'The Atlantic' Remembers Its Civil War Stories In 1857, a group of American intellectuals founded The Atlantic and used it to challenge the institution of slavery. Now, on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's beginning, a new issue of the magazine reaches back to a time when slavery — and the future of the United States — was still an open question.
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'The Atlantic' Remembers Its Civil War Stories

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'The Atlantic' Remembers Its Civil War Stories

'The Atlantic' Remembers Its Civil War Stories

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Lynn Neary.

For the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, The Atlantic Magazine is reaching back into its archives for a special issue. It will feature historic writings from many of the country's early intellectuals. The magazine was founded by a group of prominent writers, including Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau, and they used their Boston-based journal to challenge what they called the peculiar institution of slavery.

NPR's Michele Norris spent some time with the editor and curators who put together The Atlantic's commemorative Civil War edition.


Today, it is widely understood that slavery is a stain on America's history, indelible and regrettable. But the new issue of The Atlantic Magazine reaches back to a moment when this was not settled matter. Monumental questions were completely up in the air. Would slavery continue? Would America remain united?

Articles in the commemorative issue are what readers mulled over, as battles raged at Manassas and Appomattox. And those historic essays paint a vivid and grim picture of life in Washington, D.C., where stately federal buildings were transformed into makeshift infirmaries.

And I'm walking up the steps to one of those buildings right now. I'm at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, a massive marble-columned building that over the years has housed the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Patent Office. During the early years of the Civil War, this building also served as a hospital and a morgue.

Today, the Civil War is a central feature at this museum.


NORRIS: Hello.

GOODYEAR: I'm Frank Goodyear. I'm a photo curator here at the Portrait Gallery.

NORRIS: Hello, Frank. Thanks for having us.

GOODYEAR: Very nice to meet you.

DAVID WARD: Hi. I'm David Ward, the historian,

NORRIS: Frank Goodyear and David Ward are here to show us some of the Portrait Gallery's storehouse of treasures.

JAMES BENNET: I'm James Bennet from The Atlantic.

NORRIS: And James Bennet is here too. He's The Atlantic's editor in chief. Since the early magazine had no pictures, The Atlantic and the Smithsonian teamed up so the early writings in the special issue are accompanied by a trove of historic photos.

GOODYEAR: All right. So we walk around that way.

NORRIS: This way?


NORRIS: As we walk down the hall, we quickly find ourselves surrounded by famous faces of the Civil War era.

WARD: We're essentially in the Antebellum rooms of the National Portrait Gallery, where the Civil War...

NORRIS: Historian David Ward is quite the tour guide.

WARD: As we walk along, we see the bust of Booker T. Washington. Around the other side, if you come this way, we have this great early picture of Frederick Douglass. And we're moving to essentially the room of American intellectual origins: Hawthorne, Emerson and the transcendentalists who formed such a basis for the anti-slavery and reform movement in pre-Civil War America.

NORRIS: Atlantic Editor James Bennet is surrounded by his predecessors.

BENNET: Emerson, Longfellow, who's on the wall over there, Henry Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe were all founders of The Atlantic back in 1857. And they really had two principle goals. On the one hand, they wanted to identify and promote what they saw as an emerging of American voice in letters. On the other hand, they wanted to promote what they called the American idea.

NORRIS: In issue after issue, they debated leadership, patriotism, national unity and freedom. In an 1862 edition of The Atlantic, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that emancipation was the demand of civilization.

BENNET: So they saw slavery as fundamentally antithetical to the idea of America, a rot, basically, at the core of the country.

NORRIS: Though, not all of The Atlantic's contributors shared that point of view. One of the most interesting essays in commemorative collection is by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. He made clear he was ambivalent about slavery and quite unimpressed with Abraham Lincoln.

BENNET: It's hard not to feel a little disappointed in Nathaniel Hawthorne in reading this piece because he comes to Washington and you have the sense of a guy who feels a little too cool, a little above the struggle that's taking place. He goes to the White House, he's annoyed that Abraham Lincoln keeps him waiting for half an hour because the president's having his breakfast.

It's a very contemptuous take that is very modern, actually, in journalistic terms, in the sort of attitudinizing about these grubby politicians. In this case, those grubby politicians happen to include, you know, Abraham Lincoln. So what it is is a terribly superficial piece of magazine journalism from one of the foremost writers in American letters.

NORRIS: I must admit that it was a bit odd to have this conversation about Nathaniel Hawthorne while he was staring at us from a portrait on the wall. Actually, the oil paintings in this room would soon give way to a new tool for chronicling American history.

GOODYEAR: This is the period of - in which photography is being first introduced.

NORRIS: That's Associate Photo Curator Frank Goodyear.

GOODYEAR: These oil paintings, these busts that you see here very much kind of look backwards to a kind of earlier artistic traditions. But photography is going to explode people's understanding of the events of this age.

NORRIS: To get a sense of how that happened, we headed upstairs.

WARD: This is a transition, sort of storage space as we...

NORRIS: In the center of the room, a big white table. On top, two old slightly yellowed photographs. The larger of the two is much like this museum's "Mona Lisa."

WARD: Yeah, please come closer.

NORRIS: A portrait of Abraham Lincoln that's on the cover of The Atlantic special issue. A flawed portrait, made from a glass negative that was accidentally cracked during processing. So there's a thin, jagged line that slices across the very top of Lincoln's head. The photographer made only this single print and then discarded the broken negative.

GOODYEAR: This is the last formal portrait of Abraham Lincoln before his assassination. I really like it because Lincoln has a hint of a smile. The inauguration is a couple of weeks away. He can understand that the war is coming to an end. And here, he permits for one of the first times during his presidency, a hint of better days tomorrow.

NORRIS: Another possible explanation for that slight smile, Goodyear says Abraham Lincoln was the first president to really understand the power of photography. And so too did the abolitionists, which takes us to that other photo on the table next to Lincoln's portrait. The photo is also featured prominently in The Atlantic and it was widely circulated back in the 1860s.

GOODYEAR: This photograph shows the escaped slave Gordon. He had escaped from a plantation in Mississippi, and he had an interest in being part of one of the early, all-black regiments. He had to have a medical exam, and when he took his shirt off, these extraordinary welts in his back were revealed. It revealed the violence behind slavery.

NORRIS: It's grotesque, but it's also beautiful. It's amazing despite what this man, Gordon, has obviously gone through, that he looks regal in the way he is holding his head. It's like there is something that not even the man who held that whip could take away from him.

BENNET: I think that's exactly right. And its part of the incredible power of this image, I think, is the dignity of that man. And his expression is almost indifferent. I just find that remarkable. He's basically saying this is a fact.

NORRIS: But it does not define me.


NORRIS: Though The Atlantic Monthly did not carry photos in the mid-eighteen hundreds, James Bennet says the photo of that slave called Gordon captured something early editors tried hard to convey through words.

BENNET: The editors of the magazine were trying to combat a particular image of Southern propaganda about the life of slaves, that this was a fundamentally benign institution, that the slaves benefited from the master-slave relationship and actually liked it, and they were out to do everything they could to expose the horror of this institution the way this photograph does.

NORRIS: Essays about the Civil War from before that war was history are what give the commemorative issue of The Atlantic so much weight. Louisa May Alcott spins a tale about the grim reality of life inside a Union hospital. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. writes about the desperate search for his son, the future Supreme Court justice who'd been shot through the neck.

But almost absent are the voices of slaves, even though their bondage was at the heart of the Civil War. Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates on that legacy and why black Americans today are often disinterested in Civil War history. This is Michele Norris.

NEARY: You can see the photos Michele talked about at our website, npr.org.

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