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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:23

Snakes and petticoats? Making sense of politics at the end of the Civil War

Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Beth] We're here in the galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, MIA, and we're looking at a really unusual jug. - [Alex] This is a jug that would have held whiskey, but it was so much more than that. It's meant to be a visually striking tour de force of the potter's art. - We may not recognize this scene immediately, but anyone in 1865, the very end of the Civil War, would have known exactly what this was. - [Alex] A person who was politically clued in would instantly recognize the figures who are convulsing and intertwining with these giant serpents on this jug, and, in fact, not just on this jug, but passing through the jug. - [Beth] The Kirkpatrick brothers who made this jug were very popular potters in southern Illinois, and had a special affection for snakes. One of the brothers collected and even exhibited snakes. And so, snakes appear on many of their wares, but the snakes have particular meaning here. We can see that they have dark spots on their heads, which tells us that they're copperhead snakes. - [Alex] Copperhead was a name given to a certain type of individual who identified with the Democratic Party and were sympathetic to the Confederate cause. One thing that will surprising to some is that back in the mid to late nineteenth century, the Republicans were the much more progressive party pursuing emancipation of enslaved men and women. - [Beth] Although they were also very pro-industry. - [Alex] Which was why in part, they're a bastion of the northern states, which were far more industrial than the southern states. On the other hand, the Democrats were in support of states' rights, particularly the states' rights to maintain institutional slavery. Whereas Illinois as a whole was part of the North, southern Illinois, where Cornwall and Wallis Kirkpatrick had their factory, was culturally and economically much more tied to the southern states. - [Beth] The economy of the state of Illinois was deeply hurt by the Civil War, and so it makes sense that this would be an area where you would have people who are called Peace Democrats. They wanted the war to end, and they were also in many ways deeply racist. - [Alex] Copperheads were not particularly invested in the emancipation of enslaved individuals, and in some cases, newspapers which identified with the Democratic Party, traded in openly racist rhetoric. - [Beth] And so we see these copperhead snakes circling this jug, but what draws our attention is this main scene with two figures, one of whom is dressed in a skirt wearing something that looks like a woman's shawl, army boots, and he's bearded. And he seems to be attacking another figure, a Union soldier, with a knife, and that soldier is coming at him with a pistol. And what we have here is actually the figure of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy at the moment of his arrest. - [Alex] Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union general Ulysses S. Grant in the spring of 1865. And so Jefferson Davis roves around under military guard through the South, and four weeks later, his encampment is happened upon by Union soldiers. He picked up a raincoat, his wife put her shawl over his head to keep him warm, and he tried to sneak into the woods where he was caught by Union soldiers. - [Beth] So he wasn't really wearing women's petticoats, but this is the story that made it into the press, and even into popular song. And it made fun of Jefferson Davis in a way that felt quite satisfying to a northern audience. - [Alex] And if you look at the text beneath this depiction of Jefferson Davis on the jug, it says, "Trying to get over the last ditch, but his boots betray him." In popular prints, he is seen sprinting away, skirts flying, boots fully exposed, carrying a buoy knife and a bag of gold with a Union soldier shooting at him with a pistol. In the case of the jug, we have the addition of his genitalia, which can be seen from these lifting, fluttering skirts. And one of the fascinating aspects of the history of this object is that at some point, somebody has chipped those away. - [Beth] When we're looking at a jug that's got spiders and dung beetles and balls of excrement and figures piercing the jug with their butts sticking out, we're looking at something very entertaining. - [Alex] Cornwall and Wallis both were essentially showmen at a time of great showmen promoting themselves and their business through spectacle. - [Beth] This is also the time of P. T. Barnum. - [Alex] Speaking to the broadest of audiences. - [Beth] For a long time, we thought that the message of this jug and the other jugs that they created with writhing snakes were promoting the temperance movement. There's this idea that alcohol brings on delirium, tremens, ghastly nightmares. Now, we have a very different view of them. - [Alex] Where the satire comes in with snake jugs as a whole is most likely tweaking of the noses of those sanctimonious Victorian Americans who professed to lead more elevated lives. - [Beth] We might even think about the kind of humor that we read in Mark Twain, poking fun at all levels of society. At corruption, at politicians. - [Alex] A critical view of both elite, urbane society and rustic society. And at the same time, they had aspirations to the highest form of craftsmanship. (jazzy piano music)