Depiction and Denial: Execution During the Civil War

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Depiction and Denial: Execution During the Civil War

Alfred Rudolph Waud’s Execution of Michael Lanahan

By Alba Campo, Visiting Student 

The American Civil War stained the land with more blood than had ever been seen before. Around three million soldiers fought in both armies and 720,000 died in the contest. These losses, however, did not always take place on the battlefields in heroic circumstances. Soldier executions within the army were a harsh reality – 267 executions – to send a strong moral lesson, and artist-reporters were in the forts to illustrate the internal discipline of the Union army.[1] The drawing Execution of Michael Lanahan stands as evidence of the importance that the military placed on executions.

When this image is compared with its later reworking as an engraving for the press, an interesting fact comes to light. While these executions were actually quite prevalent, the depictions in the illustrated newspapers were rare and filtered or even censored. The reason for this misrepresentation lies in the demands of the civilian audience. The average reader of pictorial journalism hoped to see victories and heroic deaths, instead of merely criminal punishments. This study will focus on the emergence of the artist-reporter in the Civil War, Alfred Rudolph Waud's depictions of life in military forts, and the re-working of his drawing when published in the pictorial press.

The newly-born Figure of the Artist-Reporter

Western art in the nineteenth century dealt with many political issues. Starting with the American Revolutionary War and followed by similar waves in Europe, the political convulsions of the period compelled artists to get involved in public affairs. Indeed, history painting developed complicated allegories to speak about reality in many voices, making everybody feel represented. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 introduced a turning point in this history-painting genre. Although the major artists of the period created art works that still dealt with national tensions allegorically,[2] illustrated journalism developed in response to and to facilitate the immediacy of information, which created a special climate for the birth of a new genre: the pictorial reporting of war. Canvases did not suit the circumstances of battle. The quick overlapping events of the war demanded the on-site presence of correspondents to report the conflict's evolution with quick drawings. This fact led to the institution of the artist-correspondent, or the “Special Artist,” an artist who joined the army in order to make first-hand sketches and send them to illustrated journals.

Alfred R. Waud was born in London, England, on October 2, 1828, and moved to the United States in 1850. In 1861, the New York Illustrated News sent him to Virginia to report on the Civil War. He stayed for the four years of the war in Fortress Monroe (Hampton, VA) joining the Army of the Potomac. In January 1862 he left the News and joined Harper's Weekly, the pictorial journal for which he worked for the rest of the conflict. His quest was not unique, because Theodore R. Davis, Edwin Forbes and Henri Lovie, among others, also went to the battlefields to draw the war. “Waud [however] was the only Special Artist who remained on duty during the entire continuance of the war,” and this fact made a great difference between Waud's drawings and the other artists' in terms of number and treatment of the topics.[3] Recognized as the “best Special Artist in the field” by his colleague Theodore R. Davis, Waud contented himself during the breaks in battle by sketching scenes of camp life, fortifications, military reviews or scouting forays.[4] The repeated artistic activity led him to develop easily identifiable drawings,[5] as well as to learn the mechanisms of the camp's life and the value of military discipline.

Rendering Civil War events at the Forts (I)

The Execution of Michael Lanahan (see figure 1) is a drawing from the Becker Collection made by Waud on January 6, 1862. According to the writing on the drawing, the execution took place near Meridan Hill, Washington, D.C. at 12 am. The official report of the event states: “Michael Lanahan, a private in Company A, 2nd Infantry, Regulars, was part of the City Guard at Washington when he was accused of murder. His file does not indicate whom he murdered. Lanahan, however, was convicted by general court-martial, and hanged 6 January 1862.”[6] In addition to this information, Harper's Weekly provided the detailed circumstances that led to his execution. Lanahan had a personal issue against Sergeant Brennan, and after an argument the former shot the latter, killing him instantly. The culprit was tried by court-martial and sentenced to hang.[7]

The ultimate punishment for a Union soldier who had been tried and convicted of a major crime against military or civilian authority was death by musketry or by hanging. While musketry was considered a soldier's death, hanging was restricted to the punishment of ignoble crimes. These ignoble actions were crimes committed against civilians, such as rape, pillage, and robbery. But Lanahan was a murderer executed by the shameful method of hanging. The reason is related to the gravity of the crime – murdering a superior officer – because using rope was much more complicated than shooting bullets, and a commander would only hang soldiers to punish an action that severely deserved it.[8]

Hanging or shooting was not just a matter of the suffering of the condemned soldier but also sent a moralizing message to the audience. Military executions conducted by the Union army were massive, carefully orchestrated events. The prisoner first prayed with a clergyman of his choice and was escorted from the cell to an army wagon where he was seated next to his coffin. Wearing plain civilian clothing, he was led in a military parade that all the fort's soldiers watched. Once on the gallows, the prisoner would stand high above the crowd while an officer read the orders with all the details of the crime committed. A staccato drumbeat marked the end of the reading of the orders and the imminence of the execution. The trap was pulled and the condemned prisoner was hanged by the neck. The ceremony did not finish until all the men had seen him and benefited from the spectacle. After that, the body was cut down, embalmed and shipped to the victim's family for final disposition. The public display of the execution sought to present an object lesson to all witnesses. The solemnity of the ritual prepared the soldiers’ mood. Then, the victim's mixed feelings of shame and fear created an image that was hard to forget.  Robert Alotta describes the effect of the spectacle:

The apparent vulnerability of humanity was expressed graphically in action, not in words. The sight of a fellow soldier, unable to stand erect with tears and saliva mingling on his face, being half-carried, half-dragged to his death, was designed to achieve maximum impact on all witnesses and underscore the complete and total power of military command over each and every member of the army.[9]

In this context, the drawing Execution of Michael Lanahan stands as clear evidence of two facts: on one hand, the importance and solemnity of this military event for members of the army; on the other hand, the artist's intimate knowledge of daily life in a military fort and his empathy with the inhabitants. Aided by a simple pencil on paper, Waud drew the gallows in the center left of the composition, giving it prominent presence. The darker and more defined lines of its structure and of the body hanging heavily with masked face convey the action that just took place. Around the main scene, a crowd of soldiers with lowered heads observes the ceremony. Even the cavalry commander in charge of the execution has a solemn look, which is reinforced by the downward turn of his horse's neck. The stage rests silent and quiet. A soldier died by execution, and every man in the field experienced the fear of death.

It could be stated, then, that Waud's empathy with the soldiers, which had been nourished by their four-year coexistence in Fortress Monroe, differentiates his drawings from the drawings of other “Special Artists”. In addition, his work can be compared with photography, which also had an important role in depicting the war. The mechanical reproduction of photographs provided them a documentary status. For example, the Execution of a Colored Soldier renders the executed body of an African American man hanging in the gallows for “educational values”. According to Frances Pohl, the picture was intended to prevent other black males from attempting rape of white women,[10] but the frozen character of the image did not succeed in providing the moral lesson, and it was left to the “Special Artist” to convey the visual news of the war.[11] The body lies alone, surrounded by a dry landscape, and only in the right corner do some Union soldiers appear in the shadows. More than a disciplinary measure, the picture shows an anti-black action in a fictitious objective fashion.

Rendering Civil War Forts ( II)

Civil War drawings made by the “Special Artists” were sent by mail to the pictorial journals' headquarters. There, “the art superintendent chose a sketch to be worked up into an engraving – an editorial procedure whose criteria of selection, beyond 'newsworthiness', unfortunately remain murky.”[12] The chosen sketch was redrawn in a new version “with greater detail and consistent perspective”[13] and then, the engraving process started. The final engraving of an artist-reporter's drawings suffered obvious changes, although the newspapers' civilian readership assumed the images to faithfully render the Civil War. The pictures' observers had a manipulated vision of the conflict that responded to their very taste for the heroic, a romantic constructed ideal of the war, held by people in the cities.

The Execution of Michael Lanahan appeared on January 25, 1862, published as an engraving in Harper's Weekly (see figure 2). The whole title said: “Execution of Michael Lanahan, of the Regular Army, for murder, at Washington. Sketched by Mr. A. Waud. Fortress Monroe and its surroundings.”[14]  With these words, the original unsigned drawing was identified as Waud's work, and it already showed significant modifications as an engraving. The gallows was moved into a blurred background while the image focused on the cavalry officer and the people gathered around him. Some civilians, including a child, join the soldiers. One remaining element provides a clue to the attitude implied by the new treatment of the image: the engraving was followed by a little article titled “Fortress Monroe and its surroundings”, which explained the interesting facts of the military setting. Even more surprising was the treatment given to this drawing in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.[15] On January 18, 1862, this publication depicted an engraving also inspired by Waud's drawing entitled: “The Campaign in Kentucky –Arrival of the National Army Gen. Buell.” with no mention of the execution (ill.3). Lanahan and the gallows disappeared entirely and Fortress Monroe was converted into a Kentucky landscape.

The American Civil War pushed both Frank Leslie's and Harper's Weekly to innovate in the world of pictorial journalism. These publications developed new pictorial mechanisms in order to bring the war news home in an exciting and immediate manner. The reporting in Frank Leslie’s has been characterized as “never in-depth or profound.”[16] The original sketches were adapted to the block's size and some elements were emphasized to create an effective image. Realism hardly characterized the practice of either textual or pictorial journalism; authenticity was of more concern than accuracy.[17] Harper's Weekly was too respectable to show plain reality, and Frank Leslie's taste for the sensational filtered the news to gain popularity. On one hand, an execution of a private was not likely to interest the civilian audience. People in the cities wanted to have good news from the war or to hear of heroic deaths. “The death of General Nathaniel Lyon at the Battle of Wilson's Creek” stands as a good example of the prevailing romanticism in the Civil War renderings.[18]  In contrast to criminal soldiers, romantic heroes were celebrated. Therefore, the remarkable event of a military execution would be transformed into a battle setting or a more exciting happening.

The double publication of the drawing raises a final question: why would the two main American illustrated newspapers have published both engravings based on Alfred Waud's drawing? The first hypothesis follows the Waud brother connection. Alfred Waud worked for Harper's Weekly, while his brother William Waud worked for Frank Leslie's. The fact that Alfred Waud's brother worked for a rival company could help explain how one drawing could be used for profit twice. A second hypothesis focuses on a specific event in Alfred Waud's professional career. In January 1862, the artist stopped working for the New York Illustrated News and joined Harper's Weekly, the pictorial journal that he worked for during the rest of the conflict. The gap of time  between working for the former and the latter companies could have led the artist to try new publishing possibilities, like working for Frank Leslie's. Whatever the answer to the mystery, the evidence shows that Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper published the engraving on January 18, 1862 and Harper’s Weekly did so one week later, on January 25, 1862.

Conclusion

Soldiers and civilians perceived executions differently during the American Civil War. The fatal punishment for military personnel was an unfathomable event for people in the city. The pictorial role of the illustrated newspapers was to depict what the audience asked for. Heroic battles and light-hearted army anecdotes did not leave room for the inclusion of miserable disciplinary events. Michael Lanahan's execution was important to Alfred R. Waud, because of his attachment to the fort and the people who lived there. The same event earned a half page engraving at Harper's Weekly with a title that included the name of the executed soldier, but this engraving was just an excuse to show Fortress Monroe; in Frank Leslie's, however, only the surrounding landscape was show, and was adapted to depict a completely different event: the Campaign in Kentucky. Therefore, illustrated journalism worked for the popular interest in a romanticized image of war, an image that made no allowance for the misery of soldiers' lives, their real lives.   

 

Appendix

I. Images

Fig. 1

 

Figure 1. “Execution of Michael Lanahan” (Becker)CW-UK-DC-ND-1, graphite on paper, 13.0 x 9.0 inches, tear at left edge; folded corners.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Execution of Michael Lanahan, of the Regular Army, for murder, at Washington. –Sketched by Mr. A. Waud.— Fortress Monroe and its surroundings. Harper’s Weekly, (January 25, 1862), 60.

Figure 3

Figure 3. “The Campaign in Kentucky”, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,  (January, 18, 1862), 140.

 

Other possible Waud's:

Easton's Battery

Figure 3

Ref No.: (Becker)CW-UK-VA-61-1

Location: Virginia, United States

-Horizontal disposition of the composition

-Horizontal and diagonal handwriting, with the characteristic Y letter

-Grouping of figures into one consistent block

-Located in Virginia

Fleet at Annapolis

Figure 4

 

Ref No.: (Becker)CW-UK-MD-ND-6      

Location: Annapolis, Anne Arundel, Maryland, United States

-Horizontal and diagonal disposition of the handwriting

-Horizontal line in the horizon, and horizontal composition

-Taste for water/sea landscapes

-Transparent figures”: soft drawing-line with no filling (when using pencil)

 

Fort Monroe

Figure 5

 

Ref No.: (Becker)CW-UK-VA-ND-6

Location: tgn, Hampton, Virginia, United States

-Handwriting annotations in a horizontal and diagonal disposition

-Horizontal composition

-Taste for water/sea landscapes

-Taste for depicting soldiers riding horses

 

Old Point Comfort, Fort Monroe, VA

Figure 6

Ref No.: (Becker)CW-UK-VA-ND-9

Location: Old Point Comfort, Hampton, Virginia, United States

-Handwriting annotations in a horizontal disposition

-Horizontal composition

-Taste for water/sea landscapes

 

The Advance of the Union Lines Against Petersburg, VA



 

Figure 7

 Ref No.: (Becker)CW-UK-VA-64-2

Location: Petersburg, Dinwiddie, Virginia, United States

-Handwriting annotations in a diagonal disposition

-Horizontal composition

 

The Pardon of the Mutineers



 

Figure 8

Ref No.: (Becker)CW-UK-VA-64-1

Location: tgn, Hampton, Virginia, United States

-Handwriting annotations in an horizontal disposition

-Horizontal composition

-Grouping of figures into one consistent block

 

The Rip Rap in Hampton roads opposite Fortress Monroe

Figure 9

Ref No.: (Becker)CW-UK-VA-ND-8

Location: Hampton Roads, Hampton, Virginia, United States

-Handwriting annotations in a horizontal disposition

-Horizontal line in the horizon, or horizontal composition

-Taste for water/sea landscapes

 

Union Fleet Below Fort Darling

Figure 10
Ref No.: (Becker)CW-UK-VA-ND-7

Location: tgn, James River And Kanawha Canal, Virginia, United States

-Handwriting annotations in a horizontal and diagonal disposition

-Horizontal line in the horizon, or horizontal composition

-Taste for water/sea landscapes

 

II. Texts

II.a.      Characteristics of Alfred Rudolph Waud's drawings

  • Handwriting annotations: the handwriting goes from left to right (opposite than italics) or from right to left; the annotations appear most of the times at the bottom of the drawing, or sometimes also on top, often in a horizontal disposition (although there are few comments in diagonal followed by a line that points at something in the drawing); letters y, w, capital f and th are very alike in all the drawings
  • Horizontal line in the horizon, or horizontal composition
  • Tendency to organize the figures lining soldiers in squadrons
  • Taste for water/sea landscapes
  • Transparent figures”: soft drawing-line with no filling (when using pencil)
  • Taste for depicting generals riding horses in the foreground

 

In addition to the formal characteristics, Frederick Ray describes the material aspects of his drawings:

 

“The drawings, rendered in pencil and sometimes in washes of black and Chinese white, are executed on toned paper, gray-green, brown, or tan, which allowed for the emphasis with the opaque (Chinese) white. They range in various sizes, some finely detailed, others hasty “short-hand” sketches made in the heat of battle...”[19]

 

II.b.      Report of the execution of Michael Lanahan

“EXECUTION OF A PRIVATE SOLDIER.

ON page 60 we illustrate THE EXECUTION OF PRIVATE LANAHAN, of the regular army, who was hung for murder at Washington on 6th January. The following extracts from the Herald correspondence contain the history of the affair:

Lanahan had for some time entertained a grudge against Sergeant Brennan, and when the homicide occurred he was reprimanded by the Sergeant for being absent from his post at guard mounting. Lanahan replied to the Sergeant impudently, and when Brennan turned quickly and asked what he said, Lanahan leveled his musket and fired, killing the Sergeant instantly. The culprit was tried by court-martial, and sentenced to be hung. Major-General McClellan, upon a careful review of the record, which disclosed facts that would have convicted him of murder in the first degree before any impartial jury, signed the death-warrant. Brennan was an officer much respected, and his murder was the subject of much comment at the time.

This morning, at ten o'clock, Lanahan was taken from the central guard-house, and, accompanied by his spiritual adviser, Father Walter, of St. Patrick's Church, placed in a carriage, guarded by a file of regulars, conveyed by way of Ninth Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, and thence to Franklin Square. Lanahan was dressed in his regular uniform, and, with the exception of an unnatural paleness, looked as usual. He was short in stature, and dark-complexioned.

At eleven o'clock an escort., composed of five detachments from regiments of United States Infantry, took the prisoner through Fourteenth Street and Vermont Avenue to the place of execution, a vacant space between O and P streets. Here was a gallows, which had been erected during the morning, and around this the troops were ranged in a hollow square. The prisoner was taken from the carriage at a quarter past eleven o'clock, and, with a single armed guard, approached the scaffold, accompanied by Father Walter. He mounted the scaffold with a firm step and looked around upon the soldiery without flinching. General Devereaux, Assistant Adjutant-General, read in a clear voice the order for the execution, to which the prisoner calmly listened, occasionally looking around for the last time at his comrades upon the field. Three or four hundred spectators only had gathered around the military to witness the impressive spectacle.

The troops were brought to a parade rest, and the prisoner requested that his arms, which had been pinioned behind him, might be loosened, as he desired to meet his fate like a man. The request was complied with, and Father Walter put on his sacerdotal robes, and knelt for a few minutes to offer up the last petition for him who was soon to expiate his crime. Lanahan looked around when the priest had concluded his prayer, and said, in a cheerful and audible voice, as he looked around upon the military cordon, "Good-by, soldiers, good-by! " The black cap was drawn over his face, and he stepped firmly upon the trap, where he placed himself in the position of the soldier, with his arms by his side. All things being ready, Corporal Brown, at half past eleven o'clock, placed his foot upon the spring, and Lanahan, who had not been unnerved for an instant, fell, and his life was over.

There were a few muscular contractions of the body, but the spinal cord was broken, and in a few minutes then surgeons examined the body, and pronounced life extinct. The corpse was placed in an army wagon, and conveyed by comrades of the deceased to the Catholic Cemetery for burial.

Within half an hour after the execution the scaffold was removed, and persons living a square distant hardly knew that such an affair had taken place in their neighborhood.”[20]

 

Bibliography

Alotta, Robert I. Civil War Justice. Union Army Executions under Lincoln. White Mane:

Shippensburg, 1989.

Brown, Joshua. Beyond the lines: pictorial reporting, everyday life, and the crisis of gilded-age

America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Long, Lisa A., Rehabilitating bodies: health, history and the American Civil War. Philadelphia:

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Lonn, Ella, Desertion during the Civil War. Gloucester, Massachussets: P. Smith, 1966 [1928].

Lowry, Thomas P., Don't shoot that boy!: Abraham Lincoln and military justice. Mason City,

IA: Savas Pub. Co., 1999.

Pohl, Frances K., Framing America. A Social History of American Art. London: Thames and

Hudson, 2008.

Ray, Frederick E., Alfred Waud, Civil War artist. New York: Viking Press, 1974.

Witness to the Civil War: first-hand accounts from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Compiled by J.G. Lewin and P.J. Huff; edited by Stuart A.P. Murray; foreword by James G.

Barber. New York: Collins, 2006.

 


[1] Robert I. Alotta, Civil War Justice. Union Army Executions under Lincoln. (White Mane: Shippensburg, 1989), 43.

[2] See Fitz Henry Lane and Frederick Church's evocative landscapes, or the more explicit canvases of Winslow Homer's (Prisoners from the Front or The Veteran in a new field).

[3] Frederick E. Ray, Alfred Waud, Civil War Artist. (New York: Viking Press, 1974), 32.

[4]  Ibid, 32 and 20.

[5] See the list of characteristics of his drawings as well as the possible Waud's drawings in the Becker Collection.

[6] Robert I. Alotta, Civil War Justice. Union Army Executions under Lincoln. (White Mane: Shippensburg, 1989), 53.

[7] Harper’s Weekly, (January 25, 1862), 60.

[8] Robert I. Alotta, Civil War Justice, 37.

[9] Robert I. Alotta, Civil War Justice. Union Army Executions under Lincoln. (White Mane: Shippensburg, 1989), 39.

[10] Frances K. Pohl, Framing America. A Social History of American Art. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008), 222.

[11] Frederick E. Ray , Alfred Waud, Civil War Artist. (New York: Viking Press, 1974), 31.

[12] Brown, Joshua. Beyond the lines: pictorial reporting, everyday life, and the crisis of gilded-age America. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 35.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Harper's Weekly (25 January 1862), 60.

[15] “The Campaign in Kentucky”, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,  (January, 18, 1862), 140.

[16] Witness to the Civil War (New York: Collins, 2006), ix.

[17] Joshua Brown, Beyond the lines: pictorial reporting, everyday life, and the crisis of gilded-age America. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003): paragraphs 110-115.

[18] Ibid, 56.

[19] Frederick E. Ray, Alfred Waud, Civil War artist. (New York: Viking Press, 1974), 32.

[20] Harper’s Weekly, (January 25, 1862), 62.