During the war, Northern magazines such as “The Student and Schoolmate” targeted juveniles with words and picture games, and songs highlighting Northern political principles. Illustrations were accompanied by phrases: “cannoneers delight in shooting into enemy lines,” and “We propose to make our flag shelter the oppressed wherever it waves.” Ultimately, the magazines “sought to instill an 1860s version of “political correctness” by defining Union war aims, establishing the centrality of slavery in causing the war, and recognizing the humanity of the former slaves.” In short, the children were taught that intolerant “Southern slaveowners had grown arrogant, conceited, overbearing . . . determined to destroy the government they could not control.”
Rebel Perfidy and Juvenile Press Propaganda
“The juvenile press went far beyond providing minutiae about the War. Although it would be too much to argue that children’s writers in the North actually encouraged underage boys to join the army, many stories portrayed the extent to which a few children displayed their loyalty to the Union.
Several threw their protagonists – often twelve years old or less – into battles or other dangerous situations and ranged in length from a paragraph about a fourteen-year-old hero on the USS Cumberland to full-blown short stories and serials.
In the “Little Prisoner,” young James is finally allowed by his widowed mother to become a drummer boy of an Ohio regiment. He proves his mettle at the Battle of the Wilderness, where he is also bayoneted – not seriously – by a Rebel intent on robbing the body of a friend of his father’s. A kindly black woman takes him to an abandoned plantation nearby where she nurses him back to health, reads the Bible with him, and tells her about her long-lost son, who had been “sold-South” years before but miraculously appears just as James is captured by John Mosby’s raiders. The author describes the famous partisan as “manly” but cautions that the “stormy, unbridled passions, and . . . cruel, inflexible disposition” ingrained in this slaveholder made him an oppressive commander and an unworthy enemy.
Eventually, Mosby releases James, who returns home to his mother, revealing how “God dealt with a little boy who trusted in and prayed to Him.”
A similar tale – purportedly a true story – has another twelve-year-old Yankee drummer boy, Robert, captured at the Battle of Chancellorsville, at which he cares for both wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. He encounters Robert E. Lee, who had “none of the smaller vices,” but all of the larger ones; for he deliberately, basely and under the circumstances of unparalleled meanness, betrayed his country, and long after hope of success was lost, carried on a murderous war against his own race and kindred.”
Marse Robert treats the hero patronizingly and responds angrily when Robert declares, “I came out here sir, to help fight the wicked men who are trying to destroy their country.” Robert ends up in Libby Prison, where he survives a nasty fever, studies his lessons with a “good Colonel,” and rediscovers one of the patients he had nursed during the battle, a seventeen-year-old Confederate who kindly helps him escape. This reversal of the magazine’s usual presentation of Rebel perfidy is nevertheless true to form. Young, poor whites are not to blame for the carnage, at least in the war-stricken South presented in the juvenile press; “after all . . . it is true that the same humanity beats under a gray coat that beats under a blue one.”
(Northern Children’s Magazines and the Civil War, James Marten, Civil War History, A Journal of the Middle Period, Volume 41, No. 1, March 1995, (pp. 63-64; 68)