During the Civil War the American public read a constant stream of dispatches written by correspondents and telegraphed to newspapers. Yet the technology of the day couldn’t print photographs in newspapers or magazines, so the visual reporting of the war was done by highly skilled sketch artists who traveled with the armies.
The artists were often called “Specials” as their packages of sketches were sent to magazines by special delivery mail. In the field they would draw vivid scenes of battlefield action as well as depictions of more ordinary life in military camps.
The drawings, when they arrived at magazine offices, would be copied by other highly skilled artists onto blocks of wood. And engravers would eventually produce plates which would then be used to print the highly detailed illustrations.
It would take up to a month for an illustration to go from being drawn on the battlefield to appearing on the newsstand.
Drawings Were More Popular Than Photographs
Drawings by battlefield artists appeared most prominently in two very popular magazines published in New York City, Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. An illustrated publication in the South, the Southern Illustrated News, was not as successful.
While Civil War scenes were photographed, only a tiny portion of the public ever saw the photographs during the war. People had to visit a photographic studio to view the images. In one famous example, photographs taken by Alexander Gardner of dead soldiers at Antietam created a sensation when shown at the New York City gallery of Matthew Brady in late 1862.
When the public did see such images, it was usually in the form of engravings based on the photographs. And while the public could buy prints of photographs from galleries, they tended to be rare and relatively expensive items.
Battlefield Artists Became Prominent
The curiosity of the public for images of the war meant talented artists were in demand. And some artists became known for their work covering the armies. Among them were:
- Edwin Forbes: After studying art, Forbes began traveling with the Union’s Army of the Potomac in 1861. His drawings appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper throughout the war. During his extensive time with the army, Forbes was present at major battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg.
- Alfred Waud: Born in Britain, Waud came to America in 1850 and by the late 1850s was working steadily as an illustrator. In 1861 he was present at the Battle of Bull Run, and by the end of the year he was working steadily for Harper’s Weekly. He was present and draw scenes at Antietam. He was also present at the Battle of Gettysburg, and drew an eyewitness scene of Pickett’s Charge.
- Winslow Homer: Though he would later become known for his paintings, including his class seascapes, Homer worked in his youth as an artist for Harper’s Weekly. He traveled to the front in Virginia on several occasions and contributed drawings of soldier life. During the war he was beginning to create more serious art, which included paintings of soldiers in uniform.
- Thomas Nast: Born in Germany, Nast came to America and worked during the Civil War for Harper’s Weekly. He was intensely loyal to Abraham Lincoln and the policies of the Republican Party, and he specialized in creating illustrations that were essentially patriotic political messages. In the decades following the Civil War he became known for his editorial cartoons which attacked, and helped to bring down, Boss Tweed.
The Battlefield Artists Faced Hardships
The job of a traveling artist may have seemed glamorous, but the reality was that following the armies was very difficult. Artists typically carried a bag of drawing supplies as well as changes of clothes and utilitarian camping gear.
The artists were not expected to be on the front lines, but being anywhere on a Civil War battlefield was risky. And at times the artists would find themselves very close to the action.
Life among the soldiers had its own problems. There could be long stretches of boredom during lulls in the war, and at times the artists seemed to amuse themselves by drawing scenes of ordinary life in camp.
The Legacy of Civil War Battlefield Artists
Though the general public saw the Civil War through the eyes of artists during the conflict, in the decades following the war that changed. As the halftone printing process was developed it became possible to print photographs in newspapers, magazines, and books, and the work of battlefield artists was overshadowed and largely forgotten.
That has changed somewhat in recent decades as the important role played by the artists has gained new appreciation. And the drawings of the artists, as they are often the only depiction of significant events, have reached new audiences interested in the Civil War.