Exploring Fact and Fiction in Civil War Imagery

The following is a guest post by Paloma Ronis von Helms, Prints & Photographs Division Stanford in Government Liljenquist Fellow.

Paloma Ronis von Helms at her work station in the Prints & Photographs Division. Photo by Paloma Ronis von Helms, 2022.

Paloma Ronis von Helms at her work station in the Prints & Photographs Division. Photo by Paloma Ronis von Helms, 2022.

As this year’s Summer Liljenquist Fellow in the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress, I reviewed ambrotype and tintype images, carte de visite photographs, lithographs, and other formats depicting soldiers and battlefield scenes of the Civil War. I became interested in why these images were taken—what meanings did they have for their owners? For example, images of soldiers were taken to comfort families who might never see their loved ones again. In other cases, individuals sought to collect cheap, widely-produced images of notable figures from the war, such as popular likenesses of President Abraham Lincoln. As I explored the varied uses, one category of images came into primary focus for me: those that were made to influence public opinion through political satire.

The satirical images featured in the Liljenquist collection offer humorous takes on political happenings of the Civil War era. They also may have served a more indirect purpose: to popularize rumors and propaganda. One such rumor related to the attempted escape and eventual capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The following photograph of a pro-Union political cartoon shows Davis in a dress with a hoop skirt followed by the caption “Jeff Davis, in his traveling costume.”

Satirical image of Jefferson Davis wearing women's clothing.

Jeff Davis, in his traveling costume. Carte de visite photograph, 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.52187

The image of “Davis in his traveling costume” is featured in carte de visite format. While many cartes de visite from the mid- and late-19th century show portraits of individuals and family groups, some were used to depict political messages. These photographic images, mounted on sturdy cards, were widely produced and popular due to their relatively inexpensive price and ease of reproduction. The format is well represented in the Liljenquist collection.

The rumor behind the “traveling costume” carte de visite originated from historical circumstances of Davis’ capture. Following the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, and the subsequent assassination of President Lincoln, newly inaugurated President Andrew Johnson issued a reward for Davis’ capture. Union forces soon tracked down Davis in Irwin County, Georgia, where he was captured on the morning of May 10, 1865.

One firsthand account of the capture written by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Harnden, head of the forces dispatched to detain the Confederate leader, describes the events of that day:

We rode up, dismounted, and saluted, and I asked if this was Mr. Davis? “Yes,” he replied, “I am President Davis.” At this the soldiers set up a shout that “Jeff” Davis was captured. Up to this time none of the men who actually arrested him, knew that he was Davis. One soldier said, “What! That man Jeff Davis? That’s the old fellow who, when I stopped him, had his wife’s shawl on.”

Reports of Davis’ feminine garb circulated wildly, often emphasizing that he had dressed as a woman to evade recognition and capture. Although Harnden’s account notes Davis’ use of his wife’s shawl, political cartoonists produced numerous artistic renditions in which his feminine attire is far more exaggerated, in some cases adding a full skirt, lace trimmings, or bonnet. Examples of these images have found their way into the Prints & Photographs Division’s holdings, and a few can be found within the Liljenquist collection.

Another satirical carte de visite shows Jeff Davis in a bonnet and dress with an implied noose in the form of a vine in the background, entitled “Jeff’s Soliloquy. To be or not to be (hanged). That’s the question.”

Jefferson Davis dressed as woman walking through forest holding a dagger.

Jeff’s Soliloquy to be or not to be (hanged) that’s the question. Francis Hacker, 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.59814

The wordplay and knife allude to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which may be a nod to Davis’ suspected involvement with Lincoln’s assassination. As the catalog record for the image explains, this is a montage that combines an image of a woman walking through the woods, but with Davis’ head superimposed over hers.

The rumors about Davis’ role in Lincoln’s death and the comedic tale of his attempted escape served to further mock and disparage the defeated leader and the Confederacy as a whole. Davis was eventually imprisoned for treason and released after two years.

Because cartes de visite were relatively easy to produce and distribute, they might have contributed to the widespread popularity of the tale of Davis attempting to evade Union forces in full feminine attire. Today, social media and image sharing platforms make it even easier to spread attention-grabbing content like these satirical images.

Bibliography:

  • Borch, Fred L. “‘Let the Stain of Innocent Blood Be Removed from the Land’: The Trial of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators by Military Commission.” Army History, no. 86 (2013): 11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26298775
  • George, Joseph. “‘Black Flag Warfare’: Lincoln and the Raids against Richmond and Jefferson Davis.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 115, no. 3 (1991): 291–318. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20092628
  • Siegel, Elizabeth. Galleries of Friendship and Fame: A History of Nineteenth-Century American Photograph Albums: New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Volpe, Andrea L. “The Cartes de Visite Craze.” New York Times, August 6, 2013. https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/06/the-cartes-de-visite-craze/

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5 Comments

  1. Valetta Anderson
    August 18, 2022 at 2:52 pm

    Thank you.

  2. Tom Liljenquist
    August 19, 2022 at 6:41 am

    Thank you Paloma for sharing your insights as to why these cdvs were made and circulated. I found your article quite interesting.

  3. Alma Ronis
    August 19, 2022 at 12:04 pm

    Very interesting topic and so well written. Very timely as well.
    I’m definitely going to delve further into this topic.
    Fascinating.

  4. Marisa
    August 19, 2022 at 1:35 pm

    I just learned a lot from this article. very interesting and well written!

  5. Steve Goodson
    August 20, 2022 at 2:35 pm

    Interesting post! Thanks!

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