NEW YORK, NY.-
President in Petticoats! Civil War Propaganda in Photographs, on view at the International Center of Photography
(1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street) May 18September 2, 2012, presents over 40 extraordinary examples of photography used in early political propaganda targeted at Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.
Slightly less than 150 years ago, the American Civil War was grinding to a dispiriting and unheroic end. After the surrender of General Robert E. Lees rebel forces and the shocking assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in mid-April 1865, Davis was a political fugitiveaccused of plotting Lincolns assassination as well as committing treasonand the future of the Union remained uncertain.
At dawn on May 10, 1865, a contingent of Michigan cavalry captured Davis in a makeshift camp just outside Irwinville, Georgia. In trying to flee, Davis grabbed his wifes overcoat rather than his own and his wife threw her shawl over his shoulders. Instantly, news reports circulated that Davis had been apprehended in womens clothes and that he was attempting to disguise himself as a woman.
Northern artists and caricaturists seized upon these rumors of cowardly escape and created wildly inventive images, some using photomontage, to sensationalize the political story by emasculating Davis. Photographers circulated and even pirated dozens of fanciful photographic cards. Many used a photographic portrait of Davis by Mathew Brady on a hand-drawn body in a womans dress, hat, and crinoline, but wearing his own boots, the detail that supposedly betrayed him to his captors.
These images are excellent examples of political propaganda. Visitors will recognize many of the same elements of contemporary political propaganda: manipulated images paired with statements fabricated or taken out of context and disseminated as truth, said Erin Barnett, Assistant Curator of Collections. The country was bitterly divided during the Civil War. Daviss capture was an inglorious (and, from the perspective of many Northerners, a fitting) end to the Confederacy. These caricatures further damaged Davis reputation just as Lincoln was being revered as a martyr, especially in the North.
The work in this exhibition was recently donated to ICP by its compiler, collector Charles Schwartz, with support from the ICP Acquisitions Committee. The collection contains more than 90 works on the theme of Davis capture, including photographs, lithographs, newspapers, and illustrated sheet music.