The Civil War Drawings of Edward Lamson Henry
The New York State Museum administers an outstanding collection of the works of Edward Lamson Henry (1841-1919), one of the country's most popular and prolific genre artists at the end of the nineteenth century. His meticulously crafted paintings of domestic life appealed to an audience nostalgic for idyllic images of a vanishing America, an America unsullied by rampant technology and the effects of a devastating Civil War. The Henry collection at the New York State Museum contains a significant group of Civil War images sketched on-site from "nature."
As a youthful artist, Henry experienced the Civil War in the autumn of 1864 when he served briefly as a captain's clerk aboard a Union Quartermaster's supply transport on the James River in Virginia. In a series of penciled "War Sketches" and pastel crayon studies he documented behind-the-lines scenes of a Federal occupation force during the siege of Petersburg. His images of the confiscated, fortified plantation houses of "Westover" and "Berkeley" combine with studies of the sprawling Union supply depot at City Point to chronicle a non-combat side of soldiering important to a fuller understanding of events of the period.
In a posthumous "Memorial Sketch" published by the New York State Museum in 1945, Henry's adoring wife Frances admitted that after a potentially dangerous encounter with a combative guard while sketching on shore, Henry discreetly "made his drawings on deck afterwards and at a safe distance." This distanced viewpoint, however, does not fail to complement the work of other Civil War "Special Artists" like the Waud brothers and Vizetelly, or photographers like Gardner, Brady, and O'Sullivan. In addition, Henry's details of soldiers, horses, wagons, and accoutrements are often sprightly and appealing.
Henry's reasons for rendering war service are as yet speculative. A turn-of-the-century biography states that he "desired to see the pictorial side of the Civil War, and in 1864 obtained a nominal place as a Captain's clerk on a transport, with full liberty to sketch." Frances Henry's contention that at "the breaking out of the War of the Rebellion Mr. Henry was very anxious to go but was too young to enlist" seems naive since he was twenty-three years old by the time "there was a position found for him as captain's clerk". He was, however, a young artist quartered in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City at a time when the city witnessed not only the infamous draft riots of 1863 but also the gala sendoff parade for the 20th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the spring of 1864. (In 1869 Henry was commissioned to paint the scene by the Union League Club of New York). In the spring of 1864 the city also was caught up in the fervor surrounding the famous "Metropolitan Fair" Army Relief Bazaar held to raise money for the U. S. Sanitary Commission. In this milieu, perhaps Henry, who had been born in Charleston, SC, and still had family connections in the South, felt compelled to "show his colors." Perhaps he toyed with the idea of becoming a "Special Artist."
No record of enlistment for E. L. Henry has yet surfaced. It is probable that he served, as other artists did, in civilian garb. Had he been in uniform when accosted by that shore guard - had he looked more like a soldier and less like a civilian spy, perhaps - Henry might have felt less compelled to remain "at a safe distance" from potential injury. That his biography refers to his clerk's position as "nominal" is further implication that he possibly was not a uniformed enlistee.
Henry's "War Sketches" and pastel crayon studies document details of site deployment and features which post-Civil War decades erased or obscured. For example, two tiny pencil sketches document river views of "Fort Powhatan" and "Camp Wilson's Landing" (Fort Pocahontas), which provide rare if not unique surviving visual documentation, albeit "at a safe distance," of positions manned by African American troops. The locations are now archeological sites.
Bibliographical note: Elizabeth McCausland's The Life and Work of Edward Lamson Henry N. A., 1841-1919. (Albany: The University of the State of New York, 1945. NYS Museum Bulletin No. 339) remains the primary reference and catalogue raisonne for this artist. It includes "A Memorial Sketch: E. L. Henry, N. A., His Life and His Work" by Frances L. Henry, his wife of forty-four years. Kaycee Benton Parra contributed additional insight into the artist's life in her text for the exhibition catalogue The Works of E. L. The Henry: Recollections of a Time Gone By (Shreveport, LA: The R. W. Norton Art Gallery, 1987). Henry apparently contributed biographical information on himself for the 1894 edition of The National Cyclopedia of American Biography (New York: J. T. White Company). See also: William A. Frassanito, Grant and Lee, the Virginia Campaigns, 1864-1865 (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983); Harold Holzer and Mark E. Neely, Jr., Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Civil War in Art (NY: Orion Books, 1993); and Allen Johnson, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1928-1937).
For more information contact Ronald Burch, 3097 Cultural Education Center, Albany, NY 12230. Telephone: (518) 474-5353. FAX: (518) 473-8496. E-mail Ronald Burch
Go to image page: "War Sketches Oct & Nov - 1864"
(© 1999 The New York State Museum)