From the Frontline

Richard C. Frey Fine Arts


Historically, the most important artists of the Civil War were the illustrators who traveled with the armies. They drew on-the-scene sketches in the rage of battle and during the daily drudgery between battles. 

These artists were called “Special Artists.” Their illustrations were published in the newspapers of the day such as the popular “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.”

In 1861, at the age of 22, Edwin Forbes was assigned to cover the Civil War as a “Special Artist” for “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.” What made Forbes unique among Civil War artists was his focus of interest, the common soldier. Forbes captured the essence of the daily routine of the common soldier. He documented the day-to-day drudgery of the average enlisted man while most artists focused on the more glamorous battle scenes and generals. 

Forbes’ illustrations were to the newspapers of the day what photography is to modern newspapers. The cumbersome nature of photographic equipment and the slow speed of cameras in 1861 made it impossible to capture action photographs of the war. Action pictures were produced by the “Special Artists” in the field. 

A scene would be quickly executed with pencil and pad and hurried back to the office in a rough sketch with accompanying notes. The sketches would be an outline version of the battle scene. The sketch and notes would be refined by a craftsman who would transform them into engravings for publication. A great illustrator, who accompanied the armies and witness the battles, was at the mercy of the engravers. These sketches were not reproduced, but copied by a technician and eventually made into engravings for publication. Because of the urgency for current pictures, unfinished sketches were often sent to the home office with written instructions to the engraver to “include artillery in the rear” or “wounded solider in the foreground,” etc. Much of the accuracy and reality of the moment was lost in the transformation from rough sketch to publication. 

As inaccurate as these pictures may have been, for the first time in history a great war could be visualized while still in progress. It was the most accurate, most complete and most current visualization ever published in the history of warfare. Pictures were produced that soldiers could relate to. They could identify bridges, buildings and terrain they actually encountered during the war. 

After the war Forbes returned to his native New York. He would draw on his wartime sketches, memories and experiences for a livelihood. Sketches distorted in haste during the war were refined after the war. Now, there was no need for haste and the techniques for making wood engravings vastly improved. Sketches could now be accurately reproduced for publication. Illustrators, who had accompanied the armies and had seen the war first hand worked from their original sketches, and their memory to come as close as possible to reality. 

The contribution to recorded history of the Civil War made by these combat artists truly earned them the title, “Special Artists.” 

In 1876 Forbes made a series of 40 etchings entitled “Life Studies of the Great Army.” Most of the scenes in this group of etchings captured the moods of the army between battles. These moods were usually loneliness, drudgery, hunger, and deprivation. These were his most beloved etchings. They won him a gold medal at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. 

In his later years, Forbes developed a paralysis of the right hand. He taught himself to sketch with his left hand. Some of his later etchings were signed by his wife, “Mrs. Edwin Forbes.” While individual etchings may still be found in art galleries and antique shops, complete sets of forty are extremely rare. 

Source: Louis Marino – The Antique Trader Weekly – June 1, 1994