Drawn to War: Sketch Artists and the Civil War in Central Virginia
"A Stormy March (Artillery) Spotsylvania" by Edwin Forbes (Library of Congress)
As photography became available in the United States during 1840s, it revolutionized how Americans could depict themselves. For the first time, those who had their image made did not have to worry about an artist’s skill level to produce a quality final product.
However, photography had its limitations in its first decades of existence. Camera lenses could only take so much movement by the subject of the photograph before the image blurred, making taking action photographs virtually impossible. Also, large camera boxes proved unwieldy, making their use outside of studios less than ideal, particularly in unfavorable weather conditions. In addition, technology had not advanced to where media like newspapers or magazines could reproduce a photograph without utilizing the existing practice for copying images.
Books, newspapers, magazines, sheet music, and lithographic images for home display increased rapidly in popularity during the first half of the 19th century. Fueled by advances in printing and communications technology, and amidst an ever-growing literate population, readership exploded. Yet, the ability to rapidly produce visual images in print was still a problem.
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The common process for reproducing images into print at the time of the Civil War was to utilize woodcuts. Doing so involved a skilled engraver taking a photographic or sketched image and carving it in reverse (mirrored image) into a block of wood. Creating the image in mirrored format ensured that, just like setting type, with the woodcut inked and put to paper, the printed image came out formatted correctly. As one might imagine, this took a significant amount of time and effort, but it was the best quality and most reliable process available to publishers.
Although this example of a woodcut block dates to after the Civil War, the process during the war was the same. Note the thickness of the wood blocks. (National Museum of American History)
Harper's Weekly sketch artist Alfred R. Waud at Brandy Station (Library of Congress)
The woodcut engravers obviously needed something to work from. Publishers like those for Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, among others, required sketch artists who were skilled enough (and brave enough) to travel with the armies and make quick sketches of battles, field hospitals, and camps that they sent back by mail for engraving and then printing. Many sketch artists kept a book of "memoranda sketches." These were sketches of things like varieties of artillery, different types of tents, soldiers' equipment, etc., that the sketch artist could refer to when refining his work after making the preliminary rough draft sketch.
Some sketch artists became well-known during the war, and others even more so after. Probably the best-known sketch artist of the Civil War was Alfred R. Waud. CVBT offered a previous focus piece about Waud that can be read here.
Most of the illustrated newspapers of the period published from locations in the North, and naturally sympathized with the Union position. Although the Southern Illustrated News, which published in Richmond, produced monthly issues from 1862 to 1865, few editions contained any images from the scenes of war, and thus they apparently had little need for sketch artists.
The Illustrated London News did include coverage of the American Civil War and employed Frank Vizetelly as a sketch artist correspondent, who often produced images from the Confederate perspective. Unfortunately, only a couple of images from the Battle of Fredericksburg represent his time covering the war in central Virginia.
Sketch of Confederate position on Fredericksburg's Marye's Heights by Frank Vizetelly for the Illustrated London News (Houghton Library, Harvard University)
In this history email, we will take a look at a few sketch artists who brought the war in central Virginia to those on the home front.
Edwin Forbes sketch of the Chancellorsville crossroads as Gen. Joseph Hooker's headquarters on May 1, 1863. (Library of Congress)
Probably only exceeded in the field of Civil War sketch art by Alfred Waud, Edwin Forbes produced an enormous body of work and witnessed some of the Eastern Theater’s most important military events. Fortunately, Forbes spent the majority of his time with the Army of the Potomac and left numerous sketches of not only battles, but also subject studies of individuals (soldiers, civilians, and African Americans) and camp scenes.
Born in 1839 in New York City, Forbes planned on a career as a painter. He studied under Arthur Tait before the Civil War. However, Forbes joined the Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News team of talented sketch artists soon after the Civil War began and received assignment with the Army of the Potomac. While Forbes sketched numerous battle scenes, he seemed to excel in the details of his sketches concerning camp life. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Forbes was apparently able to set aside common prejudices of that era that some artists held and depicted African Americans without stereotyped and exaggerated features.
Since his assignment was with the Army of the Potomac, Forbes had the opportunity to sketch scenes from Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. A fascinating account of Forbes comes from Spotsylvania County citizen Katherine “Kate” Couse, who observed Forbes at work sketching scenes around her house, a Fifth Corps field hospital during the protracted fighting. Couse noted on May 12, 1864, that, “Mr Forbes the artist sketcher from Frank Leslie called in out of the rain, his right arm is helpless he sketches with left hand, has not the use of all his fingers on that hand.” Forbes’s sketch of the hospital scene is the only known image of “Laurel Hill,” the Couse house.
Edwin Forbes sketched the Fifth Corps field hospital at the Couse home during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. (Library of Congress)
Forbes left Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper before the war ended, but he continued to sketch war subjects.
After the war, Forbes returned to painting and improved a number of his wartime sketches. In 1876, he published a collection of his army works titled, Life Studies of the Great Army.
Woodcut print in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper from an Edwin Forbes sketch of the Union and Confederate positions at Mine Run.
Joseph J. Becker
Woodcut print from a Joseph Becker sketch of 14th New York Infantry at the Battle of the Wilderness published in the May 28, 1864, edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
Another Frank Leslie’s Illustrated artist, who spent considerable time in central Virginia was Joseph J. Becker, a Pottsville, Pennsylvania native. Becker, born in 1841, moved to New York City where he became a messenger for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Unlike Forbes, Becker did not receive formal artistic training, but must have demonstrated his natural talents to the newspaper’s staff, who saw his gift and eventually detailed him to the Army of the Potomac, where he made almost 90 sketches for the publication during the last two years of the war. Becker made sketches of the Battle of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania while in Central Virginia, and later created numerous images of the extended fighting at Petersburg. One wonders how he and Forbes, both working for the same newspaper, decided to divide their work.
After the Civil War, Becker traveled extensively to cover major historic events and the spread of railroads across the plains of the United States. He sketched the aftermath of the great Chicago fire of 1871, and eventually became the head of the Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News art department. After retiring in 1900, he lived for another decade, dying in Brooklyn in 1910.
A Joseph Becker sketch showing May 10, 1864 fighting at Spotsylvania Court House by the Ninth Corps. (Becker Collection, Boston College)
"The Crossing of the Rappahannock at Midnight" by Henri Lovie. Notice Lovie's various notes to the engraver on the sketch. (Becker Collection, Boston College)
Woodcut printing of Henri Lovie's sketch published in the December 27, 1862, edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
Henri Lovie, another of the talented sketch artists on the Leslie’s Illustrated team, was born in Prussia in 1829. He emigrated to the United States and settled for a time in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked as a portraitist, landscape artist, and illustrator for numerous publications before the Civil War. Lovie also taught art in Cincinnati, before moving to New York to work for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News. One of his early assignments was to follow President-elect Lincoln from Springfield, Illinois to Washington D.C. for his inauguration and the start of his administration.
Lovie traveled extensively for Leslie’s, covering the war in the Trans-Mississippi, Eastern, and Western Theaters. How he was able to cover so much ground between his subject assignments is simply amazing. Shortly after covering happenings in Kentucky, Lovie traveled back east in time to capture a number of sketches of the Union army before, during, and after the Battle of Fredericksburg. His images of events around Fredericksburg are among his finest. Some of Lovie’s sketches include notes to the engravers explaining details and areas to highlight in their reworking of his drawings.
Other Notables Who Sketched Central Virginia's Civil War
Woodcut print of "Army of the Potomac-Sleeping on their Arms" by Winslow Homer in the May 28, 1864, edition of Harper's Weekly. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Although they did not produce the volume of central Virginia subject work that the previous three artists did, a couple of other notable artists worked in or made observations about the area through sketches.
Winslow Homer, who gained fame largely after the Civil War for his paintings, sketched “Army of the Potomac – Sleeping on their Arms,” which appeared in the May 28, 1864, edition of Harper’s Weekly. This particular issue of Harper’s also covered the Battle of the Wilderness, so it is likely that this sketch, which was turned into a woodcut print, was made during that campaign.
Theodore Davis, an artist that Gen. John Logan mentioned “saw more of the war than any other single person,” sketched several images that appeared in the January 10, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly depicting actions on the south end of the Fredericksburg battlefield. Davis had several close calls on the battlefield that he recalled years later, including having his sketch book shot out of his hands.
Woodcut prints from Theodore R. Davis sketches of the Battle of Fredericksburg appeared in the January 10, 1863, edition of Harper's Weekly.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Judith Bookbinder and Sheila Gallagher, eds. First Hand: Civil War Drawings from the Becker Collection. McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2010.
Edwin Forbes. Thirty Years After: An Artist’s Memoir of the Civil War. Louisiana State University Press, 1993. (reprint, coffee table-sized book)
Harry L. Katz and Vincent Virga. Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront. W. W. Norton, 2012.
Jim Lewin. Witness to the War: First-Hand Accounts from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Smithsonian Harper Collins, 2006.
Frederick R. Ray. Our Special Artist: Alfred R. Waud’s Civil War. Stackpole Books, 1994.
William F. Thompson. The Image of War: The Pictorial Reporting of the American Civil War. Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
"To really see a battle, however, one must accept the most dangerous situations, for in most cases this can not possibly be avoided. There have been occasions when some industrious sharp-shooter troubled me by a too personal direction of his bullets. No doubt the man regarded me as somebody on the other side, and considered he was there to shoot at anything or anybody on the other side. My most peculiar experience of this sort was having a sketch-book shot out of my hand and sent whirling over my shoulder. At another time, one chilly night after the day of a hard battle, as I lay shivering on the ground with a single blanket over me, a forlorn soldier begged and received a share of the blanket. I awoke at daybreak to find the soldier dead, and from the wound it was plain that but for the intervention of his head the bullet would have gone through my own."
Theodore R. Davis, on the dangers of being a wartime sketch artist.
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Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.