Long before the Germans and Japanese used radio to broadcast propaganda in WW2, the American military tried a more primitive method during the Civil War.
Anyone who has watched their share of old World War II movies is familiar with the way the Japanese attempted to use propaganda to demoralize Americans fighting in the Pacific. “Tokyo Rose” became notorious (undeservedly so – see below*) for radio broadcasts featuring messages designed to sow disenchantment among the GIs.
But the Japanese were far from the first to use propaganda directed at enemy soldiers as a tool of war. In fact, one of the first propaganda “broadcasts” actually occurred in the Civil War. It was during the siege by Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. An account printed in The Richmond Daily Dispatch of August 5, 1863 tells the story.
A Civil War effort at “broadcasting” propaganda to enemy soldiers
A Southern newspaper correspondent who was in Vicksburg at the time of its surrender was given a copy of a circular printed by the U. S. Navy fleet that was participating in the siege.
On the orders of Admiral David Dixon Porter, the commander of the fleet, 300 of these flyers had been stuffed into a bombshell, which was then fired into Vicksburg. The intent was that when the bombshell exploded it would scatter the flyers, which would then be picked up and read by the Confederate soldiers defending the city. Here’s the message the circulars carried:
TO OUR FRIENDS IN VICKSBURG!
June 28th, 1863: Cave in, boys, and save your lives, which are considered of no value by your officers. There is no hope for relief for you. Sherman with 60,000 men is chasing Joe Johnston. Grant with 90,000 men environs Vicksburg. You can’t escape in these boats, that game is blocked on you. The 12,000 men under McCulloch, on whom you depend to help you out, are retreating back to Harrisburg, well whipped, even Col. H., who hopes to escape in his fast six (6) oared whale boat, can’t come it. Not one soldier of you will be heard of, as connected with the siege of Vicksburg, while your officers will all be spoken of as heroes. Your present form of Government crushes out the hopes of every poor man, distinction is kept for the aristocracy of the South. You have better friends on this side than on that, the friends of freedom.
A creative effort that was doomed to failure
Unfortunately, this ingenious attempt at propaganda woefully failed to achieve its aim. In fact, it’s doubtful it was ever read at all in Vicksburg; the newspaper correspondent obtained his copy not in the city, but from a U. S. naval officer after the fortress surrendered to General Grant on July 4, 1863.
Beside the inefficiency of the method chosen to “broadcast” the message, there was a more fundamental obstacle that stood in the way of the effectiveness of the plan.
Diarist Dora Miller records that in the wake of the surrender of the city, her lawyer husband was employed by Confederate officers to help make out paroles for the captured prisoners of war. Although she lived through the siege in Vicksburg, Miller was a Northern woman with pro-Union sympathies. She professed herself stunned at what her husband discovered in the course of his work:
“I am surprised and mortified,” she wrote in her diary, “to find that two-thirds of all the men who have signed made their mark; they cannot write. I never thought were was so much ignorance in the South.”
So, even if the propaganda flyers had been successfully rained down on Vicksburg, most Confederate soldiers wouldn’t have been able to read them.
* You can read why “Tokyo Rose” didn’t deserve her infamy at:
The Persecution of Iva Toguri D’Aquino as Tokyo Rose
Here are some of my articles about the siege of Vicksburg:
The Fall Of Vicksburg: Turning Point Of The Civil War
Jefferson Davis Loses His Plantation in the Battle of Vicksburg
150 Years After the Battle, Vicksburg Celebrates the 4th of July
Civil War Siege of Vicksburg Forces Civilians To Hide In Caves
Battle of Vicksburg Facts: The Newspaper Printed on Wallpaper