From the Archive: President in Petticoats! Civil War Propaganda in Photographs

One of my favorite end of the year activities is to indulge in some time at the movie theater.  Nothing seems to melt away the holiday chaos so quickly, and with nomination time looming just around the corner, there’s rarely a shortage of good films to see.  When partaking in one of the season’s blockbusters this December, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, I found my preoccupation with fashion history hard to separate from my movie-viewing experience.  It wasn’t simply the striking figure that Daniel Day Lewis cut as a former U.S. President.  Nor was it the constant presence of Mary Lincoln’s famous dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, that filled a token role in the movie.  As I ruminated on the Civil War era, and the manifold social, political, and technological changes that have happened over the last 150 years, I remembered a really intriguing photography exhibition that I had seen in 2012.  President in Petticoats! Civil War Propaganda in Photographs was a small show that managed to say so much about a specific time period and culture.

Although this exhibition did not focus exclusively on the history of costume or dress, it was one of my favorite exhibitions of 2012 for it’s ability to demonstrate how seamlessly and significantly clothing reflects the values and ideas of a society.  Read below for my original re-cap of my exhibition experience, and note the interesting new find that I’ve added at the end of the post.


Just recently a fascinating exhibition opened at the International Center of Photography that focuses on propaganda found in Civil War era photographs, and more specifically, those that helped to construct the mythology surrounding the capture of Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederate States of America.

Unidentified Photographer, Jeff Davis in disguise, as he appeared at the time of his capture, 1865. International Center of Photography, Gift of Charles Schwartz, 2012.

While the exhibition is small in size, filling one room with 38 objects that all require a careful examination to appreciate, when assembled together, these images of Davis unearth an intriguing narrative from 19th century American dress and political history.  When Davis was captured on May 10, 1865, only six days short of the end of the Civil War, it was rumored that he had concealed his identity to evade capture by dressing in his wife’s clothing.  Multiple accounts of this story exist, including Davis’ own in which he clearly describes his ensemble as a cloak and shawl in a letter to Col. Crafts J. Wright : “…instantly I dropped the water-proof cloak and shawl and advanced toward the solder, offensively declaring I would not surrender in answer to his demand.” 1

Capture of Jefferson Davis, at Irwinsville, GA., wood engraving, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 3, 1865. American Social History Project via the Lost Museum.

The story goes that as Davis fled his tent in the early-morning dark, he mistakenly grabbed his wife’s raglan cape, rather than his own, a contemporaneous garment that the Dictionary of Fashion History dates from 1857, defined as, “a loose sac-like overcoat, single-breasted, often fly-fronted; no vents.  Distinguished by the cut of the sleeves at their insertion, first called pointed sleeves and later, Raglan sleeves.  The sleeves of the Raglan cape were very wide at the hand; the pockets without flaps.  Often made of waterproof fabric.” 2

As he left the tent his wife threw one of her shawls over his head in attempt to provide a makeshift disguise.  Yet, Davis was quickly discovered, his boots allegedly provided the obvious clue that distinguished him as a soldier.

The images displayed in President in Petticoats! Civil War Propaganda in Photographs, includes a mixture of cartes de visite, engravings, caricature and photos, and many of the objects utilize a combination of these techniques to humorously modify the image of Davis.  Prominent illustrated newspapers of the time, such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, which was printed in New York City maintaining a circulation of over 200,000 during the Civil War, relied on engravings to capture the public’s attention.  The June 3, 1865 issue (cover detail featured above) was one of the first to widely disseminate images of Davis in his gender-mixed ensemble.

Unidentified Photographer, “Jeff Davis and His Last Ditch,” 1865.  Albumen carte de visite, hand-colored.  International Center of Photography, 2011.54.1.

As the breadth of documents on display attests, these images of Davis wearing women’s clothing became extremely popular and existed in a variety of different forms.  Many portrayed the soldier wearing a dress and bonnet, while others playfully focused on specific garments such as the cage crinoline, as a signifier of everything feminine, and boots as a codified token of masculinity.  Others focus on vernacular with clever titles such as: “Final ‘Clothes’ (close) of the Chivalry”, and a series of cartes de visite created by the American illustrator Oscar Foss, based on the idea of a play titled: “Last Act of Rebellion: Jeff Davis as Madame Vanderpants”.  There are covers and printed engravings from periodicals such as Harpers Weekly, as well as a child’s drawing of Davis wearing women’s clothing that was captured on Tintype by an unknown photographer.

Unidentified Publisher, “The Confederacy in Petticoats”, 1865, offset lithography, International Center of Photography, 2011.55.18

These creative and entertaining images demonstrate the potential of the relatively new medium of photography during the mid to late 19th century, while underscoring the clearly delineated gender roles of the time period.  The propagation of these images in the North was simultaneously an act of patriotism, to celebrate victory, and also a means to emasculate and shame Davis.  As he asserts in his letters to Col. Crafts J. Wright: “…there was no impropriety in assuming a disguise to escape capture.  But there was no time to have assumed one except by waiting for the deploy of cavalry seen approaching to close up the road still open to the creek.  The falsehood was conceived in a desire to humiliate me, and at first asserted that I had on a bonnet and woman’s dress, with hoop-skirts.” 3

Although the focus of these images was directed towards socially constructed gender roles, and the accompanying stereotypes believed to be inhabited by the two sexes: strength, bravery, and leadership in men; frailty, vulnerability, and folly in women (especially through their impractical clothing, namely the crinoline), the emphasis on clothing in politics in this particular event unearths a captivating story that can serve as a mini-case study of sorts in the function of clothing within the political realm.

Unidentified Photographer, “Final ‘Clothes’ (close) of the Chivalry”.  Offset lithography, International Center of Photography, Gift of Charles Schwartz, 2012.18.8

It is also interesting to consider how the material garments themselves became a point of interest to the public.  In one of his letters Davis also notes that: “it may be mentioned that the staff officers sent on the ship when my wife and children were detained after I was incarcerated at Fort Monroe, did plunder her trunks, carrying off many articles of value, and among other things a hoop-skirt, which the knaves were said subsequently to have said was the one worn by me.” 4   Although the exhibition does not focus on this element of the story, it would be interesting to investigate what other historical reports exist that might further document the trajectory of this stolen clothing that belonged to Varina Davis.

*Recently when reading the letters of P.T. Barnum, I came across a published telegram to Edwin M. Stanton dated May 15, 1865.  In the telegram Barnum offers to give $500.00 to the Sanitary Commission or to the Freedman’s Association in exchange for “the petticoats in which Jeff Davis was caught”.  Apparently the public interest in Davis’ alleged costume was so high that the most famous showman of the time was working to acquire them for his American Museum in New York City.



1, 3, & 4-  Davis, Jefferson.  “Jefferson Davis’ Capture: His Own Version of the Affair.”  The Washington Post, December 7, 1889.

2- Cumming, Valerie, C.W. Cunnington and P.E. Cunnington.  “The Dictionary of Fashion History.”  Berg Publishers: New York, 2010.

President in Petticoats! Civil War Propaganda in Photographs was on view through September 2, 2012.  Click here for more info.

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1 Comment

  • Mark Curran January 17, 2013 12.49 pm

    The dress story is fascinating — not for whether he wore a dress, yes he did, and his wife and soldier said so. Sure, you can find people who claim it was a made up story — you call it propaganda. Trouble is, his wife wrote a 16 page letter to the Blairs, detailing their flight from Richmond in detail. Go read it.

    In the letter, she describes three separate female garments that she “pleaded”: with Davis to put on. SHe is trying to take the blame, explain away the dress. She did n ot know that Davis would orchestrate a huge effort to deny the dress.

    IT was not the dress that was the problem — Davis was running away from his children, as bullets were flying. HIs wife said so, his soldier said so. Union soldiers reports — discount them if you want — stated factually much the same thing Varina did.

    SOme of the details Varina wrote are stunning “I said it was my mother” she told the Blairs. Remember that, the Blairs didn’t say that, SHE DID. SHe wrote to the Blairs that “I said it was my mother”.

    The Union soldiers stopped Davis, who was dressed head to foot as a woman, not just an errant shawl. Varina describes 3 garments, not one. And you don’t plead with someone to put on their own clothes.

    She does not come right out and say it was her DRESS, but it was. SHe does say, essentially, well so what if he did wear “full women’s attire” — he did it because he loved the South.

    Later in life she was asked about the dress constantly, and would only answer “He did not wear a formal dress”. She had no clue the Blairs children would eventually donate her letter, along with dozens of other memorabilia, to the public.

    Another person who knew of the garment was Elzabeth Keckley. She was a dress maker for Varina Davis — and ironically, later, for Mary LIncoln. Read her autobiography. WHile it’s clear aplenty from Varina’s letter, this is interesting too. She claims she could identify her stitching in a dress later shown by PTBarnum. There is no way to know which dress Barnum got — Varina had at least a dozen with her in trunks. The soldiers took all the Davis belongings. NO one can be sure what happened to that particular dress Davis wore, because Varina put on the dress, when the soldiers sent him and her to the tent, so he could get out of the silly constume. The soldiers said she emerged from the tent weaing the dress Davis had just took off.


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