Phunny Phellow – August 1864

In July 1864, President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection chances looked dismal, primarily because the Civil War was dragging on in Georgia and Virginia. Northern morale was at a low. Within his cabinet, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and, apparently, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton favored peace negotiations. Outside, New York publishers Horace Greeley (Tribune), James Gordon Bennett (Herald), Henry Raymond (Times), William Cullen Bryant (Evening Post), and former Mayor Fernando Wood, a leading Copperhead (Southern sympathizer) whose brother Ben published the News, supported the idea and beat their editorial drums.

Greeley wrote Lincoln, beseeching the President to authorize him to enter peace negotiations at Niagara Falls. Lincoln complied, provided that the Confederates committed up front to restoration of the Union and the elimination of slavery. Lincoln knew Jeff Davis would never agree, so that and a subsequent peace negotiation failed. Lincoln also was against any kind of armistice because it would have been perceived as a Confederate victory.

Thomas Nast, 23 at the time, took note. Although his reputation is largely based on his work for Harper’s Weekly, he regularly contributed cruder unsigned cartoons, as early as 1859 and as late as 1873, to Phunny Phellow, a monthly humor publication. It provided him with ample space and uninhibited editorial freedom to develop his gifts as a caricaturist. The August 1864 issue reflected his imaginative sense of humor in a way that Harper’s Weekly never would have permitted.