By James Marten
A recent episode of the profane and hilarious (and also surprisingly respectful of history) television show “Drunk History” featured Thomas Nast, the crusading Harper’s Weekly cartoonist. Historians know him for his efforts to bring down the corrupt “Boss Tweed” and his Tammany Hall machine in the early 1870, his cartoons attacking the Ku Klux Klan and the Democratic Party, and for any number of other political and reform-minded campaigns (some of his cartoons attacked the Catholic Church!).
Most Americans probably don’t recognize Nast’s name. But they are familiar with his most lasting creation: a drawing of Santa Claus made in 1881 that quickly became the most widely accepted version of the “jolly old elf.” It has appeared on countless postcards and posters since then; indeed, it is almost inseparable from the secularization—and, inevitably, the commercialization—of the holiday season.
But it was hardly the first time that Nast had portrayed Santa Claus for readers of Harper’s Weekly.
Almost two decades earlier, a year-and-a-half after the beginning of the Civil War, he had sketched his first version of Santa. Titled “Santa Claus in Camp,” it appeared in the January 3, 1863, issue. The Christmas season had not been a happy one in the North. Just two weeks earlier, the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg had cost the Union nearly 1300 dead and 9600 wounded soldiers. Just after Christmas, nearly 1800 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured at the ill-fated Battle of Chickasaw Bayou near Vicksburg, while Confederate raiders had threated Union positions in Kentucky and elsewhere. Just two days before the issue came out, the Union army barely won the Battle of Stone’s Creek in Tennessee, but 25,000 Confederate and Union soldiers became casualties—a third of the total number of men fighting. And to top it all off, the Republican Party, who controlled the Congress and the Presidency, was plagued with infighting, votes of no-confidence, and cabinet resignations.
Thomas Nast offered a pro-Union, optimistic antidote to the gloomy, bloody holiday. In addition to scenes of home front Christmases inside, the cover illustration showed Santa Claus receiving a hero’s welcome in a Union army camp. In addition to playing various games and cooking a sumptuous Christmas feast, the surprisingly chipper soldiers—“what,” they seem to be saying, “me worry?”—open the presents brought by Santa Claus, including socks and pipes; drummer boys play with a jack-in-the-box.
More importantly, unlike subsequent representations of Santa Claus, in which he is decidedly apolitical, this particular St. Nick is a determined ally of the Union. His costume features stars and stripes, and he’s entertaining the soldiers with a toy that is apparently an effigy of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. It seems to be a kind of jumping jack toy; pull the string on top and the legs and arms move as though he’s leaping and twirling. However, in this image, Santa is acting out a line from a popular bit of war-time doggerel set to a tune we now know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree!”
The war started to go better for the Union in 1863, of course, although hundreds of thousands more American men would be killed and maimed in the hard fighting that lasted until spring 1865. By then, Santa was doing what he did best—giving presents to children safely at home, far from war. (Although he would make similarly patriotic appearances in later wars; see the online exhibit at the World War II Museum here).
It’s unsettling for us to see just how easily a childhood fantasy can, in effect, be “weaponized” on behalf of a political ideal. But that’s what we historians do: complicate the ways in which we can see even the simplest—seemingly simple, at least—aspects of our culture.
Despite that, the History Department offers a fairly simple wish for the season: Happy Holidays!
For more on Thomas Nast and Santa Claus during the Civil War, see http://www.civilwarprofiles.com/thomas-nast-and-santa-claus-in-the-civil-war/.
You can watch the Nast “Drunk History” segment here: http://www.cc.com/video-clips/1pqsyg/drunk-history-thomas-nast-takes-on-tammany-hall.
James Marten is professor and chair of the history department. Among his books are The Children’s Civil War (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998) and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011).