Civil War Sketcher

A few years ago a friend, who is a Civil War enactor, told me about the men who sketched Civil War battles, as they happened! He asked if I wanted to suit up and sketch one of their reenactments.

I didn’t get a chance to go back in time and sketch a “battle” but the idea of a sketcher that followed an army and pulled out a pencil and paper when battle erupted, truly intrigued me.

The age of photography was at least 30 years old by the time of the outbreak of the Civil War. However it was not a good medium for capturing a battle. The reason for this was that the camera had to be on a tripod and subjects had to hold still because of the long exposures necessary to expose an image on a glass plate. That is why many photographs of the Civil War generals or soldiers are of seated and sometimes standing, in rigid, staged poses. The other common photographs are of the dead, after a battle (the dead hold still, really well).

A photograph of dead soldiers at Gettysburg taken after the battle. (Tim O’ Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Photography proved to be an unsuitable medium for capturing a battle but a field sketch could be done quickly and then the field sketch would be sent back to New York and turned into an engraving, creating plates for illustrated newspapers.

One of the most notable Civil War Sketchers was Alfred Waud. He was born October 2, 1828 in London. As an art student he studied to be a marine painter. In the end he did not pursue this style but instead he painted theatrical scenery. Waud sailed for New York in 1850 in pursuit of work.

Waud is most well known for following the Army of the Potomac and sketching every battle from the first Bull Run to the Siege of Petersburg in 1965. During this time he worked for the New York Illustrated New and then he 1861, he sketched for Harper’s Weekly.

Waud’s sketch of the death of General John Reynolds at Gettysburg.

Waud was only one of two artists to sketch the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle in the Civil War and the turning point of the conflict. His sketches of Pickett’s Charge, on July 3, 1863, is thought to be the only visual account by an actual eyewitness.

Waud’s illustration of Pickett’s Charge showing Lewis Armistead leading his men, hat on sword. This was the fartherest advance by the rebels during the entire Battle of Gettysburg. Armistead was shot and died a few days later.
Waud’s sketch of Warren, surveying the lay of the land at Little Round Top at Gettysburg, July 1863.

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