What can we learn from a Civil War sketch artist?

by Christopher B. Daly


The little-known artist Alfred Waud was one of the most important “visual journalists” covering the greatest conflict in American history. Along with the young Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast, Waud was assigned to cover the fighting, including the critical Battle of Gettysburg, by drawing sketches that could quickly be converted into engravings that could be printed along with text in the pages of newspapers like Harper’s Weekly.

Much better known are the photographs of Mathew Brady (and his less-well-known team of assistants). But Brady’s photos, for all their power and terribly beauty, all suffered from the technical limitations of the mid-19th century. In order for the chemical emulsions used in photography to leave an impression on the glass or metal plates, the camera’s shutter had to be left open for a comparatively long time — at least several seconds. As a result, cameras in the Civil War era were unable to stop action. If the subject was moving, the image would be blurred.

So, it fell to sketch artists to capture any scene involving motion or action.

Sketch of action at Gettysburg by Alfred Waud for Harper's Weekly. Library of Congress.

Sketch of action at Gettysburg by Alfred Waud for Harper’s Weekly.
Library of Congress.

Now, a professor at Northern Kentucky University has used a Waud sketch to try to learn more about the crucial fighting that took place in Gettysburg, Pa., from July 1 to July 3, 1865. Emeritus Prof. Michael C.C. Adams argues that the sketch by Waud can be used to deduce the distance at which the opposing forces opened fire on each other. Many more Waud sketches can be found online or at the Library of Congress.

In the history of journalism, those Civil War sketches are some of the first examples of illustrating the news in a documentary fashion. Hats off to those brave sketch artists who got right up to the front lines armed with nothing more than a palette and some chalk.

 Alfred Waud, at Gettysburg. Library of Congress

Alfred Waud, at Gettysburg.
Library of Congress

1 Comment

Filed under Journalism, journalism history, Photojournalism

One response to “What can we learn from a Civil War sketch artist?

  1. David

    Waud’s courage is all the more impressive when you consider how impossible it was to not be in constant danger from the hundreds of thousands of inaccurate bullets and cannonballs shot by the tens of thousands of soldiers fighting for 3 days in narrow confines.

    Nonetheless, hundreds of participants’ recollections of Gettysburg have been found and the battlefield is largely unchanged, so the likelihood of deducing anything new and accurate about distance from a sketch is virtually nil. The Kentucky professor would spend his time better working on some of the lesser known important aspects of the campaign, such as that Lee’s army kidnapped every black it found, even those with documentation they wee never slaves or residents of the south, and sold them into slavery. With so many southerners still pretending the Civil War was not about slavery, it would be a useful reminder.

    Or perhaps the professor could write about the absurdity of the US Marine Corps Museum being on Jefferson Davis Highway, which honors a racist traitor who was responsible for more US soldiers dying than Hitler, Ho Chi Minh and Bin Laden put together.


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