The Civil War Sketches of Adolph Metzner (1861–64)

[Camp of the Thirty-second Regiment Indiana Volunteers, Company A, near Stones River, Tennessee, January 1863]. Camp scene featuring private Jacob Labinsky (center) as the victim of a practical joke; a character standing with arms crossed, resembling Colonel Francis Erdelmeyer (left background), watches the activity with the other troops — Source.

From gilt-framed ambrotypes of glassy-eyed new recruits to grim and grainy shots of the muddy dead, the American Civil War was the first major conflict to leave behind an extensive photographic record. Apart from the stylised scenes of battle that found their way on to painted canvas, it is perhaps to these photographs that one might automatically tend if asked to think of the visual record of the war. However, in both the photographic record and the more official war art, as engaging as they can be, there does seem to be something important missing: the immediacy and intimacy of everyday life as a soldier. This is why the collection of sketches, drawings, and watercolours left to us by Adolph G. Metzner — during his three years of service with the 1st German, 32nd Regiment Indiana Infantry — are of such special value. We see the camps not through a haze of indistinct monotone, but instead enlivened with human colour. Battlefields are not softened by the many careful hours in the painter’s studio, with their choreography and crafted composition, but instead carry a certain rawness of proximity. The gift of Metzner’s collection can be seen most starkly in his portraits of people, especially when compared to their photographic counterparts. See, for example, the two images below. On the left, a photograph of Lieutenant Colonel Karl Friedrich Heinrich von Trebra, Union officer in the 32nd Indiana Regiment, and on the right, Metzner’s caricature.

Left: Photograph by Wilhelm Grundner of Lieutenant Colonel Karl Friedrich Heinrich von Trebra, Union officer in the 32nd Indiana Regiment, ca. 1850 — Source.
Right: Drawing by Adolph Metzner of Trebra, 1861 — Source.

Another example with Private Jacob Labinsky, a compelling figure who crops up again and again in Metzner’s work.

Left: Jacob Labinsky, Union private in the 32nd Indiana Regiment —
Source. Right: Drawing by Adolph Metzner of Labinsky, 1861 — Source.

Of all the characters given life by Metzner it is this Labinsky (or Lawinsky) who stands out. Labelled by Metzner as “The Camp Comedian”, we see Labinsky as the humorous heart of camp life (see lead image above) — even when fleeing in terror from Confederate bullets there seems to be the faintest touch of comedy to the scene (see below). We did a bit of digging and found that Labinsky served as a valet through many of the regiment’s campaigns, “but deserted while on detached service April 2, 1864”, only to return four months later. He survived the war, and ended up with a wife and four children, and a 13-acre farm with some goats, cows, and a horse.

As for Metzner himself, he was actually born in a small village in southwestern Germany, in 1834, emigrating to the United States as a young man in 1856, where he established himself as a druggist in Louisville, Kentucky. Four months into the Civil War he traveled to Indianapolis to get involved with the German regiment and begun his remarkable visual diary almost immediately. As the war progressed, and more comrades fell, the tone of his output can be seen to shift — the humorous giving way to the sombre — with a definite turning point being the horrors of the Battle of Shiloh in April, 1862. Returning to Indianapolis in 1864 due to injury (he was shot in the leg), Metzner created at least one oil painting from his wartime sketches but did not continue in a professional capacity. Instead he partnered with Frank Erdelmeyer, his former Union Army commander, to open A. Metzner and Company, a local pharmacy, and then, eventually, a company dedicated to producing high quality enameled artistic tile and ceramic glazes.

In 2010, the Indiana Historical Society published a great book of Metzner’s wartime art, Blood Shed in This War: Civil War Illustrations by Captain Adolph Metzner. The editor of the book, historian Michael Peake, also maintains this related website which you might want to also check out.

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[Doctor Charles Fischer and Doctor Jean Allard Janson [Jeançon] at Camp Wood, Kentucky], 1861? —

[Polishing the General’s britches, Major Ed Mueller, Murfreesboro, Tennessee] — Source.

Troops marching on a road in the rain, Green River, Kentucky — Source.

[Private Xavier Blodier’s funeral, Camp Nevin, Kentucky] 1861 — Source.

[First Lieutenant William Urlan, Company B, Camp at Huntsville, Alabama, 1862] — Source.

[Pioneer Edward Wernick and Frederick Henrick “Fritz” Bosch, Corinth, Mississippi, 1862. “You will positively be assigned to the foraging detail”] — Source.

[William G. Mank [?], 11th Indiana Regiment and Jacob Labinsky, 32nd Indiana Regiment]. Text on back of sheet: “J Lewinsky foraging and scared to death by Rebel Calvary” — Source.

Captain Francis (Frank) Erdelmeyer and Private Jacob Labinsky at an outpost near Corinth, Mississippi, April 1862. Text on sheet: “Capt. Gotts Wunder a Portion! Corinth Ms., 1862” — Source.

Lieutenant Louis von Trebra, Captain [Lieutenant] Adolph Metzner, and Lieutenant Walker, Tennessee River near Battle Creek, Alabama, August 1862. Drawing appears to show the rescue of two soldiers stranded near the Tennessee River during a flood — Source.

[Casualties at Shiloh, Tennessee, April 7, 1862] — Source.

Shiloh Battlefield, April 9, 1862 — Source.

Wie der Vollmond in Tennessee aufgeht! 1862.
Title Translation: How the full moon rises over the hill in Tennessee — Source.

Captured by Morgan’s cavalry at La Vergne, Tennessee, 1863. Drawing shows Adjutant General Carl Schmitt, Lieutenant Colonel William Mank and General August Willich’s orderly Brown traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet Willich, just released from Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Men are shown carrying parole slips — Source.

Stone River rebellion, 1863 — Source.

[Hospital steward, John M. Helmke, 32nd Regiment, Indiana Volunteers, 1863] — Source.

[Beginning of the Atlanta Campaign, May 10, 1864] — Source.

[Inside Confederate fortifications after the battle at Resaca, Georgia, May 1864] / A.M. — Source.

Battle of Peach Tree Creek, Georgia, July 20, 1864 — Source.