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Villes en ruines dans le récit de guerre américain
City Ruins in American War Narratives

Columbia / New York: The Ruins of the Civil War

Thomas Constantinesco


Cet article porte sur les représentations visuelles et textuelles d’épisodes de destruction urbaine durant la Guerre de Sécession et sur les effets politiques de leur esthétique. Si l’histoire littéraire et culturelle a longtemps tenu qu’il n’y avait pas de ruines en Amérique, celles-ci sont en réalité partout présentes au xixe siècle, en particulier dans les villes alors en pleine expansion. Ces « ruines d’un jour » (Tocqueville) sont révélatrices de l’étrange historicité des États-Unis, de sa croissance précoce mais aussi du risque de sa disparition prématurée, et fournissent à la nation les catégories esthétiques qui lui permettront bientôt de donner un sens aux ravages de la Guerre de Sécession. L’étude s’intéresse ensuite à deux épisodes de destruction : l’incendie de Columbia, SC, en février 1865 et les émeutes de la conscription (Draft Riots) à New York en juillet 1863. Leur représentation dans la presse périodique, mais aussi dans des récits de témoins, des fictions et des poèmes, raconte la violence de la guerre tout autant qu’elle façonne sa mémoire collective. Si les ruines de Columbia deviennent rapidement un symbole de la Cause perdue, par où le Sud vaincu s’arroge le monopole de la mémoire de la Guerre de Sécession, celles de New York disent la difficulté d’imaginer la Reconstruction sur fond de violence raciste et d’opposition à l’État.

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“This is what war does. […] War rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins.”
Susan Sontag,
Regarding the Pain of Others.

“Ruins speak for themselves, and, to this extent, are their own historians. They equally denote the existence and the overthrow;—the was and the is not.”
William Gilmore Simms, “The Epochs and Events of American History.”

1In 1860, Virginia slaveholder and planter Edmund Ruffin published an epistolary novel titled Anticipations of the Future: To Serve as Lessons for the Present Time. There, he imagined the civil war resulting from the re-election, in 1868, of an antislavery President, William H. Seward, who would in fact serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State. First serialized in South Carolina’s Charleston Mercury before being issued in bound form in Richmond, the novel voices the secessionist convictions of its author who, after a career as an agronomist, actively campaigned for Southern states’ rights and would soon be credited with firing, at Fort Sumter in April 1861, the first shot of the Civil War he had predicted (Craven; Matthew). In the counterfactual and proslavery narrative of Anticipations of the Future, the war leads to the economic collapse of the North, rather than the South, and to the destruction of its main urban centres, following uprisings in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York caused by food shortages, rising unemployment, and above all the imposition of a military draft. In chapter 52, the narrator—a journalist for the London Times—chronicles the “sack of New York” (285) as a modern-day equivalent of the 1793 Terreur in revolutionary Paris and describes at length “the work of waste and destruction” carried out by the 40,000 mobsters “throughout the city” (291):

In two hours, this great and rich city […] was so covered by flames, that no possible human means could have prevented the full consummation of the calamity. […] [The] whole space was, at once, one raging sea of flame, rising in billows and breakers above the tops of the houses higher than ever sea was raised by the most violent hurricane. The roar of the conflagration was like continued rolling thunder. […] Of the houses, not one, in the closely built portions of New York proper and Brooklyn, escaped destruction. (295)

2Leaving New York “overspread by the ruins left by the conflagration” (324), the riots reveal the implacable consequences of the war and its origins in Lincoln’s and Seward’s abolitionist policies. Read with the benefit of hindsight, however, Anticipations of the Future is as mistaken as it is prescient. While it correctly prophesies the Civil War—including one of its comparatively lesser-known episodes, to which I return below: the New York draft riots of 1863—its “futuristic fantasy” (Hendler 195) of Northern bankruptcy and Southern triumph did not come to pass. Yet in its attentiveness to the rioters’ future “work of waste” (Ruffin 291), it does foretell the ruination and destructiveness that the conflict would bring about, even as it foregrounds the uncanny place that ruins occupy in the nineteenth-century American literary and cultural imagination and that this essay wishes to investigate.

3On the one hand, Anticipations helps to dispel the much-entrenched notion that ruins were somehow antithetical to the state and the spirit of the nation in the nineteenth century. This cultural myth has often served to warrant a discourse of exceptionalism and to identify America as a virgin land, free of the traces of the past, in contradistinction to the antiquated, ruin-strewn landscapes of Europe. On the other hand, as an anticipatory fiction of ruination, Ruffin’s novel suggests how ruins function as a sign of America’s untimely historicity (Yablon; Hay; see also Storey 164-193). In this account, ruins are what the nation does not yet possess, but what it will inevitably produce upon its imminent disappearance. Simultaneously pointing to the lack of historical record and referencing the looming spectre of extinction, ruins overlay the fantasy of the nation’s ahistorical past with the imagination of its postapocalyptic future. Although projected in 1868, New York’s overnight devastation—the narrator insists on “the suddenness of the destruction” (Ruffin 295-296)—may thus be read as an instance of what Tocqueville called “day-old ruins” (ces ruines d’un jour), as he reflected on the ruined settlements he encountered on the American frontier in the early 1830s (283-284). In the quasi-instantaneity of their occurrence, the American ruins of Anticipations, however prospective they may have seemed to the novel’s readers in 1860, spell out a sense of temporal conflation as past and future collide in present shambles.

4While this paradoxical conception of ruination was already current in the antebellum period, and more and more so in the run-up to the Civil War, the onset of the conflict gave it an even greater urgency, laying bare the ruins’ “symbolic flexibility,” between incontrovertible evidence of national destruction and hopeful signs of reconstruction (Nelson, 2012 3). This “dialectics between ruination and refounding” (Hell and Schönle 2) was reinscribed in the visual and literary aesthetics of ruins that developed during and immediately after the Civil War, where the spectacle of ruined cities inspired terror, but also, and especially in the South, the more dubious pleasures of melancholy and nostalgia for a lost past. Instances of urban destruction were recorded, archived and memorialized in a proliferation of “ruin narratives,” which included print accounts as well as sketches and photographs, even as the material ruins themselves were quickly erased in the wake of the war and all but disappeared from the new national landscape (Nelson, 2012).

  • 1 As discussed in greater detail below, the mythology of the Lost Cause downplays, when it does not n (...)
  • 2 Textual and visual accounts of urban ruination during the Civil War constitute a very large archive (...)
  • 3 In Sacred Relics, Teresa Bernett focuses on the collection of relics and memorabilia as ways of pre (...)

5Although mindful that the destructiveness of the Civil War extended beyond urban centres to include countryside plantations and open battlefields, charred landscapes and mangled bodies (Nelson, 2012), this essay explores the aesthetic and political ambiguities attendant to the representation of cities in ruins, in line with the focus of this dossier of Transatlantica. To do so, it zooms in on two seemingly very different episodes of urban destruction, one in the South and one in the North. The first is the burning of Columbia, South Carolina, by the armies of Gen. William T. Sherman in February 1865. The ruination of Columbia became almost immediately a climactic chapter in the Southern narrative of the Lost Cause, whereby the South, through a revisionist account of the Civil War, sought to justify the cause of the Confederacy as originating in a struggle over states’ rights, rather than slavery.1 The second is the New York City draft riots in July 1863, which culminated with acts of anti-Black violence and the sack of the Colored Orphan Asylum in Midtown Manhattan—arguably not an act of war, but rather an instance of mob violence, yet one which also originates in the conflict and whose representations mobilize a strikingly similar aesthetics to those of burning Columbia. Pairing canonical and less familiar authors and reading journalistic and diaristic accounts by William Gilmore Simms and Emma LeConte, as well as sentimental novels by William Henry Peck, George Rumbough, and Anna Dickinson, and poems by Elizabeth Dannelly and Herman Melville, but also sketches and illustrations from the periodical press and war photographs by George N. Barnard, I thus examine the double function of Civil War ruin narratives.2 On the one hand, these texts and images document and archive the war, following Susan Sontag’s well-known claim, which serves as one of this essay’s two epigraphs: “This is what war does. […] War ruins” (8; emphasis in the original). On the other hand, however, ruin narratives also contribute, alongside other practices of memorialization, to shaping the collective memory of the war’s ravages.3 At once historical record and tokens of commemoration, representations of ruins “denote raw reality,” even as they reveal how the real that they make visible is effectively “framed by a long tradition of ruin gazing” (Hell and Schönle 1). From this twofold perspective, juxtaposing the ruins of Columbia and New York City helps to emphasize that, while much of the destruction effectively took place in the South, the North did not emerge from the war ruin-free either. In the complex racial politics that sustains them, these episodes and their representations also confirm David Blight’s argument in Race and Reunion that, whereas the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the South won the battle for its memory by imposing, in the newly reunited national imagination, a Lost Cause narrative of white sacrifice that obscured not only Black involvement in the conflict but also the war’s origins in the fact of enslavement.

6This essay thus intervenes in several critical conversations sparked by the destructiveness of the Civil War. It first reflects on the history of American ruins and ruin narratives across the nineteenth century. With the onset of the war, ruins no longer spoke of the nation’s past (or supposed lack thereof) or of its anticipated future, but of the immediate present of its collapse. Yet as North and South turned to the business of reconstruction in the aftermath of the conflict, the circulation of ruin images and narratives became a means to ensure national reconciliation while preserving the distinctiveness of the South. As the work of rebuilding took place, however, the material ruins of the war rapidly disappeared, persisting only as textual and visual traces whose semantic instability testified to the ruins’ “potential vacuity of meaning” (Hell and Schönle 6), at once inscrutably opaque and a blank slate upon which the nation’s fantasies of renewed togetherness might be inscribed.

7In order to unpack these claims, the first section traces some of the debates surrounding the aesthetics of ruins and ruination in American painterly and literary culture from the antebellum period to the Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction. There, I seek to complicate the classic and exceptionalist account of the rise of a national culture predicated on the alleged absence of ruins. In the second section, I consider how Southern and Northern accounts of the burning of Columbia in the last months of the war turned the capital of South Carolina—the cradle of secession—into the picturesque symbol of a martyred South, whose sacrifice was romanticized to accord with the emerging narrative of the Lost Cause. The third section moves back in space and time to read the New York draft riots of 1863 as an often overlooked instance of ruination in the North, one whose visual and literary representations echo their Southern counterparts in their picturesque aesthetics, while problematizing the issue of sentimental identification both with the white perpetrators of racist violence and with the state that eventually restored social order. Circulating in images and texts, rather than surviving as material inscriptions in the landscape, the literary and visual ruins of the Civil War thus help to fashion a “nation of traces” (Nelson, 2012 232), where memory is made possible through the obfuscation of history.

“No Ivied Ruins”: Ruination and the American Imagination

8Literary and cultural histories have often accredited the exceptionalist myth that what distinguished early and antebellum America from Europe was the absence in the landscape of ruins testifying to the nation’s deep history. This is not to say that there were no ruins, whether material, pictorial, or rhetorical, in the United States’ culture prior to the Civil War, nor that aesthetic models of ruination were not available to articulate America’s relation to its own present as well as to European history. As Barbara Novak has famously demonstrated, a host of American artists—foremost among them Thomas Cole and James Fenimore Cooper—were struck, in the first half of the nineteenth century, by “the mortality of nature” at the hands of human civilization, and they mobilized an iconology that borrowed from pastoral and picturesque traditions to set up a dialogue “between the ravages of time and the ravages of man” in order to reckon with, but also often camouflage, the impending destruction of the wilderness as an inevitable consequence of its progressive taming (Novak 240-241). Conversely, many of the same painters and writers also displayed an overt fascination for the ruins of Italy. For these American artists abroad, like Cole but also later Henry James, Italian ruins revealed “a curious compression [of time] which was also an infinite extension. The present was so diminished that it left only the past and the future, or the past as future” (Novak 290). This temporal compression—supposedly characteristic of European history—contrasted with their sense of an equally characteristic, and often overwhelming, American presentism. On this account, the ruins of Europe indexed a paradoxical desire to escape the American present, if not to evade history altogether.

9Others still sought to invest the absence of historical ruins in the United States in order to turn it into a resource, the token of America’s newness and originality. In the field of American Literary Studies especially, the notion of a ruin-free America sustained many of the influential critical metaphors of the “Myth and Symbol School,” from Henry Nash Smith’s “virgin land” (1950) to R.W.B. Lewis’s “American Adam” (1955). In Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782)—which serves as Lewis’s starting point and which provides a useful counterpoint to many of the works that Barbara Novak surveys in Nature and Culture—ruins already occupy a crucial function to investigate the distinctiveness of the American character. Indeed, the book’s first letter opens with a discussion between the farmer-narrator James and his minister in the course of which the latter pits the forward-looking energy everywhere on display in the American colonies against the antiquated, and misguidedly attractive, spectacle of Italian ruins:

James: I should like to know what is there to be seen so goodly and profitable, that so many should wish to visit no other country [than Italy]?

Minister: I do not very well know. I fancy their object is to trace the vestiges of a once flourishing people now extinct. There they amuse themselves in viewing the ruins of temples and other buildings which have very little affinity with those of the present age, and must therefore impart a knowledge which appears useless and trifling. I have often wondered that no skilful botanists or learned men should come over here; methinks there would be much more real satisfaction in observing among us the humble rudiments and embryos of societies spreading everywhere, the recent foundation of our towns, and the settlements of so many rural districts. I am sure that the rapidity of their growth would be more pleasing to behold, than the ruins of old towers, useless aqueducts, or impending battlements. (42)

10The minister’s utilitarian opposition between historical knowledge and naturalist pursuits is not only epistemic, but also temporal and aesthetic, and distinguishes between two conceptions of time and of the tourist gaze. In his view, which the reader is invited to endorse, the ruins of history can only reveal the abyss that now separates the present from the past, so that the knowledge that history produces is all but “useless.” Natural science on the other hand, when applied to the study of emergent social forms as in the American colonies, may be able to predict the “growth” of these “embryos of societies,” whose observation is turned to their future development and thus felt to be “more pleasing” than the visions of a long gone past offered by “the ruins of old towers.” Crèvecœur’s dismissal of ruins, of the past, and of European history as a narrative of slow decay contrasts with his enthusiasm for the proto-ethnographic study of an ever-changing American present, whose rapid transformations spell out a triumphant future.

11This kind of cultural matrix (Europe vs. America; past vs. future) also animates Emerson’s Transcendentalism and its cultural declaration of independence. Famously lamenting, in Nature (1836), his contemporaries’ penchant for retrospection—“Our age is retrospective”—he rued their eagerness to “grope among the dry bones of the past” (7). He thus accused them of remaining blind to the reality that, as he claimed in “Circles” (1841), “[there] are no fixtures in nature,” but an endless process of invention in which the continued creation of the new implies the equally constant destruction of the old, since “[the] new continents are built out of the ruins of an old planet” (403). Hence Emerson’s celebratory self-identification with the figure of “the experimenter […] [unsettling] all things […], an endless seeker with no Past at [his] back” (412). Refusing to be burdened with the weight of history and its ruins, his “American scholar” decides to look ahead to “the auspicious signs of the coming days, as they glimmer already in the present” (68). It is not so much that there are no ruins in America, Emerson seems to say, but even if there were, they would be none of his concern.

12While Crèvecœur and Emerson turned the alleged lack of ruins in the New World into a way of limning a discourse of American inventiveness and growth, such a strategy presented distinct literary problems for writers who, like Hawthorne for instance, were relying on what Ruskin called “the charm of romantic association,” which “depends for its force on the existence of ruins and traditions, on the remains of architecture, the traces of battlefields and the precursorship of eventful history.” Yet, Ruskin concluded, “[the] instinct to which it appeals can hardly be felt in America” (298). In the preface to The Marble Faun (1860), Hawthorne appropriated Ruskin’s argument, telling his readers of “the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong […]. Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wallflowers, need ruin to make them grow” (854-855). Although such “difficulty” had not prevented Hawthorne from mobilizing New England’s colonial “antiquity” to tell a tale of “picturesque and gloomy wrong” in his 1851 gothic romance, The House of the Seven Gables, the recognition of the predicament faced by American aspiring romance writers clearly enabled a kind of reverse exceptionalism which helped him to assert his writerly superiority.

13Twenty years later, Henry James quoted this very passage from the preface to The Marble Faun, as he, too, commented, albeit ironically, on “the absent things in American life”:

no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old-country houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot! (34)

14Yet despite this “terrible denudation,” James went on, “the American knows that a good deal remains” which he can draw on for literary materials, as Hawthorne so ably did and as he himself was hoping to do in turn (35). Closer to the purposes of this essay, however, James’s insistence on the absence of “ivied ruins” in Hawthorne’s time cannot but contrast with the abundance of ruins caused by the devastation of the Civil War fifteen years prior to the publication of Hawthorne (1879)—James himself witnessed the violence of the war, as he welcomed his younger brother, Garth Wilkinson, back to the family home in Newport after the latter had been severely wounded at the siege of Fort Wagner in 1863. Yet, much like the “ivied” ruins that were nowhere to be found in the antebellum United States, postwar ruins did not speak of the nation’s “antiquity,” of its ancient glory and its slow decay, but rather of its instantaneous downfall. In this respect, war ruins were no different than the material ruins of the antebellum period or those of the Gilded Age which, though often ignored by contemporary writers and cultural theorists, were in fact “ubiquitous” throughout the nineteenth century (Yablon 5). As Nick Yablon argues in Untimely Ruins, the American urban landscape especially transformed with such rapidity that it kept producing ephemeral ruins which tended to disappear as fast as they had appeared. While the presence of ruins was often thought to index the end of history, as in Thomas Cole’s final painting in his Course of Empire series (fig. 1) and in much of the European aesthetics of the eighteenth century, American urban ruins seemed paradoxically precocious and a sign of history in the making. Looking like “‘ruins in reverse,’” they “[preceded] their own completion, as buildings were often delayed, left unfinished, or simply could not keep with the pace of urban construction” (Yablon 12).

Fig. 1: Thomas Cole. The Course of Empire. Desolation. 1836. Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 63 1/4 in. New-York Historical Society, gift of the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts. Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions.

15Yet, rather than an exclusive sign of American vitality, these untimely ruins also generated anxiety, as they spoke of the nation’s potential for “accelerated decrepitude” (Hay 16-20). From Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle suddenly awakening as an old man out of touch with the times to Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of premature burial and death or Henry David Thoreau’s observation, in Walden, that “the nation itself […] lives too fast” (136), many are the antebellum literary instantiations of the fear that the United States had grown too quickly and was already on a decaying path. These anxieties found expression more generally in the development of “proleptic historiography” (Pratt 1; Hay 16-20), of which Edmund Ruffin’s Anticipations of the Future cited in the introduction to this essay is a belated example. Typical of the genre’s retro-futuristic rhetoric—in which the present is historicized from the vantage of the future and made to look like the past—was a discourse of “anticipatory ruinism” and a focus on “prospective ruins” (Skilton 107; Hay 21), which enabled to alleviate the fears caused by the present spectacle of untimely ruins that could not be made to square with the republican vision of history as a narrative of progressive rise and fall developing slowly over time. Relegated to the literary future in order to obscure their uncanny material presence in the present, proleptic ruins thus performed a double function. On the one hand they provided by anticipation “enduring symbols of a foundational antiquity,” while serving on the other hand as “markers of progress for a modern age” (Hay 38).

16With the onset of the Civil War, however, ruins could no longer be consigned to a time yet to come, nor could they serve anymore as political currency to foretell and ward off the collapse of the Union and the obliteration of the nation, as Lincoln for instance had powerfully done in 1858, using the architectural metaphor of “a house divided against itself [that] cannot stand” (426). Between 1861 and 1865, “the ruination of the country—politically and materially—in support of either the Union or the Confederacy” not only “seemed inevitable” but had actually come about (Nelson, 2012 8). As Drew Gilpin Faust has argued in This Republic of Suffering, the immediate legacy of the war was death, at both individual and collective levels. Destruction and ruins thus became shared experiences during the conflict and in its immediate aftermath. As Megan Kate Nelson further observes in Ruin Nation, it is even one of the grim ironies of the war that, in a time of “extreme national divisiveness,” Americans across sectional lines found “common ground” in the spectacle of ruins (2012 3). Although especially prevalent in the South, the notion that the nation had prematurely, but irreversibly, run its course was made ubiquitous across the country through the circulation of sketches and photographs of cities in smouldering ruins, from Harpers Ferry and Hampton, to Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, and Chambersburg, and most famously Atlanta, Columbia, Charleston, and Richmond. The composition of these images owed much to the European aesthetics of ruination that had been so often denigrated or declared ill-fitted to the US scenery in the antebellum period. As Nelson remarks, “[n]ineteenth-century Americans liked to look at urban ruins; lithographs of city fires were popular in the antebellum period, and images of the Civil War’s city ruins proliferated almost immediately” (2012 245-246n37). This taste for ruins comes across, for instance, in a spectacular sketch published in Harper’s Weekly in August 1861 just a few weeks after the burning of Hampton, Virginia, the first town to be destroyed during the war (fig. 2). This suggests that, pace Crèvecœur or Emerson and as Barbara Novak and others have compellingly argued, by the Civil War the United States did possess a language as well as aesthetic categories—primarily the sublime and the picturesque—with which to make sense of its own ruins.

Fig. 2: “The Burning of Hampton by the Rebel Forces Under Colonel Magruder.” Harper’s Weekly, 31 August 1861.

The Ashes of Columbia, SC, or the Aesthetics of the Lost Cause

17Images like that of the burning of Hampton or Columbia (fig. 3), to take two paradigmatic examples at the beginning and the end of the war, archive not only the history of urban development in the United States, but also the main strategies of both Union and Confederate armies. On the one hand, they attest the structural weakness of American cities which, because they historically emerged not from warfare, but rather as economic centres, proved more prone to destruction than many of their European counterparts. On the other hand, these images reveal how ruination through bombing and fire was an essential part of the military arsenal available during the Civil War. Using “smoothbore and rifled cannons and incendiary torches,” Union and Confederate soldiers laid waste to cities with a view primarily to “striking political, economic, and psychological blows” (Nelson, 2012 10, 12). Urban centres, and especially capital cities like Washington and Columbia, were seen as strategic targets whose fall would inevitably lead to the collapse of their attendant body politic. This is why the “emotional and imaginative power” of wartime ruins eventually outweighed “their actual presence in the southern landscape” (Nelson, 2012 243n24). This is also why several historians have insisted that, compared to other conflicts and although it did ruin the nation, the Civil War was never the “total war” that Southern propaganda fantasized (Neely; Royster; Grimsley). More precisely, and from the start, the affective power of images and narratives of Southern cities in ruins was largely invested to fuel “the mythopoetics of Lost Cause ideology” (Fassi 8) and its nostalgic discourse of Southern cultural superiority in the face of alleged Northern aggression and barbarity. These accounts were produced by Southern witnesses and Northern soldiers, journalists, and artists alike. They were published as pamphlets, as well as in the periodical press—in venues such as Harper’s Weekly Magazine and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News—and their circulation throughout the United States paradoxically enabled a discourse of Southern distinctiveness as well as a Unionist rhetoric of reconciliation in the wake of the war (Murray 95-96).

Fig. 3: William Waud. “The Burning of Columbia, South Carolina, February 17, 1865.” Harper’s Weekly, 8 April 1865.

18During the conflict, however, images of burning cities also served to document the horror of the war by deploying an aesthetics of the sublime which subtends many contemporary eye-witness accounts. The sketch of the burning of Hampton (fig. 2), for instance, positions the viewer at a distance from the fire across the river and reinforces their sense of protection as the bridge, cutting across the lower half of the image, forms a symbolic barrier that has the potential both to provide an escape route from the fire and to safeguard from it. Yet the distance from the scene also enables the artist to give a sense of the magnitude of the conflagration, as clouds of thick smoke make up more than half of the upper half of the sketch. Their sublimity—emphasized by the impression of movement created by the oblique strokes—is evocative of the terror filling the diminutive figures who, on the city shores, are helplessly waving their arms hoping for assistance, while others have succeeded in securing a boat to reach safe ground. In William Waud’s sketch of the burning of Columbia, however, the viewer is much closer to the scene and confronted more directly to its horror, even though they evidently occupy an elevated position (fig. 3). The roofless tower and building on the right suggest the allegorical decapitation of the capital city of South Carolina, whose last inhabitants—mostly women and children—are fleeing the scene from the lower right corner, as Union soldiers in the foreground are seen revelling, rioting, and plundering its ruins. But there, too, the scalar contrast between the comparatively small, human figures in the foreground and the stately buildings ablaze in the background creates a sense of sublime terror, which the movement of the flames and the clouds in the whole upper half of the sketch further animates.

  • 4 See Lucas and Royster (3-33) for two standard, though diverging, accounts of the burning of Columbi (...)

19Published in Harper’s Weekly on 8 April 1865, barely two months after the destruction of Columbia on 17-18 February 1865, this sketch corroborates the account of Columbia resident Emma LeConte.4 Between December 1864 and August 1865, Emma LeConte, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Joseph LeConte—a chemistry professor employed during the war by the Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau to help manufacture gunpowder—wrote a journal in which she offers one of the many first-hand reports that fill the historical record. After the burning of Atlanta by Gen. William T. Sherman in November 1864 and the Union army’s rapid progression through Georgia and South Carolina, she recorded her and her family’s mounting terror. Across the entries of January and early February, she conveys her sense of doom as she rehearses the growing rumour that “[Union soldiers] have promised to show no mercy in this State” (8). The “apathy” that the prospect of assured destruction fills her with initially contrasts with the “panic” that seizes her and “the whole town” once Sherman’s army reaches the outskirts of Columbia and the “shelling” begins (15, 29, 35). “By midnight,” on 18 February, “the whole town […] was wrapped in one huge blaze,” she recounts (45):

Imagine night turned into noonday, only with a blazing, scorching glare that was horrible—a copper colored sky across which swept columns of black rolling smoke glittering with sparks and flying embers, while all around us were falling thickly showers of burning flakes. Everywhere the palpitating blaze walling the streets with solid masses of flames as far as the eye could reach—filling the air with its horrible roar. On every side the crackling and devouring fire, while every instant came the crashing of timbers and the thunder of falling buildings. A quivering molten ocean seemed to fill the air and sky. (45-46)

20Observing the scene from the comparatively safe college campus where the family home was located, Emma LeConte offers an apocalyptic vision that builds on multisensory impressions to conjure her sense of oppression, inescapability (“everywhere,” “on every side,” “every instant”), and ruination. A few days later, after “[walking] all over town,” she was able to complete her account and, already, to start weaving it into a narrative of nostalgia for the splendour of a past, however recent, now irretrievably lost:

Yes, I have seen it—I have seen the “Abomination of Desolation.” It is even worse than I thought. The place is literally in ruins. The entire heart of the city is in ashes—only the outer edges remain. […] [In] the centre of the town, as far as the eye can reach nothing is to be seen but heaps of rubbish, tall dreary chimneys and shattered brick walls, while “In the hollow windows, dreary horror’s sitting.” […] The market [is] a ruined shell supported by crumbling arches, its spire fallen in and with it the old town clock whose familiar stroke we miss so much. […] As we passed the old State house going back I paused to gaze on the ruins—only the foundations and chimneys—and to recall the brilliant scene enacted there one short month ago. And I compared that scene with its beauty, gayety and festivity—the halls so elaborately decorated—the surging throng—with this. I reached home sad at heart and full of all I had seen. (61-62)

21Quoting the gospels (Mark 13:14; Matthew 24:15-16)—where the phrase “Abomination of Desolation” is already a quotation from the Book of Daniel—LeConte inscribes the destruction of Columbia within a Biblical framework in which it harks back to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies while announcing Christ’s Second Coming. She also quotes from Schiller’s “The Song of the Bell” (1798), thus framing the ruins of Columbia not only within an eschatological promise of Southern reconstruction from its “ashes,” but also within a Romantic aesthetics. As we will see, her subsequent entries further mobilize this aesthetics in order to transform the ruins into a picturesque spectacle which preserves the memory of Southern grandeur as a resource for rebuilding. Yet in this early entry, only days after the fire, her spectatorial “gaze” emphasizes what is lost rather than what may be regained. Surveying the ruined building of the State house brings back the memory of its former usage and of the “beauty, gayety and festivity” it used to house and connote. At this point for LeConte, the ruins of Columbia exclusively signify the sudden collapse of her world, as present rubbles index past glories.

22In this sense, LeConte’s account aligns with Southern novelist, poet, critic, and historian William Gilmore Simms’s notion of ruins as the archives of history. Writing in 1845, Simms observed that “[r]uins speak for themselves, and, to this extent, are their own historians. They equally denote the existence and the overthrow;—the was and the is not” (Simms, 1962 35). In the simultaneity of their denotation, ruins “embody […] anachronism” (Hay 39). Their material presence points to a past which, though lost, somehow persists. Twenty years later, Simms was to put his theorization of ruins to the test of history itself, as he too witnessed the destruction of Columbia, having sought refuge there with his family. During and after the burning, Simms collected eye-witness testimonies to add to his own, even as he undertook the task of founding, editing, and printing the Columbia Phoenix, a triweekly then daily newspaper whose first issue came out on 21 March 1865. Between 21 March and 10 April 1865, the Columbia Phoenix ran Simms’s account of “The Capture, Sack and Destruction of Columbia,” before Simms revised and published it in pamphlet form in October of that year (Aiken 31-43; Meriwether 2004 and 2009).

23While Simms is at pains to offer a detailed account of Columbia’s ruination and to emphasize that his is “wholly true withal, and to be relied on as history” (Simms, 2005 111), he simultaneously crafts an early instance of a Lost Cause narrative in which Southern endurance comes up against Northern barbarity. More accurately, Simms’s insistence on “the exactions of truth and the necessities of historical evidence” (99) serves to sustain his case against Sherman as the embodiment of “the savage Puritan, reviving all the brutalities of the time of Crowell” (85). Rife with detailed examples, Simms’s account is also interspersed with exhaustive lists of all the buildings destroyed and their owners or tenants. This accumulation both substantiates and contrasts with “the work of plunder and destruction” (75), which he describes at length and whose apocalyptic language echoes directly that of Emma LeConte while announcing the aesthetics of Waud’s sketch for Harper’s:

Very grand, and terrible, beyond description, was the awful spectacle. It was a scene for the painter of the terrible. […] Great spouts of flame spread aloft in canopies of sulphurous cloud—wreaths of sable, edged with sheeted lightnings, wrapped the skies, and, at short intervals, the falling tower and the tottering wall, avalanche-like, went down with thunderous sound, sending up at every crash billowy showers of glowing fiery embers. (23 March 1865; 66)

24The inverted movement of the flames going up and the buildings going down, “avalanche-like,” while the viewer remains petrified, is evocative of Kant’s dynamical sublime, just as Simms’s language of preterition and his suggestion of the superiority of painting over writing contribute to magnifying the “terrible” scene he claims to be unable to describe. This apocalyptic rhetoric helps to frame the burning of Columbia as “demonic saturnalia” (64) and to portray Sherman’s men as a mob of unruly savages, “drinking, roaring, raging, revelling” (74):

They executed all kinds of antics—some of them leaping in mad gyrations, and yelling and singing like the red men, around the burning pyres of their victims; brandishing knife and pistol, and in maudlin affection pawing and embracing one another, and not unfrequently the passer-by. (74)

25Simms’s cumulative syntax and alliterative vocabulary cast doubt on the Union soldiers’ mental sanity, as well as on their racial and gender identities, as their violence evokes the stereotypical savagery of the Natives, while their claim to manhood is unsettled by their fake displays of sentimentality. This kind of “demonic” description partakes more generally of Simms’s providential narrative, which he sets up in the opening paragraph of his account. There, the destruction of Columbia is depicted as an act of divine “Providence” and the devastated city as “one congregated ruin”: “Humiliation spreads her ashes over our homes and garments, and the universal wreck exhibits only one common aspect of despair” (47). In this account, ruination becomes a common experience binding the citizens of Columbia and those of the whole South together, not only in shared grief, but also in the prospect of the city’s rebirth from its “ashes”—a project to which Simms’s newspaper, appropriately named the Phoenix, promises to contribute and which a sketch, published in Harper’s in July 1866, literalizes by pitting the remaining rubble against the newly-reconstructed façades and sidewalk (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Theodore R. Davis. “The Ruins of Columbia, South Carolina—Richardson Street, Looking Toward the Capitol.” “Pictures of the South.” Harper’s Weekly, 21 July 1866.

26In so doing, Simms insists on the centrality of Columbia in the war, whose citizens were “the first to sound the bugles of resistance to the encroachments of the Northern tyranny and usurpation” (49). It was there indeed that, on 17 December 1860, South Carolina delegates to the Secession Convention met for the first time before signing the Declaration of Secession a few days later in Charleston. Simultaneously, however, Simms, like his friend Edmund Ruffin, reads the war exclusively as a struggle over states’ rights and as a reenactment of the War of Independence. Doing so, he obscures the war’s origins in the fact of enslavement, even as he unwittingly acknowledges them when he observes that “three-fifths” of Columbia burned—which echoes, somewhat ironically, the three-fifths clause of the US Constitution—or when he concedes that the fire may have been started by the burning of “some cotton piled in the streets” (61), as if the South was quite literally due to reap what it had sown.

  • 5 On Noah and Adam as competing figures of Americanness in the antebellum United States, see Hay 36-7 (...)

27Simms’s inadvertent symbolism notwithstanding, his narrative is animated by a double objective. On the one hand, it seeks to demonstrate Northern treachery and immorality—and Sherman’s in particular—while on the other hand memorializing the ruins of Columbia as tokens of Southern glory, endurance, and regeneration. This is why the apocalyptic language of sublimity gives way at times to a picturesque aesthetic: “The best and most beautiful portion of Columbia lay in ruins. Never was ruin more complete; and the sun rose with a wan countenance, peering dimly through the dense vapors which seemed wholly to overspread the firmament” (105). The oxymoronic image of a “ruin […] complete” combines with the naturalizing logic at work in this passage, whereby the rubble becomes a natural element in a romanticized and gothicized landscape of “wan” sunlight, ghostly “vapors,” and “overspread” stars. Earlier in his account, Simms already mobilized the trope of a peaceful landscape of ruins in the midst of human destructiveness to suggest the possibility of reconstruction after the apocalypse: “But the fumes plundered on, and the savage fired, and drank, and raged, and danced, and sang, and the moon sailed over all with as serene an aspect as when she first smiled upon the ark resting against the slopes of Ararat” (75). Picturing the South as a biblical “ark” emerging from the flood of the war, Simms portrays his fellow Columbians as so many Noahs embracing the work of rebuilding.5

28The change of register from the apocalyptic to the romantic, from the sublime to the picturesque, from destruction to reconstruction, confirms the “symbolic flexibility” of ruins (Nelson 3). Such a change is even more remarkable in Emma LeConte’s journal. About a month after the burning of Columbia, she notes how “the birds are singing again and as we walked home from Church this morning we gathered blue hyacinths and yellow daffodils from among the blackened ruins” (13 March 1865, 53). Opposing nature’s ever-recurring cycle of regeneration to transient acts of human destructiveness, she ultimately incorporates “the melancholy ruins” (53) within her romanticized tableau of springtime bloom. Two months later, on 17 May, after a walk among the ruins under the full moon, the spectacle of the rubble becomes so utterly mesmerizing as to compel her to consign a lengthy entry. “I must say something of that walk,” she writes:

Everything was still as death. The only sounds that broke the silence were our footsteps among the rubbish, and sometimes the low voices of our party. There was little talking—the weird scene seemed to cast a spell upon us. As far as the eye could reach only spectre-line chimneys and the shattered walls, all flooded over by the rich moon-light which gave them a mysterious but mellow softness, and quite took from them the ghastly air which they wear in the sunlight. There only lacked moss and lichens and tangled vines to make us believe we stood in some ruined city of antiquity. We walked down Sumter Street and turned into Blanding. This was still more beautiful, for the handsome residences made the most picturesque ruins. Clarkson’s house with its white columns gleaming in the moonlight looked like an old Greek ruin. And for some reason […] the trees and shrubbery on this street have been almost unscorched and make masses of foliage about the crumbling walls. At last we reached Christ Church—it was a very pretty little church, and makes a lovely ruin. It was charming in this mystic light. As we stood before it the moon shone full upon us through the big arched window. We stood gazing on it in silence for many minutes. Had the walls only been mantled with the ivy and a few sharp outlines softened by time and clinging lichens it would have been perfect. (99-100)

  • 6 The imagined endurance of the South also transpires in LeConte’s mapping of her itinerary by using (...)

29The language of the picturesque and the beautiful replaces the sublime rhetoric of apocalyptic destruction, even as the trope of antiquity—at once negated and asserted—combines with romantic clichés, with a view to historicizing the present as antiquated past. The ruins thus function as evidence of the South’s past grandeur, “[inspiring] parallels between lost civilizations of the ancient past and an imaginary lost civilization of the South” (Fassi 118). But they also spell out the South’s resilience, its ability to stand the test of time and to endure, if only as a reservoir of picturesque images.6

30From this perspective, LeConte’s efforts to assimilate the ruins of Columbia to “an old Greek ruin” or, perhaps more to the point, to “some [unidentified] ruined city of antiquity,” both echo and contrast with the photographs of Union army photographer George N. Barnard, especially Ruins in Columbia, S. C., No. 2 (1865), published in his 1866 Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign (fig. 5). Just as the standing pillars are evocative of antique ruins, the vagueness of the caption (“Ruins in Columbia”) gets in the way of immediate contextualization, thus abstracting the ruins from recent history and from their function as document or archive of the war. This aesthetics of abstraction allows the viewer “to focus on the fragments, the interplay of light and shadow, the parallel lines of the columns and scorched tree limbs,” and to enjoy “aesthetic pleasure in ruins” (Nelson 2011, 45). At the same time, however, as both Alan Trachtenberg and Charles Merewether have observed, such a view also captures “naked military power.” As such, Barnard’s images or ruins serve as “a lesson” and a cautionary tale to war’s destructiveness, rather than—per LeConte—as an elegiac or picturesque celebration of a glorious, if chronologically indeterminate, past (Trachtenberg 99; Merewether 28).

Fig. 5: George N. Barnard. Ruins in Columbia, S.C., No. 2. 1865. Albumen silver print, 25.6 × 35.9 cm (10 1/16 × 14 1/8 in.), 84.XM.468.55. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

31With their stern aestheticism and the conspicuous absence of human figures among the rubble, Barnard’s images of Columbia offer a stark contrast with another sketch published in Harper’s, on 21 July 1866 (fig. 6). There, a family of emancipated slaves have turned the ruins into a makeshift home and the blooming vegetation that frames the lower left half of the picture is reminiscent of the picturesque aesthetics that underwrites LeConte’s account. Just as the ruins become integral to the naturalized décor, so too is the Black family cast as another natural element in the landscape. As Nina Silber has argued in The Romance of Reunion, this process of picturesque aestheticization has the effect of neutralizing politically both ruins and Blacks, and of obscuring their links to the war in order to foreground an image of the South as “[appealing] to the tourist’s aesthetic demands” (77-78). The aesthetics of the picturesque voids the image of any lingering sense of political divisiveness in the wake of the war, the better to fill it with a fantasy of naturalized harmony that combines the possibility of national reconciliation with the preservation of sectional distinctiveness.

Fig. 6: Theodore R. Davis. “Among the Ruins of Columbia, South Carolina.” “Pictures of the South.” Harper’s Weekly, 21 July 1866.

32As this sketch reveals, and as narratives like Simms’s confirm, picturesque visions of a ruined South circulated widely in images and texts after the war to fuel the ideology of the Lost Cause, even as many of these visions were actually produced and disseminated by Northern artists and newspapers. As Georgia poet Elizabeth Dannelly notes in the concluding line of her 1866 lyric, Destruction of the City of Columbia, South Carolina, which she explicitly based on Simms’s account: “‘Time cannot teach forgetfulness,’ the past can never die” (96; emphasis in the original). The past of Southern ruination speaks to its future of regeneration and persists effectively in collective memory, in particular through the recurring trope of the ashes of the South, as can be observed in two popular Civil War novels published during Reconstruction: William Henry Peck’s The M’Donalds; or, Ashes of Southern Homes (1867) and George Rumbough’s From Dust to Ashes: A Romance of the Confederacy (1895). Obsessively repeating the words of its title, Peck’s novel centres on the flight of Mrs. Preston M’Donald and her daughter Myrtis as they are forced to leave their home to escape the Yankees, bent on “reduc[ing] the noble mansion to ashes, leaving only the skeleton chimneys standing, gaunt, grim, and ghastly, to mark the spot where had been a Southern home” (104). The novel follows their journey through Georgia and South Carolina where they witness “the ravages, the ruin, the woe of [Sherman’s] celebrated march over the ashes of Southern homes” (162). “[P]ursued from refuge to refuge” (168), they eventually reach Columbia, only to witness its burning. There, the narrative concludes, hoping for “greatness and happiness” to “spring” from “the now mutilated bosom of the South” (192). Although “[d]edicated to the American People,” Peck’s novel remains an unreconstructed novel of reconstruction, ending as it does among “heaps of ashes” (191). Published three decades later, Rumbough’s From Dust to Ashes completes the regeneration that The M’Donalds could only hint at. Following the war-hindered romance between Captain Phil Randolph, a Virginia Cadet, and Marguerite Darlington, “a typical southern beauty” (12), the novel also ends in Columbia, but concludes “years” after it has been “thoroughly Shermanized” (171) and its “silent ruin” made “a cruel and relentless exhibition of uncivilized and barbarous warfare” (174). Although a denunciation of Sherman’s hard war tactics, like The M’Donalds or Simms’s account, From Dust to Ashes eventually moves from past to present to offer a vision of Southern regeneration through marriage and reproduction, as

Randolph watches the playful antics of a smaller Sadie, and a Lawrence, too, and often reminds Marguerite that when he shook the dust of the [Virginia Military] Institute from his feet he dreamed but little of finding his fair bride among the ashes of Columbia, and his nuptials over the ashes of her father’s homestead. (193)

33Despite its final image of matrimonial bliss and reproductive futurity, however, the novel, like many accounts of the destruction of Columbia, fictional or otherwise, remains largely “mired” in the city’s ashes rather than actually rises from it (Nelson, 2012 59). Although the narrative arc “from dust to ashes” that the title delineates, and that the last sentence rehearses, is animated by the Christian promise of resurrection, it simultaneously references the centrality of Columbia and its ashes within the memorialization of the war in the South. Until the end of the nineteenth century, Columbia indeed “specialized in ruins” and “preferred to highlight ruins of its lost glory,” while a city like Atlanta for instance, though devastated by fire too, “tended to build monuments to its renewal” (Brown 418, 411). Such specialization was largely a function of the literary and visual inscription of the city’s devastation. Attending to these local variations within the narrative of the Lost Cause and the memorialization of the war thus complicates usefully the uniform picture of Southern ruination that emerges from novels like The M’Donalds and its never-ending spectacle of “red and smouldering ruins” across Georgia and the Carolinas (157-158), while revealing how the ruins of Columbia could function so effectively as a symbol of the Lost Cause and an instrument of its revisionist ideology.

New York Burning: The 1863 Draft Riots

34Notwithstanding its local variations, the narrative of the Lost Cause rapidly saturated the national memory of the Civil War in the postbellum years (Blight). This popularized the notion that only the South had experienced ruination, while the record shows that Union cities too were burned to the ground—like Chambersburg, PA, in 1864, for instance—evidencing how the Confederacy also had recourse to hard war tactics. Rather than attend to such cases, however, I turn in this final section to the ruination of some parts of Manhattan during the New York City draft riots in July 1863, not only as a perhaps comparatively lesser-known episode of urban destruction in the North, but also as an instance of the challenges of memorialization.

  • 7 Iver Bernstein puts the death toll at 105 (5), while Laurence Hauptman indicates that “at least 119 (...)

35In early March 1863, Congress passed the “Act for enrolling […] the national Forces,” which proclaimed that “all able-bodied male citizens of the United States, and persons of foreign birth who shall have declared on oath their intention to become citizens […], between the ages of twenty and forty-five years […] are hereby declared to constitute the national forces, and shall be liable to perform military duty in the service of the United States” (sec. 1). Dividing states into “enrolment districts,” the act organized the draft—the first ever to be enforced at the national level in US history—through an unprecedented survey of the white male population, the imposition of local quotas, and an intricate system of lotteries and exemptions. Democrats in Congress had opposed the bill in vain, arguing against its “complexity” and “arbitrariness” (Hendler 190), while public hostility focused on what many regarded as the law’s most iniquitous clauses. These allowed “any person drafted” either to “furnish an acceptable substitute to take his place” or to pay “three hundred dollars” for a three-year exemption (“An Act” sec. 13). The possibility of “hiring a substitute or paying [a] commutation fee” that amounted to “a laborer’s annual wages” exacerbated social and racial tensions across the Union (Boggs 1). Not only did poor white immigrants believe themselves to be at a particular disadvantage compared to more affluent citizens, but they often complained that their life was deemed of less value than that of enslaved Blacks, which threatened to relegate them to a status lower than chattel slavery (Bernstein 10). At the same time, white labourers—many of them Irish immigrants—saw the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln had issued in January 1863, as endangering their economic prospects as well as their racial identity, fearing as they did the consequences of racial and work equality. The combined prospect of a national draft and of Black emancipation spurred anti-state as well as anti-Black sentiment and demonstrations, which culminated in a series of riots in New York City. Since the beginning of the conflict, opposition to the war had been particularly vocal in New York City, in large part because the city depended so much on the cotton trade for its economic prosperity. For four days in mid-July, rioters in Manhattan targeted official buildings, private residences, and properties symbolic of African American presence in the City—including, most infamously, the Orphan Asylum for Colored People on Fifth Avenue. Violence was also directed at African American bodies and numerous lynchings took place in which eleven African Americans were murdered. After Union troops returning from Gettysburg restored social order on 16 July, an estimated $1.5 million worth of property was found damaged or destroyed (Hauptman 373) for over a hundred fatalities, a death toll almost five times higher than during the Astor Place riots in 1849.7

36In Patriotism by Proxy, Colleen Glenney Boggs has written about the draft’s important consequences on the formation of “citizen-soldiers” and their relationship to the state as well as to each other. Probing a large archive of sketches and cartoons, poems and songs, newspaper editorials, private diaries, and personal letters, Boggs argues that conscription extended dramatically the American state’s biopower over its population, even as it afforded individuals a wider range of possibilities in the face of that power through the operations of substitution and exemption that the law allowed. Doing so, Boggs reframes the Civil War as a major landmark in the state’s relation to the management of life, rather than to the administration of death, pushing back against a dominant strand of Civil War historiography that, from Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering to Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation and others, has insisted on death and destruction as the main outcomes of the war. Emphasizing the 2.5 million enlisted white men over the 620,000 to 750,000 casualties, Patriotism by Proxy usefully cautions against “the strange tautology” that war amounts only or exclusively to death (7). More pointedly, Boggs purposefully turns away from the “spectacular violence” of the draft riots to investigate other engagements with the cultural and political effects of conscription on the formation of the US state and the transformation of its citizenry (1). While mindful of Boggs’s timely intervention, I want, however, to shift the focus back onto the riots’ destructiveness and the politics of its aesthetics in the popular press, as well as in the sentimental fiction of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, What Answer? (1868), and one of Herman Melville’s war poems, “The House-top: A Night Piece.” Building on Glenn Hendler’s exploration of Dickinson’s and Melville’s evocation of the draft riots as “an enactment of a social emotion” (192), I investigate how visual and textual depictions of the riots problematize attachments to the state in the North, while mobilizing a range of tropes, forms, and genres that were also deployed in the South to process the war’s work of ruination.

37Sketches from the periodical press reveal the riots’ magnitude and the mob’s main targets. A contemporary engraving, reissued in Joel Tyler Headley’s 1877 history of American riots, Pen and Pencil Sketches of the Great Riots (fig. 7), depicts the smouldering ruins of the Provost Marshall’s Ninth District office at the corner of Third Avenue and Forty-Sixth Street—the first building to be destroyed on 13 July—and indicates how mob violence was first directed at the state apparatus. Yet with the exception of the “No Draft” sign held by one of the mobsters in the foreground, viewers are given little information by way of contextualization. Partly abstracting the ruins from their specific history and locale, the image could even be taken as referencing the South, as the tree that seems to miraculously escape the fire evokes a willow or even a palm tree. Such a generic aesthetics of ruination also underwrites the representation of the ruins of the same office published in Harper’s Weekly on 1 August 1863 (fig. 8). The surviving walls, now guarded by two policemen armed with sticks, are vaguely recognizable from one image to the other and are strikingly reminiscent of the kind of war images produced by the newspaper’s artist-reporters in the South, thus emphasizing the riots’ origins in the Civil War and suggesting—per Harper’s Republican sympathies—that the mobsters’ politics aligned with those of the Confederacy and deserved the same opprobrium. By contrast, a sketch published in the international Illustrated London News on 8 August 1863 highlights the size of the mob rather than its destructive violence, despite the conspicuous presence of sticks and firearms in the foreground (fig. 9). As a small group of individuals surveys the scene from a rooftop on the left, rioters are seen to surround the Marshall’s office and to form an indiscriminate mass that extends beyond the image’s background, as if to indicate the degree of public opposition to the draft and to the state enforcing it and therefore legitimize some of the rioters’ grievances.

Fig. 7: “New York—Burning of the Provost Marshal’s Office.” Pen and Pencil Sketches of the Great Riots: An Illustrated Story of the Railroad and Other Great American Riots, by Joel Tyler Headley. New York: E.B. Treat, 1877, p. 116.

Fig. 8: “Ruins of the Provost-Marshal’s Office.” Harper’s Weekly, 1 August 1863.

Fig. 9: “The Riots in New York: The Mob Burning the Provost-Marshal’s Office.” Illustrated London News, 8 August 1863.

38A similar tension between unsanctionable violence and justifiable protest can be observed in images of the destruction of the Orphan Asylum for Colored People. In the 1 August issue of Harper’s, the burning of the orphanage fills an entire page, with the blaze, imperfectly concealed by a line of trees, taking up most of the space (fig. 10).

Fig. 10: “The Riots at New York: The Rioters Burning and Sacking the Colored Orphan Asylum.” Harper’s Weekly, 1 August 1863.

39In the left, centre, and right foreground, men armed with sticks can be seen to assault Black children as they attempt to flee the fire. In The Volcano Under the City, an eye-witness account of the riots published in 1887, William Osborn Stoddard recalls that “the little ones” actually escaped “through the rear entrances” (84), rather than through the front door. He insists, however, on the discrepancy between the two hundred children, “all under twelve years of age,” and the “mob of about three thousand men” they were facing, “at hand for [the asylum’s] destruction” (83), just as the image in Harper’s underlines the rioters’ savagery.

40Another sketch, published in the Illustrated London News on 15 August 1863, highlights, however, the sack of the asylum, rather than its destruction, and centres less on anti-Black violence than on the social inequalities that the draft and its provisions for substitution and commutation laid bare (fig. 11).

Fig. 11: “The Riots in New York: Destruction of the Coloured Orphan Asylum.” Illustrated London News, 15 August 1863.

41There, the rioters pillage the asylum’s furniture—chairs, beds, mattresses—that many could not afford, so that the orphanage appears “as a symbol of both black public visibility and elite white philanthropy” (Hendler 191). In both images, however, the blazing fire testifies to the extent of the destruction that took place and the roaring flames and clouds of mounting smoke are reminiscent of other depictions of urban ruination in the course of the Civil War. Yet as Stoddard notes in The Volcano Under the City, although the actual building was indeed burned to the ground, “the noble charity itself […] suffered no permanent hurt” and was rapidly, and even more generously than before, endowed with funds that enabled its rapid reconstruction elsewhere (85-86). Distinguishing between the institution and its material building, Stoddard rehearses the antebellum notion that ruins in America are all but ephemeral and a token of the nation’s energy and vitality, thus obscuring, at least in part, how destructive of Black life the riots were, as revealed in the particularly gruesome images of lynchings that were published in both Harper’s and the Illustrated London News (fig. 12 and 13).

Fig. 12: “Hanging a Negro in Clarkson Street.” Harper’s Weekly, 1 August 1863.

Fig. 13: “The Riots in New York: The Mob Lynching a Negro in Clarkson-Street.” Illustrated London News, 8 August 1863.

  • 8 Dickinson published her first abolitionist essay in the Liberator before the age of fourteen and sh (...)

42In her first novel, What Answer?, abolitionist and celebrated orator Anna Elizabeth Dickinson focuses, on the contrary, on the racist violence of the draft riots, to which she devotes an entire chapter.8 A sentimental romance of interracial love under the backdrop of the Civil War, What Answer? temporarily turns away from the fate of its protagonists—wealthy New Yorker and Union volunteer Willie Surrey and free Black abolitionist Francesca Ercildoune—to describe the “outbreak” of violence “unparalleled in atrocities by anything in American history, and equalled only by the horrors of the worst days of the French Revolution,” in the course of which the couple will tragically die (243). Like Edmund Ruffin’s Anticipations of the Future—in which the draft riots are projected in 1868, the same year Dickinson’s novel was published—What Answer? compares the riots to revolutionary terror to index their world historical significance, even as the chapter’s epigraph underlines their critical importance for the nation’s destiny. Quoting Victor Hugo, Dickinson asks: “Will the future come? It seems that we may almost ask this question when we see such terrible shadow” (242). Conflating past and future in a present conflagration, the “shadow” of the revolutionary past which the riots conjure serves as a token for America’s postapocalyptic life. As the narrative voice traces the mob’s devastating progression from the “enrolling-office” to the Orphan Asylum for Colored People—soon “a mass of smoking, blackened ruins” (252)—however, Dickinson frames the rioters through an apocalyptic rhetoric that echoes Simms’s account of the sack of Columbia, all the while reversing its sectional politics. In What Answer?, it is the Copperhead rioters rather than the Union soldiers that are portrayed as “hideous and devilish in [their] work of destruction […], filling the air with demoniac shrieks and yells,” whose unmistakably foreign accents further emphasize their “mad frenzy of senseless hate and fury” (243, 245). Yet the more the chapter depicts this “carnival of ruin and blood” (249), the more it precludes the kind of sympathetic identification that the novel had deployed until then, in order to highlight the moral rift between a mob of “wholly ignorant, foreign-born hooligans” and the sentimental and compassionate reader it posits (Rutkowski 116). Describing the mob as “one vast crowd” rather than an aggregate of discrete individuals (249), Dickinson depersonalizes violence through the abundant use of the passive voice, thus emphasizing the visible effects of the riots over their inner causes in the mobsters’ psychology, which remains inaccessible to both narrator and reader, in line with “the sentimental aversion to ascribing agency to the perpetrators of violence” (Hendler 207).

43Doing so, What Answer? mobilizes the same aesthetics of sublime fires and picturesque ruins that Emma LeConte deployed in Columbia:

Standing on some elevated point, looking over the great city, which presented, as usual, at night, a solemn and impressive show, the spectator was thrilled with a fearful admiration by the sights and sounds which gave it a mysterious and awful interest. A thousand fires streamed up against the sky, making darkness visible; and from all sides came a combination of noises such as might be heard from an asylum in which were gathered the madmen of the world. (252)

Dickinson’s romantic language constructs a spectacular vision that renders “the scene of ruin” (252) simultaneously terrifying and yet somewhat aesthetically pleasing, or at least alluring, while the devastated orphan asylum is replaced with the image of the ruined city as a mental “asylum” whose inmates have been let loose, transforming New York City in a terrifying “Pandemonium” (252).

44Yet, while LeConte’s diary was suggestive of a transition from the sublime to the picturesque that mapped onto the temporality of her account from the conflagration itself to its aftermath, Dickinson combines them into “a strange, brief respite before her narrator plunges us into the second day of the riots” (Hendler 206). By the chapter’s close, the narrative emerges from “the reign of terror” (253) to meditate its consequences once more, or rather twice, as we are provided with the contrasting accounts of two equally impersonal—though race-, class- and gender-specific—witnesses whom we follow as they “walk these streets” in the midst of the riots (258):

Here one surveyed all his costly store of rare and exquisite surroundings, and shook his head as he gazed, ominous and foreboding. There, another of darker hue peered out from garret casement, or cellar light, or broken window-pane, and, shuddering, watched some women stoned and beaten till she died; some child shot down, while thousands of heavy, brutal feet trod over it till the hard stones were red with its blood, and the little prostrate form, yet warm, lost every likeness of humanity and lay there, a sickening mass of mangled flesh and bones; some man assaulted, clubbed, overborne, left wounded or dying or dead, as he fell, or tied to some convenient tree or lamp-post to be hacked and hewn, or flayed and roasted, yet living, where he hung,—and watching this, and cowering as he watched, held his breath, and waited his own turn, not knowing when it might come. (259)

  • 9 Though horrific and on a par with the images of lynchings that appeared in Harper’s and the Illustr (...)

45While the first witness, implicitly marked as white, affluent, and presumably male, fixes his gaze on the material losses he incurred, the second, “darker” spectator focuses his attention on the bodies of the riots’ victims, whose insistent physicality is meant to underscore their innocence even as it deprives them of individuality. Shifting the gaze from properties to bodies in ruin, Dickinson, at least at this point in the novel, challenges her readers to ponder the difficulties of national reconstruction in the face of continuing racist violence, and of imagining the affective ground of future togetherness among the smoking ruins of New York City, but also in the absence of individualized characters to identify with.9 This may also signal her unease at mobilizing the draft riots and the “work of demolition and ruin” (248) they resulted in for the purposes of a reformist novel, whose abolitionism could not be made to square quite so straightforwardly with such an outburst of anti-Black violence at the heart of the North’s economic centre. From this perspective, the repetition of the indefinite adjective “some” in the chapter’s final sentence, which marks the anonymity of the victims and the narrator’s distance from them, recalls Dickinson’s earlier description of the blaze from “some elevated point” and problematizes retrospectively the vantage that distance may afford to ascribe meaning to the city’s—and by extension the nation’s—ruins.

46Like Dickinson’s narrator, Melville also chose an “elevated point” to evoke the draft riots in “The House-top: A Night Piece (July, 1863),” published in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War in 1866:

No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain—a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by.
Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf
Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot.
Yonder, where parching Sirius set in drought,
Balefully glares red Arson—there—and there.
The town is taken by its rats—ship-rats
And rats of the wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve,
And man rebounds whole æons back in nature.i
Hail to the low dull rumble, dull and dead,
And ponderous drag that shakes the wall.
Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll
Of black artillery; he comes, though late;
In code corroborating Calvin’s creed
And cynic tyrannies of honest kings;
He comes, nor parlies; and the Town, redeemed,
Gives thanks devout; nor, being thankful, heeds
The grimy slur on the Republic’s faith implied,
Which holds that Man is naturally good,
And—more—is Nature’s Roman, never to be scourged. (64)

i “I dare not write the horrible and inconceivable atrocities committed,” says Froissart, in alluding to the remarkable sedition in France during his time. The like may be hinted of some proceedings of the draft-rioters. (175)

47In the volume’s “Supplement” in prose, Melville champions sectional reconciliation, a project which the compounds in the titles of the volume (“battle-pieces”) and the poem (“house-top”) simultaneously index and complicate, as the hyphens point to the reunion of disparate elements while maintaining them separate from each other. This tension inscribes more generally the ambivalence of Melville’s wartime politics, which “The House-top” rehearses. The title’s topical allusiveness is indeed complicated by the poem’s framing of the riots through mythical figures (“Sirius,” “Arson,” “Draco”), as well as through a host of poetic echoes ranging from Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s Richard III and Macbeth to Wordsworth’s Prelude and Robert Southey’s The Curse of Kehama (Ohge).

48Heard from afar and further “muffled” through myth and poetry, the “roar of riot” occasions a philosophical meditation on “Man[’s]” innate corruptibility (“Calvin’s creed”) and inherent penchant to destruction (“sway of self”) and the need for the restoration of order through “the low dull rumble” of draconian measures. The violence of the rioters—likened to, and dismissed as, “ship-rats”—is met with state violence to ensure the “Town[’s]” redemption in an assertion of “legal governmentality” (Boggs 29-30). Yet the last lines do not confirm the celebratory “thanks” we are invited to “hail” the representatives of the state with, as the “Town” fails to heed the “grimy slur” the riots have cast on the Jeffersonian ideal of republican virtue that the poem nonetheless reaffirms (Vendler; Hendler 212-223; Grieve-Carlson).

49“Abstract[ing] the events of the uprising via allusion and figuration” (Marrs, 2015 95), “The House-top” elides the extent of the “ravage” and obscures the riots’ African American victims, even as it portrays the rioters through the Africanist image of “tawny tigers” coming from “Libya” and likens them to fourteenth-century French peasant rebels in a note in which Melville references Jean Froissart’s Chronicles of the Hundred Years War and his chapter on the Jacqueries of 1357 (Melville 64, 175). The poem works therefore toward identifying “historical patterns of disintegration and collapse,” but also of restoration and redemption, which help to make particular events legible, despite the ambivalent political affects that such patterns consistently generate (Marrs, 2015 96). Through its aesthetics of spatial, temporal, and poetic distancing, Melville thus inscribes the ruination of New York City within larger cycles of recursive violence—what Ann Laura Stoler has called the “recursive history […] of partial reinscriptions, modified displacements, and amplified recuperations” that ruins bespeak (2016 27; see also Stoler 2013; Storey 192-193). Yet while these cycles provide ways to historicize the unravelling of the Civil War, the ruins it produced are ultimately abstracted into faint traces, heard in “the air” rather than seen in the landscape, preserved as poetic echoes rather than as material relics.

50As North and South undertook the work of rebuilding in the wake of the conflict, urban ruins rapidly disappeared on both sides and remained exclusively in the many accounts that proliferated and vied for the war’s memory. Since the Civil War took place mostly in the South, it is there that making sense of its ruins became most urgent. Episodes of devastation such as the destruction of Columbia fuelled the ideology of the Lost Cause and provided “loss with purpose” (Marrs, 2020 98). Paradoxically, visual representations of the ruined South circulating in the periodical press in the North contributed to cementing this narrative of Southern bravery and resilience, while helping to bring back the South within the newly reunited national fold. The New York City draft riots, for their part, presented a different set of challenges to the work of memorialization, since they revealed lines of fracture that ran through the Union as well, and that would compromise Reconstruction from the start. In both instances, however, as well as in many others, ruins became as inescapable an American reality as they proved ephemeral, which forced the nation to reconsider its own sense of historicity, as its past course and its future path collided in the immediate present of its devastation.

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“The Burning of Hampton by the Rebel Forces Under Colonel Magruder.” Harper’s Weekly, 31 August 1861. (fig. 2)

BARNARD, George N. Ruins in Columbia, S.C. No. 2. 1865. Albumen silver print, 25.6 × 35.9 cm (10 1/16 × 14 1/8 in., 84.XM.468.55. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. (fig. 5)

COLE, Thomas. The Course of Empire. Desolation. 1836. Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 63 1/4 in. New-York Historical Society, Gift of the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts. Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions. (fig. 1)

DAVIS, Theodore R. “Among the Ruins of Columbia, South Carolina.” “Pictures of the South.” Harper’s Weekly, 21 July 1866. (fig. 6)

DAVIS, Theodore R. “The Ruins of Columbia, South Carolina—Richardson Street, Looking Toward the Capitol.” “Pictures of the South.” Harper’s Weekly, 21 July 1866. (fig. 4)

“Hanging a Negro in Clarkson Street.” Harper’s Weekly, 1 August 1863. (fig. 12)

“New York—Burning of the Provost Marshal’s Office.” Pen and Pencil Sketches of the Great Riots: An Illustrated Story of the Railroad and Other Great American Riots, by Joel Tyler Headley. New York: E.B. Treat, 1877, p. 116. (fig. 7)

“The Riots at New York: The Rioters Burning and Sacking The Colored Orphan Asylum.” Harper’s Weekly, 1 August 1863. (fig. 10)

“The Riots in New York: The Mob Burning the Provost-Marshal’s Office.” Illustrated London News, 8 August 1863. (fig. 9)

“The Riots in New York: The Mob Lynching a Negro in Clarkson-Street.” Illustrated London News, 8 August 1863. (fig. 13)

“The Riots in New York: Destruction of the Coloured Orphan Asylum.” Illustrated London News, 15 August 1863. (fig. 11)

“Ruins of the Provost-Marshal’s Office.” Harper’s Weekly, 1 August 1863. (fig. 8)

WAUD, William. “The Burning of Columbia, South Carolina, February 17, 1865.” Harper’s Weekly, 8 April 1865. (fig. 3)

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1 As discussed in greater detail below, the mythology of the Lost Cause downplays, when it does not negate altogether, the importance of slavery in the conflict by deploying a discourse of Southern chivalry and benevolence designed to assert the South’s moral superiority over the North, despite its military defeat and as a way to redeem it. This interpretation of both the South and the Civil War was instrumental in national reunion in the wake of the war, at the expense however of Black civil rights, as it facilitated the dismantling of Reconstruction legislation in the South and the reassertion of white supremacist power during the Jim Crow era (see Blight 255-299).

2 Textual and visual accounts of urban ruination during the Civil War constitute a very large archive, which it is obviously beyond the scope of this essay to explore in its entirety (see, e.g., Brown, Fassi, Knight, Murray, Nelson 2011, and Nelson 2012). Even my restricted focus on the destruction of Columbia and the New York City draft riots has required making a selection, as the burning of Columbia alone led to the publication of at least a dozen accounts between 1865 and 1899. The criteria behind this selection were in part the product of my own circumstances. Research for this essay took place in early 2021, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was forced to privilege material that was accessible online. I tried, however, to put together a corpus both diverse and balanced, comprising sketches and photographs, testimonials and fictional and poetic renderings, contemporary and retrospective accounts, in order to highlight the political aesthetics of ruination and how similar aesthetic strategies were used to further different ends at different moments in the history of the Civil War and of its memory. Yet I should note that, because Civil War photography has perhaps been more intensively researched (e. g., Trachtenberg, Sweet, Samuels), I made the decision in this essay to emphasize the function of press illustrations in the production of ruin narratives over that of war photographs.

3 In Sacred Relics, Teresa Bernett focuses on the collection of relics and memorabilia as ways of preserving the memory of the Civil War.

4 See Lucas and Royster (3-33) for two standard, though diverging, accounts of the burning of Columbia. The divergence hinges largely on the degree of personal responsibility attributed to Sherman in the destruction of the city, a debate which has run through the historiography of the destruction of Columbia ever since William Gilmore Simms’s contemporary account.

5 On Noah and Adam as competing figures of Americanness in the antebellum United States, see Hay 36-72.

6 The imagined endurance of the South also transpires in LeConte’s mapping of her itinerary by using names of streets and buildings that have been virtually obliterated yet that she continues to rely on to organize her world. I thank Anna Shmatenko for pointing this out to me.

7 Iver Bernstein puts the death toll at 105 (5), while Laurence Hauptman indicates that “at least 119 people were killed [including eleven African Americans], and 178 soldiers and police and 128 civilians were wounded” (373). Alice Rutkowski, quoting Schecter (250), puts property losses between three and five million dollars (112).

In May 1849, the rivalry between two Shakespearean actors, Edwin Forrest and Charles Macready, one American and the other British, had led to a riot at the Astor Opera House in Manhattan, causing between 22 and 31 deaths and over a hundred injuries. Originating in part in class struggle, the riot also evidenced the rift between nativists and immigrants in New York City.

8 Dickinson published her first abolitionist essay in the Liberator before the age of fourteen and she was the first woman to be invited to speak before the United States Congress in 1864, where Lincoln was in attendance. She is most likely the inspiration behind the character of Verena Tarrant in Henry James’s The Bostonians (1886). See Gallman.

9 Though horrific and on a par with the images of lynchings that appeared in Harper’s and the Illustrated London News, Dickinson’s description still euphemizes the violence of the tortures African Americans were subjected to during the riots (Bernstein 28-29).

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Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1: Thomas Cole. The Course of Empire. Desolation. 1836. Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 63 1/4 in. New-York Historical Society, gift of the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts. Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions.
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Légende Fig. 2: “The Burning of Hampton by the Rebel Forces Under Colonel Magruder.” Harper’s Weekly, 31 August 1861.
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Légende Fig. 3: William Waud. “The Burning of Columbia, South Carolina, February 17, 1865.” Harper’s Weekly, 8 April 1865.
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Légende Fig. 4: Theodore R. Davis. “The Ruins of Columbia, South Carolina—Richardson Street, Looking Toward the Capitol.” “Pictures of the South.” Harper’s Weekly, 21 July 1866.
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Légende Fig. 5: George N. Barnard. Ruins in Columbia, S.C., No. 2. 1865. Albumen silver print, 25.6 × 35.9 cm (10 1/16 × 14 1/8 in.), 84.XM.468.55. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.
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Légende Fig. 6: Theodore R. Davis. “Among the Ruins of Columbia, South Carolina.” “Pictures of the South.” Harper’s Weekly, 21 July 1866.
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Légende Fig. 7: “New York—Burning of the Provost Marshal’s Office.” Pen and Pencil Sketches of the Great Riots: An Illustrated Story of the Railroad and Other Great American Riots, by Joel Tyler Headley. New York: E.B. Treat, 1877, p. 116.
Fichier image/jpeg, 691k
Légende Fig. 8: “Ruins of the Provost-Marshal’s Office.” Harper’s Weekly, 1 August 1863.
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Légende Fig. 9: “The Riots in New York: The Mob Burning the Provost-Marshal’s Office.” Illustrated London News, 8 August 1863.
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Légende Fig. 10: “The Riots at New York: The Rioters Burning and Sacking the Colored Orphan Asylum.” Harper’s Weekly, 1 August 1863.
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Légende Fig. 11: “The Riots in New York: Destruction of the Coloured Orphan Asylum.” Illustrated London News, 15 August 1863.
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Légende Fig. 12: “Hanging a Negro in Clarkson Street.” Harper’s Weekly, 1 August 1863.
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Légende Fig. 13: “The Riots in New York: The Mob Lynching a Negro in Clarkson-Street.” Illustrated London News, 8 August 1863.
Fichier image/jpeg, 58k
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