Waud’s Sketchy Spotsylvania (part four)

Alfred Waud

(part four in a series)

I’ve been tracking Alfred Waud across the Spotsylvania battlefield, trying to figure out why one of his sketches, “Advance on Spotsylvania,” bears the date “May 9” although it depicts events from May 10. The first three posts have laid out the breadcrumbs that led me to the conclusion that the sketch is simply misdated.

As I suggested in part three of the series, I have one other reason to think Waud didn’t make the sketch until sometime on May 11. This is more of a hunch, though, based on my experience and instincts from my former life as a journalist. “Advance on Spotsylvania” was never converted to a woodcut and published. (Part one of the series lays out the sketches and which ones subsequently made it into publication.) That suggests to me that it was crowded out by other news.

Let’s look more closely at the order in which the woodcuts appeared.

As a reminder, the battle of the Wilderness took place May 5-7 and the battle of Spotsylvania took place May 8-21. I point this out because images appear in Harper’s Weekly out of chronological order, with images from one battle comingling with images from the other. You can peruse all these images for yourself at Son of the South’s online Harper’s Weekly archive.

The May 28 issue of Harper’s Weekly featured the first images from the campaign:

  • “Hancock’s Corps Crossing the Rapidan” (May 4)
  • “Battle of the Wilderness” (Bartlett’s brigade attacking across Saunders Field on May 5)
  • “Army of the Potomac, Sleeping on Their Arms” (that paper places this on the night of May 6)

The June 4 issue of Harper’s Weekly featured:

  • Wounded escaping fires of the Wilderness (May 6)
  • Scene of General Sedgwick’s Death (May 9)
  • Wadsworth’s division fighting in the Wilderness (May 6)
  • “Generals Hancock and Wright Fighting for the Enemy’s Rifle Pits” (the Mule Shoe fight of May 12)
  • “General Wright’s Corps Running in Twelve Hundred Rebel Prisoners” (Upton’s Assault on May 10)

That issue also featured sketches from the battle of Dug Gap in Georgia and the battle of Albemarle Sound.

The June 11 issue of Harper’s Weekly featured:

  • Belle Plain—Grant’s Late Base of Supplies (“late” because he had, by June 11, shifted south already)
  • Warren Rallying the Marylanders (May 8)
  • Battle of the Salient (May 12)
  • Spotsylvania Court House (undated sketch of the village but, according to the paper, “taken from a point within the Federal lines”)
  • Batteries on General Warren’s Left
  • Crossing the Ny

These last two are also undated but, as I explained in part three, they most likely come from May 11 or later.

This issue also included sketches from the battle of Resaca in Georgia.

The June 18 issue of Harper’s Weekly featured:

  • Fire-proof in the Wilderness, on the spot of Sedgwick’s death (the fire-proof was built after Sedgwick’s death on May 9)
  • Cold Harbor, June 1
  • “The Campaign in Virginia—‘On to Richmond’” (undated)
  • Battle of the North Anna River (May 23-26)

Plus, there are sketches from “the campaign in Georgia.”

By June 25, Harper’s Weekly moved on exclusively to images from Cold Harbor in the east.

If Waud had indeed sketched the “Advance on Spotsylvania” on May 9, based on the timing of other sketches, it would have appeared by the June 11 issue. A sketch that came a little later, though, would have had to compete with sketches of all sorts of other news, most notably the fight at the Mule Shoe, as well as images finally arriving from the Georgia campaign.

“Narrow escape of Genl. Meade: Some cavalry dashing out of the woods suddenly upon the genl. and his attendants came very near cutting off their retreat and making a capture of the party. Prominent near the genl., Col. Michler on a rough track or farm road that wound along the foot of a tree covered knoll out from which came the rebs to cut them off.”

Waud did make other sketches from the battle that didn’t make it into print. My favorite is “Narrow escape of Gen. Meade” from May 14. On May 18, Waud sketched a pair of scenes from the Federal attack on May 18:

My gut tells me—although this is by no means definitive—the pace of news was happening too fast for the publishers to keep up with. There just wasn’t room for woodcuts of these sketches because they were all “old news” compared to everything else going on.

Discussing the order and placement of these images actually serves as a good segue to a larger question: Why is any of this important? After all, most of what we’ve done during this four-part series has been hair splitting, isn’t it? We’ve been rolling around in minutia. Does it matter in the larger scheme?

We’re living in an age where public trust in the media is pretty low. We hear cries of “fake news” all the time (whether it’s actually fake or just news we don’t agree with or want to hear about is another matter). Accuracy in the news media matters. Reporters need to get their facts straight—and this was as true 157 years ago as it is today. Otherwise, if we can’t depend on our news sources for accurate information, how can we depend on them for anything?

As historians, we likewise hope Waud got it right. We look at a document like his sketch and use the date on it as evidence to help us figure out what happened when. If the date is wrong, the assumptions we make and conclusions we draw about the events in the sketch are inherently flawed. That can lead to bad history, even if unintentionally.

Historians and journalists alike should always approach their sources with healthy skepticism. As consumers of news and of history, we should likewise approach our reading material with a critical eye. As Ronald Regan once said, “Trust but verify.”

As I mentioned, I got started down this trail because I was trying to place the spot where Brig. Gen. Thomas Greely Stevenson was killed on the morning of May 10. Waud’s sketch is one piece of the puzzle—but the date matters because, using that image as a reference point, one can come to very different conclusions about where Stevenson was killed if the action in Waud’s picture takes place on May 9 versus May 10. In a later post, I’ll explore that and share with you the results of the work that led me down this road in the first place.

5 Responses to Waud’s Sketchy Spotsylvania (part four)

  1. “My gut tells me—although this is by no means definitive—the pace of news was happening too fast for the publishers to keep up with. There just wasn’t room for woodcuts of these sketches because they were all “old news” compared to everything else going on.”

    I definitely share that with my April 2, 1865 research! I’ve so found the dates listed on sketches and photos to be unreliable, particularly when the event is part of a larger campaign.

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