February 13, 2013

"Too Much Reading...in your Shelter Low Tents:" What Were They Reading During the Civil War?

"It has been a pretty busy week to me. Busy not with my military labors, but with self-imposed labors and pleasures. I have read two stories...The fact is, I sit in my tent and read most of the day, except when I am occupied with my camp duties duties, which only occupy me two or three hours a day." -Mason Whiting Tyler in a letter to his mother dated January 31, 1864

 One of the best ways to reconnect with the past is to partake in the same entertainment as they did. Of course the favorite reading material of soldiers was letters, but what else were the people of the 1860s reading? Before TVs, radios, iPods, and computers, books and magazines were the most inexpensive and widespread form of entertainment.

Books were more than just personal entertainment. It was popular in the 1860s to read books aloud as well as lend and borrow books with friends. Many books were published in serial form in weekly newspapers to create anticipation akin to modern weekly TV shows. Unlike today, when people are just happy their children are reading, in the past parents would chastise their children for reading garbage books.
It's difficult to find out just what was popular during the war years. It is very easy to assume that the writers from the time period that we consider influential today would be the same ones that the people of the 1860s considered influential or popular. However, many of the most popular books at the time are virtually unheard of to us today. Some of the big names we associate with the Civil War Era, such as Walt Whitman, did not get their acclaim until after the war. Other problems include authors using pen names which are unfamiliar to us today and varying titles. Below are some examples of popular books and stories of the time. 


-"Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens. This was being serialized in Harper's Weekly, the most popular newspaper of the time.

-"Incidents and Life as a Slave Girl" by Linda Brent (Harriet Ann Jacobs.) Parts of the book was published in the New-York Tribune.

-"Hand-book for Active Service" by Egbert Viele. This book was advertised in the The Charleston Mercury as a book that needed to be read by every soldier who wished to be an officer.  


-"Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo. This book was first available in The US in June of 1862.

- "History of the Conquest of Mexico" and "History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella," by William Hickling Prescott. These two books were mentioned in a soldier's letter from July 7, 1862.


-"A Biography of Stonewall Jackson" by John Esten Cooke. This book was published in the South and was banned in the Union Army. Cooke served as a volunteer aide for J.E.B. Stuart during the war.

-"Darkness and Daylight" and "Marian Grey" by Mary Jane Holmes, a bestselling author from the time period. She was only second in book sales to Harriet Beecher Stowe.

-"Beyond the Lines or a Yankee Prisoner Loose in Dixie," by John James Gear. This book was mentioned by a soldier in the 13th Ohio and is likewise about an Ohioan.   


-"Wives and Daughters" by Elizabeth Gaskell. This was serialized in the British Cornhill Magazine from 1864-1865. An interesting fact is that Gaskell died before the book was finished, it was finished by another author.

 - "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" by Mark Twain. It was published as "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" in The Saturday Press. In some later editions the name Smiley was changed to Greenly. 

All War Years

-Harper's Weekly

-Leslie's Weekly, (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper) Published in New York.

-The Spectator (British)

-The Illustrated London News and The Journal of Commerce. Both mentioned by Confederate nurse, Kate Cumming. 

-The Bible. Frequently mentioned in letters home frequently with details about passages read.

-Vanity Fair- An American magazine published between the years 1859 and 1863.

-Godey's Magazine The southern soldier who sent Godey's home to his beau was a popular man. It was infrequent that copies of this very popular magazine made it through the blockade.   

-The New York Sunday Mercury

 "I have been reading pretty much all day on 'Military Law and Courts-Martial.' Too much reading out here stretched on your back in your shelter low tents is not the best thing in the world to take. It is rather too apt to produce headaches,etc." - Mason Whiting Tyler in a letter to his brother, November 13, 1863

Popular Authors of the Time

- Charles Dickens. "The Old Curiosity Shop" was mentioned by Mason Whiting Tyler of the 37th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in his biography and letters along with "The Last Days of Pompeii," "Les Miserables," "Charles O'Malley," and "History of the War in the Peninsula."
- William Shakespeare
- Alexander Dumas
- Henry David Thoreau
- William Cowper
- Maria Susanna Cummins Her 1854 book, "The Lamplighter" was extremely popular. 
- Lord Tennyson
- Edgar Allan Poe
- Ralph Waldo Emerson 
- Alexander Pope
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
-James Fenimore Cooper. He was popular with younger people.  

- William Makepeace Thackeray, his books The History of Pendennis and Vanity Fair were mentioned by Mary Boykin Chestnut in her diary. She also mentions George William Curtis' "The Potiphar Papers."  
-Erastus Beadle who published a large array of "dime novels" which were popular in the military due to their cheapness.   

This list is intended to be a starting point from where you can do your own research. Reading the literature that was popular during the war years, gives us a lot of information about 1860s culture. When reading, think about what these primary sources say about the people who read them. What did they value? What did they consider entertaining? What did they consider horrid? Many people may think there's little to learn from the books or fiction of the time but these sources are just as important as diaries, letters and journals.   



  1. "History of the Conquest of Mexico" was also available for US troops serving in Mexico from 1846-8. I have read accounts to US officers visiting the places Prescott's book records. It is still a good read for anyone today.

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  3. Wow! Excellent post! I agree with you that taking part in entertainment from the period is a great way to get to know the people of the time. I think that reading all sources from the time, be it fiction, newspapers, diaries/letters, or anything else, is an excellent way to see how people lived and what they thought and talked about. Reading modern books about the time is well and good, but you only get what the author wanted to share.

    One interesting thing I encountered was in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories (not Civil War, I know..) they mention the Underground. Looking it up, I discovered that the London Underground had just started running electric trains shortly before the story was published. It was neat that it was put into the story. A hundred years from now, will people watching our TV shows and movies see laptop computers and other technology and think the same thing?

    1. I can't wait to see how old fashioned our laptops and ipods look then. :)

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