Drawing the War, Part 3: Frank Vizetelly

third in a series

For those who think political correctness is the bastard child of the late twentieth century, artist Frank Vizetelly would strongly disagree. A mere sketch of retreating Union troops at the end of the Battle of First Bull Run upset Simon Cameron and General Scott so much that . . . well . . . it is an interesting story.

Frank Vizetelly was born in London to a family prominent in the newspaper publishing business.  The Illustrated London News was founded in 1842 by Frank’s older brother, Henry, and his business partner, Herbert Ingham. Their first issue sold 26,000 copies, but by 1863 its circulation had exceeded 300,000, mostly due to the amount and quality of the pictorial engravings, which accompanied the news stories.

Frank, in working for his brother’s paper, became one of the world’s first war correspondents. By 1860, he had covered engagements in France, Austria, Italy, and the Mediterranean. At the time America was heading toward a war of her own, Vizetelly was embedded with Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Garibaldi Guards, in the Second Italian War of Independence.

He arrived in America in the early spring of 1861, to cover the war as a “Special Artist” for the Illustrated London News. He joined other European journalists such as Frank Lawley, Percy Greg, and William Howard Russell, but just after Vizetelly arrived in Boston, he chose to take a train to New York City rather than go to Washington, D. C. Vizetelly’s penchant to choose his own destination stood him in good stead. New York was just then in the grip of a citywide attack of martial fever set off by President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops. New York fire brigades, already organized into groups, were joining the Union Army by the hundreds. One band in particular had gained the attention of the entire city: Colonel Elmer Ellsworth’s First Fire Zouaves, carrying flag after flag given them by admiring supporters, left New York for Washington with Frank Vizetelly aboard their steamer, the Baltic.

By May, Vizetelly was in Washington, covering the war preparations of the Union Army.  On the morning of the 24th, he accompanied Ellsworth and the Fire Zouaves (now the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry), to Alexandria. He noted the outcome in his sketchbook:

The night was marked by  a sad event—the assassination of a young man of great promise, who had already achieved fame—Colonel Ellsworth. He was shot by the proprietor of a hotel as he was carrying downstairs a Secession flag. His regiment was at once wild with rage, and it was with difficulty it was prevented from burning the town.

Later that year, in July of 1861, Vizetelly followed McDowell’s army out of Washington to Manassas, where he and another British journalist observed and sketched the first half of the Battle of First Bull Run. Confident of a Federal victory, the men left the field to return to Centerville and file their dispatches and sketches. By 4:00 that afternoon, the Federal tide had turned, and the Union forces were in full retreat. As they streamed by Centerville, they alerted the journalists as to the change in fortune. Both men rushed back to the battlefield as quickly as possible, and sketched and reported the retreat.

Unfortunately for Frank Vizetelly, his sketch found its way quickly to London, and from there back to Washington, to the hands of Lincoln’s new Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General-In-Chief Winfield Scott. Vizetelly could no longer get a pass from the government to go anywhere outside D. C. He stayed with the troops camped near the city, but quickly got bored sketching Federal camp life.

Realizing that he had, effectively, gotten himself blackballed from the Yankee Army, he then made a journalistic decision that would affect him for the rest of his life. He got in touch with Secession sympathizers in Baltimore, and soon found himself in a barely water-worthy craft sneaking across the Potomac River at night to join Robert E. Lee’s army on the Rapidan River.

Before Frank Vizetelly joined the Confederacy as an artist-in-residence, he had referred to the conflict as the “American Civil War” or the “War of the Rebellion.” After he had spent some time with the southern army and its commanders, the Englishman referred to the “War Between the States” from that point on. He was welcomed into the Confederacy, and the combination of his engaging personality and his vetted journalistic experience made him one of the most sought-after men in the South.

He sketched Lee, Jackson and Longstreet at Second Bull Run, heralding the Confederate Army as infinitely superior to that of the North in every way. He became such an intimate of General J. E. B. Stuart that he was invited to spend Christmas, 1862, with the Stuart family.  It was not only Vizetelly’s images, but his words that gave European readers his impressions of the Battle of Fredericksburg, again extolling the wisdom of the Confederate generals.

Travelling with the Confederate Army imposed a logistical problem on Vizetelly and other foreign correspondents and observers: their dispatches and sketches had to be sent aboard blockade runners, hoping that they would be successful and get through to London. The Union was aware of Vizetelly’s whereabouts, and a bounty was offered to the Union Navy if they captured his sketches aboard any detained ships. Harper’s Weekly often printed Vizetelly’s work anonymously, both purloined images from blockade ships, and out-and-out stolen ones from printed copies of the Illustrated London News.

As often happens, the artist fell in love with his subject, and Frank Vizetelly seemingly bought the Confederacy whole. He described the Confederate prison camp at Belle Isle for British readers:

The rations which I saw distributed to the prisoners were the same in every respect as those issued to the Southern soldier; possible the former may get more fresh meat . . . They certainly do not get luxuries such as coffee or sugar, but the Confederates are no better off with respect to these condiments . . . out of 7000 of these cruelly-used captives, the sick list only gave 13 in hospital.

To accompany a sketch of a planter’s family and servants he wrote:

However repugnant slavery as an institution must be to the English mind, no useful purpose is to be gained by keeping the eyes shut to the undoubted fact that where slaves are well treated, many of them grow accustomed to, and happy under, their servitude. This becomes easier when it is recollected that the children of the family grow up among the Negro domestic servants, and often learn to regard them with as much affection as they show their own parents.

Vizetelly was west with General Joe Johnston and missed Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. He did witness and report on both the siege of Vicksburg and the Battle of Chicamauga.

His biggest scoop, however, came at the end of the war. Having been at Petersburg, and ridden with Mosby briefly, he could see that the Confederacy could not hold out forever against the still well-manned, well-provisioned Union Army. Vizetelly left Johnston’s army on April 2, and took a train to Greensboro, North Carolina, hoping to intercept Confederate President Jefferson Davis as he fled south after the fall of Richmond. On April 15, Vizetelly joined Davis’s group in their effort to escape from the terrible retribution they were sure the Union was going to exact.

By May 1, the presidential party had crossed the Carolinas and was ready to enter Georgia. On May 4, Davis decided to leave his entourage of Cabinet members and troops and continue with a much-reduced company until May 9, when Mrs. Varina Davis and the Davis children joined him near Gordon, Georgia. It was at this time that Frank Vizetelly left the company of President Davis, after giving a large sum of money to help his friends travel further.

Forty-eight hours after Vizetelly left Davis and his family, they were taken prisoner at Irwinville, Georgia.

Vizetelly returned to England, renewed his friendships with men such as Garibaldi, and tried to stay away from the headlines for a while. Nevertheless, he felt the old, familiar pull of adventure when the followers of Islamic cleric al-Mahdi began their insurrection against the Sudanese Egyptians. He agreed to cover the war for the London Graphic. By 1883, the newspaper was no longer receiving any reports or sketches from Frank Vizetelly. It is thought that he was killed at the Battle of Kashgil in November, 1883, as he was never heard from again.

2 Responses to Drawing the War, Part 3: Frank Vizetelly

  1. Having read this I thought it was extremely informative. I
    appreciate you taking the time and energy to put this informative article together.
    I once again find myself spending way too
    much time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

  2. I recently found out that Vizatelly was my 3rd generation Uncle and learning about him has been so fascinating! I’m originally from MN but now live in SC, so it’s interesting to hear how he made friendships on both sides. Thanks for writing this article!

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