Capturing the Nature of Battle
The majority of weapons used during the Civil War were crude and cruel, even by today’s standards. Rifles shot enormous bullets made of soft lead, which produced extremely large wounds, and cannon shells killed and maimed several soldiers at a time. Although there were new military technologies, like the rifled musket (a more accurate firearm) and submarines, old ways of war co-existed with the new. Mounted units rode horses into battle, and officers still carried (and sometimes fought using) swords. The battlefield tactics were simple and carried over from wars in Europe a half-century earlier. One such strategy was to amass as many soldiers as possible close together and attempt to push the enemy from the battlefield. Troops marched forward to within shooting distance of the enemy and stood shoulder-to-shoulder, facing fire at close range, as can be seen in this print, Battle of the Wilderness.
Sometimes soldiers were ordered to charge a fortified wall or a fence and face horrible gunfire from the soldiers guarding it, as was the case in one of the Union’s worst defeats at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Such tactics led to incredibly high casualty rates. Not until very late in the war did soldiers begin “digging in” and fighting from trenches and earthworks that they dug in the ground. This approach, used in the months-long sieges of the Southern cities Vicksburg and Petersburg, was a predecessor to the trench warfare of World War I (1914–1918).
Just like today, publishers then wished to make money from the sale of magazines, so it was important to give readers what they were most interested in: images from the “seat of war.” Picture magazines like Harper’s Weekly allowed Northern readers to see what soldiers were going through. Harper’s hired artists like Winslow Homer, who became a well-known painter, to travel with the Army of the Potomac, the major Union Army in the East, and make sketches of soldiers’ experiences. His drawings were made into prints that could be published in the magazine.