Imagine an expanse of hilly countryside. Fill it with with hundreds, perhaps thousands of men, battling to the death. Now put yourself into that scene. Listen to the clash of metal as swords and bayonets meet, the boom of cannons firing, the voices yelling. You’re in danger: there are bullets whizzing by and men dying around you. More than likely, you have no weapon.
Instead you are armed with paper and pencil, and your job is to capture the scene with these tools. You are not a soldier. You are a sketch artist, and your subject is the U.S. Civil War:
The Special Artists or “Specials” created illustrations for periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly during the war. (The drawings were mailed to the publisher, and transformed into wood engravings for publication.) The cameras of the day could not capture movement, so conveying the reality of war to the American public fell to the talented hands of the Specials.
The sketches capture not just moments of bloodshed and battle, but also, for example, quiet times in camp. This collection of camp scenes even shows soldiers getting their photographs taken (middle left) – the other main pictorial record of the war:
After the war ended, Harper’s Weekly published a tribute to the Specials, thanking them for their service alongside the soldiers. Once again, put yourself in their shoes as you read:
The pictorial history of the war which they have written with their pencils in the field, upon their knees, upon a knapsack…in the gray dawn, in the dusk twilight, with freezing or fevered fingers; upon horseback, in ambulances, under a shed, in a tent; under the sky, in snow and rain and sunshine; from the bough of a tree through which the bullets sang; from a corner of the deck over which the shells whistled and crashed; in the glow of victory, in the rage of defeat – this is a history quivering with life, faithful, terrible, romantic, the value of which will grow with every year.
-Harper’s Weekly, June 3, 1865, p. 339
- Explore the more than 1,400 drawings created during the U.S. Civil War within the Documentary Drawings Collection in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- Read about the Specials in a new publication, illustrated with drawings from the Library of Congress as well as other institutions: Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront.