Inscription verso: "Flight on June 1, 1864 (Smith's Corps) near Cold Harbor. Prisoners and wounded coming in from the front. The lines face the Chickahominy which is beyond the distant crest held by the Rebels."
While the photographic process evolved rapidly from its inception in 1839 and the wet plate process of taking photographs was coming into widespread use by the start of the Civil War, it was a cumbersome process in the field as well as the studio. More significantly, at that time the photographs themselves could not be reproduced as illustrations accompanying written reports of the war.
As a result, publishers of newspapers and other periodicals in major cities, primarily in the North, employed a number of sketch artists who traveled with armies to draw the scenes that they witnessed. These sketches, most frequently pencil on paper with brief identifications of people and places, were then sent back by courier to the periodical publishers. The battlefield sketches received by the publishers were then copied by engraving artists onto wooden blocks, which were used in printing presses to illustrate printed articles covering the war.
This illustration would have been done while Alfred Waud was a sketch artist working exclusively for Harper's Weekly.
The Battle of Cold Harbor was fought from May 31 to June 12, 1864, with the most significant fighting occurring on June 3. It was one of the final battles of Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign during the American Civil War, and is remembered as one of American history's bloodiest, most lopsided battles. Thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded in a hopeless frontal assault against the fortified positions of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's army.
On May 31, as Grant's army once again swung around the right flank of Lee's army, Union cavalry seized the crossroads of Old Cold Harbor, about 10 miles northeast of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, holding it against Confederate attacks until the Union infantry arrived. Both Grant and Lee, whose armies had suffered enormous casualties in the Overland Campaign, received reinforcements. On the evening of June 1, the Union VI Corps and XVIII Corps arrived and assaulted the Confederate works to the west of the crossroads with some success.
On June 2, the remainder of both armies arrived and the Confederates built an elaborate series of fortifications 7 miles long. At dawn on June 3, three Union corps attacked the Confederate works on the southern end of the line and were easily repulsed with heavy casualties. Attempts to assault the northern end of the line and to resume the assaults on the southern were unsuccessful.
Grant said of the battle in his memoirs, "I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. ... No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained." The armies confronted each other on these lines until the night of June 12, when Grant again advanced by his left flank, marching to the James River. It was an impressive defensive victory for Lee, but it was his last in the war. In the final stage, he alternated between digging into the trenches at Petersburg and fleeing westward across Virginia.
After the war, the popular Century Magazine started publishing the narratives of Civil War veterans and retained a large number of sketch artists including Waud to illustrate the articles. They used interviews, photographs, and prior war-date sketches to produce accurate pictorial representations of the war. These illustrated accounts were incorporated into a large four-volume work entitled Battles and Leaders of the Civil War in 1881.
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