Drawing the War, Part 2: Edwin Forbes

second in a series

Edwin Forbes may very well be the new Winslow Homer. Although mainly forgotten about for many years (like almost 150), apparently there is a resurgence of interest in this artist’s work.  Many pieces are offered online, and Cowan’s Auctions sold a  “gathering” of 30 signed Edwin Forbes etchings for $1, 150.00. That is less than forty dollars an etching, in 2007. I would suggest getting them while they are available (if you collect this sort of thing).

Forbes himself is not so well known. He was born in New York, in 1839. He began his art study in 1857 with Arthur Tait, who specialized in painting Western scenes of scouts and Native Americans. In 1861, when Edwin Forbes was twenty-two, he became a “Special Artist” field correspondent for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News. He was assigned to the Army of the Potomac, and quickly became part of the “Bohemian Brigade” of artists and writers that followed this part of the Union Army throughout the war.

He missed the very early days in Washington, D. C., Alexandria, and First Bull Run, but was there in time for the Battle of Cross Keys in the Shenandoah Valley (1862), where he drew his first sketch for Leslie’s. He also sketched Second Bull Run and the Seige of Petersburg, working quickly, then refining his sketches at leisure. Several of them evolved into larger oil paintings, many of which have found their way to the War Department and the Library of Congress.

Forbes' sketch of the Battle of Cross Keys

During Gettysburg, it is alleged that he hid under a wagon near Little Round Top during a particularly energetic bombardment of the Union line. Even if this is true, he probably was not alone. By the third day of the battle, he had positioned himself at a more strategic viewpoint and was able to observe Pickett’s Charge firsthand. He was the first of the “special artists” to have his images of the event produced by Leslie’s, in New York.

Most of Forbes’s sketches, as well as those of other artists, were saved by Joseph Becker, the art department supervisor for Leslie’s between 1875 and 1900. Drawn in sketchbooks bound with a sewn edge, with graphite, charcoal, and China White, these smudged artifacts recorded not only the physical scenes, but were interpreted by the artist in notes and smaller scribbles on the pictures themselves, as well as on the backs of the images. Without Becker’s attention to the preservation of these drawings, these 650 sketches, prints and photographs would probably have been lost to scholarship.

Sketch from Petersburg

By 1864, Edwin Forbes had resigned from Leslie’s, but freelanced for a variety of newspapers until the end of the war. He then returned to New York and continued his work as an artist. He created copper plate etchings from his sketches, which he published under his own name as Life Studies of the Great Army. The book, published in 1876, won a medal of honor at the Philadelphia Centennial. General Sherman appreciated the book and Forbes’s efforts so much that he purchased a first edition and donated it to the United States government, making it one of the first Civil War artifacts in the collection that later became the National Archives.

He was involved, along with many other “Specials” from the Civil War, in a project that produced Beyond the Mississippi, a book of drawings made from photographs and earlier prints of scenes from east of the Mississippi to the Pacific Coast. Other artists who contributed to this endeavor were the Waud brothers and Thomas Nast.

By 1878, Forbes was operating a successful art studio in Brooklyn and had many clients requesting work that had nothing to do with the Civil War, but he never forgot his background as a “Special Artist.” In 1890, he issued a book called An Artist’s Story of the Great War, wherein he told the stories that accompanied his nearly 300 “relief-etchings,” redrawn from his field sketches. Included in the book are twenty halftone equestrian portraits of generals, including “Sheridan on the Winchester Road,” the original painting of which is now in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D. C.

The Sanctuary is the last etching in An Artist’s Story, and many consider this to be one of Forbes’s best.  The scene is drawn from life, and Forbes writes:

Meager possessions were packed quickly when news came to a plantation that the Yankees were holding a nearby town, and although this country was picketed with Southern cavalry close up to the Union lines, the slave family stole from the old cabin at nightfall, and avoiding highways to escape capture, tramped through wood and thicket, and came, weary and footsore, in sight of the Union lines at daybreak.

I saw one group that I never shall forget, it impressed me so deeply with what the Federal success meant to these dusky millions.  The old mother dropped on her knees and with upraised hands cried, “Bress de Lord!” while the father, too much affected to speak, stood reverently with uncovered head, and the wondering, bare- legged boy, with faithful dog, waited patiently beside them.  As the bugle notes of Reveille echoed across the fields, and the star-spangled banner waved out from the flag-staff on the breastworks in the bright morning sun, I murmured, “A Sanctuary, truly.”

Forbes' "Sanctuary"

Edwin Forbes died in 1895, in Brooklyn, New York.  He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.

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