New-York Historical Society

Artist as soldier: David Cronin’s sketches from the field of war

This post was written by Deborah Tint, cataloging assistant.

Nameplate of Harper’s Weekly, July 27, 1861. {E171 .H29 Oversize}

Nameplate of Harper’s Weekly, July 27, 1861. (E171 .H29 Oversize)

Article published in Harper’s Weekly each week from July 6, 1861 to August 3, 1861. (E171.H29 Oversize)

Article published in Harper’s Weekly each week from July 6, 1861 to August 3, 1861. (E171.H29 Oversize)

 

At the start of the Civil War Harper’s Weekly, then known as a journal of news, culture and serial fiction, sprang into action to provide striking images of the conflict to those at home and at the front. Articles appeared to inform readers that a corps of “Regular Artist-Correspondents” would supply sketches from the field, and to solicit freelance submissions from “volunteer correspondents.” Free copies of the paper were offered to any regiment or ship of war.

 

Pen and ink self-portrait based on an 1881 photograph, published in The work of David E. Cronin. John Thomas Washbourn. {NC Box 1}

Cronin’s self-portrait in The work of David E. Cronin by John Thomas Washbourn in the New-York Historical Society Quarterly Bulletin, January, 1941. (NC Box 1)

 

 

One of those artist-correspondents was David Cronin, working for Harper’s under the pseudonym Seth Eyland. The majority of the David Edward Cronin Papers, a remarkable collection of artwork and correspondence from the Civil War and beyond, came to the New-York Historical Society from his postwar patron, Daniel Parish, Jr.

Cronin was born in Greenwich, N.Y., studied art in New York City, and then in Europe from 1857 to 1860. Only a short time after his return to the U.S., he was moved by the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter to enlist in the Union army on April 19, 1861. He joined the 12th New York Militia, and soon after received an assignment as an artist for Harper’s Weekly. Later Cronin served with the 1st New York Mounted Rifles. Although his field sketches inevitably show some harrowing events, they more often convey a feeling of wry playfulness or melancholy. His numerous portraits of soldiers and commanders stress empathetic likeness over drama and heroism. It is clear from not only the volume of his wartime output but also his careful presentation of his memoirs after the war that preserving the historical record was vitally important to Cronin. On the occasion of the Society’s first comprehensive exhibit of Cronin’s work in 1941, an article in the New-York Historical Society Quarterly Bulletin recounted,

“Years later while looking through the files of Harper’s Weekly, Cronin was amazed to note how little they contained of value to the future historian. In a letter to Daniel Parish, Jr., he wrote: ‘The drawings are often of the most inferior grade—slight and inaccurate— the latter defect due no doubt to liberties taken by the office draughtsman who transcribed the drawing on wood.’ “

Encampment of the First Connecticut Volunteers at Roach’s Springs, Virginia. Harper’s Weekly, July 6, 1861. {E171.H29 oversize}

Encampment of the First Connecticut Volunteers at Roach’s Springs, Virginia. Harper’s Weekly, July 6, 1861. (E171.H29 oversize)

These frequent adjustments from field sketch to newspaper engraving are neatly illustrated by Cronin’s sketch of Roach’s Mills, Va. As reproduced in Harper’s, one of the main figures is shown leaning on a piece of heavy artillery, indicated by two large wheels. A watercolor in the Cronin collection shows the same scene with a notable difference. Here the figure leans instead on a modest box of provisions. This is most likely a copy of the sketch Cronin sent to Harper’s. The sketch caption reads, “Harper’s took many liberties with my drawing, even introducing cannon.” Elsewhere Cronin notes that there were no cannon with the advance in May of 1861.

Cronin’s watercolor. Camp of the 12th N.Y.S.M. at Roach’s Mills, Va. June 1861. Papers of David E. Cronin, Series I, v.2. (MS670.9)

Cronin’s watercolor. Camp of the 12th N.Y.S.M. at Roach’s Mills, Va. June 1861. Papers of David E. Cronin, Series I, v.2. (MS670.9)

The process of turning these field sketches into printable wood engravings was complex. Once submitted, the original sketch was redrawn in reverse on a number of woodblocks by a draughtsman. These blocks, small because they were cut across the grain of the wood, allowed finer carving and did not warp. In the interests of time the blocks were distributed among a number of wood engravers who carved the center but left the edges of each block clear. Finally the blocks were clamped together and the edges completed by a finisher to create a consistent image that was ready to print.

In the case of Cronin’s camp picture of Roach’s Mills, which covered a half page, six blocks were used, but the joins are too expertly handled to be visible. A different example can serve to illustrate this point. In a double-page spread it was much more difficult to create a seamless whole because of the number of blocks involved. Lines between blocks are visible to various degrees throughout the picture.

The United States fleet off Fort Pickens, Florida, by an uncredited artist, Harper’s Weekly, April 20, 1861. (E171 .H29 Oversize) Detail.

It is impossible to know how many of Cronin’s sketches made their way into the pages of Harper’s. Although some of Harper’s artists are credited by name, among them Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast, Cronin’s work, along with a large number of his colleagues went uncredited and was simply captioned, “from a Sketch by our Special Artist.” Luckily for us, Cronin’s energetic documentation of his experiences, and Daniel Parish’s prescient collecting of the artist’s work has preserved for us this invaluable window into a soldier’s life during the Civil War.

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