Shortly after the Union defeated Confederate forces at Antietam, Maryland, President Lincoln visited the battlefield to press General George McClellan (seen here facing the president) on his failure to pursue the retreating enemy. Weeks later, Lincoln would relieve the general of his command. (Alexander Gardner/National Portrait Gallery)
During the Civil War era, Nathaniel Hawthorne was among The Atlantic’s most celebrated contributors. But his ambivalence about the slavery question and the merits of the war put him at odds with much of the New England literary milieu. “The politics of the Magazine suit Massachusetts tolerably well (and only tolerably),” he once observed, “but it does not fairly represent the feeling of the country at large.”
In March of 1862, Hawthorne, along with the magazine’s publisher, William Ticknor, headed to Washington to see the nation at war firsthand.
In “Chiefly About War Matters,” Hawthorne conveyed his impressions. The magazine’s editor, James T. Fields, was dismayed by the piece’s irreverent tone and proposed cutting certain passages that, as he wrote to Hawthorne, “seem to me wd. outrage the feelings of many Atlantic readers.” Hawthorne acquiesced, but impishly replaced the deleted passages with footnotes (italicized here) written in the voice of a fussy, dogmatic editor. “What a terrible thing it is,” he griped to Fields, “to try to let off a little truth into this miserable humbug of a world!”—Sage Stossel
There is no remoteness of life and thought, no hermetically sealed seclusion, except, possibly, that of the grave, into which the disturbing influences of this war do not penetrate. Of course, the general heart-quake of the country long ago knocked at my cottage-door … I gave myself up to reading newspapers and listening to the click of the telegraph, like other people; until, after a great many months of such pastime, it grew so abominably irksome that I determined to look a little more closely at matters with my own eyes.
Accordingly we set out—a friend and myself—towards Washington … It was a clear, frosty morning, when we started. The sun shone brightly on snow-covered hills in the neighborhood of Boston, and burnished the surface of frozen ponds; and the wintry weather kept along with us while we trundled through Worcester and Springfield, and all those old, familiar towns, and through the village-cities of Connecticut. In New York the streets were afloat with liquid mud and slosh. Over New Jersey there was still a thin covering of snow … But when we reached Philadelphia, the air was mild and balmy; there was but a patch or two of dingy winter here and there, and the bare, brown fields about the city were ready to be green …