Editor: Tom Brzezicki
The Civil War Round Table of Greater Kingston gathered on the evening of October 3, 2019 to hear Dr. Michelle Clarabut as she underwent her baptism of fire as a first-time presenter at our venerable organization. Michelle's presentation dealt with what she described as one of the oldest weapons of war--propaganda--and the role it played in the American Civil War. Across the ages, stated Michelle, propaganda has been used in various forms by all political bodies, its basic purpose being to idealize one's own group and vilify your opponents. Propaganda has been produced in various ways over the centuries, in the form of pictures, statues, coinage, songs, slogans, and the written word. If done cleverly enough, Michelle said, propaganda may not even be recognized for what it is. For the purpose of her presentation, Michelle confined herself to discussing Civil War propaganda as it appeared in print and picture form.
Before beginning her talk, Michelle gave us a sketch of her academic background. She has degrees in Art History and Italian language and culture. Her doctorate is on an aspect of Napoleon Bonaparte's campaigns in northern Italy during the French Revolutionary Wars of the late 1790s; specifically, how General Bonaparte financed his military operations by looting the art treasures of the territory he conquered and shipping them back to Paris, and how those same art treasures were later repatriated to Italy after the Emperor's downfall.
Thus, although Michelle has been attending our meetings for some time now, she confessed that she probably knows more about the English Civil War than the one that played out with latter day Cavaliers and Roundheads over 200 years later. Despite these self-deprecating comments, Michelle delivered an interesting and thought-provoking presentation of the ways in which the North and South sought to harness the recent developments in the field of printing and distribution to expand the reach and impact of their visual messaging on the war.
For starters, Michelle listed the four factors that worked together to increase the impact of visual propaganda during the era of the Civil War. One was the improvements in the technology of printing. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, metal parts began replacing wooden components in early 19th century printing presses. Metal parts were more durable, and in the case of printing plates made for sharper letters and images. Thanks to other improvements in the design and construction of printing presses, it became possible to set up documents for printing faster, more efficiently, and in larger numbers than ever before. This was a boon to newspapers and other periodicals, which became cheaper and more widely read due to mass publication.
Michelle also pointed out that lithography--printing illustrations from drawings etched with acid on flat stone plates--made it possible to reproduce illustrations with greater detail and in larger numbers than previously. As a result, Harper's Weekly and other periodicals were able to include maps and illustrations of battles and generals for the benefit of the reading public.
On the topic of readers, Michelle noted the important fact that the literacy rate among Americans had increased greatly throughout the 19th century. At the time of the American Revolution, she stated, about 60% of the population of three million people could read. By the time of the Civil War, the literacy rate had increased to about 80% among a population of 38.5 million. There was now a large body of readers eagerly looking for information about the political decisions being made in Washington and Richmond as well as the latest news from the battlefield.
The final factor in enhancing the role of printed propaganda during the Civil War was a rather humble one--reforms in the postal system. As Michelle described, in the years before the war, the method of calculating postage had been changed. Rather than charging by the number of sheets of paper in a letter, postage was now calculated by weight. Letters, therefore, became cheaper to send and receive. At the same time, the expanding rail network and other infrastructure improvements made it possible to transport mail in increasing volume with a shorter delivery time over greater distances than ever before. People could now be reasonably certain that any letter they entrusted to the postal service would reach its recipient without undue delay.
With so many Northern and Southern men far away from home fighting the war, there was an upsurge in what became known as "soldiers' mail." No postage was necessary for soldiers' mail and the government in Washington began printing special envelopes and writing paper for use by Union troops. Michelle noted that the government authorities quickly realized that this stationery offered another way of promoting the Federal cause. Illustrating her point with several slides, Michelle showed us samples of letters stamped with various emblems of the Union as well as slogans intended to keep up the morale of the troops. One Union envelope, for example, showed unwary Southern state flies being entrapped by the "Secession Web" and the secession spider at the centre of it. Michelle's slides also included a few samples of Confederate letters, although the South lacked the paper, equipment, and other resources to produce material for correspondence on the scale that the North did.
The flags used by the opposing sides in the Civil War were also exploited for their propaganda value. The Union had the advantage of being able to rely on the traditional stars and stripes of the national flag. The national flag design was also made into bunting and used in the form of drapes and swags for patriotic decoration at public events.
As for the South, Michelle described how the Confederacy adopted various flag designs to brand their new nation over the four years of the war. The first flag design comprised a circle of seven stars (representing the original seven seceding Confederate states) on a blue field in the upper left canton of the flag. Two broad red horizontal bands separated by a broad white band made up the rest of the flag. In the smoke and confusion of battle, however, the Stars and Bars (as the Confederate banner was known) was easily confused with the Union national flag. The Richmond government then adopted a new flag incorporating the familiar Confederate battle flag in the upper left canton of a plain white field. The Stainless Banner, as it was known, was adopted in 1863 but it was soon found that, unless the wind was blowing, the predominately white flag resembled a sign of surrender. As a result, in 1865 the Confederacy added a broad red vertical band to the right hand edge of their national flag, which was now dubbed the Blood Stained Banner.
Michelle also addressed the central messages that the North and the South tried to broadcast in their propaganda efforts. President Lincoln made it clear at the start of the war that the North was fighting to preserve the Union from an armed rebellion. To this main goal was added the element of a moral crusade to end human slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect in January 1863. As for the South, its main goal was to preserve slavery, though as this argument became increasingly morally indefensible, Confederates changed tactics and insisted that, in resorting to armed rebellion against the federal government, they were merely defending their Constitutional states' rights.
With regard to the South, Michelle pointed out that the Confederate government had an appointed agent in charge of its propaganda efforts. This was Henry Hotze, who was stationed in London for much of the war and tried to enlist the aid of European powers in recognizing the Confederacy. Part of his efforts included commissioning British writers and illustrators to produce works in support of the Southern cause. Hotze downplayed the issue of slavery and instead tried to portray the Southern states as fighting for their freedom and independence against a tyrannical central government in Washington.
Nevertheless, it was apparent from the selection of political cartoons that Michelle presented to us via slideshow that the question of slavery was uppermost in the minds of Americans during the Civil War era. For example, a Union cartoon captioned "SELLING A MOTHER FROM HER CHILD" depicted a pleading slave mother with outstretched arms being dragged away from her child-in-arms by the slaveholder who has just purchased her. Plainly, such illustrations appealed to abolitionist sentiments in the North and helped generate animus towards the South.
A Confederate viewpoint of slavery was shown in a cartoon called "AN AMALGAMATION WALTZ". The scene is a ballroom with a bevy of beautiful Southern belles and their African-American dance partners. As the former slaves are all well dressed in fancy evening attire and appear to be comporting themselves as proper gentlemen towards the young ladies they are dancing with, the obvious intent was to provoke horror and outage in the mind of the beholder at the very idea of black men and white women socializing in this way. The "amalgamation" referred to was, of course, the mixed race children that would be produced by such interracial relationships.
Another political cartoon, "THE BLACK CONSCRIPTION", was by the British artist John Tenniel, best known for his illustrations for the works of Lewis Carroll. This particular cartoon from a September 1863 issue of the British periodical Punch, shows two African-American soldiers greeting each other happily on the battlefield. From the Stars and Stripes and Stars and Bars flags, visible in the background and the slight differences in their uniforms, it is apparent that the soldiers are intended to be from opposing armies. Tenniel incorporates the standard racial stereotypes of the time in the way the two soldiers are drawn and given dialogue: "Dat you Sambo?" asks one; "Bress [sic] my heart, how am you Jim?" the other replies.
The meaning of Tenniel's cartoon is not entirely clear. The sub-caption reads, "When Black Meets Black Then Comes the End (?) of War". The intended message seems to be that once African-American soldiers fighting for the Union meet their brothers fighting for the Confederacy, they will recognize they have more in common with each other than with the white men in whose causes they have been conscripted. Black troops North and South will then lay down their arms and the war will end. The problem with this interpretation is that the Confederacy didn't conscript slaves into uniform in the way that the Union recruited black troops, so the basic premise of the cartoon is without foundation. Tenniel draws his soldiers wearing outfits that look much more like French army uniforms of the Second Empire than those worn by Union or Confederate troops, which may indicate faulty research on his part. The cartoon could also be read as disparaging the ability of African-Americans to become good soldiers whether they enlisted in the armies of the North or the South.
As the above discussion suggests, Civil War political cartoons were generally more complex and artistically detailed than the simple and sketch-like examples we see nowadays. The final cartoon Michelle invited us to examine well illustrated this fact. It was by Thomas Nast and was entitled, "COMPROMISE WITH THE SOUTH". The central figure is a man in Confederate uniform looking very much like Jefferson Davis. He stands proudly with his right foot planted on a grave mound with a headstone stating, "In Memory of the Union Heroes in a Useless War". The figure of Columbia, representing America, sobs at the graveside while over her, a wounded one-legged Union soldier hides his face in shame as he reluctantly takes Davis's hand as a token of surrender. In the right background we see slaves kneeling in chains with the Stars and Bars flying overhead. On the left hand we see the Union flag flying upside down, the time-honoured signal of a ship in distress, while below there is only fire and destruction.
Michelle pointed to a few clues that explained the meaning and significance of the cartoon. It was from September 1864 and carried a sub-caption at the bottom reading, "Dedicated to the Chicago Convention" which referred to the National Convention of the Democratic Party which had taken place in Chicago in August and had nominated General George McClellan as its candidate in the upcoming Presidential election. Although McClellan was a War Democrat, the goal of Nast's cartoon was to encourage the suspicion that a Democratic President would be far more likely to recognize the Confederacy and negotiate a shameful peace agreement that would not only preserve slavery in the South but result in the permanent sundering of the Union. As we know, President Lincoln won the November 1864 election and went on to his second term while the Civil War ground on to its conclusion in a Union victory six months later.
While the particulars may be different, we have heard all this before, first after the 1961-1965 Centennial's glut of junk, and then in the backlash against all things military following Vietnam. Yet it has always come back. Forecasts of its demise today are just as wide of the mark.
Look at the continuing publishing boom in books, magazines, and other formats, which is if anything stronger than ever. Look at the Civil War Round Tables. Thirty years ago, 50 was a good membership for such groups. Today Hilton Head SC has more than 300, and the Southport NC Round Table has 600 or more members. Myriad newer networks make Civil War documentaries and drama regular staples of their programming, and producers don't waste money on things that demographics say we won't watch.
The interest is still there, and probably growing, though the ways in which people manifest interest shift and delve in step with technology and our times. Despite reports of its frail health, the Civil War is robust and very much alive and well."