"The world never saw such a war." –An American observer in 1863
It’s difficult to think about Civil War imagery without referencing Matthew Brady, the oft-cited photographer who, with the help of numerous paid assistants and portable darkrooms, produced some of the first photographic images of an American war.
However, you’ve no doubt noticed that all the surviving photographs of the Civil War consist of still portraits and shots of the bloody aftermath of battles. Although photography itself had been in existence for several decades before the war began at Fort Sumter, 1860s camera shutters and exposure times were simply too slow to allow for action shots. Photographs were also difficult to disseminate to the general public in the mid-19th century. Unless one happened to live near a photographic studio or special exhibition, these images remained largely out of sight among the general public. And photographs accounted for a mere 15% of newspaper and magazine illustrations during the Civil War.
So how was the war depicted for the average American citizen? Enter the sketch artist.
Civil War artist Alfred R. Waud
at Gettysburg, 1863
These artists—both amateur and professional—who worked as war correspondents for newspapers and magazines were called "special artists" or "specials," since they mailed their work to publications via special delivery (horse courier, train, or ship). Specials traveled with both Union and Confederate armies to complete their illustrations—a process that involved identifying, rendering, and blocking out sketches of battle scenes as quickly as the action unfolded on the field, and filling in the finer details later back in camp. Staff members at the newspaper or magazine publishing offices created engravings based on the specials’ illustrations, which were then copied onto metal plates for printing. The typical turnaround time for images to appear in print after their creation was 2-3 weeks; however, it was not uncommon for critical events to go to print within a matter of days.
Gallant Charge of Humphrey's Division at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Alfred R. Waud, 1862
This job did not come without risks; specials endured many of the same physical hazards and privations as soldiers. Several were accused of spying and faced arrest and detention. Others, such as Theodore Davis—a prominent special who worked for Harper’s Weekly—were wounded on assignment. His description of the working conditions for wartime sketch artists are as follows: "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."
A Sutler’s Tent Near H.Q., Arthur Lumley, 1862
Despite the dangers, these artists remained devoted to documenting all aspects of the war. Through the work of specials like Alfred R. Waud, Winslow Homer, and Edwin Forbes, the public glimpsed the lives of soldiers both on the front lines in battle and in the day-to-day conditions of camp life. Alfred R. Waud, a Harper’s special who was arguably the most prolific Civil War battlefield artist, attached himself to the Army of the Potomac and sketched nearly every battle from the first Bull Run in 1861 to surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox in 1865. He also held the distinction of being first artist to arrive on the fields of Antietam and Gettysburg, and of creating the only known illustration of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. But his activities were not limited to artistry. Waud, an English-born artist who had immigrated to the United States in 1850, felt such a deep affinity for his adopted country and the Union cause that he was moved to put down his sketch pad and take up arms against the Confederates at the first Battle of Bull Run.
Custer's Division Retiring from Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, Waud, 1864
Over time, many specials became knowledgeable about military operations—something that Union and Confederate officers both recognized and appreciated. The arrangement was mutually beneficial: some officers commissioned artists to sketch fortifications and work as scouts. Others, such as Arthur Waud, developed close relationships with senior generals who granted them special access to various aspects of military life that they would not have had otherwise. After the war, many of these artists continued to work for the publications that had employed them during the four-year conflict.
Did these men leave behind a professional legacy? Advances in camera technology and our expanding array of sophisticated equipment may have diminished the popularity of sketchers after the Civil War, but battlefield artists have never been obsolete. Both the American military and the media continue to employ illustrators to document and interpret modern-day warfare and its aftermath, including the War in Afghanistan.
Battle of Champion Hill. Sketched by Mr. Theodore R. Davis. 1863
If you’d like to read more about Civil War specials and their artwork, be sure to check out Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings From the Battlefront, Images From the Storm, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, Killing Ground: Photographs of the Civil War and the Changing American Landscape, and The Civil War and American Art. Don’t forget to check out the Library’s other books about the American Civil War.