No one—not even the editor of this fine volume—knows precisely how an untrained, German-born Louisville druggist named Adolph Metzner ever acquired the inspiration, much less the skill, to create a portfolio of sketches that so compellingly recorded the transformative experiences of a regiment of Indiana volunteer infantry during the Civil War. But somehow, Metzner, twenty-eight years old when he became a captain in the First German, Thirty-second Regiment, brought with him the tools, the vision, and the inspiration to create the neglected art that fills this beautifully assembled collection.
Long-lost artistic records of the war by soldiers seem to be finding their way into the spotlight with surprising regularity these days. Many are well-crafted and nicely preserved, and all are to some degree worthy of attention as authoritative and personal records of soldier life. Of all the examples I have seen, however, Metzner’s work is unique in that it reflects a sharply evolving vision of military service (the artist served for three years in the western theater). Winslow Homer, of course, similarly matured from a caricaturist with an eye for comic detail, into a more sentimental and muscular observer of camp life and the changing realities of hard war. But Homer was, after all, a professional artist employed by a weekly illustrated newspaper, and later became an enormously successful retrospective painter whose Civil War art was created in the glow of experience and considerable fame. Metzner, a gifted amateur too long relegated to the dustbin of Civil War history, altered his perspective while actually serving in the army—serving as an officer while recording his shifting impressions [End Page 185] of the adventures, rigors, and tragedies of life on campaign. We have only one surviving postwar oil painting by Metzner, and it seems a rather pallid studio exercise in capturing man and horse in action. Adolph Metzner truly brings the war alive through his less ambitious, but far more keenly observed, on-the-spot sketches and watercolors. How he found the time and leisure to produce either remains a matter of wonder.
Happily, this book relegates the postwar painting to its introductory pages, and then raises the curtain on Metzner’s carefully captioned watercolors and pencil sketches in roughly chronological order (though a more precise start-to-finish portfolio, whatever its impact on the design of the book, might have been even more useful). The artist showed early that he was capable of capturing the early zeal that animated patriotic enlistment. One Henry von Treba, arriving at Camp Morton near Indianapolis aboard a frightened mule in August 1861, puffs out his chest with abundant pride as his son clings to his coat. Neither father nor child—nor artist—yet has a clue about what terrors this conflict will soon reveal.
Quickly enough, Metzner will provide his impression of soldiers struggling to march up a steep hill against a pounding rain at Green River in Kentucky. And by the next winter, soldiers returning from picket duty at Green River, look far different from the overconfident von Treba. These soldiers are alert to danger, and bend against the palpable cold and wind. A hasty sketch of one casualty pinned under a fallen tree at Shiloh, a dead comrade sprawled nearby bleeding effusively from a head wound, takes war to yet another level—and it is anything but heroic or picturesque. A sketch showing a maze of dead Confederates and their horses after the battle of Resaca (1864) is as horrific as it is accomplished. To show another slaughtered Confederate line killed along a fence at Stones River in January 1863, Metzner rendered the entire scene in sepia, adding color—a sickly red—only to the gaping wounds on the mangled bodies. This is an audacious attempt at artistic control later used by no less than Stephen Spielberg in the controversial scene from Schindler’s List—shot [End Page 186] entirely in black-and-white save for the red...