Edwin Forbes’s Thirty Years After is surely one of the most remarkable firsthand accounts of the Civil War ever published. Originally issued in 1890–thus the title–the lavish, oversized book is both a pictorial and a written record of the daily experience of war. It contains almost two hundred etchings of Civil War scenes along with twenty equestrian portraits of Union generals such as Grant, Sherman, McClellan, and Custer, reproduced from oil paintings. The present edition is a facsimile of the original, with the addition of an Introduction by William J. Cooper, Jr, who discusses the significance of the books and provides a biographical sketch of Edwin Forbes and information about he role of journalists in the war.
Forbes, born in New York City in 1839, was a staff artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. On assignment for the paper, Forbes traveled with the federal army from the battle of Cross Keys, in 1862, to the siege of Petersburg, in 1864. A keen observer, Forbes sketched battlefields, campsites, and other scenes that he later rendered in relief etchings on copper plate. Some of the etchings were published in a portfolio in 1876. For the much larger Thirty Years After, Forbes executed scores of additional etchings and wrote an informative text to go with them. The book is divided into dozens of brief chapters, with each chapter’s text serving to introduce and explain the accompanying illustrations.
Although Forbes made drawings of officers, he was clearly more interested in depicting the common soldier. His evocative etchings show such scenes as a regiment marching into camp at nightfall, an artillery reserve rolling into action at Cemetery Hill, a cavalry charge at Brandy Station, a band of prisoners lined up for execution, positioned so that they would tumble directly into their coffins.
Forbes did not flinch from portraying the full terror and force of combat, but he also clearly understood that soldiering was not a one-dimensional experience. Many of his studies reveal the almost-forgotten minutiae of war. He shows soldiers engaged in such ordinary activities as preparing meals, laundering uniforms, avidly reading about events at him whenever newspapers were available, and relaxing between skirmishes. His illustrations also depict supply trains, pontoon bridges, army hospitals, and slaver cabins. In drawings of Confederate soldiers, Forbes emphasizes the comradely bond that sometimes could develop between opposing sides. A particularly telling etching shows Confederate pickets exchanging tobacco for coffee with their Union counterparts.
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