Drawing the War, Part 1: Alfred Waud

first in a series

In today’s world of instant messaging, instant downloads, iBooks, iPads, iPhones and iReporters, it is hard to imagine the difficulties of war reporting in the 1860s.  Embedded journalists, sending news by telegraph (some called it “the lightning”) were the first wave of what we take for granted today–instant news.

Images were as important then as now, creating both an intellectual and an emotional response to events far away. At that time, the shutter speed of a camera was not fast enough to capture battlefield action, so newspapers sent sketch artists into the field to provide the public with a glimpse of battle. Their contributions ended up being much more.

Alfred Waud was recognized, even then, as one of the best Civil War sketch artists. He drew quickly and accurately, with both an artist’s eye for composition and a reporter’s keen sense of the importance of a scene. Waud was courageous in battle and respected the soldiers and events he drew with a historian’s passion. The combination of these three approaches–artist, journalist, and historian–pulled him dangerously close to the fighting, and his work intimately portrayed the drama and horror of this country’s most devastating conflict.

John Brougham

Originally from England, Waud (pronounced wode) worked as an apprentice to a decorator until he was able to afford to attend the School of Design at Somerset House, in London. There he studied art and worked as a scene painter in a variety of London theaters. It was there that he met John Brougham, an Irish actor and playwright who was building a theater of his own in New York. Waud followed Brougham to America, but there was no immediate employment for him, as the new playhouse would not be finished for some months. He never did paint that scenery.

Waud sought employment producing illustrations for a variety of Boston and New York publications and was successful enough to get married and maintain a studio in New York City. By 1860, Waud had accepted a full-time position as an artist with the New York Illustrated News. The News was one of three leading illustrated weekly newspapers, joining Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which took pioneering journalistic action at the outbreak of the Civil War in April, 1861. They sent teams of “Special Correspondents” and “Special Artists” to cover the war from the battlefields and war fronts themselves.

In its May 4, 1861, issue the News announced:

We have made arrangements to obtain authentic sketches and information of the interesting and important events of the war. Alfred Waud, Esq., one of our most talented artists, and a special correspondent, will proceed to Washington, and will accompany the army through the campaign.

One of Waud’s first subjects in the Capital was Colonel Elmer Ellsworth’s New York Fire Zouaves. On the night of May 9, 1861, part of Willard’s Hotel caught fire. The engine companies in D. C. were slow to arrive on the scene, and even slower to start to work. Ellsworth’s men, on the other hand, were there almost immediately, and Ellsworth himself ordered them to begin putting out the fire. Waud sketched the Zouaves successfully battling the blaze and saving civilians and their property in a drawing that was printed in the News on May 25. This sketch went a long way toward rehabilitating the reputation of Ellsworth’s men since their arrival in Washington.

Waud's sketch of Ellsworth's firefighting

From that time until his death less than two weeks later, Colonel Ellsworth welcomed the artist into the Zouave camp and entertained him frequently. Waud’s pencil and Chinese white sketch of the East Room in the White House is the only image in existence of Ellsworth’s funeral, two days after his death during the military takeover of Alexandria on May 24, 1861.

Brady's "What is it" wagon

First Bull Run was Alfred Waud’s baptism by fire to battlefield carnage and confusion, both of which would become familiar to the artist as he accompanied the Army of the Potomac for the next four years. At Bull Run, Waud was in the company of Ned House and Richard McCormick, from the New York Tribune, and they followed Brady and his “What-is-it?” wagon.  Once there, they met up with Arthur Lumley, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated.

Everyone worked feverishly in the blazing sun, trying to portray the scenes unfolding before them. By day’s end, all of them were part of the pathetic, headlong retreat of the Union forces across bridges and through towns, trying to save their sketchbooks and photographic plates in the process.

Almost immediately after Bull Run, Waud joined General Benjamin Butler’s expedition near Cape Hatteras, in North Carolina. After accompanying the army ashore, he was present at the surrender of Confederate Forts Hatteras and Clark. This was the only time Waud left the Virginia theater of operations during the rest of the war. The remainder of his tenure was spent waiting with the Army of the Potomac for the next battle. The News published several articles by Waud titled “A Day in Camp With the Army of the Potomac,” complete with sketches of camp life. It was during this time that Waud was able to make so many “up close and personal” sketches of Union officers, especially George Armstrong Custer, a captain on McClellan’s staff.

By 1862, Alfred Waud had joined the artists and reporters of Harper’s Weekly. He continued his association with them until 1870. Harper’s was in competition with Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News to be the first of the illustrated weekly newspapers to “scoop” information about a battle, a person, or politics.

To get the finished product to the public, the “Special Artist” completed his sketches in the field, then rushed his work to the offices of the weeklies in New York. There, a staff of engravers copied the original to wooden blocks, adding detail as necessary. The engravers had their own specialties: pruners added skies, clouds, and foliage; butchers crafted individual faces, often from still photographs; tailors added drapery, either inside or out. Occasionally, the art director of the publication did a bit of editing, such as turning a particularly gruesome scene away from the viewer or adding a flag or a few more troops to make the Union Army appear ever glorious.

Boston College is home to a vast and complete collection of newspaper artwork done during the war–the Becker Collection. This link takes one to an animated series of drawings, explains the context of each, and provides a sliding scale to show the development of the original sketch to the published image. You will be amazed by the process.

By 1864, Alfred Waud had been behind Confederate lines, witnessed Fredericksburg and the Mud March, ducked fire at Chancellorsville, and gained the respect of the men and officers he drew. His sketch of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg is thought to be the only one done by an eyewitness. It provides for the viewer the unforgettable image of General Lew Armistead, his hat on the point of his saber, leading his soldiers to the slaughter.

Waud worked exclusively with the Army of the Potomac, and was the only “Special Artist” who remained on duty for the entire war. Theodore R. Davis, a “Special Writer” for Harper’s who wrote under the nom de plume of “Croquis,” (a French word meaning “quick sketch”) was the only writer to work through the war. He accompanied Waud regularly, and wrote of his friend and companion:

Let me first attempt the description of the duties of a special artist… Total disregard for personal safety and comfort; an owl-like propensity to sit up all night and a hawky style of vigilance during the day; capacity for going on short food; willingness to ride any number of miles horseback for just one sketch, which might have to be finished at night by no better light than that of a fire–this may give an inkling of some of it…. [Mr. Waud] made for himself a reputation, and became recognized as the best special artist in the field.  His collection of sketches is by far the most complete and valuable made during the war….

After 1865, Waud travelled extensively in the South for many years, continuing to send back sketches to Harper’s, hoping to make the former Confederacy as accessible to the North as he had made the battles and soldiers of the Civil War. He was bothered by a recurrent heart condition and, on April 6, 1891, in the middle of an extended sketching tour of Southern battlefields for a new series of war narratives, Waud died at the home of Joseph M. Brown, in Marietta, Georgia. He was sixty-two years old, and had been “drawing the war” for the last thirty-one years of his life.

The Waud Collection was originally held by Alfred Waud’s daughter, Mary.  It was purchased by Harper & Brothers in 1912, and in 1918 it was presented to the Library of Congress as part of the J. Pierpont Morgan Collection.  It remains there today.

Recommended Reading

Bohemian Brigade: Civil War Newsmen in Action, by Louis M. Starr

Our Special Artist: Alfred R. Waud’s Civil War, by Frederic E. Ray

They Were There: The Civil War In Action as Seen by Its Combat Artists, by Philip Van Doren

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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