The Vault

These Civil War Valentines Are Sour Like Lemons

Lest you think of the early 1860s as all flowers and tears.

Satirical Civil War valentine.
“A Bull Run-ner”: “His eye-balls glare–/Oh! what a stare / Is on that human face divine; / He runs! he’s running back to me– / Oh! Hurry up! my Valentine.”
Library Company of Philadelphia

Yes, there were some lacy, beautiful, Victorian Valentines sent during the Civil War, which came a few decades after the advent of the commercially-made greeting card. Here’s a nice roundup on the Kansas Historical Society’s website of engraved cards lauding “angel bright” soldiers’ sweethearts, who are “near at the dead of night/when I my vigil lone am keeping.”

The other kind of wartime Valentine, above and below, was bitter and cutting, rather than saccharine sweet. They come from a tradition of “vinegar valentines,” which, as I wrote on the Vault in 2013, delivered a payload of burn to their unfortunate addressees. People often sent these cheaply-printed comic cards anonymously, using Valentine’s Day as a chance to police their friends’ and acquaintances’ gender presentation, personal grooming, and moral choices.

In that initial post, I included a few Civil War “vinegar” cards, including one that slammed Army surgeons (“Ho! ho! old saw bones, here you come…You are always ready with your traps/To mangle, saw, and hack us”) from a soldier’s point of view. This small group of satirical wartime valentines, on the other hand, seem to be written from a civilian’s perspective. (I found them on the Flickr page of the Library Company of Philadelphia.)

“The Brave Volunteer” lampoons the pretensions of a soldier who’s lighting a cigarette on a bomb, while cannonballs fly toward his unsuspecting head. “The Private” looks downright evil, his cranky face a humorous counterpoint to the fake-sentimental verse underneath. And the “Bull Run-ner” is a terrified deserter, fleeing the field of battle.

These cards are a good reminder that many civilians didn’t experience the war as a rapturous crusade, but rather as a grief-filled slog, whose reality was very different from fantasy.

Satirical Civil War valentine.
“The Brave Volunteer”: “’When this cruel war is over’/And our noble Volunteers/Home return to live in clover/Shan’t we have good times, my dears!/Honor to the heroes, who by/Their brave deeds us captivate/Think of all the kisses ruby/That upon their coming wait!”
Library Company of Philadelphia
Satirical Civil War valentine.
“The Army Contractor”: “For whiskyy [y]ou sell bad camphene toddy,/ And clothe poor soldiers with flimsy shoddy;/ Its not after glory you pant,/ Its only after dollars and cents you want.”
Library Company of Philadelphia
Satirical Civil War valentine.
“The Private”: “As you pace your lone rounds in the wilds of “Secessia”/My dear little heart forever will bless you/And when the war’s over if you so incline/You may take me and make me your own Valentine.”
Library Company of Philadelphia

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Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion is a Slate staff writer and the author of Innocent Experiments.