Drawn from Life

One of the reasons for the enduring fascination people have for the Civil War, I think, is because it was captured in photographs. One hundred and fifty years later we still have haunting portraits of soldiers and civilians from that era, gazing at us from across the gulf of years. It adds a personal dimension to the war.

The photography of the 1860s had its limitations, however. Exposures needed to be long, meaning photographers couldn’t capture fast-moving subjects. The equipment was big and bulky, too, limiting its uses in the field.

That is why Civil War photography hadn’t eliminated the need for sketch artists, those men who captured their impressions of battles and events in drawings they sent back to their publications, where engravers copied them for the printing process.

Alfred Waud, photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan in 1863.

One of the best sketch artists of the war was Alfred Waud. Born in England in 1828, Waud began capturing the Civil War on paper first for the New York Illustrated News in 1861 and for Harper’s Weekly later that year. Waud was at First Bull Run and remained with the Army of the Potomac through Appomattox. (David Lowe used a Ward caricature of Theodore Lyman, Meade’s always observant aide, on the cover of the book he edited of Lyman’s journals (highly recommended).

The Library of Congress has a number of Waud’s Meade-related sketches on its website, so I thought I’d post a few here on the blog. (You can click on the images here to see larger versions.)

The image at the top of the page is Waud’s sketch of the ceremony on August 27, 1863, when the Pennsylvania Reserves  presented Meade with a ceremonial sword to honor their former commander. The soldiers raised $1,500 for the elaborate weapon, which had a blade of Damascus steel and a scabbard of gold. Meade’s initials were engraved near the hilt and inlaid with enamel, gold and diamonds. Precious stones circled the handle. Engraved on the blade were the battles that Meade and the reserves had shared. “The more I examine my sword the more I am delighted with its beauty,” he wrote home. “It is really most chaste and artistic. It seems a pity, though, to waste so much money on an article that from its great value is actually rendered useless.”

Waud should have sketched the dinner that followed, which apparently turned into a drunken rout, with a friend of Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin standing on a table singing bawdy songs while privates hobnobbed with captains. I have no doubt that Meade excused himself before things descended to that level. The day did lead him into unwanted political controversies, though, when a newspaper reported that in his acceptance speech Meade endorsed Curtin’s reelection. He did no such thing, protested Meade, who always endeavored to avoid politics in his public life.

The second sketch (above) depicts the Battle of the Wilderness, with the figures of Meade and Grant visible in the foreground. The Lacy House—Ellwood—is visible in the background. This is where Fifth Corps commander Gouverneur Warren had his headquarters, and where Stonewall Jackson’s arm, amputated a year earlier, lay mouldering in the family cemetery. The house still stands and is open to the public, with a recreation of Warren’s headquarters in the front room. Another room has a large painting of Meade and Grant riding up to Ellwood to meet with Warren.

The third sketch (above) shows the “narrow escape of Genl. Meade,” which took place on Myer’s Hill near Spotsylvania, on May 14, 1864. The Union and Confederate armies had bloodied themselves terribly on May 12 and on the 14th Meade rode forward to observe the Union lines. He and the VI Corps’ Horatio Wright were talking in the Myer farmhouse when, as I write in Searching for Meade, “the rattle of muskets and the thud of bullets striking the building delivered unwelcome news: the Confederates were attacking. Meade had to move fast. He jumped on his horse and, guided by Capt. Nathaniel Michler, a topographical engineer with some knowledge of the terrain, hastily made his way back toward the Ni River. A Confederate major galloped over to intercept him and even grabbed Meade’s bridle before his headquarters guard intervened and captured the rebel. The only thing Meade lost, other than his dignity, was his glasses.” I can’t imagine Waud witnessed any of  this first-hand; more likely he drew this after hearing reports from others.

The final sketch here (above) is Waud’s depiction of Meade’s headquarters near the Jerusalem Plank Road outside Petersburg. The soldiers with the white coverings on their heads and lower legs are members of the 114th Pennsylvania (Collis’s Zouaves), the brightly garbed regiment that served as Meade’s headquarters guard.

After the war Waud continued to work as an illustrator and he died of a heart attack in Georgia in 1891.

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