Revere’s print of the Boston Massacre.
Americans know Paul Revere for his ride to Lexington and Concord alerting Colonists that the British were coming. But he began his campaign against England long before that night in 1775. Five years earlier, following the Boston Massacre in which British soldiers fired on civilians, Revere made an engraving of the event and from that, a widely-distributed print.
This effectively made him America’s first war illustrator, an art form that expanded through the Civil War years, allowing citizens to “see” great events as never before. In the hands of a talented artist, these illustrations could fire the imagination, educate a population or warm the heart to a cause.
Revere certainly did the latter. His work, showing a neat row of rifleman firing into a helpless crowd, vividly captured the smoke, blood and anguish of the Boston Massacre, which left five dead.
Historians say Revere tailored his art for maximum impact. He depicted an orderly row of grenadiers when, in fact, a riot was underway, and the British commander didn’t point his sword and order his men to fire, as shown (right). But they did fire on the colonists, and Revere’s print became a powerful tool in hardening public opinion against the British, with help from his accompanying poem: “Like fierce barbarians grinning o’er their prey, approve the carnage and enjoy the day.”
Colonial artists also captured the opening salvos of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord. In May 1775, a month after the battles, engraver Amos Doolittle traveled to both battlefields to interview participants and make engravings based on sketches by painter Ralph Earl. The work resulted in four prints that stand today as the only pictorial record of these important encounters by a contemporary American.
By the start of the Civil War in 1861, war art had become widespread. Advances in the printing process allowed publications such as Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper to enhance stories with vibrant battlefield illustrations.
Winslow Homer, who later achieved great fame as a painter, got his start as a ‘special’ with George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in 1861. At 25, he arrived on the war front in Virginia holding an introductory letter from Harper’s Weekly.
Waud was able to create detailed images under extreme battlefield conditions, such as the weather conditions shown in Struggle for the Salient near Spotsylvania in May 1864.
Among these so-called special artists was Alfred Waud, who also spent time with the Army of the Potomac. In addition to his sketches from the Civil War battle at Antietam, Waud’s drawing of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg is believed to be the only eyewitness rendering of that momentous day. Waud was able to create detailed images under extreme battlefield conditions, such as the weather conditions shown in Struggle for the Salient near Spotsylvania in May 1864.
To make it into print, an illustration traveled a slow road by today’s standards. But if a battle were important enough, a sketch could see print within days, according to Harry Katz, co-author of Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront.
Writing for National Geographic, he described the process, beginning with a sketch being taken from the battlefield, often by horse courier, to a newspaper where an artist copied the image onto blocks of wood. Then engravers carved the various sections of the drawings and these were electrotyped onto metal plates for printing.
The illustrations often shaped opinion. When Frank Vizetelly sketched the frantic Union retreat at Bull Run in 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton revoked his battlefield access. Vizetelly spent the remainder of the war with the Confederate soldiers and came to admire them greatly, which his art reflected.
He sketched the flight of Confederate President Jefferson Davis after Richmond fell, and the Union Navy reportedly offered a bounty for seizure of his art bound for European publications.
But the ‘specials’ worked under brutal conditions, requiring “total disregard for personal safety and comfort,” according to Civil War illustrator Theodore Davis.
He said artists needed “an owl-like propensity to sit up all night and a hawky style of vigilance during the day; capacity for going on short food; willingness to ride any number of miles on horseback for just one sketch, which might have to be finished at night by no better light than that of a fire.”
Similar to today’s embedded journalists, battlefield artists faced the same risks that soldiers encountered—without carrying weapons. Difficult and dangerous as the work was, these courageous artists brought the battlefield to citizens in a new and graphic way .★