Soldier-Artists and the Battle Experience (Part I)

This is the first of two posts regarding soldier-artists and their depictions of the experience of battle.

“Pshaw. It’s no use, they can’t picture a battle,” exclaimed the young son of Reverend A. M. Stewart of the 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, a recent observer of the battles of Williamsburg and Fair Oaks, as he indignantly threw down a copy of Harper’s Weekly with images depicting those engagements. By 1862’s end, Stewart noted that pictures “of officers with drawn swords riding before their men into battle” led the enlisted men to “shout out with mocking irony; all played out.[i] It seemed that war pictures, to those who had seen war, weren’t all that war-like.

But armies are composed of individuals, no matter how uniform military officials might attempt to make them, and so some men disagreed. In June 1864, George Oscar French wrote a letter advising his home-circle “to get Harpers Weekly of the 11th June. All the pictures about the Army of the Potomac are very good.” Two months later, he recommended another image for his father’s observation, noting that it was “perfectly lifelike” and could be studied for “ten minutes to good advantages.”[ii] But whilst most of the rank-and-file gauged the accuracy of conventional war images around campfires and in their correspondence, there were those decided to take up pencils and paintbrushes to make their own.

These soldier-artists are generally rendered peripheral in our comprehension of the conflict, despite the prolific outpouring of scholarship in recent decades on both Civil War artwork and the ordinary soldier. Men such as Alfred Bellard, John J. Omenhausser, Robert Knox Sneden, Charles Wellington Reed, Alfred E. Mathews, and Adolph Metzner, all unknowingly contributed to the creation of a collective visual scrapbook that provides insight into the totality of the soldier’s war experience. Much of the artwork is now published, but it rarely receives the scholarly consideration of historians: high-art painting and prominent photographs enjoy their focus. But the soldier’s artwork, no matter how folkloric or even primitive it may appear, holds much potential for analysis. Soldiers weren’t merely attempting to record the sights they encountered. They were making artistic statements about their war experiences.

By briefly comparing two Union soldier-artist’s depictions of the Battle of Stones River, one can gain an appreciation of the ways soldiers employed artwork to convey differing sentiments about the battle experience. Adolph Metzner, a captain in the 32nd Indiana Infantry, and Alfred E. Mathews, a musician in the 31st Ohio Infantry, both made pictures of Stones River, but their subjects, techniques, and intended audiences result in markedly dissimilar images. Metzner produced his image for himself, or at most a close circle of associates or family members. Conversely, Mathews had his ambition set on commercial success, and so his picture would pass through the censoring gaze of the printmakers to be made digestible for the northern citizenry.

Metzner’s artwork initially exhibited an exaggerated and comical outlook towards the war, but shifted to show the turmoil his regiment experienced following the loss of comrades at Rowlett’s Station in December 1861.[iii] By Shiloh in April 1862, the comedic elements notable in his early works were irretrievable. One of the most graphic of Metzner’s images was The rebel line at Stones River, (Murfreesboro), Jan. 1863. “A cozy corner.” The watercolour depicts a portion of the Confederate line following the battle. Soldiers of all ranks lay pell-mell in heaps. A sword, a symbol of martial authority and of southern honour and chivalry, is notable protruding from the mass of the dead.

There is no formal hierarchy in this death scene. Soldiers are rendered anonymous as they die facedown or are mangled by their wounds from the storm of bullets and shells. The carrion birds gather above the mass as they prepare to feast on the slain, emphasising fears regarding the appropriate treatment of the dead. Civil War soldiers worried greatly about their remains, as one Confederate wrote: “It is dreadful to contemplate being killed on the field without a kind hand to hide one’s remains from… the gnawing of… buzzards.”[iv] Metzner’s scene depicts the soldier’s anxiety over the futility of such improper deaths.

Of particular note in this image is the almost religious and sacrificial symbolism of the figures at centre-left. The pyramidal composition, which is traditionally employed to represent order and stability in conventional artwork, is that which draws the eye to the one soldier’s desperate attempt to grasp at his comrade. It is rendered the most humane act in this depiction of battle. It is no coincidence that the two subjects form a pieta, particularly in view of the similarity in the location of the bullet wound on the officer’s right breast and Christ’s chest wound caused by the Holy Lance. But in this representation, such sacrifice is revealed as useless, for the only reward is to face an impending and unheroic death in Metzner’s paradoxically Cozy corner.

But Metzner’s scene reveals sympathy rather than any hatred for the enemy. This is no exhibition of the triumph of Union military might, but instead a mournful scene illustrating the traumas of modernising warfare. Though new innovations in armament development occurred in the antebellum era, most combat continued to occur at a range of about one hundred yards, meaning that it was impossible to facilitate emotional distance from destructive acts.[v] Metzner’s work reveals the internal struggle that countless soldiers battled with, as the work of killing marked a significant departure from their understandings of themselves as human beings and Christians.[vi] His watercolour is not a visual assault on the Confederate soldier, but a terrifying representation of the fate that frequently befell the victims on both sides of the conflict.

[i] Rev. A. M. Steward, Camp, March and Battle-Field; or, Three Years and a Half with the Army of the Potomac (Philadelphia, PA: Jas. B. Rodgers, Printer, 1865), pp. 280; 188

[ii] George Oscar French, ‘letter, to Dear friends, Camp on the Chickahominy, Near Cold Harbor June 10th;’ ‘letter, to Dear Father, Hospital, Annapolis, Sunday morn. August 28th 1864,’ George Oscar French Letters, Vermont Historical Society, http://vermonthistory.org/research/research-resources-online/civil-war-transcriptions/george-oscar-french-letters

[iii] Michael A. Peake, Blood Shed in this War: Civil War Illustrations by Captain Adolph Metzner, 32nd Indiana (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2010), pp. 2

[iv] Wirt Armistead Cate, ed., Two Soldiers: The Campaign Diaries of Thomas J. Key, C.S.A., December 7, 1863 – May 17, 1865 and Robet J. Campbell, U.S.A., January 1, 1864 – July 21, 1864 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1938), p. 182

[v] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 2008). For more on the destructive power of rifled weaponry, which caused 94% of Union casualties in the war, see Hess’ The Rifled Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008).

[vi] Orestes Brownson; Henry F. Brownson, ed., The Works of Orestes Brownson (Detroit, IL: Thorndike Nourse, Publisher, 1882-87), Vol. 17, p. 214

This entry was posted in Armies, Arms & Armaments, Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Civilian, Common Soldier, Emerging Civil War, Material Culture, Memory, Newspapers, Photography, Primary Sources, Weapons and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Soldier-Artists and the Battle Experience (Part I)

  1. Rhea Cole says:

    I am living history volunteer at Stones River National Battlefield. One of the most difficult things we face is conveying the true nature of what happened while surrounded by a beautiful landscape. This drawing is the most powerful depiction of the true cost of the battle of Stones River that I know of… its simple, pathetic honesty may be unique.
    Mentzer’s drawning above & those in the Library of Congress are not the elaborate stick figure style typical of soldier drawings. His work is carefully observed, buildings are in proper perspective, the comic portraits spot on. He was not a naive amateur. If anybody knows of a good biographical source, I would like to see it.

  2. Peter Culos says:

    As an artist and history geek, I am eagerly looking forward to more posts in this series! What a fascinating idea for a book. I don’t think I’ve seen this subject covered – in this way – before.

  3. pculos says:

    As and artist and history geek myself, I eagerly await the next installments! This is also a great subject for a book. I don’t think I’ve seen Civil War soldier art looked at in this way before. Thanks for posting this piece!

  4. Pingback: Soldier-Artists and the Battle Experience (Part II) | Emerging Civil War

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