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War artist, Alex Simplot

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The first 'war photographs' are believed to have been taken during the Mexican War; and the Crimean War generated fewer than 1000 photographic images. Therefore, it is safe to suggest that war photography 'came of age' during the Civil War... But while Civil War photography was finding its footing (most obvious IRT Shiloh and Corinth, from which so few contemporaneous images exist), the 'visual record' of that contest was still the primary domain of the sketch artist.

One such sketch artist was Alexander Simplot. Born in Dubuque in 1837 to parents who were successful merchants (and some of the earliest settlers in Eastern Iowa), Alex was fortunate to attend the finest local schools, before being sent east to Union College at Schenectady, New York, where he 'graduated from the Law Department' in 1858. Back in Iowa, and despite his parent's best efforts to dissuade him, Alex gravitated towards 'wasting his life on drawing.' His work, Departure of Volunteers from Dubuque, Iowa on April 22, 1861 was published on page 6 of the May 25, 1861 issue of Harper's Weekly -- and Simplot was hired to become 'correspondent/war artist' for that magazine.  http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1861/may/dubuque-iowa.htm

He followed the Army to Missouri, and to Cairo (where he renewed acquaintance with a former school chum -- John A. Rawlins -- who was a prominent member of General Grant's staff.) He accompanied Grant's expedition into Kentucky and Tennessee, and sketched Fort Holt, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson... many images found their way into Harper's Weekly. Leaving Grant after Fort Donelson, Simplot returned to Cairo in time to join Foote's gunboats for the operation against Island No. 10. He sketched the evacuated Fort Columbus along the way, and was busy recording Foote's gunboats and mortars, and Pope's transports in action... and missed the Battle of Shiloh.

Alex Simplot rejoined the Army of the Tennessee in mid-April, and recorded Hamburg Landing, the Skirmish at Farmington, and Federal troops entering Corinth. Somehow, he managed to find transport that linked him up with Davis and Ellet's naval effort at Memphis, Battle of June 6th. (That sketch made the cover of Harper's Weekly for June 28, 1862.) He returned to the Army of the Tennessee, and was present in Corinth during the October 1862 attack. Due to ill health, Alex Simplot resigned as war artist for Harper's Weekly in early 1863, and returned to Dubuque. After the war, he was contracted by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper to sketch scenes in Galena, Illinois during a reception for General U. S. Grant.

Alexander Simplot died in Dubuque in 1914.

In 1958, a large collection of his original sketches (and preliminary sketches) was found in a garage in Wisconsin; the Wisconsin Historical Society is now home to that collection.




References:    http://www.encyclopediadubuque.org/index.php?title=SIMPLOT,_Alexander     Encyclopedia Dubuque

http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=Ntk:All%7cSimplot%2c+Alexander%7c3%7c,Ny:True,Ro:0&dsNavOnly=N:1133&dsDimensionSearch=D:Simplot%2c+Alexander,Dxm:All,Dxp:3&dsCompoundDimensionSearch=D:Simplot%2c+Alexander,Dxm:All,Dxp:3&fromsearch=true    Wisconsin Historical Society, Alexander Simplot Collection

http://archive.org/stream/harpersweeklyv6bonn#page/401/mode/1up     Harper's Weekly, Compiled for year of 1862    Fort Henry, pages 113, 120, 133; Fort Donelson 129, 148, 161, 164, 188; Fort Columbus 197, 198; Island No. 10  pages 212, 213, 228, 285; Pittsburg Landing (written report) page 243; Henry Halleck 257; Hamburg Landing 349; Corinth Siege 391; Corinth Cartoon 435; Memphis 408, 420.



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No idea about family connections...

But I do know that Alexander Simplot was fortunate that Harper's Weekly credited his work. Today, we can enter 'simplot memphis' or 'simplot corinth' into Google Images, and pages of his sketches are presented.




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I wrote a piece about Simplot a few years ago for the Daily Corinthian - 


Story of a reporter, artist who followed Civil War

Daily Corinthian – December 9, 2012

I have a confession to make; I’m not much of an artist.

I like to flatter myself that I can string a few sentences together but when it comes to things like painting and music, I’m a real zero. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket in fact I am about as tone deaf as General Grant who once said he could only recognize two tunes, “One was Yankee Doodle, and the other wasn’t.”

As for art, forget about it, I’m colorblind. There was a good reason why Mom never put my schoolwork on the fridge door.

But I’ve always had a deep appreciation for artwork and, surprise, this includes a fondness for art created during the Civil War. Homer Winslow cranked out a number of fine paintings during the conflict as did Thomas Nast, Conrad Wise Chapman, and Edouard Manet. 

My particular favorites are the artists who travelled with the armies much like the modern imbedded journalists who reported Desert Storm and the Iraq War. These guys travelled with the troops, ate the same food, slept in the same mud. Their drawings were reproduced in the newspapers of the day and papers like Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly loaded their pages with images.

There were plenty of artist/correspondents who travelled with the Union army here in the West, men like Alfred Waud, Henri Lovie, and of course, Alexandar Simplot. Never heard of Alex Simplot? Well if you’ve ever been to the Interpretive Center here in Corinth you have seen his work.

Alexandar Simplot was born in Dubuque, Iowa in1837. His parents were French immigrants and were among the first settlers in the state. One account has it that Alex was the first white child born in the Hawkeye State.

His father was a merchant, made quite a bit of money, and was able to ensure Alex got a good education. He attended public schools for a bit and then transferred to the Rock River Seminary in Mount Morris, Illinois. It was here that Alex struck up a friendship with classmate John A. Rawlings the future Governor of Iowa. After he received his diploma from Rock River, Alex was bundled off to Union College in Schenectady, New York.

Alexandar graduated in 1857 with a Law degree though his heart was really in his art. He gave a commencement address titled “Plea for Artists” which couldn’t have made his folks too happy; they discouraged his artistic leanings.

As fate would have it Alex began life as neither an artist nor a lawyer, but rather as a teacher. One of his first students was a pretty little eleven year old girl by the name of Virginia Knapp. After the war, and shortly after her 18th birthday, Virginia became his bride.

The outbreak of the Civil War provided the opportunity Alex needed to practice his love of drawing. He was in Dubuque on April 22, 1861 to witness the departure of the local militia unit, the “Governor’s Grays,” on a steamboat bound for the east. It was eleven days after the surrender at Fort Sumter and patriotism was high; thousands turned out for the event.

Alex made a sketch of the teeming masses on the wharf and the soldiers lining the rails as the steamer Alhambra cast off into the river. He wrote a moving description as well and sent both off to the editors of Harper’s Weekly.

The publishers liked what they saw and asked for more. “A few weeks, thereafter,” recalled Alex, “in May, saw me in Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.” Cairo was a vital Union staging ground and Alex was able to send off a number of drawings of the Northern soldiers preparing for war.

Alex’s next stop was St. Louis where he fell in with a group of newspaper correspondents, many of whom would be his companions in the months to come. They were a rowdy, hard drinking press corps who called themselves the “Bohemian Brigade” and were responsible for reporting the war in the West to the world.

Alexandar scored something of coup in the fall of 1861 when he acquired a letter of introduction from General Grant’s former employer in Galena, Illinois. When Alex secured a meeting with the then obscure brigadier general he was delighted to see his old school chum John A. Rawlings who was Grant’s chief-of-staff. It was a great meeting and thanks to Rawlings Alex had access to the inner circle of Grant’s command and could often wrangle interviews when others were left out in the cold.

From that point on, wherever Grant was, there was Simplot. He was at the Battle of Belmont in Missouri and sketched Grant riding his horse up onto a steamboat at the close of the fight, and he was at Forts Henry and Donelson, the first major Union victories of the war. He produced remarkable drawings of the river landing as Hamburg just south of Pittsburg Landing and the activities that preceded the Siege of Corinth.

Alex finally made his way to Corinth in May of 1862. He spent a good deal of his time off to the east with Pope’s Army of the Mississippi and was in a great position to make some amazing sketches of Farmington. Three of them made their way into Harper’s Weekly.

Once Corinth was in Union hands General Sherman was sent west to repair the railroad to Memphis and Simplot went with him. As a consequence he was in Memphis in June and scored yet another coup; Alex was the only reporter to observe and record the all naval Battle of Memphis.

Simplot was back in town by late September and was here for the epic Battle of Corinth. He made over a half dozen sketches of different aspects of the fight, but it was his drawing of the fighting at Battery Robinett that became one of the iconic images of the battle.

The drawing depicts the high-water mark of the Confederate attack as the seemingly victorious 2nd Texas climb the walls of the fort and fight hand to hand with the defenders. In the distance are the reinforcements of the 11th Missouri infantry moments before they charged forward to drive the Southerners back. Corinth is in the background and you can almost smell the smoke of battle.

Alex’s coverage of the war came to an abrupt halt soon after New Year’s in 1863. “Having returned to Memphis where I again fell victim of chronic dysentery, I left for Dubuque where I spent the rest of the war.” He lived a long full life in Iowa and must have been proud when his son Julien Dubuque Simplot, child number seven of nine, worked for a time as reporter for the local paper. Alex passed away in 1914 at the age of 77.

Like most artists Alex produced a lot more drawings than he had published. In 1956 these drawings and sketches were found in an old cardboard box in his grandson’s garage. Several of these pieces of art depict the activities in and around Corinth. The priceless collection of rough drafts and field notebooks has made its way into the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society. How come I can’t find stuff like that in my garage?

No. 1.jpg

No. 2.jpg

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When I was doing research for my book, Falling through the Hornet's Nest, I ran across a work by Franc Bangs Wilkie that mentioned 'the 1st Iowa Volunteers left Dubuque aboard the Alhambra...'  With 'Dubuque Alhambra volunteers,' in google images, a haunting sketch of a paddle steamer crowded with men (two of whom were relatives, making up the numbers) emerged; an enormous crush of well-wishers --atop buildings, and thronging the levee... probably most of the population of Key City -- waving them away, calling encouragement. And the sketch was attributed to Alexander Simplot.

Dubuque Iowa

[Image from Harper's Weekly edition of May 3, 1861; sketch by Alex Simplot.]



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