Stunning Archive of Eyewitness Drawings from the Civil War

I am breaking one of my informal rules by covering this site. It’s a support archive for an offline exhibit which I’m not planning to visit as it is several hundred miles away. But I’m covering it here because its contents are just astounding. If you have any interest in military history, especially the American Civil War, do not miss this site.

I’m talking about “First Hand: Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection,” an offline exhibit at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College. These are eyewitness drawings from over a dozen different artists that chronicle both the Civil War and life in the mid- to late-19th century. Its Web site is

The site has an overview of what the exhibit is all about and there is biographical information on the artists. There’s also a featured images link — this was a slideshow that played really, really fast! (There are controls in the upper corner; the first thing I did was pause it.) Instead you might want to use one of the browsing options; you can view by date, by place, by subject, by artists, or by reference numbers.

I chose to view by subject and got lots of options, including Civil War (camp life, military ceremonies, architecture and townscapes, and ships) as well as non-Civil war (including post-war reconstruction, railroad building, and even the Spanish-American War.) There’s also the option to view battle scenes by site, battle, general, etc. I looked at the Siege of Fort Macon and got 208 images. I don’t know a lot about the naval history of the Civil War so I wasn’t sure how to connect the siege of Petersburg to Fort Macon — the images in these results were all over the place. But it’s a good example to look at if you want to see some of the drawings of battles and the aftermath.

Listings include a thumbnail of the image, image title, and date. Click on the title and you’ll get more information about the image including any notes, and a slightly larger version of the image. Click on the image itself and you’ll get a pop-out window with controls that allow you to zoom in on and pan around the image.

All the images I looked at were pencil sketches. You’d think in this day and age of streaming video and color photography from everywhere that pencil sketches wouldn’t have a lot of impact. But they did. Most of them were very well done and conveyed a tremendous sense of time and place. Some of them I found shocking, like this image of a night attack at Petersburg. Some of them I found very moving — military executions of deserters and traitors, the after images of the Chicago Fire, the release of Union prisoners in Wilmington, North Carolina.

I don’t normally review sites that support an offline exhibit, figuring the offline materials will be only marginally supported by the online sites. That was not so in this case. What an excellent site. As I said in the beginning of this writeup, if you are at all interested in military history, do not miss this site.

Categories: News

Tagged as: , , , ,