Arts + Culture

Intimate details of life as a Civil War soldier depicted in rare sketches

Book of 1893 drawings painstakingly restored by UCLA Library Special Collections

|
Ransom sketch - armistice
UCLA

Frederick Ransom’s sketches — in an order book from a garden nursery business — capture both the profound and mundane details of a Union soldier’s life.

Thirty years after he was wounded in the Civil War, Frederick Ransom was nevertheless nostalgic about his time on the battlefield. So in 1893, the aging veteran, then living in the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home in Quincy, decided to sketch scenes of conflict and camaraderie from his memories of the war.

Ransom could never have guessed what would happen to his pictorial diary. In late 2016, the sketchbook arrived at the UCLA Library Special Collections in a very fragile state, and a painstaking restoration was recently completed.

Ransom took what was readily available to him — an order book from a garden nursery business — and filled the blank back pages with nearly 100 intimate and detailed pictures and notes. Capturing both the profound and mundane details of a Union soldier’s life, Ransom’s drawings depict scenes from the battlefield and military ships, and from downtime around a campfire to the dogs of war.

Visiting librarian Amanda Burr led the restoration effort. On a UCLA Library blog, she described the challenge of working on the volume: “The combination of poor quality paper and an inflexible side-stitched binding had resulted in several leaves breaking away as they were turned. At some point, these detached leaves were re-adhered to each other and to the front board with glue, which eventually resulted in additional tears and breaks when the pages were turned.”

But, according to Chela Metzger, head of the library’s conservation center, there was never any doubt that Ransom’s sketches were worth saving.

“The book is peppered with delightful surprises,” she said, “including a leaf near the end where Mr. Ransom has listed 26 ‘Southern names for Union Soldiers,’ and a corresponding set of 11 ‘Northern names for Rebel Soldiers.’”

Although other sketches portraying the Civil War exist, a fully detailed autobiographical sketchbook that accounts for an individual soldier’s experience is rare.

“You don’t see that very often,” said Elle Harvell, a UCLA doctoral candidate in history, whose dissertation explores how Civil War-era women redefined their political and legal status.

Photography was a fledgling technology at the time of the Civil War, but battlefield photographs were often staged and didn’t accurately reflect soldiers’ lives, she added. So although sketches drawn from memory, three decades after the events in question, might seem less reliable than news photos, Ransom’s drawings do help fill in some blanks. Harvell said military leaders censored much of what journalists wrote in news reports and what soldiers wrote in letters to their families, in order to prevent classified or sensitive information from reaching the opposition.

Ransom used several different types of scripts in his handwritten notes, and his penmanship and writing skills suggest he was well educated.

The drawings also shed light on attitudes involving sexism, racism and, by extension, the larger conflicts that defined the war. In one of Ransom’s sketches, a Union soldier is depicted aggressively pursuing a woman of color. Harvell said racism and sexism were prevalent throughout the North, even though the war was ostensibly fought over the issue of slavery and states’ rights. Although ending slavery often overshadows the Union’s aim of reuniting the U.S. as the war’s primary objective, “ending slavery was not the main goal” of the conflict, Harvell said. 

Media Contact