Civil War Art of the Era & Eyewitnesses: Introduction

It is said that a picture can be worth a thousand words. Visuals shape how history is recorded, portrayed, and remembered, and images are considered primary sources if they are created during the era of study. Photography did exist during the Civil War era and was used famously to bring the images of war to the homefronts and creating a lasting record of people and places scourged by war. However, photography was still comparatively new in the 1860s, and more traditional art forms were used to capture and remember the scenes of battle, camp, home, and politics. These visual primary sources offer a chance to explore the history through the image and delve into the scenes presented, the artist’s biography or experiences, and how the visuals inspired in their own era and shaped memory.

Emerging Civil War is pleased to present a new blog series focusing on Civil War Art. The goal of this collection of articles is to highlight the art created during the 19th Century depicting the Civil War, and trace the stories of soldiers and veterans who created some of the famous paintings, sketches, and engravings that we find connected to the conflict. It is, simply, a look at art created by contemporaries of the war itself. What did they see? What did they create? How did they want this conflict or their experiences to be remembered?

From private diaries with simple illustrations to the skilled work of oil painters or the intricate details brought to life in the hands of woodcut artists, the visuals from the Civil War are more than photographs and offer the opportunity to reflect on what was seen and what was considered worth to remember in traditional art forms.

At the close of the war, Harper’s Weekly paid tribute to their special artists who had seen, sketched, and sent images of camp and combat to the newspaper:

“We may be pardoned for special pride in our own artists who have gone through all the long and stirring campaigns of this war, commemorating its most interesting incidents and noted men, so that the volumes of the “Weekly” are really a vivid history of the struggle. Messers A.R. Waud, Theodore R. Davis, William Waud, Robert Weir, Andrew M’Callum, A.W. Warren and others have been no less busy and scarcely less imperilled than the soldiers. They have made the weary marches and dangerous voyages. They have shared the soldiers’ fare; they have ridden and waded, and climbed and floundered, always trusting in lead pencils and keeping their paper dry. When the battle began they were there. They drew the enemy’s fire as well as our own. The fierce shock, the heaving tumult, the smoky sway of battle from side to side, the line, the assault, the victory – they were a part of all and their faithful fingers, depicting the scenes, have made us a part also.”[1]

They had a story to show, and we invite you explore primary source, art visuals of the Civil War with us over the next few weeks on the Emerging Civil War Blog.

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