Sketches of War and Peace: The James William Abert Collection

The most common mental images of the American Civil War may be that of dramatic cavalry charges, roaring cannon, and soldiers charging across broken grounds with bayonets fixed. Quieter thoughts of the war might include stern faced generals contemplating intricate maps and drawings of fortifications with their subordinates.  Enthusiasts still study these maps and drawings today, yet we rarely pause to consider the men who created these illustrations. One such individual was James William Abert, a topographical engineer in the United States Army.

Abert was a career army officer, serving on several expeditions to the West, and after retiring became a professor of mathematics and drawing at University of Missouri.  The papers in the Abert collection show how his talents were used in the military and during the Civil War, as well as for a different end in his civilian life.

Abert’s Civil War journal documents his experiences in the Union Army under Generals Robert Patterson and Nathaniel P. Banks in the Shenandoah Valley from July 2 to August 30, 1861. The sketch below of Harper’s Ferry shows how Abert may have used his talents to illustrate natural landscapes and terrain for army officers.

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Earlier drawings, from a trip Abert made to Italy and Paris in 1861, show some of the sights he encountered there, such as a “Mrs. Hay” in Paris and a piazza in Italy.

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Several volumes contain illustrations of native flora and fauna, such as this image of a morning glory.

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Even during his European travels Abert often sketched native landscapes and terrain, such as this lake near Mount Vesuvius.

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The Civil War was a monumental event in American History, and many of our remembrances of it are in the form of written documents, often limited to those life-altering years. The Abert papers offer a different perspective, showing how his talents were used both outside of and during the war. They show how, for at least one participant, serving his country and creating images of foreign lands and native flowers, were not quite so different.

Eric Willey

2 comments on “Sketches of War and Peace: The James William Abert Collection

  1. Berle Clay

    For Mr. Willey

    Fascinated by this post. I have Catlin’s 2 vol 1841 issue on N Am. Indian customs that was owned by Abert. The volumes are heavily annotated by Abert (His name is in one of the volumes) and, more importantly, numerous of Catlin’s engravings have been water colored, presumably by Abert. This suggests a role Catlin’s earlier pictures may have played in developing Abert as an artist, as opposed to simply a topographical engineer. What is the extent of your holdings on Abert and do they cover his early years (the 1840s)? I Live in Lexington and would like to come down to explore what you have.

    Berle Clay

    Reply
    1. Jennie Cole

      Dear Berle,
      Thank you for your interest in The Filson’s James William Abert Collection. The description of the collection, which dates 1861-1893, is as follows:

      The papers of James Abert cover his travels to Europe, military service during the Civil War, and his years as a professor. The collection consists of twelve volumes, most of which are sketchbooks. These include sketches and watercolor drawings. Most of the illustrations are of classical, floral, and American Indian (especially Aztec) themes. Some are of buildings and statues seen on his 1861 trip to Paris and Rome. There is also a sketchbook which includes several articles written by Abert on art and the Aztecs. Also included are Abert’s military journal of his service as a topographical engineer in the Dept. of the Shenandoah, a notebook containing engineering memoranda with notes on the battle of Fredericksburg and maps, and a pamphlet entitled Personal Recollections of the War.

      It seems as though we do not have material covering his pre-Civil War life or career; we do have some mentions/correspondence of his in other collections, but it too seems to be from the Civil War era. We would be happy to welcome you to The Filson to review our holdings, however! Please feel free to contact The Filson at research@filsonhistorical.org.

      Best wishes,
      Jennie

      Reply

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