“Perhaps the most famous artist to come out of the bloody conflict was Alfred Rudolf Waud.”
MUCH HAS BEEN written about pioneering photographers like Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardener and the enduring visual record they left of the U.S. Civil War. Yet amazingly, it wasn’t until many years after the bloody conflict was over that most Americans ever saw the now-iconic images. Initially, the public could only take in the dramatic stills at a New York gallery.
Prior to the advent of half-toning, a process perfected in the 1880s that enabled newspapers to finally print photographs, publishers relied on illustrators to sketch the news of the day. This was certainly the case during the War Between the States. And perhaps the most famous artist to come out of the bloody conflict was Alfred Rudolf Waud.
Within weeks of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the 33-year-old British-born correspondent attached himself to the Union’s Army of the Potomac. Over the next four years, he would document the action in a long series of riveting and gritty drawings of some of the Civil War’s fiercest and most famous moments.
Classically trained at what is now London’s Royal College of Art, Waud originally worked as an illustrator for an American travel publisher while making money on the side painting theatre sets. From there, he found steady employment with the New York Illustrated News as an artist correspondent.
When war erupted in 1861, the paper’s editors sent their man into the field to cover the fighting — and cover it he did.
Armed with little more than a sketchpad and a set of charcoal pencils, Waud took in a string of battles faithfully committing the destruction he witnessed to paper. And unlike the photographers of the day who were unable to record actual combat due to the limitations of early camera technology, sketchpad journalists like Waud became adept at immortalizing the action in real time.
He was there when the opposing armies first met at Bull Run. He captured the epic bloodletting at Antietam. His keen eye surveyed the grim spectacle of Gettysburg. And his pencils portrayed the war’s bloody climax at Petersburg. Eventually, even Harper’s Weekly was publishing his work.
For civilians who lived far from the battlefields, Waud’s hand-drawn images, along with those of other illustrators, provided a rare glimpse into the maelstrom that was engulfing the nation.
Following the war, Waud continued to sketch for Harper’s. Although he died in 1891 at the age of 63, his work still speaks to us today.