In 1861, our nation entered into a great war that pitted North against South and claimed more than 600,000 American lives. Those tumultuous years shaped our country immeasurably, and at great cost.
So when tasked with developing a five-year series to commemorate the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, art director Phil Jordan set out not to celebrate the event but rather to capture its spirit and realities.
“I didn’t want to include any flag-waving, triumphant stuff,” he says. “I wanted to show what it really looked and felt like during the war — as much as you can 150 years later.”
Jordan’s concept for the series was inspired by an Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., speech delivered on Memorial Day in 1884. The series tag line, “A Nation Touched with Fire,” comes from the speech, in which Holmes referenced the war as a time when “in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.”
To reflect the prevailing mood of each year, Jordan decided to set various quotes and lyrics against a wartime photograph.
“I thought, why not use actual photographs, one from each year of the war, to make a cohesive series? And use actual words and music from the era to make a statement.”
Jordan pored over the Library of Congress’s collections of Mathew B. Brady and other war photographers. He reviewed more than 5,000 photographs in hopes of finding images that would represent each year’s events and emotions.
For the first issue in the series, Jordan found an 1861 photograph of a Union regiment assembled near Falls Church, Virginia. “I wanted to start out by showing the rallying of the armies,” Jordan says, “the organization of the coming storm.”
In addition, he felt that the image represented the optimism that was soon to be dashed — a theme further expressed by the Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson quote on the pane. “The reality of 1861,” Jordan says, "was that people were anxious to bring on the war — but they really had no idea what they were bargaining for.”
Using the selvage to set the tone, Jordan recommended that the stamps should be illustrations of the battles of Fort Sumter and First Bull Run — events that marked the transformation of the war from one of words to one of shots fired.
The Fort Sumter stamp is a reproduction of a Currier & Ives lithograph, “Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor” (circa 1861). The First Bull Run stamp is a reproduction of a 1964 painting by Sidney E. King titled “The Capture of Rickett’s Battery.”
The next four releases in the series will chart the nation’s changing mood as the war unfolded, marking events from Antietam to Appomattox Court House. As our country commemorates the sesquicentennial of such events, the series will serve not to glorify the war, but to reflect the experiences of those who lived amid the fire.