The two Specials – combat artists – at Gettysburg

July 22, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

The Fourth of July always seems to slip by before I can remember that the first week in July was a seminal time in American history.

Two great battle of the Civil War concluded just as America was about to celebrate her 87th birthday: Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

Of these two, Vicksburg was probably the more important one militarily, but it is Gettysburg that most people remember. Gettysburg was Robert E. Lee’s last-gasp invasion of the Northern states, leading his rebel army on a campaign that he hoped would break the American spirit and force the Union to sue for peace. Gettysburg was a set-piece battle that took place over three days and involved the classic movements of armies, while Vicksburg was a seven-week-long siege.

Gettysburg was much closer to the media centers of Washington, Philadelphia, and most importantly New York, and newspapers and magazines of the time could cover that battle more thoroughly.

Another reason we are more likely to think about Gettysburg than Vicksburg is because of the “Specials.”

The Specials were special correspondents sent out by newspapers and magazines — mostly from the North — to draw scenes from the battles they witnessed. They were artists rather than traditional reporters. Their job was to draw and sketch anything they saw from camp life, to troop movements, to picket-line skirmishes to full-blown battles.

Today, many of the original sketches made by these Specials are housed in the Library of Congress.

As it happened, there were no Specials at Vicksburg, but there were two, Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes, at Gettysburg.

Waud (photo) was an Englishman who had immigrated to America in 1850. He had trained as an artist and work for a time in Boston before coming to New York. There, he was hired by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and when war broke out between the North and the South, he was sent to the Virginia theater to cover the conflict. He produced some of the only images we have of the Battle of Bull Run, the first major encounter between Union and Confederate forces.

Waud’s work was so impressive that he was hired away by Harper’s Weekly during the first six months of the war.

Waud found that he loved the war, he loved the army, and he loved drawing on location. He enjoyed being in the Army camp and making friends with the soldiers. Whenever he heard cannon fire, he jump onto his horse and ride in that direction. The drawings he produced are quick, vivid images that place the viewer in the center of the action — the place that Waud enjoyed being.

Forbes was of a different temperament. Forbes pictured himself sitting on a hillside overlooking a battle and serenely sketching the scenes of lines of troops as they clashed into one another. He found real battlefield to be quite different. Rarely did he get a panoramic view. More often, he found the lines of battle shifting every few minutes, and often they were heading toward him. Forbes learned that the safest place to view a battle was from behind the lines, and the best time to view it was after it was over.

Still, Forbes was a first-rate artist, and the scenes that he drew for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper are realist and accurate — sometimes to the point of being heart-breaking.

The drawings of these two men at Gettysburg were gathered together in a book I published several years ago. Below is a press release about the book:

Battlelines: Gettysburg: Civil War Sketch Artists and the First Draft of War , a book of many never-before-published drawings by Civil War combat artists, has just been released by First Inning Press.

Front cover of Battlelines: Gettysburg
Front cover of Battlelines: Gettysburg

This first volume features the drawings of Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes, the two artists present at the battle of Gettysburg. Waud worked for Harper’s Weekly, and Forbes drew for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The book contains more than 70 drawings, many of which were executed on the spot as the battle was in progress or in the evenings during the lulls in the fighting.

Many of the drawings have never been published before.

The book’s author is Jim Stovall, a journalism professor at the University of Tennessee.

“These drawings are rarely viewed, except when a few are used as illustrations for magazine articles of books,” Stovall said.

“That is an oversight among those interested in the Civil War that I hope we can correct with the series Battlelines.”

Stovall said these drawings constitute an extraordinary form of journalism for the time and a one-of-a-kind record to some of the most important events in American history. During the Civil War, the public craved news of the fighting, but oddly — because of a lack of space and march of events — few of these drawings were converted for publication.

“As the events of the war moved on — and then as the war ended — these drawings were largely forgotten,” Stovall said. “Many of these were unfortunately discarded. We are very lucky that a few people recognized their value and made efforts to preserve them.”

About 3,000 of these drawings have been collected in the Library of Congress. A few more are scattered in library collections around the United States.

During the war, the publications referred to their artists as Special Artists, and they became known as the Specials.

This first volumes covers the drawings made during the Gettysburg campaign, beginning with Robert E. Lee’s move northward in the summer of 1863 and ending with his retreat back across the Potomac River in mid July. The focus of the book, however, is on the three days of the battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863.

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