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Patriotism in Print: The American Union in the Civil War

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
March 10th, 2015

Guest blog post by Zachery Cowsert, graduate student assistant, WVRHC.

Masthead of the American Union Newspaper

The night before the Fourth of July, 1861, a dozen Union soldiers (self -described “disciples of Faust”) broke into the offices of the Virginia Republican—a decidedly secessionist organ—and appropriated the newspaper’s office for their own use.  The next morning, the first issues of the American Union hit the streets of Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia).  The newspaper—composed and printed entirely by Union soldiers—enjoyed a brief existence in Martinsburg; today, the newspapers’ pages are housed in the West Virginia and Regional History Center, and they offer a glimpse into soldier life and patriotism early in the Civil War.[i]  

The early summer of 1861 witnessed the sundering of the United States, as Southern states seceded and war loomed on the horizon.  Armies of green troops, both Northern and Southern, mustered and marched around the nation, and in western Virginia thousands of Union volunteers organized under the command of Major General Robert Patterson.  Meant to occupy the attention of Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley, Patterson’s men secured western Maryland and occupied Martinsburg, Virginia.[ii]

Portrait of Colonel William B. Sipes

Among this body of blue-clad troops marched Captain William B. Sipes of the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment.  Before the war, William Sipes served as the editor for the Pottsville [Pennsylvania] Register, a Democratic newspaper.  Upon war’s outbreak, Sipes joined the 2nd Pennsylvania, a regiment whose three-month term of service reflected the widespread belief that the war would prove short and victorious.  Despite the captain’s bars on his shoulders, however, William Sipes soon found himself in a familiar position as editor of the American Union.[iii]

The American Union offered soldiers a glimpse into the wider world, particularly the military situation around them.  The army’s advance into Confederate Virginia received attention.  More mundane matters, such as announcements from high command, provost guard updates, and reports of nearby skirmishes kept soldiers abreast of the latest developments.

The American Union provided soldiers with a source of entertainment, as each issue contained a variety of songs and poems, often lauding Northern manliness or ridiculing the Southern war effort.  Many of these literary pieces came from the hand of Private Samuel J. Vandersloot, 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry and “2nd Assistant” on the Union’s staff.  Below is a song written by Samuel Vandersloot (signed with his initials S.V.) from the pages of the American Union.

Lyrics to song titled "The American Union" by S.V.

A twenty-six year old lawyer from the quiet hamlet of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the young man clearly possessed a penchant for poetry and song.  “Live on, live on, proud Union of the States, Our homage and prayers are thine own;” Vandersloot penned for the Union’s pages.  “Every friend of freedom the moment awaits, When treachery y shall be o’erthrown.”  Besides Vandersloot’s enthusiastic pieces, well-known literature—such as the Declaration of Independence and the “Star-Spangled Banner” made appearances.[iv]

The American Union’s staff, however, did not view Union soldiers as their sole audience.  Each issue of the Union also contained addresses “To the People of Virginia,” which attempted to assuage the anxiety of Virginians and assure them that the blue-clad soldiers came as friends, not enemies.  Arguing that the reasons for war had been “grossly misrepresented to you,” the Union asserted that Federal forces only meant to “reestablish peace and order” and uphold the Constitution.  Hoping to end the South’s “unholy revolution,” the workers of the Union looked forward “to the time when the American Union will be reconstructed in all its grandeur and power.”[v]

The American Union lasted only a week.  General Patterson’s troops soon left Martinsburg, leaving behind the offices of the Virginia Republican from which the Union was produced.  Within a few weeks of their departure, Union and Confederate armies clashed on the banks of Bull Run Creek near Alexandria, Virginia.  It was the war’s first major land battle, and it was a smashing Confederate success; the war would last far longer than three months.  Yet even as the war wore on, soldiers continued to publish newspapers.  The West Virginia and Regional History Center houses copies of several soldier-run Civil War newspapers besides the Union, most notably the Guerrilla, printed by Rebels during the Confederate occupation of Charleston.  Collectively, these wartime newspapers attest to man’s constant desire for news and understanding and served as outlets for the patriotism and politics soldiers carried with them.

[i] American Union, Martinsburg, VA; July 4, 1861.

[ii] Ethan S. Rafuse, A Single Grand Victory:  The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas (Wilmington, DE:  Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2002), 57-58.

[iii] William B. Sipes, The Seventh Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Cavalry.  1906.  Reprint, (Huntington, WV:  Blue Acorn Press, 2000), vi.

[iv] George R. Prowell, History of York County, Pennsylvania 1 (Chicago:  J.H. Beers & Co., 1907), 558; The Twentieth Century Bench and Bar of Pennsylvania 1 (Chicago:  H.C. Cooper, Jr., Bro. & Co., 1903), 160; “Live On, Live On,” by S.V., American Union, Martinsburg, VA, July 6, 1861

[v] American Union, Martinsburg, VA, July 4, 1861.

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