Arts book review

The art of war, in charcoal and watercolor

Civil War Sketchbook brings us a splendid collection of original sketches from the front lines of the battlefield

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During the Civil War, newspapers printed engravings such as Winslow Homer’s A War for the Union 1862 — Cavalry Charge.
Source: Wikipedia


Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront

By Harry L. Katz and Vincent Virga

W.W. Norton

May 2012

Two days after the charter incorporating MIT was signed in April 1861, Confederate forces attacked a military installation in South Carolina. It was the first in a series of battles that would last four bloody years and decide the fate of a nation. Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg, Bull Run and Gettysburg are now the stuff of history, names that to this day evoke deep wounds — physical, psychological, moral — in the very fabric of America, many of which are still open. But there was a time when citizens on all sides of the war followed these names for breaking news, which often took the form of written and graphical reports in printed newspapers.

Today, it is almost impossible to imagine the difficulties that the journalists and graphical reporters back then had to overcome to bring the citizenry fresh news from the frontlines of the Civil War. There was a time when the shock and awe of war was not broadcast in real time to the world, and when being embedded with the troops meant actually standing in the line of fire. Capturing battle in an image required more than the click of a button, and sending that image back to the editors took more than an attachment in an email.

As a tribute to the courageous and talented artists that risked their lives to capture these images in charcoal and watercolor, Harry Katz and Vincent Virga assembled the Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront. This collection of over 250 drawings and illustrations, many of them recently uncovered or published for the first time, touches upon all the major battles of what is arguably the most important event in American history in the 19th century. The book features the works of renowned artists such as the Waud brothers, Thomas Nast and the master himself, Winslow Homer.

These sketch artists were known as Specials “because their drawings were sent to magazines and newspapers by special delivery.” They “exposed themselves to danger constantly” and “lived among the soldiers and suffered the same privations.” By putting themselves “in the heat of the action,” they produced sketches that “often provided the most accurate reporting of what had transpired” in the field. The engravings produced from the sketches of the Specials, while often polemical and censored or modified for quasi-propagandistic purposes, “helped shape our understanding of the war.”

Two things in particular impressed me while reading this book. The first is the Specials’ ability to capture images so full of action through such rudimentary means; how they achieved it is beyond my understanding. Photographic memory, patient recollection and a pinch of imagination must all have played a role in capturing a scene glimpsed just for a few seconds, or — as in Lumley’s sketch of the assassination of Col. Ellsworth (p.11) — only fractions of a second. The other is that there is something universal in these images of war, despite being quintessentially 19th-century American. It is impossible to look at Lumley’s sketch of a falling soldier (p.79) without feeling in it the same pathos of violent death frozen in time that made famous Robert Capa’s photo of a falling soldier, now an icon of the Spanish Civil War; or to compare Alfred Waud’s sketch of Lincoln resting (p.ix) and the one by Edwin Forbes of a small Black boy sleeping (p.94) and not feel a sense of shared humanity.

Although war is endless horror, the Specials managed to find in that darkest hour some beauty and truth to be rescued. Now, their priceless work is in turn on display for a new century in this exquisite sketchbook, bursting with vividly reproduced images and insightful historical commentary. It is because of books like this one — clearly a work of love — that I am confident the printed tome will not be replaced by the digital file any time soon. For the soul of an art and history lover, there is no substitute for flipping through the pages,caressing the images with the fingertips, taking a closer look, and feeling through this contact that history is in your hands.