John Bachelder and James Walker’s magnificent rendering of the climactic event of the Battle of Gettysburg, Longstreet’s assault on the third day against the Union center at Cemetery Hill. This advance, ultimately repulsed with huge losses, marked the “high-water mark of the Confederacy” and has a claim to being the turning point of the Civil War.
John Bachelder and the Battle of Gettysburg
John Bachelder (1825-1894) was an American painter, photographer and historian who dedicated the latter half of his life to documenting the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place on rolling farmland in central Pennsylvania on July 1-3, 1863. Within days of the event he traveled to the site, where he spent months traversing the field, making sketches, and interviewing participants and witnesses. Later that year he published Gettysburg Battle-Field, a spectacular and detailed bird’s-eye view, which managed to condense the vast and complicated battle to a single image.
Intellectually engaged by the challenge of reconstructing the complex events of those three days in July, and deeply committed to honoring the sacrifices of those who fought there, Bachelder spent the next 30 years researching the battle down to its most minute details. This entailed corresponding with hundreds of Union and Confederate officers and ultimately enabled him to produce a 2500-page manuscript account, as well as a number of remarkable maps and other images.
The painting of Longstreet’s Assault
In the late 1860s Bachelder commissioned painter James Walker to execute a monumental (7 ½ by 20 foot!) painting of the battle. Bachelder chose the most dramatic possible subject, the July 3 assault by 12,000 men of Longstreet’s First Corps against the Union center, now known misleadingly as “Pickett’s Charge” (Maj. General Pickett, along with Pickett, was but one of several Confederate division commanders involved.)
“From the grand assault of LONGSTREET’s command, on the third day of the battle, the Confederate army retired bloodily repulsed and forever broken ; LEE’s army never again recovered from the blow which it here received. The repulse of LONGSTREET’s charge was consequently not only the decisive episode of this decisive battle, but of the war ; for this reason, the designer of this painting has chosen it as the subject…” (Bachelder, Descriptive Key, pp. 9-10)
The artist adopted a perspective from the Union rear and encompasses most of the battlefield, from Big Round top on the left to the northern reaches of Cemetery Ridge on the right. The Confederate lines at Seminary Ridge are in the far distance, partially obscured by bursting shells. The image centers on the focal point of the Confederate assault, in the vicinity of what today are known as “The Copse” and “The Bloody Angle.” The composition has elements of a classic triptych, with Meade and his officers dominating the center, flanked on either side by artillery advancing into the fray. These are set against the whirlwind of battle, with Union units rushing forward to meet the Confederate advance, and dead and wounded men and horses and debris scattered on the field.
Based as it was on Bachelder’s exhaustive research, the painting was designed to be minutely accurate:
…in the production of this picture, MR. WALKER has endeavored to weave into an harmonious whole, the prominent incidents and episodes of this portion of the battle, and has never resorted to fiction, when truth would do as well. No stretch of the imagination has been indulged in. The material for its composition has been furnished him by me and arranged under my direction…. that the execution is highly artistic, in spite of the fact that effect has been sacrificed in many instances to accuracy, the ablest art critics have acknowledged. (Bachelder, Descriptive Key, p. 31)
The painting was exhibited in 1869-70 in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, where it met with much approbation. It is now owned by the Johnson Collection and resides in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
As early as 1870, and likely earlier, Bachelder had planned to have Walker’s painting rendered as a commercial print. A subscription book, sold by this firm a few years ago, demonstrates that his original intention was for the image to be executed as a lithograph, but Bachelder soon rethought this plan and shifted to a steel engraving. Demand for the print was strong: the subscription book records nearly 1000 individual orders, some for multiple copies.
Offered here is a fine example of the engraving, which was engraved in New York by Henry Bryan Hall, Jr. (fl. 1855-1900), himself a veteran of the Civil War, and published in Boston in 1876 by James Drummond Ball. The image is spectacular, grand in subject, large in size, and with rich, velvety tones and contrast.
The view is here accompanied by the Descriptive Key to the Painting of the Repulse of Longstreet’s Assault, published by Bachelder in 1870. It offers a history of the battle, a detailed description of the painting, extracts of reports from officers on both sides present at the battle, and a large-folding lithographic key to the painting, which is equally helpful in interpreting the print.
In all, a marvelous image, both evocative and exhaustively researched. of the greatest battle ever to take place on American soil.
OCLC 664232822 et al (the engraving) and 515543 et al (the Descriptive Key). Oddly, the Descriptive Key is mentioned by neither Howes nor Sabin.