Some people will argue that the real depiction of war happened when network news televised events during the war in Vietnam. But artists, with only their paper and pencils, were bringing the war to readers during and after the Civil War.
One of those postwar images can be found in an 1886 reproduction of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in the West Baton Rouge Museum’s exhibit, “When the Cannons Fell Silent: Sesquicentennial of the End of the American Civil War,” which runs through Aug. 28. The show is the last of the museum’s five-year commemoration of the war’s 150th anniversary.
The newspaper publisher hired 20 artists and embedded them with both the Confederate and Union forces to sketch every battle, skirmish and military movement, giving “the anxious ones at home a vivid and realistic picture of the real war.”
In the exhibition, the reproduction shows a dedication ceremony for the cornerstone of the Confederate monument that once stood on North Boulevard in downtown Baton Rouge.
At the top of the monument is a Confederate soldier, one of many placed in town squares and on courthouse lawns throughout the South.
This soldier, on loan from Louisiana’s Old State Capitol’s permanent collection, now stands watch from a corner in the gallery, and his dedication ceremony is documented in a reproduction of Leslie’s newspaper on a nearby table.
“At the end of the war, there was a movement of how do we remember what happened,” director Julie Rose says. “We see this with the statue.”
The Leslie newspaper is one of just a few reproductions in this traveling show, which features one of the finest collections of original Civil War prints available.
Leslie spared no expense in commissioning the 20 artists, including Edwin Forbes William Waud, James E. Taylor, Joseph Becker, Henry Lovie, Francis B. Schell, A. Berghaus, William T. Crane, C.E.H. Bonwill, J.E. Hillen, E.F. Mullen and F.B. Wilkie. In addition to Leslie’s publications, their work was also featured in Harper’s Weekly.
The show also includes seven prints by Winslow Homer showing the human side of war, from the breaking of a wishbone at Thanksgiving to soldiers playing “football” to relieve stress.
“This is what people saw on the home front,” Rose says. “These images have become the iconic images people think about when they think about the Civil War.”
Several prints have a direct relation to Louisiana, including one depicting the Union’s first black regiment, the Louisiana Native Guards, in Fort Macombe on Feb. 28, 1863.
And interspersed among the prints are local artifacts collected by curator Angelique Bergeron, the most prominent, of course, being the Confederate soldier statue.
“But one of the most prized pieces in this show is the carte de visite, or CDV, of Henry Watkins Allen,” Bergeron says.
Carte de visites are calling card-sized photos produced from an original negative. Port Allen’s founder poses in his Confederate general uniform for this photo. He would later become Louisiana’s 17th governor.
“I borrowed this CDV from a private collection,” Bergeron says.
Jewelry incorporating the hair of loved ones is on loan from the LSU Textile and Costume Museum. Human hair doesn’t decay with time, which made it a popular component for intricate jewelry of the period.
Bergeron also borrowed Sarah Morgan’s rocking chair from the Old State Capitol. Morgan was 20 years old when she began keeping a diary of the happenings in Baton Rouge during the Civil War. The University of Georgia Press published her writings in “Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman” in 1991.
“She took refuge in West Baton Rouge at one point in the war,” Bergeron says.
And she kept a record depicting in words what the sketch artists showed in their drawings — a real view of the war. But Morgan’s account wouldn’t publicly surface until more than 130 years later. The artists’ work was immediate.
“The exhibit came with 180 prints, but we couldn’t show all of them because we couldn’t fit them all in our gallery,” Bergeron says. “So, we chose 65 images that we thought told a good story.”
More prints were installed in the hallway behind the museum’s Brick Gallery at the end of its annual high school art show.
“This is a remarkable exhibit, not only of how the scenes of the Civil War were captured, but the things that happened afterward,” Rose says. “These artists were there, and they were drawing everything, and this is how we remember it.”