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Civil War Sketches: Civil War Battlefield Art

Civil War Sketches

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.

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.”

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