That’s the flag of the United States in the middle of the etching, entitled The Sanctuary, printed in 1876 at the centennial of the United States by Edwin Forbes, a renowned Civil War documenter.
The Civil War, of which he had seen and recorded much, had ended just a little more than ten years before. And as we know, the nation had survived. But Forbes, a white man, along with the rest of the country was still trying to make sense of it all, and even ten years on the population of the country was still uncertain about America’s future.
The country was just 100 years old in 1876, and the question of what the United States was and what it could or would be was very much a theme that gripped the nation. Every segment of the country had their answers, their visions, their hopes and their dreams. Technology was thriving; so was industry. Both would be shown off at the first official World’s Fair of the United States called the Centennial International Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876. And everyone wanted to go. Those who couldn’t, read about the wonders in such publications as Harper’s Weekly, a popular periodical of American daily life and happenings.
But this enthusiasm for the future was pushed up against fears and confusion about the recent past. Many Americans had died and families were irrevocably changed by that war just a little over 10 years before. More Americans were killed in that war than any subsequent war. Estimates put the death toll at about 620,000. And this is just the estimate for solders. Only about twice that many, at about 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in all of our nation’s wars combined, including the Civil War. What had the war been about? Why so much death? The entire population was familiar with the issue of slavery. And many had an opinion. What should become of the newly freed new American citizens that had formerly been enslaved? And what of the formerly enslaved themselves? What did they dream and hope for themselves and their descendants?
These questions made their way into Edwin Forbes’s 1876 retrospective collection looking back over all he had seen of war entitled, “Life studies of the great army.” And they made it into the celebrations at the Centennial Exhibition.
Forbes’s retrospective collection included the etching above called The Sanctuary. Some consider The Sanctuary to be Forbes’s seminal piece from his long career. It’s the fortieth plate from the retrospective collection of 40 plates. A war illustrator at a time when it was practically impossible to capture action on a battlefield through photography, Forbes was awarded a gold medal for this collection at the Centennial Exhibition.
My favorite part of The Sanctuary is the dog, the little figure sitting on his haunches next to the boy. Forbes’s inclusion of the dog really says it all. The dog calls our attention back to everything worth fighting for in any war. A few years later in 1912 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts would strike for better working conditions and pay in order to build better freer lives in what became known as the Bread and Roses strike, associated with the James Oppenheim poem, Bread and Roses, from 1911 with the stanza:
“As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!”
That dog in Forbes’s print is a rose. He is home and family and safety and thriving. He is the symbol of the American dream etched right into that picture.
This is why I chose this picture for my business card and this website, to represent what I try to convey and engage with audiences to discuss: our history and legacy and our continually forming path into the future of who we as a nation are and can be.
It’s interesting to note that the family in the picture is leaving the United States to get to the United States. They aren’t so much leaving one place and going to another as they are leaving an ideology that held them back and going toward another one that offers them freedom. Both ideologies are in the history and story of the United States. The question is and has always been which one wins and for who? And what is the cost for the others of us? From one vision and idea to another, back and forth. This is one way to articulate the dream of the United States: the struggle for the minds as well as the hearts for freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for each other and ourselves.