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.
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.
Several volumes contain illustrations of native flora and fauna, such as this image of a morning glory.
Even during his European travels Abert often sketched native landscapes and terrain, such as this lake near Mount Vesuvius.
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.