The Incredible Eye of Alfred Waud

In the time before photography was able to capture action shots, an intrepid group of men sketch “action” for the public. During the Civil War, this group of “Special Artists” included Frank Vizitelli, Alfred Waud, Thomas Nast, Edwin Forbes, WT Crane, William Waud, Winslow Homer, Arthur Lumley, CEF Hillen, Theodore Davis, DH Strother, James R O’Neill, and Henri Lovie, and others. One of the best known was Alfred Waud.
Alfred Rudolph Waud (October 2, 1828 – April 6, 1891) was an American artist and illustrator who was born in London, England. He was known most for the sketches made as an artist-correspondent during the American Civil War.

Alfred R. Waud portrait taken at Gettysburg, 1863

Alfred R. Waud portrait taken at Gettysburg, 1863

Waud immigrated to America in 1850. During the 1850s, Waud worked in various positions as an illustrator for a Boston periodical, the Carpet-Bag, and provided illustrations for books such as Hunter’s Panoramic Guide from Niagara to Quebec (1857).
American Civil War era photographic equipment was too cumbersome and exposure time too slow to be used on the battlefield. All images in a publication had to be hand drawn and engraved by skilled artists. An artist such as Waud would work fast, identifying a war scene’s focal point, block out the composition sometimes in minutes, and then flesh out the details later in camp, often at night in his tent. These sketches, some quite detailed in the field, were then rushed by courier back to the main office of their publisher. There a staff of engravers would use the sketches to create engravings on blocks of boxwood. The wood engraving was then copied via the electrotype process which produced a metal printing plate for publication.
In 1860, Alfred Waud became an illustrator or “special artist” for the New York Illustrated News. In April 1861, the newspaper assigned Waud to cover the Army of the Potomac. As such, he rendered the First Battle of Bull Run and then covered the expedition to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Waud joined Harper’s Weekly toward the end of 1861, and continued to cover the war.
Alfred Waud attended every battle of the Army of the Potomac between the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 and the Siege of Petersburg in 1865. Waud was one of only two artists present at the Battle of Gettysburg. His piece on the killing of General Reynolds is a classic. His depiction of Pickett’s Charge is thought to be the only visual account by an eyewitness.
I am particularly interested in the exceptional work he produced during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. As a way of demonstrating his skill and eye for detail, I will focus on his panorama of the battle on December 13th, 1862. I compare and contrast it with a photograph credited to Brady. This photo was taken sometime during Grants Overland Campaign in 1864 when the Union Army used Fredericksburg as a supply center and a trans-shipment point for the Union wounded, approximately May-June 1864.

First, let’s look at the original work of Waud and the Brady photograph as they first appeared. The Waud’s panorama is titled “Attack on Rebel Works, Fredericksburg, Dec 13th.” This was apparently drawn while he was in the steeple of the St. George’s Church. The action he depicts appears to be relatively early in the day’s battle. You can see a line of Union soldiers somewhat advanced on the right-center of the drawing. On the left side, you can observe a reinforcing line of Union troops somewhat behind, approximately 200 yards, according to doctrine, from the line on the right. You get a sense of the intensity of the action; from the lines of Union Infantry attacking and Confederate infantry firing from the Sunken Road while their artillery fire from the ridge in the background, and the corresponding artillery shell explosions amongst the buildings in the foreground.


Panorama by Alfred R. Waud. Attack on Rebel Works, Dec 13th

Panorama by Alfred R. Waud. Attack on Rebel Works, Dec 13th


The second image is the 1864 Brady photograph that I use to compare Waud’s work. This photo panorama starts at Lee’s Hill on the left; sweeps along Marye’s Heights and terminates at Marye’s mansion on the right.

Marye's Heights as seen from Federal Hill, 1864

Marye’s Heights as seen from Federal Hill, 1864

This classic photograph was taken from Federal Hill, somewhat in advance of and from a lower elevation than where Waud positioned himself in the church tower. These two locations are reasonably close to each other to make a good comparison of Waud’s work.


Now, moving from left to right across Waud’s panorama, here are the details. First I focus on the south end of Willis Hill at the extreme southern end of Marye’s Heights. In the foreground are two lines of Union troops, the most advanced are in the process of firing. In the middle background stands the Hall House. In the middle distance on top of Willis Hill is Echleman’s Battery of the Washington Artillery of Louisiana. They were equipped with two 12-pound Napoleon sooth-bore cannons and two 12-pound howitzers. These four guns were located in individual gun pits or lunettes. In the background on the tallest ridgeline known as Lee’s Hill, are the Confederate batteries of Captain Read, equipped with one 10-pound Parrott rifle, one 3-inch Ordinance rifle and one 12-pound howitzer and Captain Ellis, equipped with a 30-pound Parrott rifle.

Detail of Waud panorama. Willis Hill and the Hall House

Detail of Waud panorama. Willis Hill and the Hall House

Next for comparison is a similar section of the Federal Hill 1864 photograph. By this point in the war, the Hall House had burned down, an event which occurred between May 3, 1863 and when this photo was taken in 1864 (see earlier post below for more information on the Hall House). The terminus of Willis Hill is quite apparent in the photograph. Just barely visible on the crest of Willis Hill are Echlemans’ Battery lunettes. Lee’s Hill is somewhat masked by Willis Hill due to the lower elevation from which the photograph was taken.

Detail of Brady photo. Willis Hill and the Hall House

Detail of Brady photo. Willis Hill and the Hall House

Next I move north in Waud’s panorama to the group of buildings nestled just below Willis Hill. These start on the left with the Stephens’ House, and then the Innis House and final the Stratton House (See earlier post below for more information on the Stratton House). On the top of Willis Hill, located just above the Stephens House is another Confederate battery. This was the location of Squires Battery of the Washington Artillery armed with two 3-inch Ordnance rifles. Note the Union line firing at the Confederates located on Willis Hill behind and to the right of Squires Battery.

Detail of Waud panorama. Stephens House to Stratton House

Detail of Waud panorama. Stephens House to Stratton House

Compare Waud to this photograph of the same area. All three of these houses survived the battle. In fact only the Stephens House does not exist today, having burned down sometime in the 1913. On the left skyline, you can just make out the earthworks of Squires Battery. To their right on the open hillside was the temporary location of one of the Confederate infantry regiments prior to their moving down into the Sunken Road to reinforce the troops already there. This hillside location was exposed to Union rifle and artillery fire. The Confederate infantry did not remain here for long. The sunken Road was located immediately behind the Stephens and Innis Houses along the base of the heights running right to left.

Detail of Brady photo. Stephens House to Stratton House

Detail of Brady photo. Stephens House to Stratton House


Next I move further north to take in that area from the Stratton House to the group of buildings in which Allen Stratton had his Wheelwright shops at the junction of Hanover and Kirckland Streets. This rough rectangle of ground begins with the Stratton House on the left. The distance to the Wheelwright shops on the right is about 100 yards. In the middle background stands the Ebert house that fronted upon the Sunken Road with its stone wall. It stood about 150 yards from the wheelwright shops. In this location the roadway between here and the Innis house is actually below the grade of the field. The Confederates of Phillip’s Legion were protected up to their chest. The Marye house, Brompton, is in the right-background on the ridge. Marye’s Heights gets its name from the land owner.

Detail of Waud panorama. Stratton House to Brompton

Detail of Waud panorama. Stratton House to Brompton

The photograph provides a clearer view of the ground. Stratton’s two wooden buildings at the far right of his property were removed after the battle and before the photograph was made in 1864. The fate of these two of the buildings, which Waud captured in his drawing, is unclear. These two bullet riddled wooden buildings likely were torn down by the Confederates or town’s folk in search of fire wood during the cold winter of 1862-63.

Detail of Brady photo.  Stratton House to Brompton

Detail of Brady photo. Stratton House to Brompton

Lastly, I move just a little further north,
Dating from before the Civil War, Hanover Street departed Fredericksburg and split at this junction where Sisson’s store was located. It continued on as Telegraph Road, past Sisson’s store joining the Sunken Road at the base of Marye’s Heights. The road continued south at the base of the heights on its way to Richmond, 50 miles. The group of buildings centered around Sisson’s store may be seen just above the city buildings in the foreground. The distance between Sisson’s store and the city is approximately 600 yards.
Here you can a building just below Brompton which is the Ebert House. It stood on this spot until the 1950’s. This building can just barely be seen in the Waud drawing at the base of the hill. The Sissons’s store (See below for earlier post on Sissons Store) is easy to make out at the extreme right of the photograph. It is somewhat hidden, but discernable, in Waud’s work. Hanover Street split in front of Sisson’s store. The main road continued south, out along the base of the heights. The other branch of Hanover climbed the heights to the right of Marye’s house joining up to the Plank Road further west heading to Chancellorsville. You can see a growth of trees that followed along the road up the hill to the right of Brompton.

Detail of Waud panorama. Brompton and Sisson's Store

Detail of Waud panorama. Brompton and Sisson’s Store

This building, currently the home of the President of Mary Washington University, was used as the headquarters of the Washington Artillery during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Confederate infantry took up positions around the house during the battle. On the property of Brompton is the ‘Witness Tree’. This tree was here at the time of the battle as a mature tree. It still exists today. In this photograph, Brompton is partially obscured by the trees that surrounded the house.

Detail of Brady photo.   Brompton and Sisson's Store

Detail of Brady photo. Brompton and Sisson’s Store

I found it absolutely amazing the detail that Waud was able to captured from his perch in St. George’s church tower. It certainly provides the feeling of the ongoing battle. It highlights the Confederate artillery positions, the Union troop movement and firing against the Confederate infantry stationed at the base of Marye’s Heights in the Sunken Road. Other than written statements of the participants, letters and published memoirs, Waud came real close to putting the viewer in the action.
Waud continued to be a prolific illustrator, doing numerous illustrations for Harper’s Weekly and other prominent publications. After the war, Waud continued to contribute sketches to Harper’s, documenting American life in locales ranging from the Reconstruction-era South to the Western Frontier. As a freelance illustrator, he contributed work to a number of publications, including the popular, copiously illustrated Picturesque America (1872–74).
Waud died in 1891 in Marietta, Georgia, while touring battlefields of the South.

About Peter Glyer

I am retired with a lifelong interest in history, primarily the Civil War and WWII - Europe. I was an Army engineer, hence my interest in terrain. I graduated with a degree in City and Regional Planning and a Masters in International Relations.
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2 Responses to The Incredible Eye of Alfred Waud

  1. Pingback: George Rowe House | Mercer Square

  2. Pingback: Washington Artillery (part 2) | Mercer Square

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