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At Ease: Illustrating the War with Pencil & Paper

Alfred Waud's Civil War Illustrations


Landscape photos of the battlefields can be helpful for identifying details and establishing the historic significance of a particular area for preservation, but they aren't the only historic visual tools in the CVBT toolbox! War illustrators journeyed with the armies and made scenes of battle action, camps, and other scenes, and sometimes their creations hold key information or context for battle research and preservation efforts.

Today, we're taking a closer look at the life of Alfred R. Waud and some of the sketches he created in the Central Virginia region.


Alfred R. Waud — Special Artist

Alfred R. Waud at Gettysburg, 1863

Perhaps there is a little irony in the photograph of Alfred Rudolph Waud sketching at Gettysburg. Timothy Sullivan, the photographer, created the image because Waud sat still, but Waud’s great contributions during the Civil War (and for later researchers) were born from the inability of 1860’s photography to capture action. A regiment could be photographed standing still, but not rushing into battle. However, an illustration drawn quickly and as the scene unfolded captured action or other scenes not always deemed worth the time and materials to photograph. Alfred Rudolph Waud was born on October 2, 1828 in London, England. He studied at the Government School of Design, planning to become a marine painter and creating theatrical scenery during his student years. In 1850, he left Europe and sailed for the United States, docking in New York City. About five years later, he married and settled in New Jersey. Waud illustrated for several American magazines and book publishers to support himself and his family. The Civil War prompted the need for more illustrators to bring the scenes of war, camp, and battle to the homefront to the newspapers. While photography took an important role during the conflict, it failed to capture action views and could not be easily prepared for newspaper publication. The role of the illustrator and correspondents with their pencil or pen, paper, and keen eye were vitally important, especially for the newspaper and magazine publishers. When a sketch was selected for publication, engravers would take the detailed sketches made by the traveling artists and reproduce them on wood blocks which would then be replicated on a metal plate for printing presses. In 1860, Waud had become a “special artist” with the New York Illustrated News, a full-time paid position, and when the war began during the following year, the publication assigned him to follow the army. Later in 1861, he joined Harper’s Weekly and continued to follow the war, witnessing every major battle with the Army of the Potomac from First Bull Run through the Siege of Petersburg. Following the war, Waud continued his illustrator career and in his time was more famous for his post-war work than his war-time sketches. He died in 1891 while touring battlefields in Georgia.


What Cameras Couldn't Show

Civil War artists and correspondents accompanying the armies would make sketches of the battles or other scenes. If a newspaper or other publication chose to reproduce the sketch, it would be turned into a woodcut and then prepared with a metal plate for multiple printings. Below, you'll see Waud's sketch of Humphrey's Division during the Battle of Fredericksburg, followed by the published woodcut based on his original illustration.

Sketch and woodcut of same scene (Library of Congress)


Action Scenes During The Battles

This new video features several of Waud's sketches from each campaign or battle—Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. The selected images here are certainly not all that he created during the battles, rather a small sampling.


Parting Shot

Cannon at Spotsylvania's Mule Shoe Salient


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. Donate today.

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