- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2008

Edwin Forbes went to war in the spring of 1862, when he was 23 years old - but he joined no regiment, wore no uniform and never carried a musket, pistol or saber.

His tools of war were a sketchbook, sharpened pencils, pens, crayons, sticks of charcoal, some brushes, a few watercolors and probably a good pair of field glasses, all stored in a large portfolio slung over the saddle of a strong, steady horse.

Forbes was a “special artist” for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, part of the Bohemian Brigade of reporters and artists that accompanied almost every Union army, sending back news and pictures to a civilian population eager to learn about the fighting.

It’s not known why Forbes joined the ranks of Leslie’s weekly newspaper, but as a fledgling artist, he probably needed money. Leslie definitely needed artists to compete with Harper’s Weekly and the New York Illustrated News.

Reality intrudes

Forbes’ first sketches appeared in print on April 12, 1862. They were made at Centreville and depicted the ruins of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad bridge, destroyed by the Confederates on the field at Bull Run, and the Union fortifications around the town.

Leslie eventually used 178 of Forbes’ sketches, fewer than half the number he submitted to the newspaper. Commercial sketching was a relatively easy skill for Forbes to master. Learning to work under fire on a battlefield was harder, but Leslie wanted scenes of the fighting because that’s what the reading public demanded.

“I fully expected, when I started for the front, to accompany the troops into battle and seat myself complacently on a convenient hillside and sketch exciting incidents at my leisure,” Forbes wrote after the war, “but how greatly reality differed from imagination I will tell you.”

Forbes got his first whiff of grapeshot at Cross Keys, Va., on June 8, 1862, and his sketches of the battlefield appeared in Leslie’s newspaper on July 5. He spent about two months in the Shenandoah Valley with a detachment of Pennsylvania cavalry under Brig. Gen. George D. Bayard, sent to reinforce Gen. John C. Fremont, who was chasing Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s foot cavalry up and down the valley.

Second Manassas

After Cross Keys, Forbes wrote that “the sight of the desperately wounded who were being carried to the rear did not reassure me and my ideas of witnessing a battle underwent great change. I concluded to wait for a more convenient opportunity.”

That opportunity came on Aug. 9 at Cedar Mountain. “At about 12 o’clock the cavalry were formed in line of battle and brought forward at a trot to the crest of a hill,” he wrote in a letter to Leslie that accompanied his sketch of the engagement. “I immediately rode towards them, but was suddenly halted by several shells thrown from a battery which the enemy that moment unmasked … and came uncomfortably near myself.”

In spite of the danger, Forbes galloped to different vantage points on the battlefield “until the fire became unbearable.” He recalled retreating “to a safe position about a mile in the rear.” As a result of several narrow escapes, Forbes concluded “that to be a spectator was nearly as dangerous as being a participant.”

By the time Forbes sketched the fighting at Second Manassas, he was an experienced battlefield artist. In a letter to Leslie dated Sept. 1, 1862, he said he had been “in the hottest of the action for quite awhile.”

He later recalled that the terrain at Manassas “afforded a favorable chance for sketching” because “most of the Union army was on open ground; so that, looking from Bald Hill, on the south of the Warrenton turnpike, the engagement reminded one of a grand review.”

However, Forbes wanted to evoke more than just war’s pageantry. He also sketched the retreat of Gen. John Pope’s demoralized Army of Virginia as it made its way to the defenses of Washington in a pouring rain. Leslie used the sketch of the battle but not the one of the retreat.


In April 1863, Gen. Joseph Hooker, by then in command of the Army of the Potomac, invited President Lincoln to review the troops on a level stretch of country several miles long north of the town of Falmouth, Va., and in direct sight of the enemy’s camp. When Forbes reached the reviewing ground, he recalled “a wonderful sight was presented. Seventy thousand troops of all arms were drawn up in long lines, and under the soft gray light of an April day formed a picture that I shall never forget.”

Controversy surrounds Forbes’ activities at Gettysburg. He and Alfred Waud, the famous illustrator for Leslie’s closest competitor, Harper’s Weekly, were the only special artists on the field during the battle. In his book about Waud, author Frederick E. Ray asserts that Forbes “admittedly lost his nerve” during Gen. George Pickett´s charge and “remained behind the cover of Cemetery Ridge while the battle raged out of sight.”

To assert that Forbes lost his nerve is unjustified because he made nine sketches at Gettysburg, five of them during the fighting. On the morning of July 2, Forbes sketched during the attack by Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps against the right flank of the Union line on Culp’s Hill, probably at a point held by the 28th Pennsylvania, part of Gen. John Slocum’s XII Corps.

Ironically, Forbes’ vantage point behind the Union center put him in perfect position to sketch the bringing to the rear of nearly 5,000 prisoners taken in Pickett’s Charge. Forbes recalled that so many prisoners were moving to the rear that Gen. George G. Meade, who had just come on that part of the field, “at first, thought them a force that had successfully penetrated our lines.”

Camp life

The Army of the Potomac encamped along the Rappahannock River during the winter of 1863-64. On Sept. 26, 1863, Leslie’s newspaper printed Forbes’ sketch of the execution of five deserters from the 118th Pennsylvania in front of the entire V Corps. It is a panoramic picture, and the firing squad and deserters are almost lost in the middle ground of the scene.

Leslie probably included the sketch because desertion was becoming more prevalent as the war dragged on, and executions had become the standard punishment.

Forbes used the lull in the fighting to make many sketches of camp life, including the commissary sergeant’s quarters, the sutler’s store, a soldier’s hut, the interior of typical officers quarters, and a signal station near Culpeper Court House. He even paid qualified homage to the “fourth estate” by sketching soldiers avidly reading newspapers brought to camp by a courier.

In the spring of 1864, Forbes rode out to the picket line of the Army of the Potomac along a ridge of hills on the Rappahannock River above Beverly’s Ford. The sketches he made there depict the countryside rolling out before him and the smoke rising from the camp of the Army of Northern Virginia about 15 miles to the south across the Rapidan River.

The Wilderness

When the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford on May 5, 1864, to begin the last great campaign of the war, Forbes was forced to abandon his familiar panoramic battlefield sketches because, as he wrote after the war, “two hundred thousand men were engaged on both sides in the battle of the Wilderness, but all the satisfaction that could be gleaned by a spectator was to watch the dense clouds of smoke that rolled up from the woods and listen to the roar of the guns.”

Nevertheless, Leslie used the sketches Forbes made from Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at the Wilderness Tavern looking toward Parker’s Store, another he drew while with Gen. John Sedgwick’s division on the Brock Road and finally one depicting fighting in the woods on the evening of May 6 by Gen. James Rickett´s division.

Forbes made his last battlefield sketch on May 22, 1864, at a bridge across the Mattapony River near Bowling Green, Va. It appeared in print on Sept. 3, and Forbes probably returned to New York around that time. There is no record of why he left the Army of the Potomac, but he never drew on a battlefield again.

Library of Congress

Forbes was a prolific Civil War artist, but financial success eluded him in spite of his skill and determination. Until his death from Bright’s disease, nephritis, on May 6, 1895, he lived at 251 Baltic St. in Brooklyn, first with his parents and then with Ida Batty Forbes, his second wife, and their two children.

In 1884, a private bill introduced in Congress to have the government purchase his collection of drawings and sketches for $100,000 failed to pass. In 1900, another bill appropriated $7,500 for the secretary of war to preserve Forbes’ entire collection so it could be “used as a reference in illustrating the history of the late civil war.” It, too, failed.

The Forbes family eventually achieved financial security in 1901 when Mrs. Forbes sold the entire collection of Civil War art to financier J.P. Morgan for $25,000. Morgan gave it to the Library of Congress in 1919, and there it remains, a testament to one man’s devotion to the dignity of the common soldier and the humanity of “many brave fellows of whom I knew not.”

• Gordon Berg is past president of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia.

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