The Art of War: Exhibit depicts news images from Civil War

Publication Date

Publishing czar William Randolph Hearst once sent an artist to Cuba to cover an uprising for Hearst’s New York Journal.

When the artist reported back that things were quiet and he wanted to return home, Hearst, a genius at selling newspapers, ordered the artist to stay put.

“You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war,” he allegedly replied.

While the validity of that famous anecdote has been debated, the words underscore the healthy appetite newspapers have always craved for images of war as a way to boost sales. That hunger is on display in the Mandeville Gallery’s latest exhibit, “Illustrating the War: Selected engravings from Harper’s Weekly and Leslie’s Illustrated Civil War.”

A collection of more than 70 wood engravings, the exhibit provides a broad retelling of the Civil War, which is commemorating its 150th anniversary this year. The show opens Thursday, Oct. 6 and runs through Nov. 20. The gallery is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Joshua Brown, director of the American Social History Project and author of Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life and the Crisis of Gilded Age America, will discuss the exhibit in the Nott Memorial at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18. A reception will follow.

“The wood engravings from illustrated weeklies were the primary visual imagery of the Civil War for the American public,” said Marie Costello, interim director of the Mandeville Gallery. Costello, along with Andrea Foroughi, professor of history, and Joseph Privitera ’12 curated the exhibit.

“The photograph was in use, but in a limited way, and the long exposures prevented a sense of the action of battle. The hunger for images of the news was growing fast, and the war provided dramatic scenes that would sell newspapers,” Costello said.

She explained that the process began with a sketch -often a bare-bones pencil drawing with written notes - by an “artist on the spot.” The artist refined the sketch by combining various vantage points and through interviewing participants. The final drawing was sent by mail or special messenger to the publisher. Once chosen for publication, the drawing was transferred onto a divisible boxwood plank (which shortened the reproduction process from one week to eight hours), carved out by a team of engravers, and finally, applied to a thin copper sheet.

“Images of the news would be published at least several days after the event – not the ‘breaking’ news of today, but considered timely in the middle of the 19th century,” Costello said.

The engravings are divided among a half-dozen categories spanning the run-up to the battles (War Fever and Preparation) to the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate Army to General William T. Sherman (Sieges, Slaughter and Success for the Union, Finally: Spring 1864-Spring 1865). They have a Union Army slant, primarily because of the bombing of Fort Sumter in 1861. At that point, Harper’s and Leslie’s, both based in New York, no longer attempted to be neutral in their reporting.

One of the featured artists is Alexander Simplot, Union Class of 1858. Shortly after the attack at Fort Sumter, a crowd gathered in Simplot’s hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, to rally the volunteers off to war. Simplot sketched the emotional scene and submitted it to Harper’s Weekly, which then hired him to sketch the war. Over the next two years, Harper’s would publish 51 of Simplot’s drawings, paying him between $10 and $25 for each sketch.

“The engravings and sketches for this exhibit give a sense of how long ago the Civil War took place because one can see that transportation, military technology and clothing having changed significantly in the past 150 years,” Foroughi said. “Yet they also remind us how war itself has many commonalities despite occurring in different times and places because soldiers die, civilians are displaced, and unexpected or unintended change can result.”