In 1862, Civil War correspondent and illustrator Frank Vizetelly was finding it increasing difficult to secure access to the Union front lines, so he decided to cross into enemy territory. The English reporter secretly slipped out of Washington, making his way south to Richmond. From that point on, his heart and soul belonged to the Confederate cause. Only 31 of Vizetelly’s sketches of the Confederate war effort have survived. These images, now in Houghton Library, were given to the Harvard College Library in 1902 by Colonel John Glas Sandeman of England. Earlier this year Karen Walter of the Weissman Preservation Center treated and rehoused this extraordinary collection.

Leslie Morris, Curator of Manuscripts in the College Library, commented: “If you open up any popular or scholarly history of the American Civil War, such as Shelby Foote’s multi-volume The Civil War: A Narrative or Time-Life Books Civil War series, you will see one or more of Vizetelly’s drawings reproduced. They have been much in demand ever since they arrived at Harvard. (Detailed information on the collection is accessible through the OASIS finding aid and in HOLLIS.)

Vizetelly was already a seasoned war correspondent when the Illustrated London News sent the thirty-year-old reporter to cover the Civil War in 1861. His dual talents as writer and artist served him well, inasmuch as publications at the time were illustrated with engravings of artists’ sketches. (No process for reproducing photographs in newspapers had yet been developed.)

The sketch is composed of two sheets of paper (approximately 13 by 10 inches each), which Vizetelly attached together. Karen Walter, a member of the Weissman conservation staff, first painstakingly detached the piece from a deteriorating, acidic paper frame, and cleaned and repaired it. She then devised an ingenious construction that supports the oversized piece, minimizes wear and tear, and provides access to the front and back of the work. Using Japanese tissue and wheat-starch paste, she built a membrane around the sketch and suspended it in the opening of a window mat so that both sides of the drawing can be examined by researchers. Walter then constructed paper “runners” around the window opening of a larger, thicker mat, and slid the drawing onto the larger mat through these runners. By detaching a runner along one side of the sketch, curators can easily remove it for photography or exhibition purposes. Finally, Walter attached the entire piece to a solid backing mat for additional protection and support. “As the services offered by the Weissman Preservation Center become more developed,” Leslie Morris notes, “we have been better able to ensure that such rare, fragile, and high-use material is dealt with systematically.”
Contemporaries described the large, red-bearded Englishman as carefree, daring, and debonair—a gifted raconteur whose tales “embraced a very wide circle of human experience, and had a certain ease and brilliancy beyond most recitals.” After a night of storytelling around the campfire, Vizetelly would turn his discerning eye to the battlefield. Close to the line of fire with sketchbook in hand, he depicted in powerful scenes many of the war’s major battles.

On the back of each sketch Vizetelly described with equal passion the horror of war and steadfast spirit of the troops. “I am most in admiration of its splendid patriotism,” Vizetelly wrote of the Confederacy, “at its wonderful endurance, at its utter disregard of hardships… Wretchedly equipped, the soldiers of the Confederacy advance to meet their foes… determined to be victorious or die.”

Numerous northern weeklies, including Frank Leslie’s and Harper’s, documented the Union war effort, but the Confederacy had far fewer newspapers and increasingly these disappeared as Federal forces overtook Southern cities. While over one hundred of Vizetelly’s drawings appeared in the Illustrated London News, Union interceptors seized many of his sketches before they ever made it to England. Unfortunately, most of the artist’s work perished in the London Blitz during World War II. The only original drawings that survived are those now in Houghton—31 rare images that capture the Confederacy through the eyes of a European.

Detailed information on the collection is accessible
through the OASIS finding aid and in HOLLIS.

Copyright © 2000 The President and Fellows of Harvard College