Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Pulp Fiction in "Civil War News" Trading Cards

In 1962, during the Centennial of the Civil War, the Topps Trading Card company released a set of 88 cards with graphic depictions (very loosely) based on the war.  The set was officially titled "Civil War" but because the back of each card looked like an old newspaper with the heading "Civil War News," this latter name stuck.  Aimed at young boys, the images of battle were done in a very vivid and overtly gory way, sensationalizing the war. Images of stabbing, point blank cannon fire, and blood were fairly commonplace.  In this manner it was a throwback to the popular "Horrors of War" series in 1938 which focused on recent conflicts of that time (Spanish Civil War, Ethiopian War, and Sino-Japanese War).  

Topps enlisted pulp artist Norm Saunders (who also did Mars Attacks) to help with the images, while Topps creative editor Len Brown did the text. In an interview many years afterward, Brown describes the battle cards as "phony."  The disregard for historical accuracy is readily visible when looking at them as many details in the text or pictures are clearly fabrications.  Brown affirmed this when he spoke on making the cards: "We'd dream up a scene, some gory scene...from there it was dreamland...I'm sure kids thought this was the real history.  And we had teachers writing us, thanking us for teaching kids history." 

Of interest to this blog are a few cards that portray naval battles. There are three images that depict the Battle of Hampton Roads, which is more than any other battle in the series, even Gettysburg.  Whether this is owing to the importance of the battle or because the cards are earlier in the set is unclear. 
Card #7 from the series shows USS Cumberland being attacked by CSS Virginia. 121 Cumberland sailors died on March 8, 1862. 
Card #8 inaccurately shows the attack on the USS Congress (Virginia did not ram it). In an uncommon nod to accuracy, the artist placed what appears to be CSS Patrick Henry in the background. 
Card #10- Note the inaccuracies such as the gaping hole torn in the armor and giant gun port. 
Other naval battles are also displayed in pulp fashion.  One humorous example is the CSS Hunley's attack on USS Housatonic seen below (card #59).  The Southern Cross is prominently displayed on the side of the vessel, visible underwater to the viewer.  The text on the back of the card claims that this attack happened in the afternoon (instead of night), and that the submarine rammed the ship when it could not fire its (non-existent) guns.  Truly Brown was not lying when he claimed to be in "dreamland" while developing this trading card set.   

Another example of ignoring facts for the sake of a good picture (and sales) is card #69, showing the aftermath of the battle between USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama.  Sharks are seen attacking the Alabama's crew as they flounder in the water.  In actuality most survivors were picked up by the Kearsarge, although Capt. Semmes and some other officers escaped on the British yacht Deerhound.  Any that were lost in the water died from drowning, not sharks. 
In contrast the card (#76) depicting Adm. Farragut's USS Hartford fighting CSS Tennessee at Mobile Bay seems fairly tame and loosely based on previous paintings ("August Morning with Farragut" by William Heysham Overend). 
When examining this series, it is important to remember that these cards were ultimately designed to tap into the market created by the Centennial events.  Yet for all of their countless ahistorical shortcomings, the cards probably helped spark interest in the Civil War among the young male segment of the population during the 1960's.  Regarded as collector's items these days, the "Civil War News" series is a very interesting piece of cultural history. 

(Excerpt of Brown's interview can be found in Baetens, Jan. "Civil War News: How Pop Culture Rewrites History." Journal of American Culture, (1997), 1-6.)

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