward Expansion (edited)(Figure 1. From McPherson The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era, pg. 44)

This painting, Figure 1, depicts the rapid expansion westward of the United States. The dominant figure in the painting is Columbia, the female representation of the United States.  Angelic in her image, Columbia, as depicted here represents Americans’ belief that it was their destiny to populate the entire expanse of North America, commonly referred to as Manifest Destiny. In her hands she carries a book and some wires.  According to McPherson, the book is a school textbook, presumably illustrates the spread of American ideologies and customs throughout the land. The wires in her other hand are telegraph wires which serves a means of uniting the East Coast with the West.  The left upper and mid panels of the painting, as well as the left fore ground, illustrate some of the methods employed by individuals and families moving west.  As they do, many of the various native tribes flee from the encroaching Americans.  Following in the path of the migrants are farmers, using various agricultural implements to till the soil and make it useful for planting.  Lastly, the painting also depicts to more modern, for the nineteenth century, means of moving west.  On the canvas the artist has painted a stagecoach and the railroad.  Both of these images illustrate the rapidity with which Americans can move to the west.  In the case of the railroad, the vast transportation network necessitated by the use of the rails serves a means of further binding the East Coast with the West.  Furthermore, the advent of the railroads helped improve transportation costs for goods shipped throughout the land. For McPherson this painting is an primary illustration of many of the symbols commonly associated with the rise of Manifest Destiny and the desire of the citizens of the United States to spread their culture, political and social institutions, and westward from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. (McPherson 44)

Figure 1 illustrates the process and means through which Americans moved West. Figure 2 illustrates the results of this movement by depicting the various territorial gains past the Mississippi River since 1800.

Territorial Map of the United States (edited)  (Figure 2 Free Slave States And Territories 1848. McPherson, The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era, pg. 45)

The rapid expansion of the United States after 1800 is clearly illustrated by this map.  Perhaps the most striking feature is that by 1848 the territorial boarders of the United States are quite similar to the ones that exist today.  The rapid expanse of territory is further illustrated by the states both to the left and to the right of the Mississippi River.  Those to the right, Florida being the exception, entered the United States from territory that was acquired in the Treaty of Paris in 1783.  The territory to the right represents land acquired by the United States after 1800 through various means, including war with Mexico.  This map is important for it further illustrates the rapid growth of the United States.  It corroborates part of McPherson’s argument by illustrating the extent through which the United States expanded through the first half of the nineteenth century.

Many Southerners around mid-century were staunch defenders of the institution declaring it beneficial to the slave for it removed him from his heathen state and began to civilize him.  McPherson illustrates this Southern interpretation of slavery through various images including Figure 3.


Southern Slavery in the Minds of teh South(Figure 3. McPherson, The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era, pg. 35)

In this lithograph from Currier and Ives,we see a very picturesque and tranquil scene as slaves tend to the fields of cotton looking happy and content.  Moreover, they are well dressed and it appears well fed, suggesting that they are well cared for.  As slaves, they are happy, content, and civilized, basking in the glow of their Master’s paternal benevolence.  McPherson employs this image, not only as an illustration of how Southerners viewed themselves and slavery but also as a way to provide a startling contrast to the harsh realities commonly associated with the institution.

One of the more inhumane cruelties, in an institution riddled with them, is the slave auction.What makes the slave auction a tragedy, aside from the very inhumane nature of the event itself, is that it often broke up families, placing the various members great distances from each other.   In Figure 4 McPherson uses a rather colorful image to illustrate this harrowing ordeal.  Tame compared to other images associated with slavery, this particular image, wrought with emotion, still manages to get its point across.

slave auction (edited)(Figure 4. McPherson, The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era, 33)

This image, included by McPherson, provides a great illustration of the cruelties associated with such an auction. First there is the heart rending scene taking place on the auction block.  A mother and daughter are hugging for, what appears to be, the last time.  According to McPherson, these two individuals being sold separately and thusly breaking up their family in the process.  Sitting on the ground, next to the podium is another mother who nurses her child while she too awaits for her turn upon the auction block.  These two images alone illustrate the barbarity and cruelty associated with the slave auction. There is, however, much in this photograph that commends its usage by McPherson as a good illustration of the barbarity and cruelty commonly associated with slavery itself.  One example of barbarity lies in the subject of the image itself.  The breaking up of families is not the only barbarity associated with the slave auction.  The auction itself, the fact that there are several individuals bidding on a person as if they were a mere object, a piece of property to be bought and sold at their owners whim.  This is not all.  The white man in the foreground, with his arms crossed, is holding a whip of some sort, perhaps he is an overseer, intent on ensuring that the slaves up for sale do not misbehave.  Barely discernible in the background, unfortunately it is really difficult to see in the image as it is reproduced here, is a man whipping a male slave either for an infraction or to try and get him to work harder and faster.  Its not exactly clear.  But the curious thing sis that it does not have to be.  The mere image of a man whipping another for no other infraction than the color of his skin is quite unsettling on its own.  The importance of this image, and McPherson’s rationale for its inclusion not only stems for the auction that it depicts but also the cruelties of slavery itself that lie just beneath the surface.

In the decade before the Civil War, despite the professions of many politicians about the healing powers of a compromise, designed to ease sectional tensions in wake of the late war with Mexico, passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Fillmore, the dispute over slavery grew much more contentious and acrimonious.  The first point of contention lies in one of the major provisions of this compromise. One of the reasons Southerners, at least on the surface,  accepted a compromise between the two sections is because the bill provided for a much stronger Fugitive Slave Law.  This new law allowed Southerners to travel North in the hopes of recapturing their property.  More importantly, this law shifted the burden of proof from one of ownership (i.e. Southerners would need to prove that an individual belonged to them) to one of freedom (Free blacks needed to prove, through the possession of certain papers, their freedom). Moreover, it enlisted the federal government as an aid to Southerners trying to recapture their property.  Federal officials were ordered to aid Southerners and required to pay a rather hefty fine of $1000 dollars if they refused.  Moreover, a Southerner could, if he chose, to bring a suspected fugitive before a federal commissioner who was given the task of determining whether the suspected fugitive was an escaped slave or not.  If he decided that the man in question was not a fugitive but a free black, the Southerner who brought the individual before the commissioner would receive a $5 dollars.  If the commissioner decides that the individual in question was in fact an escaped slave, the person who brought the man before the court receives $10 dollars.  The expenses incurred in the implementation and execution of this new law were paid through the auspices of the United States Treasury.  Additionally, the law posed stiff fines and penalties for aiding and abetting anyone suspected of being an escaped fugitive. Many free blacks, as well as escaped slaves were captured and sent South into slavery. (McPherson, 65-67)

To illustrate the barbarity of this law as well as the horrors that could result from its passage, McPherson has included in his text a Lithograph produced by antislavery forces in 1850. (Figure 5.)

Fugitive Slave Law (edited)(Figure 5. “Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law” McPherson, The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era, pg. 67)

This image contains four black men, presumably free blacks, out for a walk.  They are accosted by a group of white Southern vigilantes intent on capturing them and selling them back into slavery.  As the four blacks flee their pursuers they are unmercifully gunned down by their assailants. (McPherson 67)  Moreover, this image is designed to reach across the Northern states intent on both illustrating the horrors of the law and, through the violent imagery it contains, rally people, both white and black, to the antislavery cause.  Moreover, by using a print, instead of a pamphlet or editorial, the creator of this image is also trying to reach those in the North who cannot read, both white and black, making the presumed effects of the law clearly understood.  McPherson uses it here as a means of bringing the past forward to the present.  He uses it to illustrate the feeling that many antislavery individuals had regarding the law’s passage.  The sentiment expressed in antislavery circles is clearly and unmistakably expressed in this image.  Moreover, McPherson includes this image because it humanizes the individuals who the law pertains.  The law applies to real people and its effects are tragically devastating.  The use of the image, in this case makes the effect of the law more personal, more real.

In 1854 Congress passed a law that further pushed the United States towards war.  The brain child of  Senator Stephen Douglas from Illinois and a host of Southern Congressmen from both the Democratic Party and theWhigs, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise line, which allowed for the entrance of Missouri as a slave state but left the rest of the Louisiana Purchase free territory, and replaced it with popular sovereignty, essentially allowing the citizens living in a territory to decide for themselves whether or not the territory shall be free or slave.  One of the more tragic results of this law is the flood of individuals, from both the North and the South who flooded into Kansas intent on making it either a free or a slave state.  In many ways the machinations in this region made a mockery of republican and democratic government.  Moreover, the two sides violently opposed each other and the resulting bloodshed only further escalated the violence in the area.

The most important result stemming from the passage of Kansas-Nebraska is the eventual rise of  a new political party, the Republican party, wholly sectional and dedicated to ending the institution of slavery by preventing its further spread into the territories.McPherson, 95-102, 113-131)

One of the images that McPherson uses to illustrate the fervor in the North against the Kansas Nebraska Act, is a broadside printed and distributed in the town of Leominster. (Figure 6)

Rallying Cry for Protest Against the Kansas-Nebraska Act (edited) of 1854 (Figure 6. Anti-Nebraska Broadside. McPherson, The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era, 97)

Here McPherson uses this image to illustrate the level of protest in the North regarding the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Moreover, he also uses this image to illustrate why such protests eventually resulted in the creation of a new political party in the North.  Looking at the poster, under the word Leominster, printed in bold face, is the words “…without distinction of party,…”  For McPherson, the inclusion of these words illustrates the bipartisan nature of the rallies against the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Furthermore, the poster itself indicates the distrust that many in the North had towards both political parties and the need to create a new political institution to protect the political rights of the North from the encroachment of the South.


Further exacerbating the differences between the North and the South, and the last images that I will dwell upon for this post as I can imagine that you are exhausted from reading my rather incoherent scribblings, are images associated with the Supreme Court Case Scott v. Sanford, or more commonly referred to as the Dred Scott Case.

Scott was a slave who brought a civil suit in the courts of Missouri suing for his freedom.  The grounds for his suit rested on the belief that his residency for a number of years in a free state, living with his master at the time, meant that he was free and no longer a slave.  Southerners argued that in spite of Scott’s residency in a free state, he was a slave before he arrived there and he was still a slave after he left.  His residency had nothing to do with his status as a slave.  After winding its way through the Missouri Courts, the case appeared before the Supreme Court in 1857.  In one of the more infamous rulings the court has ever made, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared Scott still a slave and that his residency in a free state did not affect his status as a slave.  Moreover, Taney declared that there is no grounds for a lawsuit because slaves and free blacks do not have rights recognizable in the courts.  Lastly, Taney gave a ruling in the power of Congress in the territories. By declaring the Missouri Compromise line, repealed in 1854 by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Taney implied that Congress had no power to legislate on slavery in the territories. (McPherson 133-131)

During his discussion of Dred Scott, McPherson utilizes a plethora of images to further illustrate the importance of the case and its relevance in American history.  Of these, one of the most important are images of both Scott and his wife Harriet. (Figure 7)

Dred Scott and his Wife(edited) (Figure 7. Dred Scott and his wife Harriet. McPherson The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era, 134)

As we saw with the antislavery cartoon, McPherson’s inclusion of both Scott and his wife humanizes the court cases.  Looking back with hindsight we can see that the eventual outcome of the case would be one more event pushing the United States towards war, the inclusion of these two images reminds us that this was not just a case that had political implications, but that it contained personal ones as well.  The decision proffered by the Taney court directly effected both of them. Although both of their reactions have been lost to history, the inclusion of their images reminds us that Taney’s decision had a profound affect on the lives of two individuals.  The figure also illustrates the two individuals, who, through no fault of their own, found themselves the subject of rallying cries for political action throughout the North.

Another important image utilized by McPherson in his discussion of the Dred Scott Case is another broadside printed in the North. (Figure 8)

Rally for the Protest of the Dred Scott(edited) Desicion(Figure 8. A Broadside protesting the Dred Scott Decision. McPherson,  The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era, 138)

Printed and distributed throughout the city of Philadelphia, this particular broadside provides more evidence of the galvanizing effect that the actions of the South had upon the North.  Further this broadside indicates that the attack upon slavery is no longer constrained to just a small handful of abolitionists and their ilk.  According to McPherson, this image and the meeting it advertises are representative of several similar public rallies held throughout the North to protest the Supreme Court’s decision.  Furthermore, this broadside indicates the continued decline of Democratic power in the Northern States.  McPherson’s inclusion of the broadside illustrates the importance that many attached to the decision and grasped the issues at stake.

For McPherson then, the inclusion of images throughout the text provide scope and depth to his argument.  Moreover, the inclusion of images, such as the ones discussed here, indicate that the issues between both the North and the South over slavery were not some abstract political arguments, but instead affected real people.  The use of images allows for the issues and sentiments discussed in the text to come alive, breathing life into them, making them just as important now as they were at the time.


About civil1863

My name is Richard Smith and I am a Graduate Student at George Mason University. An aspiring historian, I am currently working on my Master's with the hopes that upon graduation I will be able to being my pursuit of a PhD. My areas of concentration lie in American History and are: The Early Republic, Jacksonian and antebellum America, early to mid-nineteenth century politics, territorial expansion and their disputes, the relationship between slavery and the Federal Government, republican ideology and its relation to the American Civil War. I am an avid fan of the American Civil War and have completed internships at both Gettysburg National Military Park and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvainia National Military Park.

3 responses to “First Assignment: Image Hunt: Historians Using Images: James M. McPherson’s The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom The Civil War Era (Theme: Rapid Expansion, Slavery, and the Coming of the War)”

  1. welg0373 says :


    Very interesting post on the Civil War. My first graduate class at GMU was a Civil War on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the conflict. It is amazing that, over the past century and a half, scholars still struggle to form a consensus about the root causes of the war. Utilizing the images above, especially the Westward Expansion images, really capture the essence of the conflict. The war just as much about the embedded institution of slavery in the existing areas where it was practiced as it was about the future of slavery in an expanding Union. Well done. Matt

  2. psmith30 says :

    Hi Rich,
    Thank you for this post. I don’t even know where to begin. You’ve done an excellent job of pointing up the barbarity of slavery. Your Manifest Destiny comments are important too – but because the slavery pictures are so compelling that’s what grabbed my attention the most. I’ve seen the Manifest Destiny picture before but not some of the others. The slave auction is heart-breaking. I believe the woman and child being sold are at least partly Native American because of their hair. In the census, Native Americans are often erroneously listed as black or mulatto. As I looked I was wondering what this mother might be saying to her child – or how she might have prepared her child for this dreaded day — “Be good”, “Mind your manners” ? – highly doubtful. More likely something like, “I’ll always love you and one day mama will find you.” I can’t imagine the pain. Great job, Rich. I can’t comment on everything that I found interesting, educational, moving – but it was. Thanks again, Pam

    • civil1863 says :

      Thanks for your kind praise regarding this assignment. I appreciate it. When I started I thought it would be a rather simple assignment. I never expected it to turn into a major project. Although I had many frustrations throughout, I think it was a rather worthwhile experience. I agree whole heartedly with your comments regarding the slave auction. The entire episode is indeed heartbreaking and serves as a very good encapsulation of the evils of the slave system. Have you ever read the weeping time? It is another borrowing account of a slave auction. In any event thanks for your comment. I appreciate it. It means that maybe there is hope for me yet as a historian.

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