Soldier-Artists and the Battle Experience (Part II)

This is the second of two posts regarding soldier-artists and their depictions of the experience of battle. Part I may be found here.

To appreciate the extent that images such as Adolph Metzner’s Cozy corner defied the conventions of mainstream art, it is beneficial to draw comparisons between his portrayal of the battle and the musician Alfred E. Mathew’s picture, entitled Charge of the first brigade, commanded by Col. M.B. Walker, on the Friday evening of the battle of Stone River, which was intended for a public audience. Mathews had been a landscape drawer prior to the conflict, and his skill won the admiration of many. A surgeon in the 16th Ohio Infantry recorded meeting the soldier-artist, writing: “I saw some of his sketches. They are all good. His lithograph view of “Boon’s Knob”… is very beautiful and true.”[i] General Ulysses S. Grant wrote Mathews of his views of the siege of Vicksburg, commending him by writing: “[I] do not hesitate to pronounce them among the most accurate and true to life I have ever seen. They reflect great credit upon you as a delineator of landscape views.”[ii]

Both compliments reveal a problematic issue regarding Mathew’s artistic outlook. Whilst many volunteers understood the Civil War itself as their political and social context for creating images, and that very war as their defining artistic experience, Mathews was a skilled landscape artist in the antebellum era. The war itself discouraged traditional artists’ attempts to “create meaning out of the violence” using narrative strategies designed to celebrate clear-cut heroic action and noble virtue. Landscape painters of the Hudson River School, who had visualised the ideologies of national identity by looking west, found their methods incapable of representing the internal crisis unfolding in the east.[iii] Though his creative prowess was clearly recognised by his contemporaries, his grounding in the conventions of landscape art hindered his ability to produce realistic depictions of the battle experience.

Not only did Mathew’s proficiency in landscape painting encumber his artistic representations, but so too did his desire to circulate such images through commercial organisations. Mathew’s sketches were supplied to Middleton, Strobridge, & Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio, a lithographing firm that would convert his images for commercial sale.[iv] These prints were produced in “small folio” sizes to be displayed on walls for “intimate, domestic viewing.”[v] The fidelity with which the printmakers reproduced the original sketches depended entirely on their expertise. Printmakers, with their detachment from the fighting and with a patriotic fervour to instil among the populace, would often censor images to the extent that soldiers barely recognised their depictions.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Several indicators attest to the image’s conventional style. Most notable is the fact that this image presents the spectator with a panoramic battle view that combines the features of both the popularised wilderness aesthetic of American landscape views and those of traditional European history painting.[vi] The perspective taken by Mathews denies the observer the soldier’s view of the fighting, and in doing so reduces these vital participants to miniature figures in a homogenous mass. As the regiments charge, every foot steps forward together and every rifle is levelled in a uniform position. But the Civil War battlefield was, unlike the European landscape where history painting was honed, characteristically rolling and rugged, often denying regiments visibility and cohesion.[vii] Thus, the two artistic styles involved in this image are incompatible. One Pennsylvanian noted that during his entire four year service, he had only witnessed one such assault “that was like the pictures in the newspapers.”[viii]

Additional methods are employed by Mathews and the engravers in order to idealise the actions of the Union soldiers in this image. The officer leading the charge of the supporting regiment, pictured at centre-right with his sword drawn above his head, is almost farcical. Such occurrences were so rare following the early-war period that its inclusion would invite further criticism from experienced soldiers. Though the officer class are also drawn as minute figures, the annotative captions allow spectators to identify officers based on their unit’s position. For example, the first annotation allows one to identify the left-most regiment as the 31st Regiment of Ohio Volunteers, “Lieut. Col. F. W. Lister, Command’g.” The enlisted men are denied recognition, not because of the wounds they have sustained through their participation in the combat, like the victims of Metzner’s Cozy corner, but because their individualisation in the Mathew’s lithograph would detract appreciation from the Union Army as a grand, monolithic fighting machine.

Furthermore, two national flags are placed in an immediately obvious and central position in this picture. The flag borne by the regiment leading the charge rises almost triumphantly from the smoke of battle before the engagement has truly started. Though the national and regimental flags were carried at the centre of regiments, soldiers soon learned that flags did much to draw the enemy’s fire. It was not uncommon for every member of the ten-strong colour guard to be shot dead before a battle was over.[ix] The centrality of the flags and the invincibility of their bearers is more reminiscent of the idealised lithographs of the U.S.-Mexican War.[x] But whilst the vastly distant nature of that earlier conflict invited a more imaginative depiction by artists, the Civil War’s immediacy to a large section of the populace quickly revealed such images as fictitious.

It is important to also note that not a single casualty, killed or wounded, is depicted on the Union side. The soldiers are portrayed as invincible as they march forward. Even on the Confederate line, the only evidence of the casualties are three individuals dramatically falling to the ground. The image depicts none of the carnage that left both belligerents unable to renew any form of offensive against one another for months. Instead, the image provides a level of suspense; illustrating the charge in its initial stages and calling upon the viewer’s imagination to visualise the ensuing combat in their minds, should they wish to.

Consequently, Metzner’s and Mathews’ artwork illustrate how soldiers’ individually perceived their experience of battle as much as any diary entry or letter sent home. Whether choosing to record the plight of their adversaries or the might of the army to which they belonged, the artistic record of the Civil War soldier offers a rich vein of relatively untapped historical source material. Though the illustrations of newspaper sketch-artists, cartoonists, and high-art painters reveal much about perceptions of the Civil War, soldiers’ art allows us to analyse more fully the ways in which those best-poised to visually represent the war experience did so in response to their own lived realities.

[i] B. B. Brashear, ‘letter to the Tuscarawas Advocate Newspaper, March 12, 1862,’ in ‘Letter from Dr. Brashear.’, Tuscarawas Advocate Newspaper (Tuscarawas County, Ohio: March 28, 1862)

[ii] Ulysses S. Grant, ‘Unidentified newspaper clipping in the Western History Department, Denver Public Library,’ Daily Miner’s Register (Central City, Colorado: December 1, 1865), p. 3

[iii] David Holloway; John Beck, eds., American Visual Cultures (London: Continuum Publishing, 2005), p. 13

[iv] Jeffrey Weidman, Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000), p. 277

[v] Alfred Edward Mathews; Middleton, Strobridge & Co., lithograph, 1863 ‘Charge of the first brigade, commanded by Col. M. B. Walker, on the Friday evening of the battle of Stone River. January 2nd, 1863; In which the Rebels were repulsed with heavy loss, and driven behind their breastworks. Sketched by A. E. Mathews, 31st Reg., O.V.I.,’ PGA – – Middleton, Strobridge & Co.—Charge of the first brigade… (D size), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress; Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), p. 13

[vi] Eleanor Harvey defines history painting, in the traditional, academic sense, as the “monumental canvases depicting elaborate battle scenes and heroes” that were prominent in European art. But such imagery had gained, at best, a tenuous foothold in the United States. Even Grand Manner history paintings by artists such as Benjamin West and John Trumbull never garnered the same support as the wilderness aesthetic. Harvey, The Civil War and American Art, p. 5

[vii] Earl J. Hess, The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997), pp. 55-56

[viii] Gilbert Adams Hays, Under the Red Patch; Story of the Sixty Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1864 (Pittsburgh, PA: Sixty-Third Pennsylvania Volunteers Regimental Association, 1908), p. 422

[ix] Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the Civil War (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2008), pp. 157-178

[x] See, for example, N. Currier, lithograph, 1846, ‘Battle of Monterey – The Americans forcing their way to the main plaza Sept. 23th 1846,’ PGA – Currier & Ives—Battle of Monterey (A size), Prints and Photographs Division, LoC, or N. Currier, lithograph, 1847, ‘Battle of Cerro Cordo April 18th 1847,’ PGA – Currier & Ives—Battle of Cerro Cordo April 18th 1847 (A size), Prints and Photographs Division, LoC.

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