Image as News
The Civil War was one of the first American wars to be widely covered by artists and photographers. As artist Winslow Homer shows in his 1862 illustration News from the War, everyone, from soldiers to civilians, craved information about the conflict. During this period the images that artists created became a central part of people’s understanding of events. This was especially true for people in the North, who were far away from the battlefields. News publishers sent artists to join military units, where they made sketches of camp life and military action. Some publishers also encouraged soldiers to make and submit sketches of “important events and striking incidents.” Artists also documented the homefront, showing how people and events were deeply connected to the war even though they were distant from the fighting.
Like sketch artists, photographers went to military encampments too, producing portraits of soldiers or units and documenting the bloody aftermath of battles (photography was not advanced enough to capture action, so combat could not be recorded as it was happening).
It was not yet possible to photographically reproduce images in newspapers or magazines. Instead, photographs or artists’ sketches were recreated as engravings, which were duplicated in weekly illustrated newspapers. (This is how Harper’s Weekly used Homer’s drawings to create illustrations like News from the War.) While daily newspapers at that time contained few, if any, illustrations, these “weeklies” were full of images. Civilians eagerly purchased the papers as a consequence, and publishers responded to the demand for visual reports as quickly as technology would allow.
Images of the Civil War’s first battle at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, appeared in two popular Northern illustrated newspapers, Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine, approximately two weeks after the event occurred. (The battle remained a popular subject throughout the war. Sumter, seen here, was featured in the 1862Frank Leslie's Pictorial History of the American Civil War.) Compared to our experience of news today, when photographs can be taken and sent around the word in an instant, this two-week span between creating an image and delivering it to readers seems remarkably slow. But during the Civil War era it was considered to be fast; people were excited by how quickly these visual reports arrived.