An Artwork Both Breathtaking and Baffling: Alfred Waud Takes the Long View in Stafford County


from: Harrison

The many striking works of Harper’s Weekly special artist Alfred R. Waud include this sketch of one of the Army of the Potomac’s Stafford County reviews in 1863.  The sketch’s appearance on this blog probably represents its first-ever publication in an interpretive venue:

(Higher-resolution versions are available here.)

The scope of Waud’s extraordinary picture, and its identification of the reviewed troops as the “Infantry of the Army of the Potomac” generally, suggest that his subject was the largest of the reviews, held on April 8 under the gaze of President Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln may be astride the horse slightly advanced from all the others on the rise at lower left.


At first glance, the sweeping panorama seems an ideal companion to an equally broad, contemporary map of the April 8 review, with broken red lines denoting the approach of various corps to the review grounds and small black arrows denoting their review-direction once present on those grounds.  Like the sketch, the map appeared recently on a Library of Congress website.  Here’s a detail:


John Hennessy has transposed the map onto the modern landscape, in an earlier blog-post here.

Looking at either the Civil War map or John’s plotting of its key features atop the Stafford County of today, does anything about the sketch strike you as odd?

Hint:  the oddity is amplified by the very height and scope of Waud’s  perspective—by the artistic ambition that makes the sketch so powerful.  More specifically, what do you not see?

Waud did not draw any buildings, at least none readily distinguishable from the beflagged masses of troops in the distance.

The Civil War map clearly shows that the review-zone offered abundant cleared space for marching soldiers but also hosted farmsteads at regular and fairly close intervals.  While most of the fencing and many of the outbuildings had probably fallen victim to either the first Federal occupation of the area, beginning in April 1862, or the second, beginning in November of that year, the primary dwellings at many of these properties—the most prominent structures—had survived the vicissitudes of war to be noted by the mapmaker in April 1863.  Identified by the names of their owners or occupants, these included Primmer (top left on the map), Mackay, Manning, Sthreshley, Fitzhugh (“Boscobel”), Little, Roy, and Phillips (“Mulberry Hill”) at lower left…plus several buildings denoted only as black dots.

The map’s plotting of the degree to which the various corps converged while passing in review suggests, to me at least, the position that the President would have occupied longest to see the most soldiers on April 8:  a point about midway between the Sthreshley (“Thrisly” on the map) and Burton Houses:


An upper window or rooftop of either would, in turn, have presumably offered Waud a vantage point for sketching both Lincoln and the troops that passed.  (I would guess that Lincoln then shifted eastward to review the Sixth Corps and the artillery, over by Fitzhugh and Little.)

Yet no corresponding buildings appear in the sketch.

How might we solve this mystery?  Waud was obviously not working under fire, and therefore had the luxury to sketch to virtually any degree of completeness he desired.  Perhaps he felt that the inclusion of civilian landscape-elements would have diminished the power and animation of the military pageantry.  Or maybe he sketched this particular view from a position looking outward, towards just one of the corps as it approached the review grounds—across an area less densely landmarked with farmsteads—rather than looking inward, across one or more corps traversing the likely center of those grounds, along the Sthreshley-Burton axis.

Noel G. Harrison

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7 thoughts on “An Artwork Both Breathtaking and Baffling: Alfred Waud Takes the Long View in Stafford County

  1. Noel,
    What an excellent scene. Thanks for sharing. The question of the artist’s perscpective is an intriguing one. It appears too high to be from a mere house and church steeples of that height in south Stafford did not exist. What are the chances that the artist’s perspective was from Professor Lowe’s balloon?

    • Really cool idea on the balloon possibility, Erik. I dont know enough about Lowe to have a sense of his whereabouts during the review, but its timeframe certainly coincides with the Army of the Potomac’s most extended involvement with balloons. Perhaps the discussion on aeronautics that John began in the Phillips House post that I linked to, above, will continue to include an accounting of Lowe’s activities on review day. Noel

  2. Noel,
    I’ll take a stab at this being from around the Curtis place, modern Sullivan , looking from an elevation toward the north west, with the mountains beyond Culpeper at the left horizon. Since that corner was the location of Federal headquarters, could there have been a signal station that Waud might have sat atop? This appears to be a good vantage point for wig wagging signalmen to communicate with stations up the Rappahannock and Rapidan area. Looking at the troop masses and contours of the land, I would think this the most probable direction, leaving Sthreshley as the only structure potentially obscured by terrain. That would make this about a fifty mile vista.

    • Great observation on what indeed appear to be mountains in the distance, John. I suppose the principal arguments against a Curtis location would be the map’s showing the actual review happening relatively far from Curtis, and only the 6th Corps passing near that farmstead en route to the review…with any sketch of the approach of the 6th likely looking away from the mountains. Yet the map may show only a fraction of that day’s events, or the sketch may depict an especially large review on a day other than April 8. Noel

  3. Ok, so there is no certainty as to the location from which Lincoln reviewed the troops? I just re-read your text and see your suggestion that he may have been near Sthreashly and Burton. My assumption was that the map only indicated the avenue of approach to the reviewing field from the various Corps camps, not the actual parade route. Since Hooker’s HQ and Lincoln’s “Stafford White House” are down near the Curtis and King houses I assumed the reviewing “stand” would have been somewhere in that vicinity, with the assembled Corps coming toward that corner, allowing for an impressive view of large troop bodies approaching from the north west and north east, converging near and passing, thus my analysis of the Waud sketch. Moving entire Corps formations across any landscape would have required great skill, thus something for Hooker to be even more proud of. The 1989 USGS topo map shows contours across the terrain that might support those seen in the sketch.

    • No question, John. My location for Lincoln’s position is just a guess. And the high ground at Curtis and AOP headquarters would have indeed offered good views, as well as an opportunity for Hooker to geographically associate that h.q. with the impressive logistical feat of organizing the review.

      Yet the map makes it pretty clear—through its use of the small black arrows that I mention above—that the bulk of the actual passing-in-review (three corps worth) occurred in a concentrated area over by Streshley and Burton, and relatively far from Curtis and AOP h.q. (Obviously the three corps did not pass in review/parade at the same time, or at least two of them would have collided in moving from the stationary positions shown on the map and in the direction of the map’s little black arrows.)

      But, again, just my two cents on the matter, based on the map, and the map may have missed a lot. Noel

  4. Noel,
    I interpret the black arrows as indicating the direction of the individual corps’ fronting and not their direction of movement for the actual review. As to what Waud has illustrated, we are talking about huge masses of troops that would require a vast area to move about, in all likelihood a mile and a half distance from the vantage point of the artist to accommodate the numbers depicted in formation.
    Additionally, and amazingly, there is currently a New Jersey surgeon’s diary offered for sale by documents dealer Seth Kaller,
    http://www.sethkaller.net/catalogs/41-civil-war/858-army-of-the-potomac-surgeons-diary-antietam-to-chancellorsville
    It contains a brief entry mentioning the review of April 8 and states the location from which it was observed by Lincoln and entourage:
    “[4/8] The 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th Corps (Infantry) were reviewed today by the President & family near Gen. Headquarters. After the 1st Division 6th Corps was reviewed Dr. H & I rode in company with the President & Staff to review the others… There were in the neighborhood of 100,000 troops out in line… ”
    This should support my initial suggestion of location for the drawing and I would have to imagine that it is the 1st Division 6th Corps passing at right from their formation point at Boscobel, less that a mile to the north of AoP headquarters. The remaining three corps are stacked up in the middle and left distance, waiting their turn.
    Now, I hope some day we can find supporting evidence of a signal tower at AoP HQ that Waud could have used for his vantage point. He was not inclined as Edwin Forbes was to take artistic liberty and elevate his view conjecturally.
    Very respectfully,
    John Cummings

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