This Week in the Civil War: Gettysburg, Hippos, and the French are in Mexico!

In the United States today July, 1863 is remembered primarily as the month of the Battle of Gettysburg.  For Americans at the time, however, there was plenty of other news to think about.  Readers of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a weekly publication from New York, learned about the battle in the July 11th edition of the paper, and received a detailed account on the 18th.  Still, there were plenty of column inches to fill with news, ranging from the trivial to the momentous.

For example, after reading the riveting accounts of the great struggle in Pennsylvania, readers of Leslie’s Weekly could chuckle over the story relating how “The hippopotamus, which has lately been exhibiting at Boston, while on its way to Detroit, managed to get its liberty while on board the steamer S.D. Caldwell and plunged into Lake Eire.  Boats were immediately put out after him, and he was captured on swimming ashore.”  Just like in our own time, the bizarre and humorous had it place alongside more serious reports.  Or, those with an interest in literature could peruse the reviews of newly published novels including the mystery, Rockdale, by Mrs. Devereux Umsted , which was “written with great skill and purity of language” and thankfully was, to the reviewer’s obvious approval “highly moral in tone and plot.”  In 1863, anything less in woman’s literature would be simply improper.

More seriously for the industrial north, the paper reports that as a result of the invasion of Pennsylvania, the cost of coal has risen by a dollar a ton.  The writers at Leslie’s, however, view this less as a matter of necessity  and more as a result of “thrifty” Pennsylvania trying to “make the rebel raid a profitable investment.”  Even in the midst of war, patriotic fervor could be trumped by the almighty dollar.  Furthermore, this is not the only time that Pennsylvania is taken to task.  The paper is scathing in its assessment of Pennsylvania’s lackluster military preparations and insinuates that the Keystone state is full of pacifists and Copperheads.  To the statement of a Pennsylvania official which, in gratitude for the help of neighboring states, pledges that “If our sister states ever need our help we must be ready to give it,” Leslie’s replies simply that “Punch or The Budget of Fun (satirical magazines) never had anything half so funny.”  These comments are perhaps signs of the interstate tensions which persisted despite the struggle to hold the Union together, and a reflection of the stronger sense of state identity which Americans held in the nineteenth century.  Saving the Union was important, but this New York paper still felt it necessary to put Pennsylvania down.

Finally, in the July 18th issue, readers of Leslie’s weekly received additional information of the unfolding French invasion of Mexico from the previous month.  They learned that “The latest news from Mexico is that President Juarez has abandoned the city of Mexico to the French, who were to take possession of the halls of Montezumas on the 8th June.”  The truly remarkable thing about this news, however, is that in the paper it is printed in very small type in a list of other foreign news items which includes banalities such as the divorce of a prominent sea captain in London and a lawsuit between Parisian nobles.  At any other time, the news that a European power had invaded and occupied the capital of our southern neighbor would certainly have cause a national sensation, but in the midst of the Civil War, it is relegated to a small footnote which anyone simply skimming the paper could easily miss.  From this, it is easy to understand why Gettysburg so easily dominates our perception of July 1863.  Even at the time, the French conquest of Mexico couldn’t hope to compete with that famous battle.

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AAS Volunteer Robert Iafolla

AAS Volunteer

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