Monday, December 13, 2010

Art from a Civil War Soldier

Captain Adolph G. Metzner’s stunning visual diary of sketches, drawings, and watercolors, published for the first time in the new IHS Press book Blood Shed in This War: Civil War Illustrations by Captain Adolph Metzner, 32nd Indiana by Michael A. Peake, depict his world during three years of service with the First German, Thirty-second Regiment Indiana Volunteer Infantry campaigning in the Western Theater during the Civil War. Metzner chronicled the day-to-day life of a soldier’s world, at first with humor, and later, with a stark reality of life and death on the battlefield.

Metzner was born on August 16, 1834, in a village in the southwestern corner of Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and earned a degree as a prescription pharmacist. In 1856he immigrated to the United States, establishing himself as a druggist in Louisville, Kentucky. Four months after the start of the Civil War, the young druggist traveled to Indianapolis to assist in organizing a German regiment.

Once encamped with the Thirty-second, Metzner immediately began to set his impressions down on paper, recording the regiment’s activity with details as vividly descriptive as any written word and creating a series of caricatures of his associates with a tinge of comical exaggeration likely influenced by the subject. With the initial loss of comrades at the battle of Rowlett’s Station, Kentucky, on December 17, 1861, Metzner’s art changed. From that point on his work showed the turmoil and struggle the men experienced through Shiloh and General Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky to Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and culminating with the move on Atlanta. Humor was fleeting in the later days of war, and Metzner’s work mirrored that fact.

Throughout his service with the regiment, Metzner produced his works on any available material. With his training in pharmaceutical techniques, it is likely that he produced tints from natural materials such as berries and bark when supplies became scarce. After his assignment as a topographical engineer following the battle of Stones River, materials were readily available to the artist, and periods of inactivity gave Metzner ample opportunity to create his works of art.

After being wounded at Chickamauga, Metzner returned to Indianapolis, and his artwork went into storage with the remainder of his war gear. He did, however, create one postwar oil painting. While in the field, Metzner made several sketches of artillery batteries in different operations, and after returning to Indianapolis, he created his last known work, a beautiful 18 1/2 x 23 1/4 oil on canvas that appears to be a culmination of his study of man, horse, and motion. The end result shows the depth of one who has witnessed war, or who has “seen the elephant,” as Civil War veterans called it.

Three years of service resulted in great sacrifice for the Thirty-second Regiment. In September 1861, 905 men left Indianapolis. Three years later, only 281 original enlistees returned to muster out of service, with another 89 mustering out in absentia. Combat claimed the lives of 171 men, including 7 officers. Another 98 died of disease. More than 441 men were wounded, many carrying scars from numerous battles. Some died much later from their wounds, and scores became permanently disabled due to injuries or disease

Peake, a resident of Corydon, Indiana, is an author and historian specializing in Indiana German genealogy and history as related to the American Civil War. Since retiring from federal service in 1996, Peake has devoted his time to researching Union and Confederate German-American military organizations.

Blood Shed in This War costs $34.95 and is available from the IHS's History Market.

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