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Soldiers' bunks at Fort Holt, Kentucky (WHI Image ID 32879)
Soldiers' bunks at Fort Holt, Kentucky WHI 32879

The Civil War Sketches of Alexander Simplot

If asked to picture a scene from the Civil War, most Americans would probably imagine an iconic black-and-white photograph by Mathew Brady. But during the war very few people were able to see photographs like those because printers had no way to include them in newspapers and magazines. Instead, Americans saw engravings of drawings made by artists in the field. Artists sent hand-drawn sketches from the front to be engraved line-by-line on metal plates, which could be printed on paper alongside text. Periodicals such as Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and Harper's Weekly brought thousands of Civil War scenes into American homes. This gallery features dozens of original drawings and sketches by one of those artists, Alexander Simplot (1837-1914), who worked as an illustrator for Harper's Weekly during the first half of the war.

Simplot's Career

Drawing of a section of Fort Cairo in Illinois, facing the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers
Drawing of a section of Fort Cairo in
Illinois, facing the confluence of
the Mississippi and Ohio rivers

Simplot grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1858. When the war broke out in 1861, he accompanied a crew of journalists calling themselves "The Bohemian Brigade" and went south. At first he traveled into Missouri with a fruitless expedition led by Gen. John C. Fremont. But one of Simplot's acquaintances was on the staff of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and helped Simplot gain permission to travel with Union troops in the spring of 1862.

Simplot followed Grant up the Tennessee River and depicted the federal victories at Fort Donelson and Fort Henry. He next went downstream to catch the battle of Island No. 10, opposite New Madrid, Missouri, where the 8th and 15th Wisconsin Infantry regiments and 5th, 6th and 7th Wisconsin Light Artillery batteries were heavily engaged. He then rejoined Grant's staff for the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, in April 1862, where many Wisconsin troops had their first taste of combat, and depicted the siege and capture of Corinth, Mississippi, in May.

Simplot was the only war artist to capture the thrilling battle of the Confederate and Union flotillas before Memphis in June, and his sketch of gunboats approaching the city has been widely reproduced. Simplot became very sick during his travels in the South and was forced to return to Dubuque in the summer of 1862. After the war he married and became a photo engraver in his native city, where he died in 1914.

Simplot's Sketches

Between June 15, 1861, and Jan. 10, 1863, Harper's Weekly published more than 60 of Alexander Simplot's sketches, for which he was paid about $1,250. He sent them a handful in later years, as well, and retained many of his early drafts. A number of these depict non-military subjects.

The original pencil sketches came to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1958 after being discovered in a garage belonging to one of his grandsons in Madison. Journalist John Patrick Hunter tells how they were uncovered, and provides a short biography of Simplot, in his article, "Alexander Simplot, Forgotten Bohemian" (Wisconsin Magazine of History: Volume 41, number 4, summer, 1958: 256-261). The Society also owns a complete set of Harper's Weekly that contains the published engravings made from Simplot's sketches.

To compare four of Simplot's initial drawings with their final published versions, see his sketches alongside the printed images:

View the Gallery

For More information

Details about the specific engagements that Simplot depicted is available in our digital collection, Wisconsin in the Civil War.

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