CIVIL WAR PROPAGANDA AT ICPMay 21, 2012
In 1865, Confederate president Jefferson Davis was on the run. He had been accused of masterminding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee had just surrendered to the north. So, when members of the Union army discovered his camp in the middle of the night, Davis snatched his wife’s coat instead of his own and she threw her shawl over his head him as he ran out the door.
That’s the rather unremarkable truth, but it’s not how the story got told. At a time when caricature and political cartoons were reaching new heights, the tale spiraled into a wildly emasculating re-imagining of Davis as a cowardly cross-dresser, caught red-handed by Union soldiers. The evolution of this tale, and the visual propaganda that spun it, is the subject of a delightful exhibition at the International Center of Photography, “President in Petticoats! Civil War Propaganda in Photographs,” May 18-Sept. 2, 2012.
“Photography was really important during the Civil War, often for propaganda,” said curator Erin Barnett. “These are some of the first uses of propaganda ever, I would argue.”
The 40 lithographs, tin-types, drawings and prints of Davis in women’s garb were donated to the museum by photographer and dealer Charles Schwartz, who began collecting the works in the mid-1980s. In many cases, caricaturists superimposed a portrait of the disgraced leader by Mathew Brady onto drawings in which the shawl becomes a bonnet and a crinoline petticoat billows behind him in the wind. One such lithograph declaring the end of the war was captioned, “The clothes of the confederacy.”
But probably the most damning picture is a tiny, 1865 tin-type of a child’s drawing of Davis in his dress. “This says it all,” Schwartz said. “And a parent liked it so much they had it tin-typed.”