Visions of Battle: The Wilderness

wilderness battle homerThe Wilderness is one of those battles where we believed how it must have looked, with two armies stumbling forward toward each other through the underbrush and woods that eventually took fire … a hell on earth. Winslow Homer’s representation suggests just how hard it was to move toward and fire upon an enemy that was hard to see.

wilderness battle 0Yet some early representations of the clash emphasized far more open terrain than one might assume … as well as offering images of battle lines surging forward (this image might well be of the opening action at Saunders Field):

Wilderness battle 01Other sketches and etchings, however, featured lines of infantry blazing away into the woods:

wilderness battle 4


Wilderness battle 3And, of course there were the efforts to rescue the wounded from the fires in the woods. Sometimes a sketch like this …

wilderness battle 6… became an engraving like this …

Wilderness battle 10… only to lose something in the translation, even when a similar scene appeared later:

wilderness battle 7Note the headgear worn by the stretcher bearers, suggesting that this is the same group of men being portrayed.

Of course, some artists offered scenes largely for domestic consumption. Soon after the battle one could have this image:

wilderness battle 5 Later, Kurz and Allison would present one of their typically whimsical portrayals of battle, with perfectly uniformed men … and, in this case, cavalry!

Wilderness battle 2How pretty. Fascinating to see Longstreet fall wounded as the Union cavalry come to the rescue along the Brock Road. Maybe Phil Sheridan served as the historical consultant for the image.

As for the Brock Road, its fortifications drew the attention of artists at the time …

Wilderness battle 8… and later for the Century Company’s famous Battles and Leaders series.

wilderness battle 9Most of these images conform to our impression of what battle must have looked like on May 5-6, 1864. Still, in some cases there seems to be too much order, and many of the figures seem somewhat stilted. With a few exceptions (you can see some of them in previous posts), modern artists have not taken up the challenge of representing what happened here visually, and indeed some of the most power impressions I have of the battle come from reading various accounts and letting my mind’s eye do the work.



11 thoughts on “Visions of Battle: The Wilderness

  1. jfepperson May 7, 2014 / 8:06 am

    I’ve always liked that Winslow Homer piece.

  2. Ben Allen May 7, 2014 / 9:32 am

    I don’t think Homer’s work as well as Waud’s and Forbes’ sketches have too much order and are stilted. Maybe you should take up that challenge.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 7, 2014 / 3:23 pm

      Read again:

      “Still, in some cases there seems to be too much order, and many of the figures seem somewhat stilted.”

      I think that’s especially true of the K&A print, as well as some of the early prints. So either you don’t read carefully or you think that a smart-aleck comment (“Maybe you should take up that challenge”) might be mistaken for a smart one.

      Feel better?

      • Ben Allen May 7, 2014 / 5:39 pm

        I wasn’t sure whether Waud, Forbes, and Homer were among those “cases.” I agree with you on anything Kurz & Allison.

        As for my “smart” comment, it is my belief that only fellow artists have the right to criticize artwork, because they appreciate better than anybody else the effort art frequently entails ( It is easy for non-artists to criticize. Therefore, if you are going to critique these works, you better be pretty good at drawing. Besides, what’s wrong with taking up a challenge? Be the change you desire.

        You have a better chance of portraying the Wilderness accurately than me, since I am only armed with Rhea’s book, Grant’s memoirs, and Troiani’s regiments and uniforms volume, while you no doubt, in addition to those secondary works, have amassed a treasure trove of NARA sources, perhaps some that denote the uniforms and equipment of the various regiments; memoirs; and regimental histories.

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 7, 2014 / 7:37 pm

          Thanks for sharing your perspective. Here’s what I see as problematic with your perspective:

          If only those people who do something can criticize other people who are doing something, then only a few people can write on presidents, because, if we buy your logic, only people who have been president understand that position. Same with Civil War generals (modern generals confront a different environment) and so on. Moreover, to criticize involves evaluating for better as well as worse. If you say that someone can’t say that something is bad because they don’t know what they are talking about, then the same person can’t say it’s good, either, for the same reason … they lack the authority given through participation.

          Now, having had my sketchwork displayed in a gallery, by your criteria I can indeed pass judgment on other artists. However, unless you blog, you can’t pass judgment on my blogging.

          Thanks for sharing.

  3. Roger E Watson May 7, 2014 / 12:20 pm

    Great pictures ! I hadn’t seen some before. I do get to see Into the Wilderness by Rocco each day since it hangs in my bedroom.

  4. John Foskett May 7, 2014 / 2:56 pm

    My own guess is that it’s next to impossible to accurately convey what most of the fighting felt./looked like other than from the perspective of what in later wars would be called a “squad” or smaller. Similar to the challenge of depicting the fighting during WWII on Guadalcanal, etc., New Guinea, or the CBI. In other words, portraying larger formations is an exercise in illusion, if one goes by many of the written accounts. So the nod here goes to Homer.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 7, 2014 / 3:29 pm

      I particularly like the Homer sketch and the field sketches. I wanted to show how some of those field sketches lost something in the translation … as well as how some other renderings offered a rather stylized representation of battle.

      Nearly everyone understood that.

      • John Foskett May 7, 2014 / 4:43 pm

        As did I. I was expressing my agreement on the “evolution” (and possibly even limiting it to Homer).

  5. jfepperson May 7, 2014 / 4:10 pm

    The engravings of the breastworks are also favorites of mine. The K&A stuff is just beyond belief—almost cartoonish.

  6. Charles Lovejoy May 7, 2014 / 5:59 pm

    Not complaining , keep in mind during this same time period the Atlanta Campaign was going on. IMEHO, It was as important as what was going on in Virginia. What would a failure of the Atlanta Campaign have meant? Just tossing out some thoughts here 🙂

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