By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved
The October 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable was an especially enjoyable one for me. It was not so much a memorable meeting, but a memory-able one. By memory-able, I mean that the meeting brought back memories for me. What made the meeting memory-able is that I sat with AJ Cianflocco, who at the time of the October meeting was a recent recruit to our organization. AJ and I were classmates at John Carroll University, Class of 1972, and we had not really seen each other since our days at John Carroll. The October meeting was a nice opportunity for us to catch up on the decades since our graduation. Talking with AJ is one of the things that made the meeting memory-able, because we had the opportunity to tell each other about our lives since graduation. AJ, like me, has a professional background in an area other than history. AJ is a physician, and I had no idea that he is interested in the Civil War. Because of this, I asked him how he came to acquire an interest in that conflict. His answer was another reason that the October meeting was memory-able for me, because AJ’s answer brought back a memory from my youth. AJ said that his interest in the Civil War began with trading cards about the Civil War that were sold many years ago. I likewise collected those cards, and while I remember the cards, I do not remember much about the specifics of them. This led me to do some investigation into those cards.
I cannot recall the exact year when I collected the cards, but I remember that it was prior to my time in high school. I remember that each card focused on a particular aspect of the Civil War, such as a battle or a prominent person. I also remember that the cards had pictures on the front and text on the back. The pictures depicted Civil War events, and the text described the events depicted on the fronts. My most vivid recollection about the cards is that many of the pictures were exceedingly bloody and gruesome. To be honest, I must admit that at the time that I collected the Civil War cards, my reason for buying them was the inverse of the tried and untrue excuse that some people offer for purchasing certain less than wholesome publications. In other words, I bought the cards for the pictures and not for the articles. But then, at the time that I was infatuated with the cards, I was much younger and even more unsophisticated than I am now.
In gathering information about the Civil War cards, I learned that they were sold in 1962 in order to coincide with the centennial of the Civil War. This fits with my memory’s estimate of when I collected the cards. The cards were produced and sold by Topps, the company that is best known for baseball cards and other sports cards. As it happens, the Civil War cards were one of the most popular sets of non-sport cards that Topps produced. The cards were sold in packs of six cards and cost five cents per pack. Each pack also contained a piece of the same flat, rectangular, brittle, pink gum that Topps included in its packs of baseball cards, the gum that many kids of my generation, myself included, ground between our jaws.
In addition to the cards and the gum, each pack contained a replica of Confederate money. The replica Confederate currency was popular with kids who collected the cards, and there is anecdotal evidence that the replica currency enticed kids to buy the cards, if for no other reason than it gave kids the feeling that they were receiving something extra. However, I do not recall being influenced by this. In fact, the replica Confederate money made so little impression on me that I had forgotten about the replica currency until I was reminded of this while I was gathering information about the Civil War cards. There were 17 different denominations of the replica currency, ranging from one dollar to one thousand dollars, but every one of the 17 denominations had no monetary value, which made them roughly equal in value to that held by actual Confederate currency near the end of the Civil War. In addition to the multi-card packs, cards could be purchased for one cent in packs with a single card, the gum, and the replica Confederate money. My recollection is of only the multi-card packs.
The pictures on the cards were printed from drawings, but not drawings that were made at the time of the Civil War. The drawings were done contemporaneously with the time of the cards’ production, and they were done specifically for the cards. The drawings were intended only to convey something related to the subject of the card and not necessarily a specific incident that actually occurred. For example, for the cards that focused on a battle, the picture showed a battle scene that was not necessarily an actual event that took place during that battle. However, the text on the back of some of the cards made it seem that the specific event shown on the front was a historical occurrence. Nevertheless, many of the pictures were simply generic depictions of the Civil War, not depictions of actual occurrences. I understood this about the pictures even at the young age when I collected the cards, but I did not really think at that time about researching the information on the cards more deeply. I was, as mentioned above, more engrossed by the blood and gore of the pictures than the accuracy of the events depicted in the pictures or recounted in the text.
The Civil War card set, of which some are still in existence, consists of 88 numbered cards. The last card in the set is a checklist that the collector could use to keep track of which cards had already been acquired. The other 87 cards are the ones with the pictures and text of various Civil War subjects. On the front of these 87 cards, along with the picture, is a white rectangle in which the name of the card appears in large lettering. In smaller lettering beneath the card’s name are the event and date depicted in the picture. The text on the back of the cards is made to simulate a newspaper report of the event shown on the card’s front. The heading shows the name of a newspaper as it might appear on the newspaper’s front page. Below this is a brief text describing the event on the card’s front, sometimes with text in quotation marks, which suggests that these are exact quotes from the Civil War. The newspaper that is named on the cards’ backs is fictitious, and that newspaper name, Civil War News, has come to be used as the name of the card set. Thus, current card collectors often refer to these cards as the Civil War News set.
Some cards show a well-known person from the Civil War. For example, the first card in the set depicts John Brown, and the card is named, appropriately, “The Angry Man.” I find it interesting that the first card in the set is about John Brown’s raid rather than the Battle of Fort Sumter, since John Brown’s raid unquestionably was an important impetus for secession. At the time that I collected these cards in 1962, that insightful thought never occurred to me, nor, for that matter, did any erudite thought about the cards. Other prominent Civil War individuals who are depicted on cards are Jefferson Davis (card number 2, “President Jeff Davis”), Ulysses S. Grant (card number 38, “General Grant”), Robert E. Lee (card number 39, “General Lee”), Clara Barton (card number 58, “Angel of Mercy”), and Union spy Pauline Cushman (card number 50, “Stolen Secrets”). One important Civil War figure who, surprisingly, does not have a card of his own is Abraham Lincoln. I can only speculate if there is a subliminal message in the fact that Jefferson Davis has a card (and the second card in the series at that), while Abraham Lincoln does not.
Although Abraham Lincoln is mentioned a number of times throughout the texts on the cards’ backs, the only card on which he is depicted is number 79, which is named “Council of War” and on which Lincoln is shown conferring with Grant. The date given on that card is November 1, 1864, but this was about four months before Lincoln and Grant actually met for the first time. It should be noted that this error in historical accuracy is not unique within the Civil War card set. Also, there is no card for Lincoln’s assassination. The last card in the temporal sequence (card number 87) is Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, which is named “The War Ends” and the text for which begins with, “The war is over!” This is another factual error, because, as Civil War enthusiasts know, the Civil War did not end with Lee’s surrender, although this is a common misconception.
Most of the cards deal with a battle or some other military engagement. For example, card number 3 (“The War Starts”) is the Battle of Fort Sumter. This card also has a factual error in that the picture shows three Union gunners slumped on or around their cannon, one of them bleeding from his chest. However, the only Union casualties at Fort Sumter occurred after the battle during the firing of a salute as the Union forces were preparing to leave the fort. There is also a card (number 10, “Destruction at Sea”) for the engagement between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, although the Virginia is called the Merrimac, which is another not uncommon error. Another naval engagement is shown on card number 59 (“Submarine Attack”). This card depicts the attack of the H.L. Hunley on the USS Housatonic. The Hunley is depicted with a garish, brightly colored Confederate battle flag on the side of her hull, and Union seamen are shown flying in the air off of the Housatonic as the explosion occurs on the Union warship. The text on the back of this card says of the Hunley’s attack, “With its guns not having much effect on the sea-craft, the officer in charge of the submarine decided to ram the steel vessel into a ship.” Of course, the Hunley did not have any guns, nor did it ram the Housatonic, but placed a charge on the Union ship and then detonated the charge.
The pictures for the land battles are extremely bloody, and the names for these cards match the goriness of the pictures. Among these are “Pushed to his Doom” (number 19), “Painful Death” (number 21), “Wave of Death” (number 22), “Massacre” (number 27), “Bullets of Death” (number 40), and “Death Battle” (number 47). There are two cards for the horrific Battle of Fredericksburg: “Fight for Survival” and “Wall of Corpses” (numbers 33 and 34). The September 2021 Roundtable field trip receives sanguinary treatment on card number 57, “Hand to Hand Combat,” which features the Battle of Missionary Ridge and shows a bloodied Union soldier and a bloodied Confederate soldier grappling on the side of a steep slope, each with his hand pushing on his adversary’s face, while vicious fighting goes on behind them, and several bright yellow and orange flashes appear in the distance.
Card number 36 (“Midnight Raid”) depicts a Union soldier on horseback bursting through the opening of a tent in a Confederate camp and shooting a Confederate soldier. Not only is this quite a feat of horsemanship, but the picture on the card shows the bullet exiting the back of the Confederate. Not to be outdone, card number 37 (“Death Barges In”) depicts Confederate cavalrymen on horseback storming into the dining room of a captured mansion in Georgia, in which Union soldiers were in the midst of enjoying dinner. The picture shows one of the Confederates driving his sword through the torso of a Union soldier. A particularly bizarre picture is on card number 69 (“Death in the Water”), which features the sinking of the CSS Alabama by the USS Kearsarge. The picture on the card shows a Confederate seaman in the water being attacked by a shark, as if the producers of the cards felt the need to supplement the gruesome depictions of death brought on by various weapons with a different mode for life to come to a violent end.
The cards depict not only the demise of nameless combatants, but also some historically well-known individuals. Stonewall Jackson is one of the prominent Civil War individuals included in the roster of grim depictions. Card number 43 (“Costly Mistake”) shows the accidental shooting of Stonewall by his own troops. In the text on the back is a variation of Robert E. Lee’s comment about the loss of Stonewall being akin to Lee losing his right arm, although the quote on the card is different from that generally attributed to Lee. Sequential cards numbers 62 and 63 (“The General Dies” and “Ambushed”) depict, respectively, the death of John Sedgwick and the shooting of Jeb Stuart. The text on Sedgwick’s card has his ironic comment about the enemy being unable to hit an elephant, while the text on Stuart’s card correctly indicates that he was shot in the stomach by an enemy soldier.
There is one card with an Ohio connection. Card number 55 (“The Silent Drum”) depicts a Union soldier holding the body of a drummer boy who, according to the text on the back of the card, was a 14-year-old named Billy Harris who was killed during a battle near New Lisbon, Ohio on November 15, 1863. Despite efforts on my part to find information to confirm the reality of this incident, nothing was found to indicate that this is a historically factual occurrence. While it is true that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the strong suspicion is that the event depicted on this card is not factual. The closest occurrence to the information on the card is the raid by John Hunt Morgan through southern Ohio in 1863. Morgan was captured near New Lisbon, Ohio, but this happened on July 26, 1863, almost four months before the date on the card. Similarly, card number 25 (“Hanging the Spy”) depicts a 15-year-old named Johnathan Peters about to be hung in Eden, Pennsylvania because he was caught selling secret Federal documents to a Confederate colonel. The picture shows him with a noose around his neck, while his mother is kneeling in front of him with her arms around him, and his six-year-old brother is standing next to him. As with the story of the drummer boy, no information confirming the factuality of this story was found, and it is likewise suspected that the story of Johnathan Peters is not true.
As mentioned above, the text on the back of some of the cards includes some wording inside quotation marks, as if these are actual quotes from the Civil War. One such apparent quote appears on the back of card number 36 (“Midnight Raid”), the card described above on which a mounted Union soldier is shown riding into a tent and shooting a Confederate. The text on the back of the card discusses a surprise Union attack on a Confederate camp, in which the camp was completely destroyed. The text concludes with a quote from someone who is identified only as General Lee, who presumably is Robert E. Lee, since the attack described on the card purportedly took place in Virginia. General Lee is quoted as saying, “It’s a pity how war will bring out all the viciousness that man is capable of. We of the South will not forget an attack of this nature.” While this sounds like the kind of ominous and threatening remark that a military leader might direct at the enemy, a search for this quote found no such quote attributed to Robert E. Lee, which makes it likely that this is another historical inaccuracy associated with the cards. If so, then this represents a historical sin of commission.
Card number 60 (“Suicide Charge”) has a historical sin of omission. This card features the Battle of Fort Pillow, and the text on the card’s back makes no mention of the massacre of African Americans that occurred at that battle. The text on this card states, “The Union troops in the Fort were badly outnumbered and surrendered when they saw that the fighting was useless.” In other words, the text correctly notes that the outnumbered Union forces surrendered, but neglects to tell what happened after that surrender. The text further indicates that the commander of the Confederates at the battle was “General Nathan Forrest” and declares admiringly that he “leads his men after the enemy and continues to push down on them, never giving the opposition time to relax.” But there is nothing in the text about the massacre of African Americans that occurred under Forrest’s watch. Because the target demographic for the Civil War cards in 1962 was boys around the age of ten years old, maybe the omission of the massacre was a foretaste of the current crusade by political conservatives to eliminate any reference to historical occurrences that might inculcate discomfort or embarrassment in white children.
A 1998 interview with a person named Len Brown provides information about the creation and production of the Civil War cards. Brown, who was in the new product development department at Topps, was a writer for the Civil War cards. In the interview he noted that, in addition to himself, the people who were most responsible for the cards were Woody Gelman, Bob Powell, Maurice Blumenfeld, and Norm Saunders. As Brown explained, he and Gelman, who was the chief editor working on the Civil War cards, created a concept for the scene on each of the cards. Then Powell, an illustrator who worked on comic books in addition to the cards, made a few rough sketches for each concept, and Gelman and Brown selected the sketch that they “thought was most dramatic” for their concept. Powell then did a high-quality illustration of the scene in light pencil. After that, color paint was added directly onto the light pencil illustration by one of two artists, Blumenfeld or Saunders, both of whom were illustrators who worked on artwork projects such as comic books. Initially Blumenfeld was the only illustrator who did the painting, but Saunders was subsequently added to the Civil War card project to speed production. According to Brown, production started in 1961 and took, as he recalled, six months, and then sale of the Civil War cards began in 1962.
Brown recollected that the graphically violent depictions were the brainchild of Gelman. Brown stated in the interview that Gelman “had a great instinct for what kids liked” and that Gelman “felt that a straight educational series of cards based on the Civil War would not ‘turn on’ the kids.” Given the widespread popularity of the Civil War cards, it certainly seems that Gelman correctly gauged his target audience of boys around the age of ten years old. However, the violence and bloodshed depicted on many of the cards did meet opposition among some of the parents of kids who collected the cards. This opposition came about because some parents did not want their kids viewing such gruesome depictions. My parents, fortunately for me, did not fall into that category. My parents never insisted that I stop collecting the Civil War cards, but I distinctly remember my mother commenting on the bloodiness of the pictures on the cards.
Brown recalled that the idea for the replica Confederate currency came from someone named Stan Hart, another member of Topps’ new product development department who did some of the work on the cards, but who is best known as a writer for Mad Magazine. According to Brown, the replica money was not an exact replica, but a simulation. As Brown recollected, the replica Confederate currency was not “100% authentic” but “close to the original.” Brown said that the people who produced the Civil War cards were worried about counterfeiting Confederate money in spite of the fact that it was no longer recognized as legal tender anywhere in the world. Brown also said in the interview that the Civil War cards were sold in England and that sales did very well there. Brown mentioned that he and Gelman were surprised at the success of the cards in England, because they thought that British children would not be interested in the American Civil War. But, as Brown pointed out, “I guess blood and guts and good artwork will win every time.”
There were also sets of the Civil War cards in French and in Spanish. The French set used the same gory pictures as the sets that were sold in the U.S. and in England. In contrast, the Spanish set had entirely different and much tamer pictures on the fronts of the cards. Even some of the cards’ names were made less violent, such as “Una Ola de Furia” (“Wave of Fury”) instead of “Wave of Death” and “Combate en el Salon” (“Combat in the Reception Room”) rather than “Death Barges In.” But the subject material of the cards more or less followed that of the original set, such as the cards named “El Presidente Jeff Davis,” “Conflicto Mortal,” and “El Tren de la Muerte” as well as the card about the drummer boy, “El Tambor Silencioso.”
With regard to the information on the backs of the cards, Brown admitted in the interview that historical accuracy was not a consideration. Brown, who was only 20 years old when he worked on the Civil War cards, wrote all of the text for the cards’ backs. Writing text for the backs of cards was a niche that Brown was assigned to at Topps, because he also wrote the text for the backs of the baseball cards that Topps sold. Brown said that he “slaved over the backs” of the Civil War cards, “but what I am not proud of was that I misled lots of children to think that these were true events that took place during the war. Most of them were just fictional.” Brown recalled that after the pictures were completed, “I wrote a little story about the front of the cards” and “then I would look up a town or date that seemed appropriate and would try to publish a newspaper back as if it were a real event.” This admission confirms my suspicions regarding the historical inaccuracies on the cards. In fact, Brown estimated that “80 to 85% of the stories were complete fiction pieces. The battles were based on fact, but the incidental details were really fiction.”
Related to this, Brown shared a story that speaks to a danger of the cards that is arguably worse than the problem of young kids looking at graphic depictions of violence. Brown told of “getting a letter from a schoolteacher years ago, thanking us for helping the children in her class to learn about the Civil War. Yet, sad to say, facts never got in the way of telling an interesting story.” This is certainly regrettable in light of what could have been for the Civil War cards. In spite of the numerous historical errors, it is clear from the text on the backs of the cards that the people who produced the cards had some knowledge of the Civil War. However, the numerous inaccuracies and the fictionalizing are serious flaws that preclude the high historical quality that could, and should, have been achieved.
In defense of the people who produced the cards, at the time that the cards were made in 1961, the people who made them did not have access to the internet or to the resources that are now available on it. Hence, compared to today, it would have been quite tedious, labor-intensive, and time-consuming to gather historically accurate information for the cards. Nevertheless, at the very least, knowledgeable individuals could have been brought in as consultants, so that the text on the cards’ backs would have contained historically true information, and there would not have been any fictional information presented on the cards as fact. If the producers of the cards had taken the time and put in the effort to obtain historically factual information about the Civil War, they would have found numerous true stories that are more than interesting enough to market on a set of cards and plentiful enough to fill far more than 88 cards. Had the cards been done this way, then kids like me would have bought the cards for the gruesome pictures on the front, but actually learned some factually correct information about the Civil War from the text on the back.
Despite the avoidable problems with historical accuracy, the Civil War cards are entertaining for anyone who is interested in the Civil War. If nothing else, the cards provide an avenue for Civil War enthusiasts to look at one way that the war was presented in popular culture, with all the shortcomings associated with that presentation. Because the May meeting is the last meeting of the 2021-2022 season, and all of us must now go through our annual three-month summer hiatus in our regular feedings of Civil War presentations, maybe it would be enjoyable for Roundtable members to examine the Civil War cards while we wait for our next scheduled meal of factual Civil War information at the September 2022 meeting. With that in mind, through the wonders of the internet, members of the Roundtable can see the ghastly images for themselves and read the inaccurate information in the ersatz newspaper reports. This is because there are web pages that have images of the Civil War cards, and the web addresses (URLs) for a few of those web pages are given below. There is also a web page that has the French version of the cards for those who want to read the historically inaccurate text in the romantic language that was spoken by the person who directed legendary wartime exploits at places such as Austerlitz. Another web page has the Spanish version of the cards, which provides the opportunity to compare the milder pictures in the Spanish set with the gruesome pictures of the original set. Roundtable members can take advantage of these different web pages to see the cards for themselves, and those who do this may find some cards that they fancy. Roundtable members who look through the cards may even experience some of the same feelings of excitement that AJ and I had when we first looked at these cards back in 1962.
web addresses (URLs) for the original Civil War cards:
(This web page has images of both the fronts and the backs of the cards.)
(This web page has images of both the fronts and the backs of the cards.)
web address (URL) for the French set:
web address (URL) for the Spanish set:
Author’s note: An especially valuable source of information about the creation and production of the Civil War cards was the 1998 interview with Len Brown. This interview is posted online on a website named Bob Heffner’s Civil War News Cards (https://www.bobheffner.com/cwn/a_interview.shtml). According to Bob Heffner’s website, the interview was done for a different website devoted to the Civil War cards, but that other website is no longer available, although the interview can be found on Bob Heffner’s website.