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Artist drawn to grim realities of Civil War


RICHMOND—A soldier’s life is never easy. That was especially true 

for the men who served, in blue or gray, during the American Civil War.

Battles were bad enough. But the odds of dying from disease were twice as great as those of being felled by shell or shot. And days on the march or in camp, where soldiers spent the bulk of their time, were no picnic.

Few knew these facts better than John Edwin Forbes, and it may be that no one depicted them better.

That’s reason enough to see the Virginia Historical Society’s new exhibition, “An Artist’s Story: Civil War Drawings by Edwin Forbes.”

Forbes was a special correspondent for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, a Northern newspaper that competed fiercely with Harper’s Weekly. The “specials,” who included the artists Alfred Waud and Winslow Homer, brought scenes of the war into millions of homes. Mass reproduction of photography wasn’t technically possible then, so the metal-plate etchings made in New York from the field sketches of Forbes, Waud, Homer and their peers were the visual medium through which the public saw the conflict.

The artists’ work had enormous impact, said historian Andrew Talkov, who curated the society’s show.

Newspaper readers hungered for news from the front. What was it like on the battlefields?

Forbes was the equivalent of today’s embedded reporter, Talkov said. Forbes, a civilian, was allowed to travel with the army, and suffered some of the soldiers’ hardships.

Indeed, it is Forbes’ deep empathy for those soldiers, North or South, that sets him apart. His most vivid art is of everyday vignettes from the 2-plus years he spent with the troops, from Manassas to Petersburg.

That’s where this exhibition shines, too. Museum visitors get a keen feeling for what the men endured and how they got through it.

The Virginia Historical Society has what’s thought to be the second-largest collection of original Forbes artwork in the nation (the Library of Congress’ holdings comes first).

The society was given 156 of his works by Connecticut collector William Berkley and his family.

“An Artist’s Story” features more than 120 pen-and-ink drawings ranging in size from 2 inches square to 16 by 21 inches.

Half a dozen enlarged “supergraphics” created by the society provide even more detail, giving viewers the sense they could almost walk into each scene.

Forbes saved some of his most whimsical and interesting illustrations for his most diminutive creations—the block letters in his 1889 memoir, “Thirty Years After: An Artist’s Story of the Great War.”


Throughout his works, the minute detail and careful observation stands out.

Talkov, head of program development at the VHS, highlighted some of his favorites.

A scene of a soldier seated in his tent, perhaps in one of the Union winter encampments near Fredericksburg, writing a letter home.

Another that shows a foraging soldier carrying some of a farmer’s chickens—impaled on his bayonet—back to camp for supper.

“Making a Cremona,” which depicts a Yankee soldier playing a violin he made from a wooden cigar box.

Talkov said Forbes’ text describes a conversation with the soldier. The correspondent asked where he got the auburn hairs that made its strings. “From the tail of your horse,” the soldier said. “That’s OK,” Forbes replied. “The music is good, so no harm is done.”

“The Last Act of Friendship,” in which an officer carries the body of a comrade, draped across the back of his horse, off the battlefield.

“The Old Campaigner,” which shows a man  of about 25 standing at rest with a rifle. “He’s basically a kid,” Talkov said. “But he’s been in the service a little while, which makes him an old soldier.”

The titles are important, he noted. Each adds “another piece to the story.” 


Forbes was especially gifted at realistically sketching horses, a difficult task for any artist, Talkov said.

He seemed to see the animals as  individuals. You can read the emotion in their faces. It’s clear that he had special regard for the horses and mules that moved the armies’ officers, food and artillery, Talkov said.

The artist also devoted great effort to depicting an execution of deserters that he witnessed, drawing a series of scenes showing steps in the process. You see the military band that led the procession, the formation of the soldiers’ square, men carrying caskets, the blindfolded deserters, the firing squad, and the burial detail with shovels slung over their shoulders.

Zooming in on a tiny detail (the word “rabbi”) in a Forbes pencil sketch in the Library of Congress, Talkov traced the incident to a particular army unit, time and place.

“It obviously made an impression on Forbes and everyone who saw it,” he said. “In their regimental history, the 118th Pennsylvania Regulars talk about it, too.”

His postwar work is “definitely an example of the somewhat romantic view of the war from the reconciliation period, when men on both sides are shown as having bravely sacrificed,” Talkov explained.

Forbes also depicts African–Americans with a sympathy and realism that not every wartime artist or writer had, Talkov said: “He’s definitely not a Lost Cause guy. He thinks the war is about Union and slavery.”


The artist, born in New York state in 1835, had young eyes when he went off to war in 1862. He had started studying art only in 1857, painting mostly animals, landscapes and everyday scenes.

Hired as an illustrator for British engraver Frank Leslie’s newspaper, Forbes spent 1862 to 1864 as a member of the “Bohemian Brigade,” the name given to the reporters who followed Northern armies into battle in the South. Forbes traveled mostly with the Army of the Potomac.

With a just-the-facts fidelity that some other correspondents didn’t demonstrate, Forbes “was reporting what was happening,” Talkov said. “He was a reporter first, an artist second.”

He documented President Lincoln’s review of his troops in Stafford County in April 1863, a grand spectacle.

He was one of the few artists to see any part of the Battle of Gettysburg, arriving on the field near Meade’s headquarters in time to witness Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the three-day fight.

Forbes was nearly shot a couple of times, and had to be sent home to recuperate from a bout with typhoid before returning to the front in Virginia.

After marching from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, he saw the first few months of the long, grueling siege at Petersburg, then went home to New York.

That year, Forbes asked Leslie’s to give back his pencil sketches. Of the many dozens of sketches he’d sent to New York, the paper used a relatively small fraction. Engravers at Leslie’s carved wooden blocks to transfer an image into print, so sometimes the final product didn’t exactly match what Forbes had drawn.

He spent the rest of his life creating art based on his wartime sketches. A show of his work in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia won widespread acclaim.

Former Union general William W. Averell said of them: “Any soldier living who was familiar with those scenes will at a glance appreciate the fidelity of these pictures.  As a contribution to the graphic history of our late war, they are simply invaluable.”

“An Artist’s Story,” the exhibit that Forbes might have wished to see mounted in his own lifetime (he died in 1895), continues through Dec. 30.

 Clint Schemmer:   540/368-5029