One of my favorite images of the Civil War comes from the June 18, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The image, by Thomas Nast, is titled “The Campaign in Virginia—“On to Richmond!” and it accompanied the paper’s coverage of the North Anna phase of the Overland Campaign.
By that point, the armies had already moved away from North Anna through Cold Harbor, and the Army of the Potomac had jumped the James River for a strike at Petersburg. Were the coverage appearing in a daily, the caption might well have read “On to Petersburg!” instead of Richmond.
The June 18 issue featured several other scenes from North Anna, as well as a few from Cold Harbor and even one of a “fireproof in the Wilderness” on the spot of Sedgwick’s death (which happened in Spotsylvania, not the Wilderness). “The picture is full of interest as exhibiting what novel methods our soldiers resort to for purposes of defense from the casualties of battle,” the paper said.
Such patchwork coverage was pretty typical of the Overland Campaign in Harper’s. Scenes of soldiers escaping the burning Wilderness on June 4 were juxtaposed with a different sketch of the scene of Sedgwick’s death as well as a sketch of Confederate prisoners captured during Emory Upton’s attack on May 10. All in all, the lag for coverage was anywhere from three weeks to a month. This was true for its coverage of the Georgia campaign, as well.
In describing its North Anna sketches, the paper relayed the following:
The principal sketch shows the Canvas Pontoons laid on the North Anna River for the passage of our troops. Another sketch represents the burning of the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad Bridge over the North Anna. A third sketch shows the Second Corps Batteries as they appeared in position on the banks of the North Anna, prior to GRANT’S flank movement and passage of the Pamunkey. The Battery which appears in our sketch is the Second Maine.
The paper’s engravings were all based on sketches made on the scene by Alfred Waud, who was traveling at the time with the Army of the Potomac.
But of keenest interest to me is the sketch by Nast, which shows the resolute faces of Federal forces, with tattered flag, as they drive into enemy fire. Some men fall even as the Federal advance leans into the maelstrom. Other fallen soldiers litter the ground, and one waves his hat at the approaching storm so as not to be trampled. In the background, the forest blazes (something that, to my knowledge, did not happen at North Anna).
Surprisingly, the image is seldom seen, particularly since Nast’s other sketches from the campaign have become fairly widespread in Civil War circles. I loved it so much I chose it for the cover of my book on North Anna, Strike Them a Blow: Battle Along the North Anna River.
The image also appears on Gary Gallagher and Caroline Janney’s 2015 essay collection Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign. Because the photo appeared in the June 18 edition of Harper’s Weekly, perhaps the book’s cover designer mistakenly assumed the image to be contemporary to events of that week, when Federals had indeed moved past Cold Harbor and were bogged down outside Petersburg, the “On to Richmond” strategy given up in favor of a more circuitous route.
Before it could get across the James, though, the Army of the Potomac had to get across the North Anna, 152 years ago this week. As jingoistic as Nast’s sketch might appear, it does capture the Federal determination to move onward—even though Lee, once more, would force them to go around.