Two talented field artists produced a treasure trove of action-packed sketches
Technological limits prevented Civil War-era photographers from capturing subjects in motion, and sketch artists provided the most dramatic images of many memorable incidents. London-born Alfred R. Waud stood out among a talented group that included Winslow Homer, Waud’s brother William, Edwin Forbes, and many others whose works found a large audience in the loyal states. The relative absence of major illustrated weeklies in the Confederacy (The Southern Illustrated News paled in comparison to Harper’s Weekly or Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper), among other factors, created a much less dynamic market for sketch artists in the Rebel states. Another Englishman named Frank Vizetelly, sent in 1861 by the Illustrated London News to cover the conflict from the Union side, decided in mid-1862 to change his base to the Confederacy. During the remainder of the conflict, he produced a large body of first-hand illustrative evidence relating to the incipient slaveholding republic. Alfred Waud’s sketches, many of them published as engravings in Harper’s Weekly, include numerous iconic Civil War images. His rendering of Union soldiers carrying comrades away from menacing fires during the Battle of the Wilderness brilliantly conveys the horror of combat. One soldier crawls toward safety, another raises his arm in hopes of securing help, and two of the four principals, with a wounded man slung in a blanket held by two muskets, look over their shoulders toward the encroaching flames.
Equally effective is Waud’s spare drawing of the moment when Confederate infantry overran a Union battery at Gaines’ Mill, Va., on June 27, 1862. Attackers emerge from dark woods in the background, approaching open ground littered with dead and dying horses while artillery shells explode. The Confederates appear mostly as an indistinct mass, yet the drawing pulses with movement and power.
Two memorable sketches of the Battle of Fredericksburg confirm Waud’s artistic gifts. For the charge of Andrew A. Humphreys’ division against Confederates at Marye’s Heights on the afternoon of December 13, 1862, Waud left figures in the main body of the division indistinct while highlighting Humphreys, mounted and waving his hat, against a cloud of smoke emanating from Rebel infantrymen firing from behind the famous stone wall. An engraving of the sketch appeared in Harper’s Weekly on January 10, 1863, and, though engraver Henry L. Stephens did an admirable job, a comparison of the two shows how published versions often lost much of the drama and immediacy of the originals. The second sketch depicts soldiers of the 50th New York Engineers building the upper pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock River under fire from William Barksdale’s Mississippians on December 11. The men’s vulnerability and sense of purpose seem equally evident in Waud’s gripping treatment.
Away from the battlefield, Waud sketched many prominent figures and episodes of the war. On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, he waited in the yard of Wilmer McLean’s house at Appomattox Court House. Inside, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee labored over details regarding the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee appeared on the front porch between 3:30 and 4 p.m., called for an orderly to bring him his horse, and mounted Traveller. Waud watched the scene intently. Of the many things he had witnessed, none exceeded in importance or interest this dramatic moment. Waud rapidly captured the action as Lee departed. Two figures dominate his study—a grim-visaged Lee on Traveller and, trailing slightly behind, Colonel Charles Marshall of the general’s staff. Waud’s eyewitness sketch would be reproduced in numerous books, and a more polished version appeared as an engraving in the Century Company’s famous “Battles and Leaders” series. Because of Waud’s presence at Appomattox, generations of readers formed a visual image of Lee shortly after he signed a document that essentially ended the four-year conflict.
Although Vizetelly’s sketches don’t match Waud’s in artistic quality and historical impact, they provide an invaluable glimpse of the war from a Confederate perspective. Some deal with combat, including a sketch of the Federal bombardment of Fort Fisher on January 15, 1865. Amid shell bursts above and inside the fort, Confederate gunners work their guns. Vizetelly’s notes on the sketch describe “An officer + two men killed by fragments of shell” in the left foreground and “a few dead” in the middle of the fort. “The exposed position of the men,” he wrote of the day’s action in Illustrated London News (March 18, 1865), “with shells…exploding in the midst of them, is terribly apparent in our illustration.” Vizetelly also sketched the attack on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, and described the burial of Union dead in language that aligns well with the final scene in the film Glory: “In the ditch they lay piled, negroes and whites, four or five deep on each other….”
Subjects unrelated to battles also drew Vizetelly’s interest. These include J.E.B. Stuart and some of his staff and subordinates in autumn 1862; the prisoner of war camp on Belle Isle in the James River at Richmond; white refugees in the woods near Vicksburg in 1863, and a Federal shell exploding in the streets of Charleston in 1863. Vizetelly accompanied Jefferson Davis’ small party as it made its way southward after the fall of Richmond in 1865. Several sketches show the group in flight, including one of Davis “signing acts of government by the roadside.”
For a fuller appreciation of Waud and Vizetelly, readers should consult Frederic E. Ray’s Alfred R. Waud: Civil War Artist (1974) and W. Stanley Hoole’s Vizetelly Covers the Confederacy (1957). Both books offer an array of the artists’ work, though the quality of the reproductions in Hoole’s volume is less than ideal. ✯