Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Skeptical View of the Civil War

July 20, 1862/2012
Volume 3, Issue 29 (93 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Skeptical View of the Civil War in The Atlantic, Heavily Edited for Point of View

July 20, 1862. Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s essay “Chiefly About War Matters” appeared in the July 1862 issue of The Atlantic. It describes his interaction with the Civil War, specifically his trip from his home in Massachusetts to visit Washington, DC and his interviews with civil and military leaders. The

Nathaniel Hawthorne, circa 1860-1865, Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, circa 1860-1865, Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

Atlantic website explains the essay, the editing done by The Atlantic, and Hawthorne’s response:

Because, contrary to the convictions of most members of the New England literary milieu of the age, Hawthorne wasn’t entirely convinced of the necessity of abolition, he considered the Civil War to be at best an ambiguous exercise, and took a dim view of many of the war’s Northern principals. The Atlantic, however, was founded and edited by passionate abolitionists. As a result, many passages in the draft Hawthorne turned in ended up being altered by editors, whose views on these matters differed from his own. In response, Hawthorne is said to have grumbled, ‘What a terrible thing it is to try to let off a little bit of truth into this miserable humbug of a world!’ In protest he added a series of humorous editorial ‘footnotes,’ written in the voice of a somewhat dimwitted editor. In place of a not entirely flattering description of President Lincoln that the editors had deleted, for example, he wrote:

We are compelled to omit two or three pages, in which the author describes the interview, and gives his idea of the personal appearance and deportment of the President. The sketch appears to have been written in a benign spirit, and perhaps conveys a not inaccurate impression of its august subject; but it lacks reverence.

And in place of another deleted section he wrote:

We do not thoroughly comprehend the author’s drift in the foregoing paragraph, but are inclined to think its tone reprehensible, and its tendency impolitic in the present stage of our national difficulties.

Hawthorne’s essay begins this way:

There is no remoteness of life and thought, no hermetically sealed seclusion, except, possibly, that of the grave, into which the disturbing influences of this war do not penetrate. Of course, the general heart-quake of the county [sic] long ago knocked at my cottage-door, and compelled me, reluctantly, to suspend the contemplation of certain fantasies, to which, according to my harmless custom, I was endeavoring to give a sufficiently life-like aspect to admit of their figuring in a romance. [Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and other books are romances.] As I make no pretensions to state-craft or soldiership, and could promote the common weal neither by valor nor counsel, it seemed, at first, a pity that I should be debarred from such unsubstantial business as I had contrived for myself, since nothing more genuine was to be substituted for it. But I magnanimously considered that there is a kind of treason in insulating one’s self from the universal fear and sorrow . . . . So I gave myself up to reading newspapers and listening to the click of the telegraph, like other people; until, after a great many months of such pastime, it grew so abominably irksome that I determined to look a little more closely at matters with my own eyes.

Accordingly we set out — a friend and myself — towards Washington . . . .

Hawthorne’s lengthy article ends with the following passage, the last, italicized paragraph being an example of the editorial notes added by Hawthorne himself but purporting to be the words of The Atlantic‘s “somewhat dimwitted editor”:

We saw at Willard’s many who had thus found out for themselves, that, when Nature gives a young man no other utilizable faculty, she must be understood as intending him for a soldier. The bulk of the army had moved out of Washington before we reached the city; yet it seemed to me that at least two-thirds of the guests and idlers at the hotel wore one or another token of the military profession. Many of them, no doubt, were self-commissioned officers, and had put on the buttons and the shoulder-straps, and booted themselves to the knees, merely because captain, in these days, is so good a traveling-name. The majority, however, had been duly appointed by the President, but might be none the better warriors for that. It was pleasant, occasionally, to distinguish a grizzly veteran among this crowd of carpet-knights, — the trained soldier of a lifetime, long ago from West Point, who had spent his prime upon the frontier, and very likely could show an Indian bullet-mark on his breast, — if such decorations, won in an obscure warfare, were worth showing now.

This question often occurred to me . . . what proportion of all these people, whether soldiers or civilians, were true at heart to the Unions, and what part were tainted, more or less, with treasonable sympathies and wishes, even if such had never blossomed into purpose. Traitors there were among them, –no doubt of that, –civil servants of the public, very reputable persons, who yet deserved to dangle from a cord; or men who buttoned military coats over their breasts, hiding perilous secrets there, which might bring the gallant officer to stand pale-faced before a file of musketeers, with his open grave behind him. But, without insisting upon such picturesque criminality and punishment as this, an observer, who kept both his eyes and heart open, would find it by no means difficult to discern that many residents and visitors of Washington so far sided with the South as to desire nothing more nor better than to see everything reestablished on a little worse than its former basis. If the cabinet of Richmond were transferred to the Federal city, and the North awfully snubbed, at least, and driven back within its old political limits, they would deem it a happy day. It is no wonder, and if we look at the matter generously, no unpardonable crime. Very excellent people hereabouts remember the many dynasties in which the Southern character has been predominant, and contrast the genial courtesy, the warm and graceful freedom of that region, with what they call (though I utterly disagree with them) the frigidity of our Northern manners, and the Western plainness of the President. They have a conscientious, though mistaken belief, that the South was driven out of the Union by intolerable wrong on our part, and that we are responsible for having compelled true patriots to love only half their country instead of the whole, and brave soldiers to draw their swords against the Constitution which they would once have died for,-to draw them, too, with a bitterness of animosity which is the only symptom of brotherhood (since brothers hate each other best) that any longer exists. They whisper these things with tears in their eyes, and shake their heads and stoop their poor old shoulders, at the tidings of another and another Northern victory, which, in their opinion, puts farther off the remote, the already impossible chance of a reunion.

I am sorry for them, though it is by no means a sorrow without hope. Since the matter has gone so far, there seems to be no way but to go on winning victories, and establishing peace and a truer union in another generation, at the expense, probably of greater trouble, in the present one, than any other people ever voluntarily suffered. We woo the South “as the Lion woos his bride”; it is a rough courtship, but perhaps love and a quiet household may come of it at last. Or, if we stop short of that blessed consummation, heaven was heaven still, as Milton sings, after Lucifer and a third part of the angels had seceded from its golden palaces,-and perhaps all the more heavenly, because so many gloomy brows, and soured, vindictive hearts, had gone to plot ineffectual schemes of mischief elsewhere.

We regret the innuendo in the concluding sentence. The war can never be allowed to terminate, except in the complete triumph of Northern principles. We hold the event in our own hands, and may choose whether to terminate it by the methods already so successfully used, or by other means equally within our control, and calculated to be still more speedily efficacious. In truth, the work is already done. We should be sorry to cast a doubt on the Peaceable Man’s loyalty, but he will allow us to say that we consider him premature in his kindly feelings towards traitors and sympathizers with treason. As the author himself says of John Brown, (and, so applied, we thought it an atrociously cold-blooded dictum,) “any common-sensible man would feel an intellectual satisfaction in seeing them hanged, were it only for their preposterous miscalculation of possibilities.” There are some degrees of absurdity that put Reason herself into a rage, and affect us like an intolerable crime, — which this Rebellion is, into the bargain.

– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director


The Atlantic


“Chiefly About War Matters” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Atlantic

Lincoln Tells Cabinet of His Intent to Issue Emancipation Proclamation

On July 22, 1862, President Lincoln told his full cabinet of his intent to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. He read them a draft declaring that all slaves in areas still in rebellion by January 1, 1863 would be freed. All the cabinet officers agreed with the proposed action, but Secretary of State Seward, worried about the timing, recommended that the President wait for a military victory before announcing it. The public seemed depressed by recent reverses, he argued, and to emancipate now might be taken by some as ‘the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help.’ Lincoln took his advice, and waited for an opportune time to make the proclamation.

– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director


Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1862

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s