How Propaganda Affected the American Civil War

Propaganda has been coursing through the United States of America since the country’s beginning. Propaganda is biased or deceptive information meant to endorse a certain view and can take many forms (Bergstrom). In the first years of the British colonization, propaganda could be seen in the form of John Cotton’s sermon “The Divine Right to Occupy the Land,” which assured the colonists that they were sent there from God and had the right to take over the land. In later years, propaganda could be seen taking the famous form of Benjamin Franklin’s political cartoon “Join or Die.

”, all the way through the World Wars and the country’s latest engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some form of propaganda was present in every significant era of America’s history, like the Civil War. The American Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865 and was between the South, a Confederacy of states opposed to the abolition of slavery, and the North, a Union of states in favor of abolishing slavery.

During the American Civil War, propaganda could be seen nationally and internationally in recruitment posters, the media, and Civil War envelopes. Propaganda during the Civil War influenced and swayed the American public, greatly affecting the outcome of the Civil War. Propaganda is biased or misleading information circulating via some form of mass media with the intent of promoting a political agenda or viewpoint (Bergstrom). Propaganda can take many forms, from art and literature, to music and movies. It is everywhere, influencing and promoting, undetectably manipulating people through the use of images, slogans, and “a selective control over the censorship of the facts”(Bergstrom).

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Propaganda has been used as a strategy for shaping national and international opinion, by means such as exploiting enemy weaknesses, in almost every war. Propaganda could be effective in enhancing the chances of a side winning a war (Vidal) because it works by showing the people what they want to see. Numerous experiments, such as ones by Anthony Bastardi, Eric Uhlmann, and Lee Ross in June of 2011, suggest that “people may ultimately come to believe that the weight of evidence supports the position that they already wanted to believe was true.”(Markman) People will always want to read that the side they support is righteous and just, thus supporting the belief that the more the propaganda appeals to the people, the more they will support the cause being ushered towards them. The soldiers are the most integral part of any war.

The primary method of recruiting soldiers for any war is to hang recruitment posters to entice healthy and patriotic men to enlist in the Army. Many recruitment posters were filled with pictures and slogans of patriotism. One such Union poster had the phrases “Rally ‘round the Flag, Boys!”, ”Come one! Come all!” and “United we stand! Divided we fall!”(Resnick). This recruitment poster also consists of a wide array of American symbols, such as the American flag, the bald eagle, and olive branches. A few years into the Civil War, the Union was in need of more soldiers. After President Abraham Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”(Lincoln), black men were allowed to enlist in the military. With 3.5 million freed slaves in varying states, the Union decided to enlist colored men to join the army. A recruitment poster, provided by Omeka RSS, shows this with the phrase “COLOR’D MEN WANTED” at the top.

Through these posters, the North capitalized on patriotism and a sense of togetherness, manipulating America’s patriotism to bring them together to fight for their cause. According to American Battlefield Trust, the Union assembled a force of roughly 2,100,000 soldiers and around 40 war ready ships in their navy. It is argued whether or not this overwhelming majority of soldiers, more than twice the number of Confederate soldiers, gave the Union a great advantage on the battlefield (Motte). Confederate recruitment posters during the Civil War would typically consist of vaguely threatening slogans. An example of these more aggressive posters, provided by Wikimedia Commons, is one that states at the top “TO ARMS! TO ARMS!” with the phrases “$50 BOUNTY!,” and “Do not wait to be Drafted, but Volunteer!!” underneath. This recruitment poster consists of bribery, through the promise of bounties, and the common theme of a draft. Another example of a Confederate recruitment poster, also provided by Wikimedia Commons, is one that has printed in large bold letters the phrase “THE DRAFT” at the center. At the top, there is the phrase “Enlist! ENLIST!” as well as “$400 BOUNTY, $16 per month, And Clothed And Fed” underneath. Much like the previous recruitment poster, this one consists of a bounty and the guarantee of clothes and food, most likely used in hopes of convincing lower class men to enlist. Both recruitment posters incorporate a strong word, such as enlist, followed by an exclamation point, showing strong emotion and inflicting a message of importance into the viewer’s mind. With recruitment posters and other techniques, according to American Battlefield Trust, the Confederacy enlisted an army of roughly 1,000,000 soldiers, and around 20 ships in their navy (Still), although it is difficult to know exact numbers because of the destruction of records.

Propaganda in the media was an extremely common tactic used during the Civil War. Propaganda could be seen in newspapers, magazines, and cartoons. Although newspapers contained the latest news from the battlefield which informed the public about the war, they also contained political cartoons that were used to sway the reader’s opinions. Illustrations about the war fascinated the American people who embraced this new way to take in information. (Johnson) An example of Union art is one titled Selling a Mother From Her Child. (Johnson) The picture presents what the Union says is a common scenario: a mother being sold as a slave, having to leave her baby behind. A mother and her child is a universal symbol for family and safety, and the Union was playing with this symbol in hopes that people would pity the mother being sold into slavery, thus supporting the Union’s cause. One famous example of Confederate propaganda is The Amalgamation Waltz (Johnson). This cartoon exploits white men’s fear of black men and depicts women dancing with black men, the white men left alone in the background. The message they were trying to convey with The Amalgamation Waltz is that this ‘takeover’ by black men would be prevalent in a nation that freed its slaves. These, along with hundreds of other cartoons, were featured in print media by both the Union and Confederacy to keep the message they were fighting for alive in the minds of the readers. Letters became one of the main means of communication during the Civil War (Everyday Life During the Civil War, ). Although the delivery of mail was extremely difficult because of the relocation of troops, soldiers and their families desperately sent mail back and forth for any chance to be in touch with each other. Civil War envelopes are envelopes that had political symbols, people, and messages depicted on them. The publications of Civil War envelopes started around the 1850s during which the north and south started to divide.

Civil War envelopes allowed printers a unique way of expressing their opinions on the war, with political symbols, personages and anti or pro-war messages printed directly on the envelope. The Union had a harsh way of getting their message across, and this can be seen on one envelope illustrating a slave tied to a pole and being whipped. Underneath the slave, it states, “The persuasive Eloquence of the Sunny South” (Johnson). With this, the Union was trying to get people to sympathize with the plight of the slave. The phrase “Sunny South” was used ironically as it contrasted with the dismal looking slave and the cruel, inhuman actions of the slaveholder. In Confederate states, paper became scarce, leading people to reuse their envelopes or even their wallpaper to write letters to their loved ones. An example of a Confederate envelope is one with the phrase “Southern Rights” above a badge containing multiple American images such as arrows and a badge (Johnson). This envelope also had the phrase “Death before dishonor” printed on a waving banner. This type of harsh and to-the-point slogan was commonly used by the Confederacy. Civil War envelopes influenced the outcome of the Civil War by letting people publicly show their political opinions. Propaganda was issued internationally from the Union and Confederacy in hopes of gaining foreign support.

President Lincoln dispatched special agents to European countries to counter the Confederate propaganda attempts, which were mainly pamphlets and other publications(American Propaganda, 55). In an attempt to decrease the relations between European countries and the Confederacy, Lincoln asked the working men of Manchester, England’s cotton mills to discontinue business between them and plantation slaveholders (American Propaganda, 55). Confederate propaganda was aimed at England and France under the direction of Henry Hotze, a Swiss-American propagandist for the Confederacy during the Civil War (American Propaganda, 56). Hotze had immense success in England, influencing the public opinion in favor of the Confederacy. Despite Hotze’s efforts, England remained neutral during the Civil War. Although they relied on the South for their cotton and other goods, England, along with France and Mexico, feared that if they sided with the Confederacy, their relations with the Union would be negatively affected (Godbey). Propaganda is extremely useful during a war. It can be used to encourage soldiers, demonize the enemy, and inform people (Hamilton). One of the reasons the North won the Civil War was because they had more successful propaganda techniques. They utilized patriotism, togetherness, sympathy, and pity into their propaganda. The South relied on fear, trying to make people wary of the consequence of freed slaves. Additionally, the South “lacked the moral center”(Trudeau) that the North had. The Union’s use of American iconographies such as the American flag, the bald eagle, and symbols of liberty all spread a simple message: that what they were fighting for was important to preserve the Union. On the contrary, the Confederacy had their dialogue mixed up. Southerners began losing faith in the cause because it really did not speak to them directly, causing them to lose faith in their cause as the war pressed on (Trudeau). As previously stated, propaganda is everywhere, influencing everyone in indetectable ways. With that in mind, it is understandable why propaganda had such a widespread effect on the outcome of the war.

It was featured in every part of the average American’s day. When they read the newspapers, the cartoons drove a certain viewpoint into the reader’s mind. When someone wrote a letter to a loved one on the battlefield, the envelope was decorated with redundant reminders of their political standpoint. If it was in every aspect of someone’s life, how would it not affect their opinion? Would the ubiquitously persistent varieties of propaganda have been able to influence your opinions on the Civil War?

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How Propaganda Affected the American Civil War. (2021, Apr 01). Retrieved from

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