October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
In 1888 Century magazine put out an extraordinary illustrated history called Battles and Leaders of the Civil War . It contained hundreds of pictures of battles, bivouacs, incidents, marches, skirmishes—all intended to convey a vivid visual impression of what the great conflict, still less than a generation in the past, had been like. The editors of the four-volume work faced a difficult problem, for in the 188o’s the techniques had not yet been invented for printing good halftone reproductions of drawings, paintings, or photographs. Instead the work of the artists and photographers who recorded the events of the great war had to be painstakingly translated by skilled artisans who copied each picture as best they could, carving each detail into woodblocks from which engravings could be printed.
The result was, for its time, a stunning success, and Battles and Leaders of the Civil War became a best seller. Many of the artists who had made the original pictures had fought on one side or the other or had been newspaper combat artists, and they knew at first hand what they were depicting; others were younger professionals who worked from photographs, sketches, and wartime lithographs and often visited battlefields to get a true impression of terrain and background. The wood engravers, unhurried by the pressure of journalistic deadlines, had done their work meticulously. “For the first time,” Bruce Catton remarks, “a nation that had fought a great war was enabled to visualize the experience. It could see what it had done.”
What it could not see, however, was the splendid original work of the artists. Those hundreds upon hundreds of pen and pencil drawings, water colors, and tempera paintings went into the Century Company’s files and lay there forgotten for decades. In the igao’s most of them came into the possession of a retired regular army officer, Major General William Cannon Rivers, who understood the tremendous historical and artistic value of the collection.
Last fall American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., acquired the collection—and now, nearly a century after the original works of art were made, they are being published in a large single volume utilizing the most sophisticated modern techniques to ensure the highest fidelity in the reproductions. Accompanied by captions and a narrative commentary written by American Heritage editor Stephen W. Sears, the book comprises over seven hundred pictures by some fifty artists; Bruce Catton has written an evocative introductory essay.
Information on how to acquire this unique volume, The American Heritage Century Collection of Civil War Art, is given on page 69. Meanwhile in these few pages the reader can sample a very small but suggestive selection of the riches to be found in the book.