Illustrators of Civil War preserved chapter in time

Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal, September 24, 2018

My daughter Katherine is a terrific artist, and I have always been fascinated with the illustrative sketch artists of the Civil War.  These creative individuals supplied a visual account of a battle by depicting the soldiers fighting, suffering, celebrating and most often destroyed.

Alfred Waud, a British immigrant, was the preeminent sketch artist of the Civil War. He later illustrated the Reconstruction of the South and Western frontier expansion with exceptional drawings we study today. SUBMITTED

Before action-shot photography was prominent, artists visited sites the day before the battle to capture the scene before it was set in place.

A war artist framed confusion and turbulence into meaning of infinite expanse.  The painter’s capacity to weave images of emotions, physical reality and humanities’ darkest side gives us the tactile sensation of an event firsthand.

The most famous illustrator, Alfred Waud (of Antietam and Gettysburg), stated, “No amount of money can pay a man for the suffering of an artist.”

Waud captured a dynamic illustration of Union soldiers crossing Stones River on strong horses with flowing water edging over their boots.

These skilled artisans were consistently without food and water and were positioned within the front lines of an engagement.

One artist, James R. O’Neill, was killed by the Quantrill’s Raiders.

These talented artists, known as “specials,” were in high danger in the midst of a battlefield but were fearless in their quest to give us the historical illustrations we have today that chronicle our key American battles.

The artists worked fast. often finishing their sketch by fire late at night.  The sketches were dispatched to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly by horse, train or ship.

The drawings were then copied onto blocks of wood, and engravers carved sections of the drawing.  After the engraving was completed, it was electrotyped and duplicated onto metal plates for printing.

Civil War events in Rutherford County, including the Stones River battle, resulted in few photographs.  At a time when the shutter speed of cameras was not fast enough to capture action, the drawings of illustrators were very accurate.

The sketch artists who provided depictions of the Stones River struggle include Alfred Mathews, Henry Lovie, Henry R. Huber, Alfred Waud and F.B. Schell. These artists had varied backgrounds but were all seeking high adventure.

Henry Lovie (1829-1875) was a Berlin immigrant, who had traveled extensively with Abraham Lincoln. He drew 148 sketches (including Stones River) for Harper’s Weekly.  While in peril, Lovie sketched Union Gen. James Negley’s Jan. 2, 1863, Stones River counterattack at 4 p.m.

Stones River artist Alfred Matthews was the son of a book publisher, and he was a teacher in south Alabama. Ulysses Grant commended him as the best in his trade and declared his sketches of Vicksburg the most accurate of all the war.  Matthews was also an author and mapmaker.

Frederick Schell was a designer from the Pennsylvania Fine Arts Academy.  He drew 43 detailed sketches of the Civil War and was known to master accurate drawings of hand-to-hand combat within a siege.

Alfred Waud was born in London and attended the School of Design, while painting set scenes for British theaters. He was in New York City before 1860 to enhance his skills with painting for live dramatic stages. Waud was also hired by New York Illustrated News and Harpers Weekly as a prominent Civil War sketch artist and was on the front lines of Stones River, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

He died at age 62 while sketching Southern battlefields for a series of war narratives.  In all, he illustrated the Civil War battles for 31 years of his life.

Frederick B. Schell (1838-1905) sketched an incredible print referred to as “the decisive charge of General Negley’s Division across the river with the Confederates flying in confusion.” Schell was employed as senior illustrator by newspapers to depict images of the war.  His etching of the “Federal Forces on the Confederate works during Siege of Vicksburg in 1863” is a classic.  Moreover, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s family portrait illustrated by Schell is a distinguished art work.  When these five prime illustrators arrived in Murfreesboro for the Stones River engagement, they were ready to work.  The battle was in immediate action on Dec. 31, 1862, with these artists amidst adversity near the front lines with pencils in hand.

At the end of the first day, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg dictated a telegraph message to Richmond stating “The field is ours.  God has granted us a Happy New Year!”

Yet, the tide turned the following day in total disaster for the Confederates, as they were unable to maneuver around the strategy of Gen. William Rosecrans.

In great haste, the artists repositioned their foothold for a new view of high action.

Rutherford County historian Homer Pittard studied these drawings in great detail with interest of one prominent sketch artist Alfred Mathews (1831-1874) of Bristol, England, whose drawings are most clearly documented.  His stylized drawings include a deserted Confederate camp and retreat of army, boarding of cars to Murfreesboro, Rosecrans’ and Bragg’s headquarters, and batteries of Guenther and Loomis on Nashville Pike.

Mathews also sketched the counterattack of Negley’s Division at McFadden’s Ford.  Matthews has a drawing of Brigadier Gen. Joseph Wheeler destroying McCook’s wagon train, as well as a sketching of the Church of Christ on East Main, where Gen. James Garfield held services. His Stones River drawings were published as lithographs.

Mathews was also an acclaimed Western artist, who drew landscapes of Nebraska, Colorado, Montana and California. He was in high demand for panorama drawings, but, he died of appendicitis in 1874 at age 43.

These heralded artists converged on Rutherford County as professionals and were given access to both Confederate and Union lines at Stones River.  They manifest the visual and sensory dimensions of devastation.

The painters’ strokes depict analogy of the hollow depth of the human mind in a Stones River battle of devastation.  Illustrators are the unsung heroes who preserved a chapter in time with great clarity by providing ongoing historical significance for generations to come.

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