"A Grand Terrible Dramma": From Gettysburg to Petersburg: The Civil War Letters of Charles Wellington Reed

"A Grand Terrible Dramma": From Gettysburg to Petersburg: The Civil War Letters of Charles Wellington Reed

"A Grand Terrible Dramma": From Gettysburg to Petersburg: The Civil War Letters of Charles Wellington Reed

"A Grand Terrible Dramma": From Gettysburg to Petersburg: The Civil War Letters of Charles Wellington Reed

Excerpt

An early twentieth-century history of Massachusetts volunteers in the Civil War described Charles Reed as follows:

The subject of this sketch [is]… Charles Wellington Reed,
artist and delineator, a most exact and faithful American re
producer of incidents and actions of the great Civil War….
During [his] service he delineated many localities, actions, in
cidents of soldier life, etc., which he was fortunately able to
preserve, and are of the greatest interest to all who study the
history of the War of the Rebellion and the services of the vol
unteer forces of the republic.

Indeed, we are fortunate that Charles Reed and his family preserved his Civil War sketches and writings. This extensive and unique collection, consisting of over 180 letters and hundreds of drawings, covers Reed’s period of service (186265) and provides the modern reader a wealth of information on the role of the Union army in the eastern theater, the events and occurrences in the life of the Civil War soldier, and the war in general. Although the vast majority of these letters and sketches have been in the public domain for over seventy years, the collection has, inexplicably, been nearly forgotten. And so too, in many ways, has Charles Wellington Reed.

This oversight is especially baffling, considering the high quality of Reed’s artwork. These sketches capture a wide variety of subjects and events to which he was not only an eyewitness but also a participant. The quality of Reed’s drawing certainly can be considered on a par with that of Edwin Forbes, Alfred Waud, and other famous newspaper artists of the day. The hundreds of letters he penned during the war also chronicle a plethora of both common and incredible historic incidents and include insightful commentary on those experiences. Yet they too have rarely been quoted or used by Civil War historians.

1 Charles W. Winslow Hall, ed., Regiments and Armories of Massachusetts: An Historical Narrative of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia (Boston: W. W. Potter, 1901), pp. 533–34.

2 The Civil War letters and sketches of Charles Wellington Reed are preserved in two repositories. The principal collection, including 154 letters or letter fragments and nearly all of the sketches, was donated by Reed’s niece to the Library of Congress in 1928. A smaller collection, consisting of 28 letters, is stored in the Special Collections branch of Princeton University Library. Though some of Reed’s sketches illustrate a variety of books on the Civil War, the vast majority of his artwork has never been published. Except for small portions of Reed’s letters quoted in a few books and articles, his letters have been virtually ignored by Civil War scholars.

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