Art courtesy Library of Congress
Art courtesy Library of Congress

Civil War Battlefield Art

The world came to understand the Civil War through the eyes of battlefield artists. Living alongside the troops, combat illustrators risked death, injury, and disease to convey the blow-by-blow of battle with pencil and pen, charcoal, and crayon. Their work, sketched in the direst of circumstances, shows terrible violence but also moments of surprising grace.

This story appears in the May 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

At the time of the Civil War, camera shutters were too slow to record movement sharply. Celebrated photographers such as Mathew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan, encumbered by large glass negatives and bulky horse-drawn processing wagons, could neither maneuver the rough terrain nor record images in the midst of battle. So newspaper publishers hired amateur and professional illustrators to sketch the action for readers at home and abroad. Embedded with troops on both sides of the conflict, these “special artists,” or “specials,” were America’s first pictorial war correspondents. They were young men (none were women) from diverse backgrounds—soldiers, engineers, lithographers and engravers, fine artists, and a few veteran illustrators—seeking income, experience, and adventure.

It was a cruel adventure. One special, James R. O’Neill, was killed while being held prisoner by Quantrill’s Raiders, a band of Rebel guerrillas. Two other specials, C. E. F. Hillen and Theodore Davis, were wounded. Frank Vizetelly was nearly killed at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862, when a “South Carolinian had a portion of his head carried away, within four yards of myself, by a shell.” Alfred Waud, while documenting the exploits of the Union Army in the summer of 1862, wrote to a friend: “No amount of money can pay a man for going through what we have had to suffer lately.”

The English-born Waud and Theodore Davis were the only specials who remained on assignment without respite, covering the war from the opening salvos in April 1861 through the fall of the Confederacy four years later. Davis later described what it took to be a war artist: “Total disregard for personal safety and comfort; an owl-like propensity to sit up all night and a hawky style of vigilance during the day; capacity for going on short food; willingness to ride any number of miles horseback for just one sketch, which might have to be finished at night by no better light than that of a fire.”

In spite of the remarkable courage these men displayed and the events they witnessed, their stories have gone unnoticed: Virginia native son and Union supporter D. H. Strother’s terrifying assignment sketching the Confederate Army encampments outside Washington, D.C., which got him arrested as a spy; Theodore Davis’s dangerously ill-conceived sojourn into Dixie in the summer of 1861 (he was detained and accused of spying); W. T. Crane’s heroic coverage of Charleston, South Carolina, from within the Rebel city; Alfred Waud’s detention by a company of Virginia cavalry (after he sketched a group portrait, they let him go); Frank Vizetelly’s eyewitness chronicle of Jefferson Davis’s final flight into exile.

Special artists worked fast, identifying a war scene’s focal point, blocking out the composition in minutes, and fleshing it out later in camp. They took great pride in making their renderings as faithful as possible. Writing from the front lines in northern Virginia in the spring of 1862, Edwin Forbes noted that his sketches had been made “at considerable risk for the country is overrun with small gangs of sneaking Secessionists, who are as blood-thirsty as [Confederate Gen.] Albert Pike. For one day I got an escort of ten men and made some sketches in comparative safety … All who have seen them say they are very accurate. I need hardly assure you that I do my best to make them so, as fidelity to fact is, in my opinion, the first thing to be aimed at.”

The artists dispatched their sketches from the battlefield by horse courier, train, or ship to the publisher’s office, where a home artist copied the image onto blocks of wood. Engravers then carved different sections of the drawing, the most experienced of them working on detailed figures and complex compositions, and the apprentices taking on the simpler background tasks. Once the engraving was completed, it was electrotyped—copied onto metal plates in preparation for printing. The engravings could also be copied and sent overseas to foreign publishers for added revenue. Usually it took two to three weeks for the drawn image to appear in print, although important events or battles could be rushed into print in a matter of days.

Two pictorial weeklies dominated the national scene in 1861, both published in New York City: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly. Before immigrating to America, veteran English pressman Henry Carter—known by his pen name, Frank Leslie—had managed the engraving department at the Illustrated London News, the world’s first and most prestigious pictorial weekly. Even before the war began, Leslie’s, which debuted in 1855, routinely boasted print runs above 100,000, and special editions could top three times that number.

The journal claimed to be strictly neutral, and within months of President Lincoln’s election in November 1860, Leslie sent William Waud, Alfred’s younger brother, to Charleston to document the growing secessionist sentiment. Also English-born, William could claim neutral status and reasonably represent his publisher’s desire “to produce a paper which shall be so entirely free from objectionable opinions or partizan views of national policy, that it can be circulated in every section of the Union and be received in every family as a truthful exponent of facts as they occur.” William Waud’s sketches predate the attack on Fort Sumter and offer a glimpse into the last days of the prewar South. He was sketching among the crowds watching from the seawall as Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter.

In contrast to Frank Leslie, Fletcher Harper—publisher of Harper’s Weekly and a scion of the renowned Harper Brothers literary publishing house—stood firmly with the Republican Party, President Lincoln, the abolitionists, and the Union. His views, his reporters, and his pictorial weekly, which had started in 1857, were decidedly not welcome in Secessia. Initially Harper’s was more literary than journalistic, befitting the journal’s erudite heritage. The war changed all that. By the beginning of the second year, Harper had hired top talent—including Alfred Waud, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Nast—giving the artists the resources to fill the journal’s pages with compelling and persuasive war images.

Alfred Waud, the most prolific special, created many of the most memorable sketches of critical moments at Antietam and Gettysburg, where he was the first artist to arrive on the field. On July 21, 1861, he traveled to the Bull Run battlefield in the photographic wagon owned and driven by his friend Mathew Brady. Already known as a boon companion and crack artist, at Bull Run Waud took up arms against the Confederates. The next day, returning from the field, he pulled his pistol on a Union soldier attempting to commandeer his horse. Gen. George Meade often favored Waud with requests to sketch Rebel defenses, offering him special access. Waud enjoyed close relationships with numerous officers but also reveled in his life with the common soldier.

As the war progressed, no artist portrayed life in camp more intimately than Leslie’sEdwin Forbes, who often focused on human-interest and figure study. His sketches of soldiers relaxing, cooking, cleaning, reading, shaving, and engaging in sports and other daily activities record their shared existence and collective humanity.

Winslow Homer, born in Boston, Massachusetts, and destined for artistic stardom, created some of his most celebrated paintings from sketches he made as an illustrator at the front. During the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia—Gen. George B. McClellan’s initial, unsuccessful assault on Richmond in the summer of 1862—Homer brought remarkable verve to his work but chafed at the restrictions of military life. In addition, according to his mother, he “suffered much, was without food 3 days at a time & all in camp either died or were carried away with typhoid fever … He came home so changed that his best friends did not know him.”

Homer’s Bavarian-born colleague, Thomas Nast, became America’s most influential editorial cartoonist. Supporting the Lincoln Administration and Republican Party, he demonized the Rebels and advocated for emancipation, heaping derision on those in the North who opposed the war effort and sought negotiated peace with the Confederacy. By 1864, coverage of the Union victories by the special artists, along with Nast’s acerbic illustrations, helped consolidate public support for the war effort and win Lincoln a second term. Senior officers on both sides came to value the military knowledge of the specials, offering them commissions and employing their skills as scouts to sketch fortifications.

The artists had no control over their work after it left the field. At the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, Arthur Lumley, a Dublin-born Irishman working for theNew-York Illustrated News, sketched Union troops pillaging the town. Incensed, he wrote on the back of the drawing: “Friday Night in Fredericksburg. This night the city was in the wildest confusion sacked by the union troops = houses burned down furniture scattered in the streets = men pillaging in all directions = a fit scene for the French revolution and a discrace [sic] to the Union Arms.” The journal never published the inflammatory image.

Both Harper and Leslie did their part to shape public opinion, censoring images considered too negative or graphic and altering drawings to make them more stirring or upbeat. Harper’s editors, for instance, made Alfred Waud’s drawing of a leg amputation at an Antietam field hospital look less gory to accommodate squeamish readers. Engravers freshened another Waud sketch of exhausted horses dragging artillery carts, giving them lifted heads and spirited tails and making them kick up clods of mud—an animated portrait of teamsters racing ammunition to the front.

Nonetheless, by depicting scenes as realistically as they could, Waud, Lumley, Henri Lovie, and others undermined the popular myth of the war as a romantic adventure. As citizens grew accustomed to the violent imagery, censorship eased.

Although the Confederacy had virtually no pictorial press, specials operating in southern theaters created hundreds of images. One outlet was the Illustrated London News. With Lincoln’s election, the British took a keen interest in American affairs, and after the war started, debate over whether to recognize the Confederacy consumed politicians and the public. In May 1861 the veteran British war artist Frank Vizetelly arrived in America fresh from covering Giuseppe Garibaldi’s campaign to liberate the Italian peninsula from Austrian rule. Vizetelly’s initial impressions of the Union Army were favorable, and he reported back to London of patriotic fervor, high morale, and camp camaraderie.

That changed on July 21 at the Battle of Bull Run, a Union debacle. A week later Vizetelly contributed an unflattering sketch, “The Stampede From Bull Run,” along with this blunt description: “At half-past five the Federal troops were in full retreat, pursued at different points by the black horse cavalry of Virginia. Retreat is a weak term to use when speaking of this disgraceful rout … The terror-stricken soldiers threw away their arms and accoutrements, herding along like a panic-stricken flock of sheep, with no order whatever in their flight … Wounded men were crushed under the wheels of the heavy, lumbering chariots that dashed down the road at full speed. Light buggies, containing members of Congress, were overturned or dashed to pieces in the horrible confusion of the panic.”

Vizetelly, now banned from the Union lines, was determined to get to the Richmond front, and the following summer he simply assigned himself to the Confederate States Army. With the help of Confederate sympathizers and a freed slave, he crossed the Potomac below the capital and joined Lee’s army along the Rapidan River. Taking up the Rebel cause, he wrote: “Surrounded as I am by the Southern people … I emphatically assert that the South can never be subjugated.” Vizetelly loved the officers, the soldiers, the people, the land, and the cause of the Confederacy. For the first time in the war, the South had its own special artist, although he worked for a newspaper published in London.

Some northern artists advocated openly for black emancipation. In May 1866, a year after hostilities ended, Alfred Waud created an emotional and symbolic coda to the war with his portrayal of black troops mustering out in Little Rock, Arkansas. Many specials turned to sketching the American scene as soldiers dispersed and people returned to peaceful living.

Within a generation sketch artists were eclipsed by photographers using Kodaks. But even today, artists are still going to battlefronts—in Afghanistan, for instance—sent by the military and the media to interpret warfare in ways cameras cannot, capturing for the record the inner life of the soldier caught up in a larger drama.