The War Through the Eyes of Battlefield Artists
Greetings Cosmic Americans!
By now we are certainly accustomed to seeing the nation’s iconic publications feature a Civil War related cover or series. Time magazine, the New York Times, and the list goes on. After all, we are in the midst of the sesquicentennial and Civil War history has worked its way in to media, popular culture, and maybe even water cooler discussions at the office. I was recently asked by a member of the National Geographic staff to feature and weigh in on an article in their May 2012 Civil War issue.
The article – “A Sketch in Time,” by Harry Katz - reviews briefly the lives of Civil War sketch artists – known on both sides of the conflict as “specials.” Katz has published a soon-to-be-released book on the subject – noted as a “landmark collection of rare and sensational images of the Civil War” – so let’s consider the article as something of a warning shot.
Katz makes a number of compelling statements suggesting that specials endured the same privations as did a typical Civil War soldier – they came under fire, sustained injuries, and risked death – all to provide the realistic images of combat, life on the march and in camp, and other activities to an eager and anxious public. While at times he ventures down the problematic path of anachronistic language and comparisons – noting that specials were “embedded” with troops (a term they would not have used) and making tenuous connections to war correspondents in Afghanistan – Katz ultimately opens the door for a look at the men behind the work with which we are all quite familiar. Such peccadilloes can thus be forgiven.
In comparison, we know a great deal about the work of Civil War photographers such as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner. But technological insufficiencies rendered their work somewhat incomplete. The artists providing the action – what Civil War era cameras could not do – for publications such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated and Harper’s Weekly have gone largely unnoticed. Katz’s work is a welcome addition.
Below is an excerpt from the article – you can access the full story here.
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.
In spite of the remarkable courage these men displayed and the events they witnessed, their stories have gone unnoticed: Virginia native son and Union supporter D. H. Strother’s terrifying assignment sketching the Confederate Army encampments outside Washington, D.C., which got him arrested as a spy; Theodore Davis’s dangerously ill-conceived sojourn into Dixie in the summer of 1861 (he was detained and accused of spying); W. T. Crane’s heroic coverage of Charleston, South Carolina, from within the Rebel city; Alfred Waud’s detention by a company of Virginia cavalry (after he sketched a group portrait, they let him go); Frank Vizetelly’s eyewitness chronicle of Jefferson Davis’s final flight into exile.
To view the National Geographic May 2012 Civil War artist photo gallery, click here.