Reproduced above from Rails to the Blue Ridge, by Herbert H. Harwood, Jr., is a contemporary engraving of the skirmish between Northern and Southern forces in Vienna (apparently near the western boundary of the town) on June 17, 1861. The following paragraphs, drawing principally on Budd Leslie Gambee, Jr., Frank Leslie and His Illustrated Newspaper, 1855-1860 (Ann Arbor, 1964) provide some background concerning the production of images of this sort.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, originally known as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, pioneered in the United States the presentation of the news with elaborate, relatively high-quality engravings. Born Henry Carter, Frank Leslie began his career in publishing as an engraver at the Illustrated London News. Emigrating from England in 1848, he founded in this country a few years later a large publishing empire of fluctuating fortunes. There was a number of print ventures, many bearing his name, but the most successful and long-lived was FLIN, started in 1855 and published in various forms (to include at some points both German and Spanish editions as well) until 1922, when at last the name “Leslie” was submerged in a merger with Judge. Considerably more so than publications such as Harper’s Weekly and Appleton’s Journal (rivals that soon emerged), Leslie’s papers reflected their founder’s favoring of the visual over the textual, and thus aspired to a goal quite similar to that of modern television network news, that is, to report current events by means of images that were supplemented with text. FLIN’s sense of itself is conveyed succinctly (if a bit grandiloquently) through this excerpt from the edition of August 2, 1856: An illustrated newspaper, if it fulfills its mission, must have its employees under constant excitement. There can be no indolence or ease about such an establishment. Every day brings its allotted and Herculean task, and night affords no respite.
The creation of the engravings was, in fact, a demanding task. Depending on complexity and size (that ranged from small vignettes and portraits — such as one sees in the Wall Street Journal today — to one-, two-, and even four-page layouts), a single engraving could take as long as a month to prepare. An artist would normally record visual impressions of an event with a few rapid strokes which would later be developed from memory as well as notes jotted down on the sketch itself. A completed drawing was transmitted by the quickest means available to the office of FLIN, where, after having received editorial approval, it was copied in reverse onto one or more woodblocks (most often made of hard Turkish boxwood) by different artists whose rather regular improvements upon the original were called “finishings.” The image on the block(s) was then sent to engravers who carefully cut away the wood around the lines that had been drawn on a thin wash of Chinese white (shadows had been indicated by washes of India ink). The final product was a relief block, or group of blocks, which, when inked, produced what was known as a black-line facsimile engraving. This resembled rather closely a drawing in pen and ink. If the image was a large one (note, in the example above, the line running through its center), two or more blocks were first bolted together. Once the original image had been transferred, the blocks were sent to a master engraver whose initial cuts would indicate (across all of the blocks) the stylistic direction that the whole image should take. Then the blocks were unbolted and distributed among the engraver’s assistants, who would complete the task.
Leslie is usually credited with the introduction of the so-called divided-wood-block method in this country, though it is probably more accurate to say that he was the first to use the method extensively and with great success. The resulting image was always somewhat flawed because it was impossible to conceal completely the divisions between blocks. Thus, generally only newspapers used the method because they, unsurprisingly, favored speedy production over any inordinately painstaking quest for elusive artistic quality.
Leslie effectively called into being the profession of the pictorial journalist (or artist-reporter). While the art of photography was already in its infancy when the publication began, and while, during the Civil War, Mathew Brady and the photographers in his employ were busy recording what we now would likely regard to be superior contemporary images, Frank Leslie dispatched a so-called “Bohemian Brigade” of artist-reporters to depict all of the principal engagements. Indeed, Leslie deliberately rejected the use of the photograph, boasting, in the issue of April 2, 1859 that “we do not depend upon the accidental transmission of photographs, with their corpse-like literalness, but upon our own special artists.”
Given that the process of photoengraving had not yet been perfected, we may be tempted to dismiss as expedient the apparent bravado in which Leslie casts his praise of the illustration. Certainly it is the case, however, that contemporary photographers, encumbered by their relatively primitive equipment, could not have hoped to capture some of the dramatic, even oddly fanciful moments visualized in Leslie’s engravings. Furthermore, the regard of photography as mechanical, inartistic, and jejune of spirit was scarcely unique. It is well worth noting that such was the neglect of Brady’s Civil War photographs (now as famous as Leslie’s publication is forgotten), in which project Brady himself had invested $100,000, that the photographer was ruined financially. The U.S. government, upon whose interest in the work he had relied, showed none after the war was over. The War Department did buy the collection, ultimately, but at public auction and for a mere $2,840. Although the efforts of his friends in government won for Brady a grant of $25,000 from Congress in 1875, he never made a complete financial recovery, and eventually, in 1896 at the age of 73, he died alone, a forgotten alcoholic, in a hospital charity ward in New York City.