The first illustrated weekly – The Illustrated London News – was founded in 1842. The first American weekly, Gibson's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, appeared 10 years before the American Civil War began.
The Civil War affected nearly every American. Most families had at least one relative fighting in the war, so news of the various battles and army movements was in high demand. With the telegraph's invention, written news could be sent around the world pretty rapidly. Reproducing pictures however, was a different matter. But a relatively new process, called electrotyping, enabled illustrated weekly magazines to provide the public with not only the news of the war but, for the first time, pictures of major events, as well.
The illustrated weeklies were partly newspapers, partly magazines, and in addition to current news, they offered fiction, poetry, articles on the latest fashions, and book reviews – anything that would interest a broad base of subscribers.
Weeklies were expensive to produce, however, and needed large circulations to survive. By the start of the Civil War, only three American weeklies had survived. These were Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Harper's Weekly, and the New York Illustrated News. All three were published in New York, therefore served mostly the Northern population. Excellent artwork and fiction made Harper's the best of the three. Leslie's was the most sensational.
All three of these weeklies sent reporters and sketch artists to cover the war. They called these men “specials.” The artists were a small band of perhaps 30 men, but they were a hardy, daredevil bunch. They lived with the troops. When the battles came, they coolly sketched the action, often under heavy fire. Some were even wounded. Theodore Davis, an artist for Harper's, had his horse shot out from under him once and was wounded twice.
As battle sketches were completed, they were sent to New York by mail or courier. There a second artist prepared a more detailed picture. The several engravers cut the finished work into a wooden block. The new electrotyping process allowed the weeklies to copy these wood engravings onto metal plates. These plates were durable enough to print thousands of impressions on high-speed printing presses, enabling a large number of images to be reproduced. With any luck, readers could see the special's artwork about two weeks after they were first sketched. That may not seem like a great turnaround time to us, but for that era, it was remarkable.
The best artist among the specials was Winslow Homer. He made outstanding sketches for Harper's, often capturing the ordinary, day-to-day details of army life. Homer spent only a short time as a special. His real desire was to become a painter, and some of his Civil War sketches later became the subjects of oil paintings. He earned his greatest fame, though, later as an outdoor watercolor artist.
Another artist who went on to make a name for himself was Thomas Nast, who spent most of the war at Harper's headquarters. He excelled at turning the sketches from the field into woodblocks drawings for engraving. Nast also became one of America's great political cartoonists, publishing most often in Harper's (more than 2,000 drawings from 1859 to 1896). His works attacked government corruption, introduced the elephant as the symbol of the Republic party, and shaped our images of both Uncle Sam and Santa Claus.
The professional specials routinely risked their lives to make it possible for the public to “see” the war as it unfolded week by week. Their first hand observations, covering everything from soldiers dying in fields far from home to men resting in camp between battles, created a huge, detailed visual record of the Civil War that still shows us "just how it was.”
Reference: “The Weeklies Go to War” by Jerry Miller for CobbleStone.
-- The public is invited to hear Civil War expert Terry Elliott explain how the Civil War guerrillas led to the Oklahoma outlaws following the war before the Civil War Roundtable of Western Missouri at 7 p.m. March 14, at the Village Heights Community of Christ Church, 1009 Farview Drive, Independence.