Sea Power at Port Royal Sound: A Missed Opportunity?

Port Royal bombardment

Bombardment of Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, November 7, 1861

On November 5, 1861, the Confederate Secretary of War established the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida as a military department, assigning one of his most senior and experienced officers, General R. E. Lee, to command it.

No Federal armies were marching anywhere near that far south. The threat was from the sea, from the dangerous flexibility overwhelming command of the sea provided their adversaries. The general was to consolidate scarce resources and improve defenses along that vital coast.

Lee warned from Savannah in January 1862: “The forces of the enemy are accumulating, and apparently increase faster than ours.” He feared, given maritime capabilities of speedy transportation and concentration, “it would be impossible to gather troops necessarily posted over a long line in sufficient strength, to oppose sudden movements. Wherever his fleet can be brought no opposition to his landing can be made except within range of our fixed batteries. We have nothing to oppose to its heavy guns, which sweep over the low banks of this country with irresistible force.”[1] He could not mount a cordon defense.

President Lincoln and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had every intention of employing that sea power. However, in hindsight, their strategic vision was limited, and opportunities were lost for potentially decisive joint army/navy campaigns into the Southern heartland.[2]

A central component of Union strategy was to interdict trade with seceded states, starving them of funds, war materials, and necessities. On April 19, 1861, ten days after Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued a “Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports.”

It was the most extensive naval blockade ever attempted, covering over 3,500 miles of low lying sand and swamp from Cape Hatteras to Matamoros. The blockade eventually would employ more than five hundred vessels manned by a hundred thousand sailors. But it required secure local bases from which to repair, resupply, and refuel blockaders, and to rest crews without long, wearying retreats to secure Norther harbors.

The Civil War demanded operations new to the U.S. Navy, employing innovative tactics and technology. These included: joint and amphibious operations; reduction of powerful shore fortifications; capture and control of heavily defended harbors, inland waterways, and contiguous coastal areas; interdiction of enemy trade, communications, and transportation—all while sustaining and protecting friendly forces. The navy, heretofore an exclusively deep-water force, had never thought very much about any of these power projection challenges.

There were no protocols and no mechanisms for directing joint operations between land and sea services. The sole joint commander was the commander-in-chief; he was still learning the ropes in the winter of 1861-62. The command environment was muddled by George McClellan’s machinations to supersede Winfield Scott as commanding general. Army and navy secretaries managed separate fiefdoms. Officers of one service, however senior, could issue no orders to any officer of the other service, however junior.

army navy joint operations

Coordination depended entirely on the willingness and abilities of service secretaries to cooperate strategically, and of respective field commanders to mutually plan and execute operationally. Much depended on personalities. The Union was not ready to fully exploit weak Confederate coastal defenses.

After months of discussion, Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, was selected as the target of an expeditionary force consisting of 17 warships and 60 transports under the command of Flag Officer Samuel F. DuPont ferrying 13,000 troops commanded by Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman (no relation to W. T. Sherman).Port Royal 1861Port Royal—one of the finest natural harbors on the east coast, situated inland from Hilton head between Savannah and Charleston—would be a wonderful base for blockading and for denying the Confederacy a major blockade-running port. Two major sand forts, Walker and Beauregard, with 3,000 Rebels and mounting about twenty guns each guarded the entrance.

The forts were incomplete and poorly designed; a shortage of heavy 10” Columbiads was partially offset by a larger number of smaller caliber guns. The fledgling Confederate Navy contributed one small converted coaster and three former tugs, each mounting two guns—the “mosquito fleet.”

DuPont and Sherman demonstrated excellent cooperation in planning and executing. As it turned out, however, Sherman’s troops were not needed; it was an all-navy show.

battle of port royal 3On November 7, 1861, DuPont steamed his squadron onto Port Royal in line ahead and ran a race-track course up and down the harbor blasting in succession the fort on one side and then on the other with all his broadsides.

Some ships found they could stop and enfilade the water battery at Fort Morgan in a position safe from return fire.

The mosquito fleet withdrew after lobbing a few shells toward the Yankees. Fort Morgan defenders had difficulty hitting moving targets while losing their guns to enemy fire and running out of ammunition. They abandoned their positions.

Fearing isolation from retreat, those at Fort Beauregard followed. DuPont’s sailors rowed ashore, occupied the forts, and then turned them over to the army. Port Royal would be a Federal bastion for the remainder of the war.

“Both Sherman and Du Pont, to their credit, saw that Port Royal’s fall had potential that went far beyond serving as a logistical base for the navy’s blockading operations,” noted one historian.[3] A few months later Du Pont wrote that “the occupation of this wonderful sheet of water, with its tributary rivers, inlets, outlets, entrances and sounds, running in all directions, cutting off effectually all water communications between Savannah and Charleston, has been like driving a wedge into the flanks of the rebels between these two important cities.”[4]

The Confederate high command agreed, which is why President Davis dispatched Lee to take charge of coastal defenses. In the report cited above, Lee considered the aftermath of the Union victory at Port Royal: “I have thought [the enemy’s] purpose would be to seize upon the Charleston and Savannah Railroad near the head of Broad River [flowing into Port Royal Sound], sever the line of communication between those cities with one of his columns of land troops, and with his other two and his fleet by water envelop alternately each of those cities. This would be a difficult combination for us successfully to resist.”[5]

Lee improved fortifications and built up a defense in depth around Savannah with what forces he could muster. The Rebels blocked Federal land advances in the area for two and a half years. But the attention of Washington leaders was elsewhere; they did not try to exploit the potential for further joint operations at Port Royal.

USS Wabash

USS Wabash, flagship for Flag Officer DuPont at Port Royal

Two factors contributed to DuPont’s success there. The first was technology. For centuries, the sailing warship—subject to vagaries of wind—had little chance against shore batteries firing bigger guns from stable and usually higher platforms protected by stone ramparts and capable of employing heated shot.

But the navy had come a long way, demonstrating technical innovation and excellence in warship production. It was advancing rapidly in steam and propeller propulsion and was leading the ordnance revolution of the era. Larger steam men-of-war armed with heavier and longer range guns firing explosive shells were evening the odds.

9 Dahlgren gun

9″ Dahlgren cast-iron shot and shell gun

Like DuPont at Port Royal, Admiral David G. Farragut would blow past powerful fortifications below New Orleans (April 1862) and again in Mobile Bay (August 1864) with greater but manageable casualties, isolating the forts into surrender.

Sea power did not always work alone, however. Farragut (in July 1862) and Admiral David D. Porter (in April 1863) could sneak their squadrons past massed batteries on Vicksburg heights with manageable damage but could not take the city on their own. Charleston Harbor became a cul-de-sac of fire and destruction for another Union squadron (April 1863)—including presumably impregnable ironclad monitors—defying all attempts at capture from the sea.

Given lack of institutionalized coordination and an incomplete appreciation of sea power or power projection, victory at Port Royal and elsewhere also depended on close and personal partnerships between senior commanders. U. S. Grant would agree that much of his success was due his relationships with salty compatriots like Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote (Forts Henry and Donelson, February 1862), Farragut and Porter.

From Grant’s first engagement at Belmont, MO (November 1861), through Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and finally on to Richmond, the navy provided heavy artillery support and pushed aside all Rebel water forces while transporting, supplying, and feeding Federal armies along all rivers and coasts.

Grant’s and Porter’s Vicksburg campaign culminating in its surrender on July 4, 1863, would become the most prominent example of joint operations. Under the leadership of Admiral Porter and Major General Alfred Terry, the bloody capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina (January 1865) was the ultimate Civil War amphibious operation.

Savannah and Charleston finally fell to the encircling hosts of General Sherman (December 1864, February 1865), but he rushed from Atlanta to Savannah for the express purpose of reestablishing logistic support from the sea and depended upon it from then on. What if these cities had been taken by joint operations in the spring of 1862?

[1] R. E. Lee to General S. Cooper, January 8, 1862, OR, Ser. 1, vol. 6, p. 367.

[2] Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War (Princeton & Oxford, 2016), Chapter 5, Stillborn between Earth and Water: The Unfulfilled Promise of Joint Operations.

[3] Murray and Wei-siang, A Savage War, 128.

[4] John D. Hayes, ed., Samuel Francis Du Pont: A Selection from His Civil War Letters, vol. 1, The Mission: 1860– 1862 (Ithaca, NY, 1969), p. 285.

[5] R. E. Lee to General S. Cooper, January 8, 1862, OR, Ser. 1, vol. 6, p. 367.

Ironclad Superweapons of the Civil War: USS Monitor and CSS Virginia


USS Monitor

The clash of the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862 is considered a revolutionary event in naval warfare, but neither vessel quite lived up to the ambitious expectations of its sponsors.

On a hot August day in 1861, the new Secretary of the United States Navy, Gideon Welles, met with fellow Connecticuter, Cornelius S. Bushnell, at the Willard Hotel across from the White House. Welles handed over a copy of draft legislation directing construction of armored ships and floating batteries.

Congress was sitting in special session called by President Lincoln to approve the raising of troops and committing of funds to suppress the rebellion. Welles was anxious that his bill also be passed. Bushnell, an influential railroad executive and shipbuilder from New Haven, agreed to promote the matter with contacts in the House of Representatives.

Welles perceived a dire threat from Confederate ironclads already being constructed in Norfolk, Mobile, and New Orleans. He was particularly worried about the former USS Merrimack. The once-powerful frigate had been partially burned and scuttled when the navy abandoned the Gosport Navy Yard near Norfolk, Virginia, the previous April.

Virginia in drydock

CSS Virginia

The ship now was under furious repair in the Gosport drydock, being clothed in iron armor, and renamed the CSS Virginia. Despite Rebel efforts to keep the project secret, the secretary had, “contrived to get occasional vague intelligence of the work as it progressed.” His own government, however, “was wholly destitute of iron-clad steamers or floating batteries.”[1]

A letter from, “a distinguished citizen of Massachusetts” was entered into the Congressional record supporting the secretary’s proposed legislation. Mr. E. H. Derby wrote, “in reference to mail-clad [ironclad] steamers—a subject which he has thoroughly examined.”

Derby urged the absolute necessity for acquiring such vessels, and, “that neglect of this opportunity will expose us to serious losses, obloquy, and disgrace.” The British had tested and confirmed that 4.5-inch iron plates were impervious to shot and shell even from the best Armstrong and Whitworth 100-pounder cannon. They had ceased building wooden ships-of-war altogether.

“England and France will, by the close of this year, have twenty to thirty iron-clad steam ships, each of which could pass into Boston or New York with impunity, and possibly destroy either city. Unless we have means to meet them, France and England may be able to dictate terms as to the southern blockade. With such steamers we can, with little or no loss, recover Charleston, Savannah, Pensacola, Galveston, Mobile, and New Orleans…. [I] trust you will grasp a weapon so essential to our country at this moment.”[2]

Senator James Grimes of Iowa also argued in favor of the bill: “We need a more effective blockade…. Scoundrels North, as well as scoundrels South, are carrying on an unlawful trade in fraud of our revenue.” Pirates and sea rovers must be captured; Southern harbors and forts must be retaken; commerce must be protected, and Northern harbors defended.

“Suppose England, in her love for cotton, should forget the duties which she owes to mankind and attempt to break our blockade, and we should get into trouble with her: what is to become of our northern cities and our cities upon the coast?”  New York harbor is defenseless against the navies of Great Britain or France. “I want to protect [my country] and to preserve it in all its parts.”[3]

Congress passed, and Lincoln signed, the Welles legislation. The secretary was directed to appoint a board of “three skillful naval officers” to investigate plans and specifications for constructing armored ships and floating batteries, and upon their recommendation, to cause them to be built. The bill appropriated for that purpose $1,500,000.[4]

Cornelius Bushnell submitted his own design to the board for a standard wooden-hulled broadside frigate with iron plating added. Concerned about the vessel’s stability under the additional weight of armor, Bushnell was advised to consult John Ericsson, a highly-regarded Swedish engineer residing in New York.


USS Galena

Ericsson reassured Bushnell about the viability of his planned ironclad; Bushnell’s plans would be accepted and eventually become the USS Galena. (Galena was, however, widely regarded as a failure due to the thinness of armor plate. She suffered serious damage at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff near Richmond in May 1862.)

Ericsson then surprised Bushnell by asking him to examine Ericsson’s own model for, “a floating battery absolutely impregnable to the heaviest shot or shell,” called Monitor. Ericsson explained, “how quickly and powerfully she could be built.” He proudly exhibited a medal and letter of thanks from Napoleon III, who had considered a similar plan during the recent French war with Russia, but had not acted on it.

Bushnell was delighted with the model, taking it—with Ericsson’s permission—immediately to Hartford where Welles was vacationing. As Bushnell recalled, he “astounded” the secretary by saying that now the country was safe; he, “had found a battery which would make us master of the situation so far as the ocean was concerned.”[5]

The model, “impressed me favorably,” recalled Welles, “as possessing some extraordinary and valuable features, tending to the development of certain principles, then being studied, for our coast and river blockade, involving a revolution in naval warfare.” He urged Bushnell to lose no time in presenting the plan to the Naval Board in Washington.[6]

Through New York contacts—who happened to be large manufacturers of iron plate—Bushnell connected with former New York governor and now Secretary of State William Seward, who in turn provided “a strong letter of introduction” to the president. Lincoln, ever interested in new gadgets, “was at once greatly pleased with the simplicity of the plan and agreed to accompany us to the Navy Department at 11 A. M. the following day, and aid us as best he could.”

Promptly as scheduled, Bushnell and the president met with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox (Welles had not yet returned from Hartford) and members of the board. “All were surprised at the novelty of the plan. Some advised trying it; others ridiculed it,” wrote Bushnell.

The conference closed with Lincoln remarking, “All I have to say is what the girl said when she put her foot into the stocking, ‘It strikes me there’s something in it.’” After intense discussions, the board approved the plan and Ericsson began construction, with orders to complete it before Virginia could raise havoc.[7]

Virginia underwayConfederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory also had grand visions for his new weapon. He wrote to Virginia’s commander: “Could you pass Old Point [Comfort] and make a dashing cruise on the Potomac as far as Washington, its effect upon the public mind would be important to the cause.”[8]

A following letter inquired: “Can the Virginia steam to New York and attack and burn the city?” Presuming good weather and smooth seas, Mallory did not doubt she could destroy the Brooklyn Navy Yard with its magazines, all the lower city, and much shipping.

“Such an event would eclipse all the glories of the combats of the sea….” Bankers would withdraw their capital from the city. The enemy could never recover. Peace would inevitably follow. “Such an event, by a single ship, would do more to achieve our immediate independence than would the results of many campaigns. Can the ship go there? Please give me your views.”[9]

It was not to be. Neither the USS Monitor nor the CSS Virginia were capable of becoming, “master of the situation so far as the ocean was concerned.” Neither they nor their successors were going to range up and down the coasts conquering cities and defeating enemy fleets; they could hardly poke their noses out of shallow and sheltered waters.

USS_Monitor_CSS_Virginia_Merrimac_2The two fought to a tactical draw in Hampton Roads (the strategic outcome is still debated). Monitor almost sank on its way to the battle and did sink in a storm off Cape Hatteras, December 31, 1862. Virginia was blown up by her own people to avoid capture, May 11, 1862. But both spawned classes of ironclads that, despite severe shortcomings, played important roles in the war. Their places in history are assured.


Note: This post was extracted from a forthcoming book for The Emerging Civil War Series, With Mutual Fierceness: The Battle of Hampton Roads.

[1]Gideon Welles, “The First Iron-Clad Monitor,” in The Annals of The War Written by Leading Participants North and South (Philadelphia, 1879), loc. 106, 147 of 15999, Kindle.

[2] John C. Rives, The Congressional Globe: The Debates and Proceedings of the First Session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress (Washington, 1861), 210.

[3] Ibid., 256-57.

[4] Ibid., 217.

[5] C. S. Bushnell, “Negotiations for the Building of the ‘Monitor,’” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Being for The Most Part Contributions by Union and Confederate Officers. Based Upon “The Century War Series.” Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, of the Editorial Staff of “The Century Magazine” 4 vols. (New York, 1884-1888), vol. 1, 748.

[6] Welles, “The First Iron-Clad Monitor,” loc. 120-123 of 15999, Kindle.

[7] Bushnell, “Negotiations for the Building of the ‘Monitor,’” in Battles and Leaders, vol. 1, 748.

[8] S.R. Mallory to Flag-Officer Franklin Buchanan, February 24, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 2 series, 29 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1894-1922) (Hereafter cited as ORN), Series 1, vol. 6, 776-777.

[9] S.R. Mallory to Flag-Officer Franklin Buchanan, March 7, 1862, in ORN, Series 1, vol. 6, 780-751.

Soldier-Artists and the Battle Experience (Part II)

This is the second of two posts regarding soldier-artists and their depictions of the experience of battle. Part I may be found here.

To appreciate the extent that images such as Adolph Metzner’s Cozy corner defied the conventions of mainstream art, it is beneficial to draw comparisons between his portrayal of the battle and the musician Alfred E. Mathew’s picture, entitled Charge of the first brigade, commanded by Col. M.B. Walker, on the Friday evening of the battle of Stone River, which was intended for a public audience. Mathews had been a landscape drawer prior to the conflict, and his skill won the admiration of many. A surgeon in the 16th Ohio Infantry recorded meeting the soldier-artist, writing: “I saw some of his sketches. They are all good. His lithograph view of “Boon’s Knob”… is very beautiful and true.”[i] General Ulysses S. Grant wrote Mathews of his views of the siege of Vicksburg, commending him by writing: “[I] do not hesitate to pronounce them among the most accurate and true to life I have ever seen. They reflect great credit upon you as a delineator of landscape views.”[ii]

Both compliments reveal a problematic issue regarding Mathew’s artistic outlook. Whilst many volunteers understood the Civil War itself as their political and social context for creating images, and that very war as their defining artistic experience, Mathews was a skilled landscape artist in the antebellum era. The war itself discouraged traditional artists’ attempts to “create meaning out of the violence” using narrative strategies designed to celebrate clear-cut heroic action and noble virtue. Landscape painters of the Hudson River School, who had visualised the ideologies of national identity by looking west, found their methods incapable of representing the internal crisis unfolding in the east.[iii] Though his creative prowess was clearly recognised by his contemporaries, his grounding in the conventions of landscape art hindered his ability to produce realistic depictions of the battle experience.

Not only did Mathew’s proficiency in landscape painting encumber his artistic representations, but so too did his desire to circulate such images through commercial organisations. Mathew’s sketches were supplied to Middleton, Strobridge, & Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio, a lithographing firm that would convert his images for commercial sale.[iv] These prints were produced in “small folio” sizes to be displayed on walls for “intimate, domestic viewing.”[v] The fidelity with which the printmakers reproduced the original sketches depended entirely on their expertise. Printmakers, with their detachment from the fighting and with a patriotic fervour to instil among the populace, would often censor images to the extent that soldiers barely recognised their depictions.

Several indicators attest to the image’s conventional style. Most notable is the fact that this image presents the spectator with a panoramic battle view that combines the features of both the popularised wilderness aesthetic of American landscape views and those of traditional European history painting.[vi] The perspective taken by Mathews denies the observer the soldier’s view of the fighting, and in doing so reduces these vital participants to miniature figures in a homogenous mass. As the regiments charge, every foot steps forward together and every rifle is levelled in a uniform position. But the Civil War battlefield was, unlike the European landscape where history painting was honed, characteristically rolling and rugged, often denying regiments visibility and cohesion.[vii] Thus, the two artistic styles involved in this image are incompatible. One Pennsylvanian noted that during his entire four year service, he had only witnessed one such assault “that was like the pictures in the newspapers.”[viii]

Additional methods are employed by Mathews and the engravers in order to idealise the actions of the Union soldiers in this image. The officer leading the charge of the supporting regiment, pictured at centre-right with his sword drawn above his head, is almost farcical. Such occurrences were so rare following the early-war period that its inclusion would invite further criticism from experienced soldiers. Though the officer class are also drawn as minute figures, the annotative captions allow spectators to identify officers based on their unit’s position. For example, the first annotation allows one to identify the left-most regiment as the 31st Regiment of Ohio Volunteers, “Lieut. Col. F. W. Lister, Command’g.” The enlisted men are denied recognition, not because of the wounds they have sustained through their participation in the combat, like the victims of Metzner’s Cozy corner, but because their individualisation in the Mathew’s lithograph would detract appreciation from the Union Army as a grand, monolithic fighting machine.

Furthermore, two national flags are placed in an immediately obvious and central position in this picture. The flag borne by the regiment leading the charge rises almost triumphantly from the smoke of battle before the engagement has truly started. Though the national and regimental flags were carried at the centre of regiments, soldiers soon learned that flags did much to draw the enemy’s fire. It was not uncommon for every member of the ten-strong colour guard to be shot dead before a battle was over.[ix] The centrality of the flags and the invincibility of their bearers is more reminiscent of the idealised lithographs of the U.S.-Mexican War.[x] But whilst the vastly distant nature of that earlier conflict invited a more imaginative depiction by artists, the Civil War’s immediacy to a large section of the populace quickly revealed such images as fictitious.

It is important to also note that not a single casualty, killed or wounded, is depicted on the Union side. The soldiers are portrayed as invincible as they march forward. Even on the Confederate line, the only evidence of the casualties are three individuals dramatically falling to the ground. The image depicts none of the carnage that left both belligerents unable to renew any form of offensive against one another for months. Instead, the image provides a level of suspense; illustrating the charge in its initial stages and calling upon the viewer’s imagination to visualise the ensuing combat in their minds, should they wish to.

Consequently, Metzner’s and Mathews’ artwork illustrate how soldiers’ individually perceived their experience of battle as much as any diary entry or letter sent home. Whether choosing to record the plight of their adversaries or the might of the army to which they belonged, the artistic record of the Civil War soldier offers a rich vein of relatively untapped historical source material. Though the illustrations of newspaper sketch-artists, cartoonists, and high-art painters reveal much about perceptions of the Civil War, soldiers’ art allows us to analyse more fully the ways in which those best-poised to visually represent the war experience did so in response to their own lived realities.

[i] B. B. Brashear, ‘letter to the Tuscarawas Advocate Newspaper, March 12, 1862,’ in ‘Letter from Dr. Brashear.’, Tuscarawas Advocate Newspaper (Tuscarawas County, Ohio: March 28, 1862)

[ii] Ulysses S. Grant, ‘Unidentified newspaper clipping in the Western History Department, Denver Public Library,’ Daily Miner’s Register (Central City, Colorado: December 1, 1865), p. 3

[iii] David Holloway; John Beck, eds., American Visual Cultures (London: Continuum Publishing, 2005), p. 13

[iv] Jeffrey Weidman, Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000), p. 277

[v] Alfred Edward Mathews; Middleton, Strobridge & Co., lithograph, 1863 ‘Charge of the first brigade, commanded by Col. M. B. Walker, on the Friday evening of the battle of Stone River. January 2nd, 1863; In which the Rebels were repulsed with heavy loss, and driven behind their breastworks. Sketched by A. E. Mathews, 31st Reg., O.V.I.,’ PGA – – Middleton, Strobridge & Co.—Charge of the first brigade… (D size), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress; Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), p. 13

[vi] Eleanor Harvey defines history painting, in the traditional, academic sense, as the “monumental canvases depicting elaborate battle scenes and heroes” that were prominent in European art. But such imagery had gained, at best, a tenuous foothold in the United States. Even Grand Manner history paintings by artists such as Benjamin West and John Trumbull never garnered the same support as the wilderness aesthetic. Harvey, The Civil War and American Art, p. 5

[vii] Earl J. Hess, The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997), pp. 55-56

[viii] Gilbert Adams Hays, Under the Red Patch; Story of the Sixty Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1864 (Pittsburgh, PA: Sixty-Third Pennsylvania Volunteers Regimental Association, 1908), p. 422

[ix] Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the Civil War (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2008), pp. 157-178

[x] See, for example, N. Currier, lithograph, 1846, ‘Battle of Monterey – The Americans forcing their way to the main plaza Sept. 23th 1846,’ PGA – Currier & Ives—Battle of Monterey (A size), Prints and Photographs Division, LoC, or N. Currier, lithograph, 1847, ‘Battle of Cerro Cordo April 18th 1847,’ PGA – Currier & Ives—Battle of Cerro Cordo April 18th 1847 (A size), Prints and Photographs Division, LoC.

Soldier-Artists and the Battle Experience (Part I)

This is the first of two posts regarding soldier-artists and their depictions of the experience of battle.

“Pshaw. It’s no use, they can’t picture a battle,” exclaimed the young son of Reverend A. M. Stewart of the 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, a recent observer of the battles of Williamsburg and Fair Oaks, as he indignantly threw down a copy of Harper’s Weekly with images depicting those engagements. By 1862’s end, Stewart noted that pictures “of officers with drawn swords riding before their men into battle” led the enlisted men to “shout out with mocking irony; all played out.[i] It seemed that war pictures, to those who had seen war, weren’t all that war-like.

But armies are composed of individuals, no matter how uniform military officials might attempt to make them, and so some men disagreed. In June 1864, George Oscar French wrote a letter advising his home-circle “to get Harpers Weekly of the 11th June. All the pictures about the Army of the Potomac are very good.” Two months later, he recommended another image for his father’s observation, noting that it was “perfectly lifelike” and could be studied for “ten minutes to good advantages.”[ii] But whilst most of the rank-and-file gauged the accuracy of conventional war images around campfires and in their correspondence, there were those decided to take up pencils and paintbrushes to make their own.

These soldier-artists are generally rendered peripheral in our comprehension of the conflict, despite the prolific outpouring of scholarship in recent decades on both Civil War artwork and the ordinary soldier. Men such as Alfred Bellard, John J. Omenhausser, Robert Knox Sneden, Charles Wellington Reed, Alfred E. Mathews, and Adolph Metzner, all unknowingly contributed to the creation of a collective visual scrapbook that provides insight into the totality of the soldier’s war experience. Much of the artwork is now published, but it rarely receives the scholarly consideration of historians: high-art painting and prominent photographs enjoy their focus. But the soldier’s artwork, no matter how folkloric or even primitive it may appear, holds much potential for analysis. Soldiers weren’t merely attempting to record the sights they encountered. They were making artistic statements about their war experiences.

By briefly comparing two Union soldier-artist’s depictions of the Battle of Stones River, one can gain an appreciation of the ways soldiers employed artwork to convey differing sentiments about the battle experience. Adolph Metzner, a captain in the 32nd Indiana Infantry, and Alfred E. Mathews, a musician in the 31st Ohio Infantry, both made pictures of Stones River, but their subjects, techniques, and intended audiences result in markedly dissimilar images. Metzner produced his image for himself, or at most a close circle of associates or family members. Conversely, Mathews had his ambition set on commercial success, and so his picture would pass through the censoring gaze of the printmakers to be made digestible for the northern citizenry.

Metzner’s artwork initially exhibited an exaggerated and comical outlook towards the war, but shifted to show the turmoil his regiment experienced following the loss of comrades at Rowlett’s Station in December 1861.[iii] By Shiloh in April 1862, the comedic elements notable in his early works were irretrievable. One of the most graphic of Metzner’s images was The rebel line at Stones River, (Murfreesboro), Jan. 1863. “A cozy corner.” The watercolour depicts a portion of the Confederate line following the battle. Soldiers of all ranks lay pell-mell in heaps. A sword, a symbol of martial authority and of southern honour and chivalry, is notable protruding from the mass of the dead.

There is no formal hierarchy in this death scene. Soldiers are rendered anonymous as they die facedown or are mangled by their wounds from the storm of bullets and shells. The carrion birds gather above the mass as they prepare to feast on the slain, emphasising fears regarding the appropriate treatment of the dead. Civil War soldiers worried greatly about their remains, as one Confederate wrote: “It is dreadful to contemplate being killed on the field without a kind hand to hide one’s remains from… the gnawing of… buzzards.”[iv] Metzner’s scene depicts the soldier’s anxiety over the futility of such improper deaths.

Of particular note in this image is the almost religious and sacrificial symbolism of the figures at centre-left. The pyramidal composition, which is traditionally employed to represent order and stability in conventional artwork, is that which draws the eye to the one soldier’s desperate attempt to grasp at his comrade. It is rendered the most humane act in this depiction of battle. It is no coincidence that the two subjects form a pieta, particularly in view of the similarity in the location of the bullet wound on the officer’s right breast and Christ’s chest wound caused by the Holy Lance. But in this representation, such sacrifice is revealed as useless, for the only reward is to face an impending and unheroic death in Metzner’s paradoxically Cozy corner.

But Metzner’s scene reveals sympathy rather than any hatred for the enemy. This is no exhibition of the triumph of Union military might, but instead a mournful scene illustrating the traumas of modernising warfare. Though new innovations in armament development occurred in the antebellum era, most combat continued to occur at a range of about one hundred yards, meaning that it was impossible to facilitate emotional distance from destructive acts.[v] Metzner’s work reveals the internal struggle that countless soldiers battled with, as the work of killing marked a significant departure from their understandings of themselves as human beings and Christians.[vi] His watercolour is not a visual assault on the Confederate soldier, but a terrifying representation of the fate that frequently befell the victims on both sides of the conflict.

[i] Rev. A. M. Steward, Camp, March and Battle-Field; or, Three Years and a Half with the Army of the Potomac (Philadelphia, PA: Jas. B. Rodgers, Printer, 1865), pp. 280; 188

[ii] George Oscar French, ‘letter, to Dear friends, Camp on the Chickahominy, Near Cold Harbor June 10th;’ ‘letter, to Dear Father, Hospital, Annapolis, Sunday morn. August 28th 1864,’ George Oscar French Letters, Vermont Historical Society,

[iii] Michael A. Peake, Blood Shed in this War: Civil War Illustrations by Captain Adolph Metzner, 32nd Indiana (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2010), pp. 2

[iv] Wirt Armistead Cate, ed., Two Soldiers: The Campaign Diaries of Thomas J. Key, C.S.A., December 7, 1863 – May 17, 1865 and Robet J. Campbell, U.S.A., January 1, 1864 – July 21, 1864 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1938), p. 182

[v] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 2008). For more on the destructive power of rifled weaponry, which caused 94% of Union casualties in the war, see Hess’ The Rifled Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008).

[vi] Orestes Brownson; Henry F. Brownson, ed., The Works of Orestes Brownson (Detroit, IL: Thorndike Nourse, Publisher, 1882-87), Vol. 17, p. 214