Now, K&A, as I’m sure most of our readers are more than familiar produced these prints in the 1890s. I was always fascinated with how clean, heroic, uniformed, and generally fake they looked. It always astounded me – even as a child – how little these paintings seemed have anything to do with the chaos of combat. I had coloring books that were more authentic!
Of course, looking back now in a post-David Blight world, I can understand why a company in the heyday of the Reconciliation era, of the UCV and GAR reunions, of the establishment of the first battlefield parks would want to paint this picture of the war. Ordered lines of men, well-uniformed, heroically doing battle with one another, dying with arms outstretched to comrades in arms (on both sides). A clean war was a war that moved beyond the four years of carnage. A heroic war ignored the deep divisions over slavery and other issues that sparked the conflict (and were arguably still as unresolved in 1890 as they had been in 1860). Order and heroism could focus on the shared sacrifice of combat and yet not dwell on the harsh memories that could arise if the brutal facts of war were brought back up. Sectional reconciliation is easier with clean and honorable deaths rather than the reality of 20-year-old comrades being ripped to shreds by lead and steel. K&A prints were not what the Civil War was, but what the 1890s needed the Civil War to be.
All that having been said, looking back at K&A’s
For once, K&A’s depictions of ridiculously close engagement ranges are actually appropriate. Soldier after soldier mentioned the extremely limited visibility in those woods (which, it should be pointed out, are noticeably missing from the print…so much for accuracy, eh?). Though the lack of forest is disturbing, it doesn’t completely distract.
For example, look at all the instances of troops fighting out of ranks, not standing, and generally “disorderly.” I’m really pleased with this little group of Federal soldiers in the foreground. There they are, behind some improvised breastworks of rocks and brush, kneeling and firing as Confederates assault the position. If they were going for a XIV corps troops dug in around the Kelly Field area on the 20th, then they’ve got the right idea. If you look to the man wounded in the head you can even see some bushes that are likely going to catch fire from the muzzle flashes above them. Also, neat to see US troops with blanket rolls. Were they giving a nod to that no-nonsense Western volunteer image (even if it comes complete with leggings)?
Compare that corner of the print to a photo of the 33rd
- Member of Battery I, 4th
...and sure enough, we get these fellows on their bellies.
The citizens of today will doubtless wonder how any man could escape such a rain of shot and shell, but by the old soldier it is readily understood. While ninety per cent of these shots were being fired the men were lying flat on their faces and were overshooting each other when suddenly one or the other would spring to his feet and with a bound and a yell rush at a double-quick upon their foe, giving him time to fire one or at most two rounds when his ranks would be broken and compelled to retire.
- Lt. Lot D. Young, 4th KY (CS)
Maybe there’s more to good old Kurz & Allison than I ever gave them credit for. I know I’m certainly going to start looking deeper at what they got right before discounting them for what they “remembered” wrong. Buried under all the memory might just be a few nuggets of historical reality.