Civil War Agitprop

Agitprop is art directed at getting audiences to take one side or another in a political conflict. It is usually straightforward in its emotional and political message so that audience can at a glance get a sense of what they are supposed to think and feel. We need look no farther back than John Turnbull’s pictures of battles in the American Revolution to see this process at work even if we prefer to think of these paintings as monumental, as evoking personal emotions like bravery as well as the terror of war. But the painting “Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton” is supposed to make you think of the sacrifices that were made in the cause of liberty and so subsequent citizens should live up to their heritage, to feel patriotism towards the government that now presides. One kind of agitprop, therefore, looks back so as to encourage allegiances in the present. Another kind of agitprop looks forward to when the oppressed will be freed of their shackles. Such forward looking agitprop is found in the Soviet agitprop of the Twenties, where the recently downtrodden and those still not free unite in solidarity, their faces stern and handsome, eyes aligned to the future, so as to create the brave new world to which they are committed. To make things even more clear, Soviet agitprop includes words to spell out its messages, this technique borrowed from the poster art that had become popular in late Nineteenth Century France.

There is another kind of agitprop which looks neither to the past nor to the future but at a present set of tumultuous times and where an artist can still claim that the message he is sending is clear and unambiguous. Such is some of the art Eastman Johnson created in the 1860’s in the waning days of the Civil War and immediately after it so as to bolster his largely Abolitionist audience in their support of the cause of the newly freed slaves, the fortunes of these folk largely unsettled in that it was not clear how the South would respond to its defeat, whether it would persist in its efforts to continue its old way of life (which it did); whether freedmen would be granted the vote (which they were); and whether they would each be assigned “forty acres and a mule” so that they could become independent farmers (a promise never kept). How Johnson dealt with the condition of the freedmen in his times remains instructive even as he tried to keep his messages clean and simple, as agitprop requires. This was a purpose he did not always achieve.


Johnson had been quite a successful portraitist of white family life and of genre painting in his earlier years. He became involved in the cause of the Negro in 1859, where his “Negro Life in the South”, as I have commented before, presents a complex idea of how slaves in Washington, D. C. carry out a normal state of life in spite of their inferior caste and legal station. Perhaps his most adroit bit of agitprop is his 1862 painting, “A Ride for liberty-The Fugitive Slaves”. It portrays a slave and his family, his wife and two children, fleeing to liberty on the back of a single fleeting horse. It captures the simple idea that a horse is the vehicle of liberty and that getting out of danger means moving quickly. So there is a sense of heroism in the picture: people freeing themselves rather than waiting for the Union Army to do it. It is also worth noting that the four figures on the horse are a family, and so that goes against the notion that the slave family was inchoate, separated onto different plantations rather than, often enough, bonded to one another and respecting all the middle class norms having to do with the protection of children and the wife trusting to the husband to know what he was doing. It also seems to my eye that the wife is significantly lighter colored than her husband, which is testimony to the fact that many slaves were the children of their masters. Remember that, in 1862, it was not at all clear which way the war would go and Johnson was siding clearly with the Abolitionist view of what were the issues that had to be sorted out, who was taking the moral highroad and who was not.


Another successful bit of agitprop is Johnson’s “The Lord is My Shepherd”, from 1863, which shows a black man reading his Bible. Johnson is agitating for a race rather than one of two contending armies. I might find fault with the painting because it is so dark and uses too many lines in its composition, but there is no mistaking its message. This is an honorable and civilized human being, carefully groomed and properly dressed. His face is handsome, which might come as a surprise to an audience used to stereotypical negroid features. He is, as the expression used to be, “A credit to his race”, which means that he conveys his essential humanity, whatever his skin color. He is worthy of the vote and an education and an honorable living, all the things that an unfortunate settlement after the war would deny him. He calls you to take his side because he is sympathetic rather than pitiful, which is the much stronger of the two arguments. The side you take is neither Union nor Rebel; it is the side of a race, and such has been the situation ever since: is the race of black men to be vilified for its shortcomings or praised for its courage while suffering adversity?


A more complex painting, where the interpretation can get out of hand, and so is a flawed example of agitprop, is  “Fiddling His Way”, from 1866, which takes place after the war but where many of its issues remain unsettled. Here we have a scene that makes use of Johnson’s previous capacities as a portraitist of families. A large white family, complete with children and white servants going about their business are attending to the black fiddler who performs while sitting on a stool at the left of the picture.  The art historian Patricia Hills says that there are contradictions in this picture because while the fiddler is free, he is included in this family only because he is an entertainer, and so no different from the numerous black entertainers who for a century afterwards were able to mix with whites only because the performers were entertaining the whites. And so the idea that this man is making his mark as a free man has to be understood as a very limited kind of freedom. But that is just the point, which a reading of the title of the painting supports. The black man is fiddling his way to freedom. His activity and the role he plays for the white family is a step on the road to freedom rather than the end of that road. The ex-slave begins very far down on the totem pole. He is recently a slave; largely uneducated, and subject to the stigma of a caste system that makes him less of a person than any of the other religious or ethnic designations available in the middle of the Nineteenth Century would make of the peoples who are in those categories. He has farther to climb to be appreciated as a full human being so being understood as a musician and honored for that is something of a start. Few would see the possibility of a black President in early Reconstruction times.

The point here is that other ethnic groups had different and lesser hurdles to overcome. The Irish were held in contempt by the Protestants but they were able to built an insular community based on the Church. It had its own set of institutions, including universities, a professional and a commercial class, and also a well organized political machine that allowed it to work itself into prosperity over the course of five or six generations, nothing more required until Joseph P. Kennedy decided to send his sons to WASP private schools while Catholic girl schools were good enough for his daughters, because then his sons would outdo the WASPs at their own virtues and their own manners. The Jews bore the contempt of those who despised their race because they too had insular institutions and could make their way in commerce and politics and culture. Only African Americans had to prove that they were worthy of sympathy and pass through many more stages of accommodation and acculturation, through Jim Crow and sharecropping, through self education and some economic success when they were permitted civil service positions, before their dominant image switched from their being considered animalistic to being considered fellow human beings, an accomplishment delayed for a hundred years after Johnson’s picture of the fiddler. First came entertainment, then came sports, and then a Black professional class, and only then came politics.

Agitprop lives well into our own times. Sad Sack cartoons of the Second World War depicted officers of ever higher ranks as having larger and larger pot bellies. That was not to suggest that enlisted men rebel against their officers, only that they were not to be trusted to do what was in a young enlisted man’s interest, which is just the opposite of what Turnbull paintings, which made officers heroic, would indicate. A journalist’s photo of a naked pre-adolescent Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm explosion served as a way to mobilize protest against that war. A balloon of an orange baby Trump is used at demonstrations to parody the current President. The times we live in, like most other times, are very political in that people feel the need to distribute such messages and find images that galvanize people in support or opposition to a people, a cause, or a person.