American History · art history · history

Documenting History: The Story of the Civil War’s Forgotten Sketch Artists

When you think of Civil War art the first thing that comes to mind is the photography, right? It was groundbreaking as it was a fairly new invention and was able to capture an exact representation of a moment in time. The photograph is so common today that it may actually surprise you that most contemporaries during the Civil War never saw any of these battlefield photographs as the technology did not exist to print and publish them on a wide scale. What the majority of contemporaries did see were beautiful sketches that documented the battles and happenings of the war in illustrated newspapers, such as: Harper’s Weekly, Frank Lesile’s Illustrated News, and the Illustrated London News. They were hired men who were known as the “Specials”; they were on-site pictorial war correspondents who traveled and actually lived amongst the troops (on both sides!). They faced all the same hardships as the traveling troops and were there in the heat of battle in order to do their work. Using pencils and paper they documented the war and the soldier’s life through their sketches in order for the people at home to have a chance to see what was going on. These sketches are some of the most valuable items from the Civil War. Photography was limited as it could not capture movement or the drama of the war, but the sketches could. As the artists sketched what they saw these could be some of the most accurate depictions (with maybe just a hint of embellishing at parts) and created scenes of human interest for the audience back home.

The image of war changed dramatically during the Civil War as the traditional “Heroic” imagery used in the past was changed to depict a more realistic (and more violent) image along with a stronger concentration on the common soldier rather than the commanders. Before the Civil War, the heroic style was very popular and it depicted the soldiers as “patriotic and selfless crusaders” with emphasis on glorifying the generals and commanders. These generals were always depicted in their best uniform and were always valiantly leading their armies, but how could the artist know this? They were most likely in their studio after the battle sketching this rather than being on the field as the Civil War artists would be. Yet, prior to Bull Run the “Specials” would continue in this style which contributed to the Union audience’s assumption that the war would be completed quickly. These early sketches would also give the audience a false impression that their army was perfectly prepared for this war, when in reality, they were not.

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Winslow Homer, War Songs

The Battle of Bull Run changed this as the artists witnessed what was happening. Sure, the sketches by Alfred Waud and Arthur Lumley that came out of Bull Run were still full of patriotic vigor and an “orderly withdrawal” of troops after a defeat and helped to keep the public motivated after a humiliating loss. But, what the artists witnessed was a disaster. They saw that the battle was lost due to the incompetence of the officers and not the volunteers. Officers were not to be glorified because the true sacrifice came from the common man. They are the ones who truly win the battles. It hit home that the true cost of war was the in the blood and gore of the casualties. The Battle of Bull Run led to a more realistic style in art and an concentration on the common soldiers.

Genre scenes became very popular throughout the course of the war which displayed life at army camps and studies of individual soldiers actually gave personality to these men. They were someone the audience at home could connect with and they could imagine that this is what their husband/brother/son, etc were doing and provide reassurance. In reality battles and fighting only took up a small part of the soldier’s time at war and it was only natural that the artists, living amongst the men, would create these sketches. Winslow Homer is one of the “Specials” that is known for his sketches of the soldiers life. These images rejected the previous heroic war ideals and focused on the individuals once not thought of as important, but now their viewpoint was being shown.

Some of Homer’s studies included scenes like the loneliness of the pickett line, “Pay Day”, teenage soldiers attempting to hide their age, studies of African American soldiers, the holidays and even fraternization with the enemy. One of my favorites is Coffee Call; a humorous sketch which displays soldiers anxiously waiting to get their cup and clamoring to the front. Other soldiers in the background come at a crazed run attracted by the delicious aroma. The soldiers are so happy about something the audience would have taken for granted, yet to the soldiers this was a treat having not so easy of access to it being on the field. This image also shows brief bright spots during the war as well.

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Coffee Call, Winslow Homer
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After Dinner: The Wish Bone, Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer was also interested in the psychology of the soldier and how war affected them. One of his most famous individual studies is Sharpshooter which depicts the image of a lone sniper. Home described his impression of Civil War snipers as “being as near murder as anything I ever could think of in connection with the army…” His sketch reflects his impression through a “menacing portrayal” of the sniper. The sniper is hidden in a tree, rifle at the ready, and eyes are fixed on his prey. The soldiers cap covers his eyes in shadow and causes him to appear more sinister and cool-hearted. Homer is showing the negative side of war and what war can turn a man into. Many interpret this image to show that as a result of “man’s modern mechanistic war-waging” that he has turned into an inhumane killer. What do you think when you view this sketch?

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Winslow Homer, Sharpshooter

Edwin Forbes and Alfred Waud, other famous “Specials”, sketched the struggles of constantly being on the march and the general fatigue of the soldier through their body language and clothing. Waud’s Mud March portrays the soldiers battling extreme weather and mud as they chased after the Confederate army after the defeat at Fredericksburg. The wind is extremely strong and that is evident through the cloaks flying in the wind, the grass being blown in the same direction and the trees in the background are almost falling over. The wagons are falling in the mud and the effort each step takes is evident on the soldier’s haggard faces. The whole scene looks like a miserable experience and the audience viewing the sketches would have felt the pain of the soldiers. All of these sketches destroyed the idea that war was romantic.

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Alfred Waud, Mud March
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Henri Lovie

This turned led to the depiction of very violent scenes of battles providing a counter to the “heroic image”; to the artists witnessing the events, war was seldom heroic and there was nothing inspirational in images of slaughter. Their art adjusted to the more aggressive warfare and were brutal in their imagery. The wounded and dead were drawn in graphic detail and the struggles of hand to hand combat was drawn to life showing men struggling against each other, using rifle butts to club and bring each other to the ground. Even in victory the sketches turned away from the cheering soldiers/patriotic flag and instead displayed soldiers collapsed from exhaustion, concentrating on their wounds and those of their fellow soldiers. Some of the most famous examples of this style are Alfred Waud’s depictions of Antietam and Gettysburg. On the Confederate side Henri Lovie’s Bombardment of Fort Henry shows the action and the movement that no camera at the time could have captured.

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Alfred Waud, Skirmish between the Brooklyn 14th and 300 Rebel Cavalry (Antietam)
Image result for Waud, Attack of Louisiana Tigers on a Battery of the 11th Corps (Gettysburg)
Alfred Waud, Attack of Louisiana Tigers on a Battery of the 11th Corps (Gettysburg)
Image result for Waud, Wounded Escaping from the Burning Woods of the Wilderness (Wilderness Campaign)
Alfred Waud, Wounded Escaping from the Burning Woods of the Wilderness (Wilderness Campaign)

Frank Vizetelly was another famous artist, but he sketched for the Confederate side unlike most of the artists that were mentioned before. He had his own style due to the fact that his audience was actually the people of Great Britain who sympathized with the Confederate cause. His work was published in the Illustrated London News. He created images that boosted the Confederate cause while portraying the Union as cruel in images such as Union Troops Attacking Confederate Prisoners in the Streets of Washington and Punishing Drill in the Federal Camp. He also had portraits of generals of the Confederacy and made the troops look valiant. In the case of Vizetelly he used this type of photojournalism to garner support for the Confederacy in a foreign country.

Vizetelly’s Opinion on how Bull Run went for the Union

Civil War era sketching in illustrated newspaper was very important for the future of photojournalism. Though today the photographs are more well known, the sketches are what the contemporary audience would have seen. They changed the way war was portrayed forever changing the traditional heroic style to a more realistic approach which concentrated on how war affected the common soldier.

Food for Thought:

Why do you think people were more interested in a realistic style rather than the previous style?

How did actually being on the field and traveling with the army affect the artist’s work?

How do you think the photojournalism during the Civil War affected journalism in the future?

This is an adaption from a larger project I did in my Civil War course during college.

Further Reading:

Harry L. Katz and Vincent Virga, Civil War Sketchbook: Drawings from the Battlefront

Fletcher W. Thompson, The Image of War: The Pictorial Reporting of the American Civil War

Philip Van Doren Stern, They Were There: The Civil War Action as Seen by its Combat Artists

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