Alfred Waud’s Sketchy Spotsylvania (part three)

(part three in a series)

I’ve come to believe Alfred Waud’s sketch “Advance on Spotsylvania,” dated May 9, is actually mis-dated. In the first two posts of this series, I’ve tried to lay out some of the breadcrumbs that led me to this conclusion. Today, let’s follow some of those breadcrumbs across the battlefield. We can map out what events Waud sketched during his first few days of the battle and where on the battlefield each of those events took place. We can also pinpoint when each of those events occurred.

I want to thank my colleague, Edward Alexander, for creating this map for us:

Let me preface this by saying that Waud made several sketches on the battlefield during the second week of the battle. I’m confining my discussions to sketches done of events that took place during the first week of the battle because I’m primarily concerned with the mis-dated sketch of “Advance on Spotsylvania,” which depicts action that took place on May 10-11. Part one of the series includes all the images if you want to refer to them.

As we saw in part one, Waud came down Brock Road with the Army of the Potomac, and his first two sketches capture action that took place there (see #1 and #1 on our map, above). Then Waud gets to the front line, where his third and fourth sketches take place (#3 and #4).

It’s worth noting that Waud sketches the spot of Sedgwick’s death, suggesting he did not witness Uncle John’s death first hand. Sedgwick was killed May 9. (A Harper’s Weekly woodcut of the soldiers under a wooden shelter also came from this spot—obviously sketched later or Sedgwick would’ve been able to benefit from the shelter on May 9!)

We do know Waud is on hand for Upton’s assault on May 10. He produces sketches five and six during the assault (#5 and #6).

Note how he’s physically moving across the battlefield by this point, based on where the sketches are, as illustrated by our points on the map.

Chronologically, sketch #7 happens next: Federals assembling for their May 12 assault. Let’s take a look because some of the details help us place it:

This is Hancock preparing for the II Corps’ assault on the Mule Shoe. The sketch could not have been made any earlier than late on May 11, although it’s more likely Waud did it early on May 12 for two reasons. The sketch depicts Mott’s Division, which brought up the rear of Hancock’s attack formation (having been savaged pretty hard on May 10). Birney’s and Barlow’s divisions had to get into position first, but they had to march over several miles of bad road in a dark rain in order to do so, getting into place sometime before 3:00 a.m. Mott would have moved into position behind them. Second, Waud sketches enough detail that it’s hard to believe he did so in the dark of night.

Sketches #8 and #9 also depict action from May 12, although it’s doubtful Waud put himself in the line of fire to sketch the fighting at the Bloody Angle—and the perspective he showed in the sketch would have definitely required him to be in the thick of the firing. (See historian John Cummings’ work on fixing the spot where the sketch was drawn.)

Of the work Waud created, he didn’t depict any action that took place on May 11. Aside from skirmishing between both armies, the day passed without any major action.

Waud’ work places him on the western front of the battlefield through May 10, and then he’s near the middle of the battlefield by May 12.

These factors suggest May 11 was most likely Waud’s first opportunity to slip away from the west side of the battlefield and finally visit Burnside’s front to the east along the Fredericksburg Road.

As we discussed in part two of the series, Burnside arrived on the battlefield midmorning on May 9, about the time John Sedgwick had his fatal encounter with a sniper near the Brock Road in the Laurel Hill sector of the battlefield. Waud didn’t see Sedgwick’s shooting first-hand, but he was there soon thereafter to sketch the scene. One might posit that he missed Sedgwick’s death because he was, on the morning of May 9, already with Burnside—except Waud would have had no idea of when Burnside was supposed to arrive on the battlefield. Why ride over there to see for himself when all the action thus far had been on the western front, with no indication that it would be otherwise?

There’s also no quick, convenient way for Waud to get to the far side of the battlefield. Horace Porter, a member of Ulysses S. Grant’s staff, later recounted that “There were two roads by which Burnside could be reached. One was a circuitous route some distance in rear of our lines; the other was much shorter, but under the enemy’s fire for some distance.”[1]

A look at the map Edward did for us shows the two roads: the longer route up Gordon Road, over to Smith Station Road, and down Fredericksburg Road; and the shorter route down Landrum Lane, exposed to the enemy, and over to Harris Farm. The longer route would have intersected with Burnside’s route of advance, shortening the distance to reach Burnside if Waud made the trip on May 9.

Porter had to make the trip himself at “half-past ten on the morning of May 10,” traveling from Grant’s headquarters to Burnside’s. Of the two roads, Porter chose the shorter “on account of the time which would thereby be saved.” To use the road, though, required some stunt riding. “When the exposed part of the road was reached, I adopted the method to which aides so often resorted when they had to take the chances of getting through with a message, and when those chances were not particularly promising—putting the horse on a run, and throwing the body down along his neck on the opposite side from the enemy.” Porter made it through, although the horse was slightly struck. “Although the bullets did considerable execution in clipping the limbs of the trees and stirring up the earth, they were considerate enough to skip me,” he wrote.

While we have no idea which route Waud took, it’s reasonable to assume he would not have put himself in harm’s way unnecessarily (as he demonstrates with sketches of the action on May 10 and 12).

In any case, he did eventually make it to the eastern front. There, he drew sketch ten on our list, showing the Union army crossing the Ny River. The original sketch does not seem to survive, but a woodcut attributed to Waud’s work does. It shows Burnside’s wagon train crossing the Ny, suggesting that the infantry and artillery were already across—and only after did the supply wagons cross.

As outlined in part two, we know Burnside crossed on May 9, engaged in battle, and dug in. Late on the afternoon of May 10, he advanced up to three-quarters of a mile, fought more, and dug in again. On May 11, Grant ordered Burnside to withdraw back across the Ny, which he did, but then Grant ordered him back across the Ny to his former position in front of the village.

With these actions in mind, the sketch Waud made of the army crossing the Ny could have been done on the afternoon of May 9 (after the infantry fight calmed down), sometime on May 10, or early or late in the day on May 11. However, we know he was sketching the site of Sedgwick’s death sometime on May 9, and he was watching Upton’s assault on May 10, so it’s most likely he sketched the river crossing on May 11.

That all finally brings us to “Advance on Spotsylvania.”

“Advance on Spotsylvania”

As I mentioned previously, historian John Cummings has done an excellent job of locating where on the battlefield Waud made this sketch (cleverly marked on our map as #IX for “IX Corps”–see how I did that?). As part two of our series demonstrated, we know this spot wasn’t in Union hands until late in the day on May 10.

Looking at the events of May 8-12 and what, from those events, Waud chose to sketch, and looking where each event happened on the battlefield, my guess is that Waud made his way to the eastern front sometime on May 11.

At some point during the day, he sketched the river crossing. I also think he went right up to the front—exactly where John Cummings has pinpointed—and sketched what he could see of the village. While there, I think he talked to some of the IX troops he met, inviting them, “Tell me about the fighting over here.” They did—and based on their accounts, coupled with his own observations of the scene, he sketched the action after the fact. This is in line with his practice of sketching some of his other scenes after the fact.

Knowing Burnside’s men had arrived on the eastern front on May 9, Waud for whatever reason made the reasonable but incorrect assumption that their initial advance had brought them to their forward-most position.

I have one other reason to think Waud mis-dated his sketch, although it’s a bit more speculative, based more on my own former newsroom instincts than the kinds of puzzle pieces I’ve laid out thus far. We’ll talk about that when we wrap up our series in our next post.


[1] See Porter’s full account in Campaigning With Grant (New York: Century, 1897), 93-94:

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