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Image showing the first and last page of a letter from Charles Wellington Reed to his sister, Helen Reed Tilton
Charles Wellington Reed to his sister Helen Reed Tilton, January 9, 1863, from Fort Ramsay, near Upton’s Hill in northern Virginia. The fort formed part of the ring of defenses around Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. Box 1, Charles Wellington Reed Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Of Note: Charles Wellington Reed’s Civil War “Emoji”

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Of Note is an occasional series in which we share items that have caught our eye.

Our text messages and social media posts are littered with emojis that express emotions, celebrate holidays and events, and provide us with an entirely different visual language with which to communicate. Would you expect, however, to see an emoji in a letter written on paper by a Civil War soldier?

OK, technically it’s more properly described as a rebus, which is typically a puzzle in which pictures are paired with letters to represent a word or phrase. A picture of an eye, followed by a heart, followed by the letter U, for example, would form a rebus for “I love you.”

In a January 9, 1863, letter to his sister Helen Reed Tilton, Charles Wellington Reed of the Ninth Independent Battery of the Massachusetts Light Artillery included a rebus, or let’s call it a “Civil War emoji,” when describing the military reverses suffered by the Union Army of the Potomac following its defeat at the battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862. Referring to “our recent calamities,” Reed substituted an illustration of a clam to make a rebus of “our recent [CLAM]ities”:

Detal of Reed's letter showing a small drawing of a clam followed by "ities"
Close-up view of Reed’s “CLAMities” rebus in his January 9, 1863, letter to his sister Helen. Box 1, Charles Wellington Reed Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

It’s admittedly a bit of a groaner as humor goes, but it’s also never failed to get a laugh (or an appreciative groan) when I’ve included this document in a presentation or show-and-tell display.

Reed was a talented artist, and in addition to drawing Civil War scenes in sketchbooks, he frequently illustrated the letters he sent to his family and friends. His illustrated letters visually recorded how Reed and his comrades adapted to changes in seasons and weather, and how they passed the time. Nights spent with only candle or lamplight, for instance, proved ideal for soldiers to entertain themselves by making shadow puppets on the tent wall in January 1865.

Pen and ink drawing of three soldieers making shadow puppets by candle light against the inside of a tent
Charles Wellington Reed’s illustration of soldiers making shadow puppets on a tent wall, included on the final page of a letter to his sister, Helen Reed Tilton, January 12, 1865. Box 1, Charles Wellington Reed Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Charles Wellington Reed survived the war, and later forged a career as an artist of Civil War scenes. He contributed illustrations to the “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” series in Century magazine, and most notably, provided the drawings for John Davis Billings’s classic Hardtack & Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life (1887).

The Charles Wellington Reed Papers at the Library of Congress, which are available online, not only offer Reed’s sketchbook drawings and other artistic works, but also the charmingly illustrated letters he sent home to his mother and sister Helen.

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