The Role of Art and the Use of the Image in the Civil War: Battle Before Williamsburg

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The Role of Art and the Use of the Image in the Civil War: Battle Before Williamsburg

By Carolyn Sauls, Boston College ‘09

The Civil War was the bloodiest and most divisive war in American history.  It left hundreds of thousands dead while freeing millions more from the bonds of slavery.  The country’s sole fixation for years was the conflict between the North and the South and the possible ramifications if either side won.  Citizens across the country looked to newspapers and journals to bring them news of the war, and publications such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly capitalized on the country’s need for information.  These newspapers not only provided written accounts of the war, but also included illustrations that connected their readers more closely with the stories.  From an art historical standpoint, these illustrations are priceless as they are some of the only representations of the actual war.  Painters of the time, such as Frederick Church and Fitz Henry Lane, broached the subject of the war in symbolic and allegorical terms.  Issues such as slavery and abolition, impending war and the fear of the end of the Union were all expressed through landscape or genre painting.  It was the Special Artists, out in the field with the army that showed the country the grim realities of war, not just the theoretical issues surrounding it.

In the end, the newspapers of the day had the distinct ability to shape public perception of the war.  By hailing one officer or condemning the next, papers like Frank Leslie’s were able to shape a general consciousness about the war, therefore affecting things like morale on the home front.  By sending artists out into the field to report directly on what they had seen (regardless of “authenticity” or true depictions of “reality”), the illustrated newspapers of the day gave the average citizen a greater scope of understanding about the war, as they could now see as well as read about what was happening to their country.  

The Becker Collection, of about four hundred Civil War era drawings, gives us a new insight into the source material used for the engravings in illustrated newspapers such as Leslie’s.  Some of the drawings can be considered finished works of art, while others are shorthand sketches of battles or camp life.  Many of them are signed and can be attributed to known working Special Artists of the time, while some leave us with many unanswered questions: Who made the drawing? When was it drawn? What does it depict?  One such drawing depicts the Battle of Williamsburg (see figure 1) fought on May 5, 1862, outside the old colonial capital of Virginia, and is a perfect example of how Leslie’s used images to shape northern sentiments about the war.

From the beginning, the war was filled with enormous setbacks for both sides.  Initially, the momentum seemed to be with the South, as the North faced defeat again and again on the battlefield.  The First Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the war, was fought in July 1861 and signified great trouble for the Union.  Although the Confederates suffered huge losses, they managed a sure victory and dispelled any northern notions that the war might be a short, bloodless conflict.[1]  The Civil War was marked by numerous battles like Bull Run: some of the most devastating battles ever fought by American soldiers in which no clear advantage could be seen at the time.  The Battles of Gettysburg and Shiloh (in July 1863 and April 1862, respectively), for example, although victories for the Union, claimed so many lives that it became hard for either side to see an end of the fighting.

One of the first major operations in the Eastern Theater of the war was the Peninsula Campaign, led by Union General George B. McClellan and waged throughout Virginia from March to July of 1862.  Union objectives were to reach Richmond by moving up along the Virginia peninsula from Fort Monroe with ground and naval forces, while the Confederate troops aimed to delay and frustrate the Union Army.  Through a series of advances and retreats, the Confederate Army of the Peninsula provided more time for the building of a stronger defense of Richmond while avoiding major engagements.  The Peninsula Campaign was an enormous failure for the Union, as the army did not reach Richmond or win any strategic battles.  The campaign typified the indecisiveness of the beginning stages of the war for the North; war had been declared and the whole country was holding its breath, waiting for something to happen.

The Battle of Williamsburg was the first major engagement of the Peninsula Campaign, and therefore it received a fair amount of press.  General James Longstreet led the Confederate Army in a rear-guard action that was meant to enable the Southern forces to escape from Fort Magruder with their guns and supplies.  While defending the Confederate retreat, his troops encountered Union soldiers, and the Battle of Williamsburg began.  Ultimately, the Union forces drove the Confederates back, forcing them to abandon the fort.  Today, the battle is considered inconclusive because while the Union troops were able to drive off the Confederate soldiers, the Confederates succeeded in their plan to slow the progress of the Union Army enough for their own planned retreat.  However, at the time the battle was hailed as a huge success in the North – a hard-fought battle with significant sacrifice, but a great victory none-the-less.[2]  Frank Leslie’s characterized it as a grand conflict, when in reality it was only of secondary importance.  The Battle of Williamsburg is a perfect example of the power of the press to shape public opinion during the Civil War; the battle was inconclusive, yet by highlighting the positive aspects of the engagement and placing the illustration prominently in the paper, Frank Leslie’s was able to put a spin on the story to shape its readers’ views.     

During the war, the press was an indispensable part of the lives of average citizens.  It was the only real source of news about the War, and it served as a direct connection between the soldiers fighting across the country and those who were left at home.  Initially, the Special Artists presented the war in a more romantic light, depicting brave soldiers in classical poses.[3]   For example, Leslie’s depicted the death of General Lyon (the first major general to die in action) in grandiose terms, with the general lying on the ground, still clutching his sword, surrounded by all his men.[4]  By the end of the war, artists were showing a much less idealized side of the fighting, as in Frank Schell’s illustration of the field after the Battle of Antietam.[5] 

It is also important to remember that each newspaper had a bias, and the stories and engravings that were printed did not always show all sides of each situation.  This bias developed throughout the course of the lead up to the war.  Initially, the editors tried to maintain a non-partisan approach to keep their southern readers.[6]  The newspapers’ desire to stay neutral did not last long, and, by the time of the attack on Fort Sumter, the illustrated weeklies published in New York took a decisively northern perspective.  The paper depicted battles as well as highlighted specific officers and soldiers in the army, allowing the public to see the greater panoramic view of the war along with the more personal side. 

The drawing of the Battle of Williamsburg itself, done on paper with graphite pencil, is an unfinished sketch, and its aim is to illustrate the chaos and movement of the battlefield.  It captures one point in the battle when the Confederate troops had retreated. The engraving appeared in Leslie’s only three weeks later, which explains the sketch-like quality of the drawing.  The horizon line falls about the middle of the composition, with a line of trees (identified in the artist’s own handwriting as “woods”) blending into the chaos of the battle in the middle ground.  In the farthest background there is a small structure labeled “fort,” presumably Fort Magruder, which straddled the road between Yorktown and Williamsburg.  The drawing lacks any precise detail, and it is clear that the artist was sketching very quickly to capture the scene as fast as possible.  He used rows of repeated circles and lines to indicate ranks of soldiers rushing forward with their weapons as well as cloud balloons to indicate explosions.  There is notation (such as “felled trees”) throughout the composition to remind the artist where certain things were when he went back to touch up the drawing before sending it to Leslie’s in New York City.  A winding fence splits the composition down the middle and helps to establish fore, middle, and backgrounds.  The most detailed part of the drawing (the foreground) depicts rushing soldiers on foot and horseback, an explosion, a line of felled trees and an uneven, grassy terrain.  The figures, the clouds of smoke, the animals are all done with quick, lighter strokes, and it seems that the artist went back afterwards to add some highlights and shadows with a darker pencil.  Overall, there is a general sense of chaos and confusion that spreads throughout the whole drawing, as figures rush forward in the heat of battle while others fall back, defeated. 

The drawing was published as an engraving in Frank Leslie’s May 24, 1862 issue with almost two full columns for the story.[7]  The engraving follows the drawing almost exactly.  Certain areas have been cleaned up to make the composition more defined, and the engraver added more detail to many of the soldiers to make the picture more visually understandable.  The same general motion of the soldiers, the line of the trees and the fence, the large explosion, the billowing smoke, the soldiers on horseback – they have all been kept the same.  This drawing/engraving provides one kind of visual information for which the editors at Leslie’s were looking.  It depicts the actual battle scene, including certain figures of the dead and wounded but does so in a way that is safe and clean.  Leslie’s wanted its viewers to know what was going on, but they did not want to illustrate the grim realities of war too closely. 

The drawing includes a lot of visual and textual information.  With the writing on the back, we can discover the event and where and when it took place.  However, the drawing does not include any indication of who actually made it.  Leslie’s also offers no additional information, as it says that the engraving was done from a drawing by one of its Special Artists, but nothing more.  After an extensive comparison of this drawing with the rest of the Becker Collection (and many drawings not included in the Becker Collection), I have come to believe that The Battle Before Williamsburg could have been drawn by one of three artists: Alfred R. Waud, Frederic Schell or John F. E. Hillen.  By looking at the subject matter, treatment of figures, animals, landscape, and ultimately handwriting, I have put together a stylistic comparison that makes each of these three artists a possibility. 

Each of these men was in Virginia at the time of the battle, and it is specifically known that Waud was at the Battle of Williamsburg because he sent drawings to Harper’s Weekly that were identified as being by him.  Could he have been double-dealing his employer at Harper’s and sending in drawings to Leslie’s as well?  His brother William worked for Leslie’s, and it is entirely possible that one of his drawings could have ended up in the hands of the editors at Leslie’s.  In reviewing a portion of Waud’s drawings, I have found certain reoccurring similarities that also appear in The Battle Before Williamsburg.  He organizes soldiers into packed ranks, showing just heads and weapons to create a sense of depth.[8]  His depiction of running soldiers is similar to those in my drawing.[9]  He depicts a figure on a horse that stands out in many of the foregrounds of his works.[10]  However, the factor that strikes closest to home is the handwriting on Waud’s drawings.  He adds notation throughout all of his drawings in a distinctive script that tilts to the left.   The script on my drawing also tilts backwards, and the uppercase “F” and lowercase “t” are extremely similar in comparison.[11]  Many of Waud’s drawings (especially battle scenes) have the same chaotic effect that my drawing has, and the styles at times are similar.

While it is not known if Schell was with the Army of the Potomac during the Battle of Williamsburg, he was working for Leslie’s by 1862, and he recorded events at Antietam that year.[12]  The one identifying mark that could connect some of Schell’s drawings to The Battle Before Williamsburg is his treatment of explosions.  While it could be argued that many artists used this technique, in drawings like General McPherson’s Expedition into Mississippi, the similarity is striking.  This also appears in the Siege of Vicksburg – Battery McPherson.[13]

John F.E. Hillen also began work for Leslie’s in 1862, and many of his known drawings are from Virginia during that time period.  His drawing, A Battle Two Miles West of Atlanta is somewhat similar to The Battle Before Williamsburg in its treatment of figures.[14] The figure on the far left hand corner of Hillen’s drawing (a man falling back after he has been shot) is reminiscent of a similar figure in the foreground of The Battle Before Williamsburg.  Hillen’s drawing has a much more finished quality because he has added ink and wash, but there are still some similarities.  None of Hillen’s drawings in the Becker Collection have any writing on them done by the artist, and in fact all of them seem to be much more polished and finished.  However, it is possible that Hillen could have sent in a rougher sketch of the battle because of the time constraints associated with drawing battle scenes.

Ultimately, I believe that the most convincing argument is for Alfred R. Waud.  There are records that put him at the battle, and a stylistic comparison of his handwriting and his other drawings make a compelling case.  Whether or not Waud drew The Battle Before Williamsburg, the most interesting aspect of the drawing is the role it played in shaping public opinion of the time.  It helped take a relatively inconsequential (and ultimately inconclusive) battle and turn it into at least one beacon of hope for the North in the dark, early days of the Civil War.  The slight changes from the drawing to the engraving create a scene that is a little less chaotic, a little clearer in its meaning and objective.  So while newspapers like Frank Leslie’s and Harper’s did not actually change the news of the war, they shaped it to their liking, affecting northern morale as they went along.  Who can measure how much this drawing affected the outcome of the war?  This idea is significant and relevant today as we have begun to question the role of the media in the lives of citizens, especially in the last presidential election.  How does news reporting shape our opinion of politics, economics, and wars?  By understanding how the media used visual images in the past, we can come to a better understanding of what they mean in society today.

 

Appendix

Figure 1

 Figure 1. Unknown. Battle Before Williamsburg, April 6, 1862.

 

Bibliography

Brown, Joshua. Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of

Gilded-Age America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

“The Battle of Williamsburg” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper [New York] 24 May

            1862: 103.

Lewin, J.G. Witness to the Civil War. New York: Collins, 2008.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Ray, Frederic E. Alfred R. Waud: Civil War Artist. New York: Viking Press Inc., 1974

 


[1] Lewin, J.G. Witness to the Civil War. New York: Collins, 2008, 25

[2] "The Battle of Williamsburg." Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper [New York] 24 May 1862: 103.

[3] Brown, Joshua. Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded-Age America. Berkley: University of California P, 2003, 56

[4] Levin, 29

[5] Brown, 56

[6] Ibid, 47

[7] "The Battle of Williamsburg." Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper [New York] 24 May 1862: 103.

 

[8] Ray, Frederic E. Alfred R. Waud: Civil War Artist. New York: Viking Press Inc., 1974, 91. “The Battle of Kernstown” April 1862

[9] Alfred R. Waud: Civil War Artist, 95. “Rebels Leaving Mechanicsville” May 1862

[10] Ibid, 120. “Charge of Humphrey’s Division at the Battle of Fredericksburg” December 1862

[11] Ibid, 123.

[12] See Becker Collection website, http://idesweb.bc.edu/becker/

[13] For both drawings see Becker Collection website, http://idesweb.bc.edu/becker/

[14] see Becker Collection website, http://idesweb.bc.edu/becker/