Propaganda during Wartime

Illustration with two men sitting next to each other, each holding a piece of paper and pen while two different versions of the same event are illustrated above their heads.
Propagandists lost no time putting their own spin on events after raids and skirmishes. In American newspapers, the enemy was painted as a bloodthirsty and ruthless foe committing atrocities on the defenseless civilians. The British reports characterized their raids as harmless. (c) Gerry Embleton

“Here they made a furious attack on every window, door, and pane of glass in the village, not one was left in the whole. . . ”
--Baltimore Niles’ Weekly Register, August 14, 1814, reported an account of the British July 30, 1814, raid on Chaptico, Maryland

War produces distorted views, each side trying to gain an advantage in the public arena. American newspapers had an audience eager to hear of every enemy atrocity. The same event could sound completely different when described by British officers carefully crafting reports to their superiors. The July 30, 1814, raid on tiny community of Chaptico near the Potomac River produced strikingly different accounts.

First Admiral Cockburn, the leader of the raid, described it this way:

"We marched to [Chaptico] and took possession without opposition. I remained all day quietly at Chaptico whilst the boats shipped off the Tobacco . . . and at night I re-embarked without molestation. I visited many Houses in different parts of the County we passed through, the owners of which were living quietly with their Families and seeming to consider themselves and the whole Neighborhood as being entirely at my disposal, I caused no further Inconvenience to [them] than obliging them to furnish Supplies of Cattle and Stock for the use of the Forces under my orders."

American newspapers painted quite a different picture:

"They [the British] got about 30 hhds. [hogsheads] of tobacco and other plunder, the inhabitants having moved all their property out of their grasp. Yet here they made a most furious attack . . . They picked their stolen geese in the church, dashed the pipes of the church organ on the pavement, opened a family vault in the churchyard, broke open the coffins, stirred the bones about with their hands in search of hidden treasure . . . all this in the presence of their worthy admiral . . . During all this havoc, not a man was in arms within fifteen miles of them . . . [Brigadier] General [Philip] Stuart was encamped with the militia near sixteen miles from these free-booters. I presume he is waiting for a regular field action with the British. He has no confidence in our trees and bushes, as militia did in the revolutionary war."

Whom to believe! There probably is some truth in both accounts.

excerpt from "In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake" by Ralph E. Eshelman and Burton K. Kummerow

Last updated: May 20, 2020

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