Edwin Forbes Leaves Us a Colorful Stafford County Mystery in Black-and-White

From Noel Harrison:

For me, few eyewitness artworks better match the written accounts of the bleakness and tedium of Civil War soldier life than this sketch, Picket Station on Potomac Creek, by special artist Edwin Forbes:

His drawing appears here courtesy of the Library of Congress (control number 2004661559). Forbes drew one and perhaps two brush shelters, and occupants, of a Federal picket station situated in Stafford County on Potomac Creek somewhere upstream from its gorge crossed by the famous “Beanpoles and Cornstalks” railroad bridge.

It’s March 13, 1863. In a diary entry for that day, a soldier in one of the regimental camps guarded by the pickets noted, “A little snow this morning—some clouds—clear this evening.”

On the one hand, Forbes accurately captures the eternal, overarching reality of military life: the “wait” part of “hurry up and wait.” The sketch’s undistinguished setting, moreover, characterized the terrain along at least a third of the length of the picket line that surrounded the Army of the Potomac’s camps in southern Stafford in November 1862-June 1863. Much of the line extended between low, brushy hills north of the Rappahannock River and far from the diverting vistas (and banter with enemy pickets) that duty along the river and its high bluffs afforded.

The accuracy of the scene aside, why is it the only one of Forbes’s many drawings of the Fredericksburg area that he deemed worthy (at least to my knowledge) for conversion to color? Worthy, more specifically, at the time of composition; his detailed notations of atmosphere and hues clearly indicate an original intention to make this the study for a painting or a chromolithograph. Here’s my current, partial transcription:

sky gray _____ largest tree in middle [make?] very blue ______ yellow green gravel
cedar bushes to left on bank [rich madder undertones?] on this
bank blue gray yellow, dead leaves, plenty of smoke [lying?] in all directions
Sketched March 13th/63  Picket Station on Potomac Creek
_____ full towards top

(Note, too, the smaller vignette at lower center of a soldier, probably dipping water from Potomac Creek.)

Forbes did paint a number of Civil War scenes, but those mainly depicted Gettysburg and Federal camp-life near Rappahannock Station in 1864. For the Fredericksburg area, why did he not choose a different and more compelling sketch from which to make a later version in color, such as his pathos-heavy Stafford County cemetery scene from 1863 (below left; also Courtesy Library of Congress, Control Number 2004661910), or a dynamic campaign sketch, such as his famous march-to-Chancellorsville scene, complete with colorful Zouaves (below right; Library of Congress Control Number 2004661428)?

I’ve always taken the subjectivity of art as an invitation to rather than a discouragement of guesswork, especially where there are documentary gaps. If I had to guess at Forbes’s motive for planning to colorize the picket-station sketch, I’d say he was prompted by a desire to have us experience, through as many of our senses as possible, that same bleakness of army life, a bleakness pervasive enough to not even require a dramatic signifier such as the ominous holes that entombed soldiers, whether dead, as in his picture above-left, or alive, as in his sketch, below, of the Stafford County huts of the 110th Pennsylvania Infantry in February of that same year:

I suspect that Forbes’s was a mood of the moment, on a particular March day in 1863 that began with snow flurries on a scrubby, swampy waste surrounding a smoky picket-station. His vast portfolio of pictures made at other times during the war—and the postwar engravings and etchings he based upon those—did acknowledge the sunlight of army life as well as its shadows.

Then again, perhaps bleakness would not have been the principal effect of the color scheme, fully executed, that Forbes hints at in his notes on the Potomac Creek sketch. Unfortunately, we may never know.  Its painted- or chromolithographed descendant, if one ever existed, has vanished.

Forbes’ sketches above are from the online collections of the Library of Congress.

Noel G. Harrison

One thought on “Edwin Forbes Leaves Us a Colorful Stafford County Mystery in Black-and-White

  1. Noel,
    What a great post. I especially appreciate your comment that art invites us to delve into the image further, to consider not only what the artist was thinking, but what he wanted us to see as well. A soldier’s time in battle could be measured in days and weeks. His time spent in places depicted here would be measured in months. Surely there was little that was more miserable than picket duty.

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