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Propaganda In The Civil War

        The shaping and distorting of opinion during the war was partly the work of voluntary propagandist groups and partly the inevitable product of war psychology. As to official propaganda, i.e., governmental utilization of the press, platform, theater, and the like for the dissemination of stereotyped ideas and interpretations, it was not steadily and regularly practiced by the authorities either of Richmond or of Washington, except in the attack upon opinion abroad. Both the United States and the Confederate States did have their regular propaganda service for the influencing of foreign sentiment. As for the United States, the Lincoln government sent in the fall of 1861 a propaganda commission to Europe for the purpose, as Frederic Bancroft has stated, of "trying to influence the two great governments [England and France] by bringing the press and the clergy, and then the people, to a correct understanding of the causes and purposes of the Civil War." For this commission it was desired to have men of high distinction and character. It was at first intended to send Edward Everett, J. P. Kennedy, Archbishop Hughes of the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop McIlvaine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, and Robert C. Winthrop. Not all these men accepted service, however; and the mission actually sent consisted of Archbishop Hughes, Bishop McIlvaine, and Thurlow Weed. McIlvaine was to make his appeal to the English clergy; the Archbishop was to win the support of the Papacy, of Napoleon, and of other Catholic rulers; Weed was to labor with journalists and public leaders in order to counteract Confederate journalistic enterprise abroad. The arrival of the mission coincided with the Trent affair" and when Weed published in The Times of London a long conciliatory comment on the affair, he managed to put in a suggestion as to a protracted paper negotiation which did not suit English taste. Nevertheless Charles Francis Adams the younger, in commenting on Weed, speaks of his "rare tact, shrewd judgment, and quick insight into men," and declares that he was useful both in Great Britain and on the Continent. As to other emissaries he was less enthusiastic. "These emissaries [writes Adams] were of four . . . types: (1) the roving diplomat, irregularly accredited by the State Department; (2) the poaching diplomat, accredited to one government, but seeking a wider field of activity . . . ; (3) the volunteer diplomat, not accredited at all . . . ; and (4) the special agent, sent out by some department . . . [for] a particular object." As examples of the last named group, the navy department had sent J. M. Forbes and W. H. Aspin wall to buy the rams in England in 1863; and for other specific objects W. M. Everts and Robert J. Walker were sent to England. Such emissaries, ,vb. were "addicted to the columns of the 'Times,' in which their effusions appeared periodically," caused the American minister considerable annoyance.
        At home, instead of governmentally directed propaganda, the beating of the tom-tom for the Union cause took many volunteer forms. Union mass meetings were common and some of them were enormous affairs. The speeches at such meetings ranged from the polished and cultured orations of Edward Everett to the ravings of Parson Brownlow of Tennessee, who lashed the Southerners with bitter invective and who 'roared on one occasion that after the rebels bad been driven like the scriptural bogs into the sea, "England and France might come on, and we would lick them both." Among other speakers of whom much was heard were Wendell Phillips, H. W. Beecher, W. M. Evarts, and Andrew Johnson. With the American propensity for organization it was inevitable that propaganda clubs should spring into existence; and of these the best known was the Union League. Beginning in Philadelphia in November, 1862, the League movement spread to New York and Boston. Soon it appeared in Baltimore, Washington, and San Francisco. Within a year it had not only spread over eighteen Northern states but had made its appearance among the Unionists of the South. Primarily the League was a rallying point for citizen-support of the Union cause. Masses of war literature were distributed; money was raised for soldier relief; recruiting of both white and Negro troops was promoted; and leadership of voluntary effort in an emergency was assumed, as in Pennsylvania at the time of the Gettysburg campaign. At the very beginning, however, and increasingly as time passed, the efforts of the League were chiefly "political," the very word "Union," denoting tile cause of the Northern people, having been appropriated by a party. It was active in support of Governor Curtin as against Judge Woodward in Pennsylvania in 1863, and of Lincoln against McClellan in 1864. After the war its main motive was to combat the policies of President Johnson, whom it had helped to elect, and to function as an adjunct of the Radical wing of the Republican party.
        Propaganda activity in the North appeared also in the work of the Loyal Publication Society of New York and of a similar society in New England. The New York society, under the leadership of Charles King and Francis Lieber, raised $30,000 during the three years of its existence, published ninety pamphlets "noteworthy on the whole for their logical approach and careful moderation," and distributed 900,000 documents. Frank Freidel has showed how its efforts were directed toward key groups in the North. "Especial appeals were made to Midwesterners, New Englanders, and New Yorkers; farmers, merchants, and bankers; Catholics and Protestants; people proud of their American ancestry, and recent German, Irish, and French immigrants. Even women were the subject of an especial appeal. Such organizations, by their distribution of printed matter, "determined the content of [newspaper] editorials" and "rendered an important service to the maintenance of Northern morale." It may also be said that the sanitary fairs, bond-selling campaigns, and recruiting drives served as mediums for war propaganda.
        In the poetry of the war the motifs of intolerance, vengeance, and self-righteous hate of the Gott strafe variety, were played up in repetitious and undistinguished scribblings. To spare the reader, only a very few samples will be given to illustrate the type:

Avenge thou Massachusetts' gore,
That stains the name of Baltimore,

* * * * * *

I herewith petition the "powers that be,"
To give Davis and his followers, all,
A deep grave receptions home quite as free
As Satan had after his fall.

* * * * * *

Chieftains! our hearts beat high, in baste
To plunge the rebel heart!
Who could not glory in the deed
To Drive them to death's mart?

* * * * * *

We have Butterfield the daring, and we've Martindale the cool:
Where could we learn the art of war within a better school?
Add Morell to the list of names, and we must all agree,
We have the finest general in the army of the free.

        In the public drives for recruits the call of country was mingled with appeals to divers other motives. Pride of race was invoked as in a New York advertisement in which Irishmen, whose enlistment in the Phoenix regiment, Corcoran Zouaves, was sought, were urged to give their "patronage" to such good and true officers as Murphy, O'Reilly, Sullivan, and O'Rourke,, Throughout the recruiting campaigns there was constant emphasis on the bounty element. It is significant that in i862, before the national draft was started, the city council of Buffalo appropriated $80,000 in order to give a bounty of $75 to each recruit; Boston appropriated $300,000 ($100 to each volunteer); Hartford in town meeting appropriated $100,000 for aiding soldier families and for promoting enlistments; 11 and the board of supervisors of Rensselaer County, New York, voted $75,000 as bounty money to be paid to enlisted men with the object of avoiding a draft in the county." In Orleans County in the same state a cow was given to the wife of every married man who enlisted. Meanwhile Northern newspapers reported Southern opinion of Northern recruits and of the reluctance of Northern men "to go on an aggressive war against a people who only ask to be let alone. . . ." Newspapers also carried such notices as the following: "Those wishing to avoid being drafted can be informed the way to do so by addressing, enclosing $5, Counseller, box 149 Herald office." Or the following: "I have engaged for myself and friends more substitutes than we shall require, and will assign, to a reliable . . . party, who is willing to pay $100 in advance and $150 more if he is drafted, a first rate substitute . . . who will doubtless be accepted when offered."
        President Lincoln's activity in promoting morale and winning support for his administration did not take the form of deliberate propaganda efforts; nor was there any organized "White House publicity." His typical manner of speaking to his public was by a well-timed letter to an individual, delegation, or group, which was in reality intended for the nation's car. His August, i863, letter to the unconditional Union men at Springfield, Illinois, his reply to Governor Seymour declining to suspend the draft, and his correspondence with Greeley concerning emancipation reveal Lincoln's pithy, epigrammatic style and common-sense reasoning at their best. On the rare occasions during the war when Lincoln made public addresses, he sought to unite the Northern people upon the fundamental principles for which the conflict was being fought. His brief address on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg which is known through history as the "Gettysburg Address" is a model of clear, subtle Lincolnian prose which gave meaning to the seemingly senseless carnage of war.
        In their efforts to win popular sympathy and combat Northern propaganda, the Confederates bad established such agencies of publicity as their resources would permit. English writers were employed in the newspaper and magazine field; spokesmen in Parliament were sought; pamphlets and books were published and freely distributed; news agencies were presented with prepared material; and a special newspaper, the Index, was set up by the chief Confederate propaganda agent, Henry Hotze. Through these channels, and through the utterings of Southern diplomats, foreign readers were advised of the unconquerable strength of the Confederate cause. It was pointed out that the Confederacy comprised "13 separate and sovereign States, with 870,610 square miles of territory and twelve millions of population., The historical background of the Southern movement, the confederate nature of the Union, the legal right of secession, were duly elaborated. The vastness of the South, its enormous stretches of arable land, its advantages of soil, rivers, minerals, and climate, were stressed, and its attractiveness as a market for European goods was emphasized. The cardinal importance of cotton was shown by impressive statistics. Confederate military strength was emphasized; Southern victories were featured; Union victories denied or disparaged. The perfidy and hypocrisy of the Lincoln government were exhibited; and incidents such as Butler's "woman order" (misunderstood in Europe) were represented as typical and as if directed from Washington. The United States in general was stigmatized as "a country, if it deserves to be so called, which is capable of committing the most unscrupulous atrocities . . . ; a country that is a reproach to . . . civilization........." Slavery was given little attention; but the ideals of self-government, resistance to oppression, and independence were presented as the issues at stake. The impossibility of conquering the South was constantly pointed out. The sections were represented as psychologically incompatible. Sometimes the arguments in this field included expressions by Southern leaders as to essential terms to be insisted on in the making of peace and conditions that would follow when independence had been achieved. It was stated that no peace could be accepted without including within the Confederate States the commonwealth-, of Maryland) Kentucky, and Missouri and the territories of New Mexico and Arizona. Again it was brought out that, after independence, the "Northern States . . . must be to us henceforth as though they were without a place upon the earth's surface. . . . Let the Northern shipowners starve rather than allow them to convey one pound of our staples to Europe. In this manner we shall wield an overpowering and humiliating influence over them." Mindful of foreign resentment against filibustering in the past, the Southerners were careful to state that, once independence was achieved, there would be no wish for foreign territory; schemes of expansion would disappear; and, moreover, the "balance of power" in North America would be assured.
        A fundamental motive in Southern diplomacy was reliance upon the economic magic of "King Cotton." Confident of the commanding importance of the cotton industry upon which nearly five million people in England were dependent, an industry which "appeared to underlie the whole industrial and economic system of Great Britain," 3 the Southerners elevated the King Cotton theory to an importance comparable to that of the state-rights doctrine, and "King Cotton became a cardinal principle upon which all the men who were to lead the South out of the Union and to guide its destiny through the Civil War were almost unanimously agreed." David Christy had argued the controlling importance of cotton as a factor in international affairs in his book Cotton Is King: or Slavery in the Light of Political Economy (I855), and Owsley shows how the "phrase was soon on every tongue" when in 1860 there appeared another volume under the awkward title Cotton Is King and Pro-slavery Arguments, comprising Cbristy's book with a collection of arguments by various Southern writers in defense of slavery. The subject was naturally taken up by DeBow in his Review; and the well-known doctrine took its place as one of the orthodox thought patterns of the Southland.
        This belief in the wizardry of quick results from cotton control produced what has been called an "attempt at economic coercion" in the Southern cotton embargo of 1861. Eager to translate economic theory into solid fact the advocates of the embargo sought to obtain an embargo law by the Confederate Congress; but they failed to obtain any effective legislation. The problem was therefore handled as a matter of state law and even more of public agitation, reinforced by extralegal pressure from citizen committees. The extraordinary difficulty of getting cotton out of Southern ports in i86i justified in part the Southern representations abroad that an "air-tight embargo" on the export of cotton had been put into effect. In addition there was a widespread effort of Southerners to cut down the supply by restricted planting and even by deliberate burning of cotton as a patriotic duty. As a result of this campaign only "about a million and a half bales were produced [in 1862] as compared with four and a half million for 1861."
        Against the Union blockade of the South the Confederates made constant complaint. It was urged that the blockade hurt both the South and Europe and was therefore a major grievance, since by the Southern interpretation it was illegal. On the other hand this very illegality depended upon the contention that the blockade was ineffective; and on this basis the Confederate leaders accused the Lincoln government of using a discredited weapon-a "paper blockade"-while they also upbraided European governments for supporting the blockade by considering it regular, recognizing it in international law, and submitting when European vessels were caught and condemned for its violation.
        On this point of ineffectiveness the Confederates presented impressive data. Secretary Benjamin, referring to the situation at the outset of the war, stated that the United States was operating the blockade with an average of one ship for every three hundred miles of coast. He estimated that Charleston was conducting in 1863 an annual foreign trade of $21,000,000, whereas in 1858 its annual commerce bad amounted to less than $19,000,000. He added that steamers operated by the Confederate ordnance bureau bad made forty-four voyages through the blockade between January and September, 1863, without a single loss by capture. Protesting against international recognition of a blockade that guarded "seven ports" over an extent of three thousand miles of coast with "189 openings , he sharply criticized the "contradictory" statements of the British foreign office on the matter, suggesting that Britain had "some unconfessed interest" in the continuance of the blockade.
        The blockade was, in fact, "far from a completely effective measure The Confederates smuggled in vast supplies of "food, boots, buttons, cloth for uniforms, thread, stockings, civilian clothes, medicines, drugs, salt, boiler iron, shoes, steel, copper, zinc, and chemicals." More important, the South was able to import much of its firearms, artillery, and ammunition from Europe. The most careful student of the subject concludes that "All told, . . . 260,000 to 330,000 or more stand of small-arms were imported by the Confederacy." Surprisingly few of the blockade-runners were seized by the Union fleet. One vessel, the Kate, "chalked up 44 trips through the blockade." Owsley summarizes as follows: "It seems from all the evidence that the captures ran about thus: 1861, not more than 1 in 10; 1862, not more than 1 in 8; 1863, not more than 1 in 4; 18 64, not more than 1 in 3; 1865. . . . 1 in 2. This is an average for the war of about 1 capture in 6."
        As to profits of blockade-running it has been shown that the receipts of the Banshee No. z for one trip amounted to 85,000 Pounds Sterling, and that two successful trips would serve to compensate the owners for the loss of the vessel on the third.
        It was but natural that Benjamin should denounce such a blockade as a fictitious affair; while Owsley concludes that Lincoln, to "gain a doubtful advantage," "flew in the face of all American precedents" and "vitiated the principles in the Declaration of Paris........." In answer to all this it has been maintained on the Union side that the cargoes brought in were "not such as either to disprove the efficiency of the blockade or to supply the needs of the Confederacy." Statistics which emphasize the number of blockade-runners that succeeded as compared to those that were lost do not tell the whole story. It should be remembered that the Civil War blockade-runner was a small specialized ship of low hull and light construction, and that few vessels of the type that bore the bulk of ocean commerce were concerned in the traffic. The full effect of the blockade is to be measured not merely in terms of the stoppage of blockade-runners, but even more in terms of the many large ships that did not even attempt to brave the blockading squadrons. The facts that Confederate cruisers did not have access to their own ports, that Southern-bound cargoes were capturable anywhere on the ocean, and that great dependence was placed upon neutral ports such as Nassau and Matamoros are significant of the power of the blockade. It is to be noted that English importations of cotton dropped heavily during 1861 and 1862 and that, as L. B. Schmidt has pointed out, the Union blockade "threatened the English manufacturers with a cotton famine."
        One may conclude that, while allowing extensive evasion, the imperfect blockade was a solid factor in Northern sea power which increased in strength as the war progressed ands which came well within Earl Russell's definition by being "sufficient to create an evident danger" where attempts were made to enter Confederate ports. To put the case in different words, it did not comport with Russell's definition of an ineffective blockade as one "sustained by a notoriously inadequate force.

Source: The Civil War and Reconstruction by Randall and Donald. (Parts of Chapters 28 and 29)

This Page last updated 02/15/02

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