Northern Propaganda: Presidents in Petticoats

Propaganda is a powerful tool.  Both sides of warring factions see the value in using propaganda to meet their needs.  In class, I’ve been arguing that the South used various tools or propaganda to achieve and promote the idea of the Lost Cause.  I was curious to see how the North also used propaganda to achieve its goals.  Political cartoons were a growing medium utilized by both Southern and Northern propagandists. 

“The propagandist-cartoonist works with the symbols of his trade to confirm and guide those already predisposed toward his objectives and in addition to proselyte new adherents.”[1]  “In dealing with Civil War cartoons we may suggest these techniques of representation: (1) Rendering intolerable and insupportable symbols which the propagandist conceives of as negative (aggressiveness, guilt); (2) Rendering impotent symbols which the propagandist views as negative (weakness); and (3) Glorifying symbols which the propagandist cherishes as positive (affection).”[2]  “The cartoonist may so represent symbols that the reader may displace his own feelings of weakness upon them.”[3]  Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were two targets of this type of impotent depiction. [4]

Following Lincoln’s assassination, Davis was a fugitive.  Davis was accused of masterminding Lincoln’s assassination.  ” 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.” [5]  But, of course, as the story was retold Davis is made to look like a cross-dressing coward who is fleeing the scene.  The retelling of the story spawned into quite the virus.  So much so that the International Center of Photography currently has an exhibition titled “President in Petticoats!  Civil War Propaganda in Photographs”[6]



There are forty lithographs, tin-types, drawings and prints of Davis dressed in women’s clothing shown in this current exhibit.  Please visit the following site to view more examples:

In class we’ve also been discussing the idea of reconciliation.  Clearly, the North was not ready to reunite immediately following Lee’s surrender.  Davis is presented as a weak man fleeing the scene.  Why did the North feel the need to portray Davis in this manner?  Was it revenge for the images that showed Lincoln as weak when he had to travel from Baltimore to Washington D.C.?  Or, is the symbol quite simple: the Confederacy lost, so therefore is weak?  How does the North’s propaganda following Lee’s surrender compare with the ideas of the Lost Cause, reconciliation, and vindication?



[1] James K. Lively, “Propaganda Techniques of the Civil War Cartoonists,” The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol 6, No.1 (Spring 1942), 101

[2] Lively, 101.

[3] Lively, 103.





  1. 10ectim said:

    The depiction of the capture of Jefferson Davis came at a time immediately following the assassination of President Lincoln. The northern populace was outraged by Lincoln’s murder and wanted retaliation. Thus the ridicule and humiliation of the former President of the Confederacy. (Santa Anna received the same treatment after his defeat in Texas.) This comes before the reconciliation movement begins to rise among northerners. We see this attitude in General Joseph Johnston’s surrender in North Carolina. He and Sherman had agreed upon terms similar to those Lee/Grant had agreed upon at Appomattox earlier. However, when the news of Lincoln’s assassination Sherman was instructed to disregard the agreement and harsher conditions were implemented. (I can’t recall the details of these conditions). The reaction to Lincoln’s untimely death created an environment of hostility toward the South for several months. The South seemed to learn to hide its satisfaction over Lincoln’s death and, with the death of Booth, no direct connection could be made to official southern involvement in the incident. The North seemed satisfied to take their revenge upon those more directly involved. Eventually Davis is released from prison and goes on to write his memoirs and help establish the Lost Cause. His release may be an interesting topic of discussion.

  2. Lonzo Carrol Covington said:

    To the victor goes the spoils of war,never so much as the northern invaders,rape,murder,plunder,and total distruction was the order of that day.The propaganda goes on today as then,pitting the blacks that will listen aginst the Southern caucasion races,controling politics with a fake two party system.where did all the hero,s go?

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