Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Alfred Waud and the West Woods

Alfred Waud (1828-1891) is considered one of the greatest Civil War artists. "During his lifetime he was so acclaimed as a reliable and accurate illustrator of wartime that even long after the war he was still sought out by biographers and historians for his realistic portrayals of the landscape of war." (Dictionary of Literary Biography).

Waud worked for Harper's Weekly and witnessed Bull Run and the major battles in the Virginia theatre.

In early September, 1862, "bearing a pass signed by a Confederate captain from Georgia...Waud went behind enemy lines and captured, if only with pencil and brush, members of the First Virginia Cavalry. In a brief description accompanying the published drawing Waud wrote: 'They seemed to be of considerable social standing, that is, most of them--FFV's [First Families of Virginia] so to speak, and not irreverently: for they were not only as a body handsome, athletic men, but generally polite and agreeable in manner...their carbines, they said, were mostly captured from our own cavalry, for whom they expressed utter contempt--a feeling unfortunately shared by our own army.'" (Vincent Virga and Curators of the Library of Congress with Alan Brinkley, Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States, Bunker Hill Publishing, 2004).

Waud went on to record many remarkable scenes at Antietam and these depictions of the battle have been widely published. One image, however, is not widely circulated. In it Waud records the firefight in the West Woods between unidentified Confederate and Union regiments. In the lower margin of the drawing, he wrote: "The rebels covered by a ledge of rock repulsing the troops on the Right--in the woods beyond the Dunker Ch[urch]. Antietam." On the right margin, he scrawled: "Genl. Sumners Attack."

To the right of the firing line appears to be the kind of limestone ledge commonly found in the West Woods. In the distance is an opposing line. The woods, as most histories recall, are open and filled with widely spaced, mature trees.

The sketch raises at least two questions: (1) can the ledge be located still? and (2) was Waud behind the Confederate unit?

The first question--"Can the ledge be located?" remains to be seen.

What about the second question? From what perspective and location did Waud sketch this action? It appears from his notation and from the broad brimmed hats worn by the soldiers in the foreground that he was drawing from behind a Confederate unit firing at Sedgwick's Division (Sumner) in the smoky distance.

If this is the case (and it may very well not be the case) it is the only depiction showing action from the Confederate side in the series of sketches he made at Antietam.

What can we make of this? Is it at all plausible that he ranged about the field, using the Georgia captain's pass to move between the lines as he had done a couple of weeks earlier? Highly unlikely in the middle of battle. Still, the depiction is compelling and one that such a "reliable and accurate illustrator" as Waud might capture or at least imagine. The answer could come through his correspondence and papers--but he appears not to have left anything behind. If any reader knows otherwise, please post.

At any rate, Waud left us with the only rendering--eyewitness or not--of what the West Woods "beyond the Dunker Ch[urch]" probably looked like sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. on September 17--and to me, that is remarkable.

Photo by Timothy H. O'Sullivan (for Gardner Studios), Gettysburg, July 1863. Library of Congress; Sketch of First Virginia Cavalry by Alfred Waud, Library of Congress; Sketch of Action in the West Woods by Alfred Waud, Library of Congress.

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