Thursday, October 18, 2012

War Before the Camera Lens

Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront

By Harry L. Katz and Vincent Virga
W. W. Norton, 2012
$50.00 250 illustrations, 288 pages
Hardcover and softcover editions

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

On the 150th anniversary of America’s darkest internal conflict, we are hauntingly reminded of our nation’s violent past through the eyewitness illustrations in Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront. These brave draftsmen—known as Special Artists—revolutionized the field of combat documentation and set standards for future war photographers.

Two Specials, brothers Alf and William Waud, were Englishmen, and supposed to be neutral to either side. They were hired by publisher and fellow-illustrator Frank Leslie to contribute for his Illustrated Newspaper, a Northern Virginia frontline publication, who clearly stood with the South. Alf Waud describes battles as horrific sights, often sketching dead and dying men and horses, “in every conceivable position.” We might be grateful that these journalists didn’t have today’s high-res/high-definition equipment.

In Joseph E. Taylor’s 1864 image, “Sheridan’s Campaign,” depicting an incident at the Battle of Winchester, we see a dedicated hound protecting his slain rebel master. He stands alert with his front paws on the chest of his fallen comrade. They are sketched below a grove of large and graceful trees, with other dead lying in the silent distance. It is hard to grasp how one could have taken out pen and paper to record such a moment without collapsing into tears.

The publisher has done an exemplary job in reproducing these gems. But the drawings are not crispy. Instead, they are sad and wispy. Clouds in the sky and swirling dust are from quick and shaky hands. Beyond the gore, the Specials captured the serenity and beauty of many of the areas they covered. Plates depicting political gatherings and local architecture are presented with confidence and pride. This expanded reporting created bodies of work that allowed many of the Specials to land permanent positions with prominent publications of the day.

This rich collection of special images, spanning 1861 through 1865, truly documents the start of pictorial journalism. Katz, the former head curator of the Library of Congress, and the prolific picture book author Virga, have teamed together to build a must-have book for any noted American history collection.

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