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Book Review: Finding Whimsy in the Grim Business of War

By Robert K. Krick
12/13/2016 • Civil War Times Magazine

“I Am Busy Drawing Pictures”: The Civil War Art and Letters of Private John Jacob Omenhausser, CSA
 Edited by Ross M. Kimmel and Michael P. Musick
 Friends of the Maryland State Archives

On May 19, 1864, John J. Omenhausser of the 46th Virginia Infantry penned a letter to the woman he had just asked to marry him, writing from a position “In line of Battle” near Drewry’s Bluff. Four days later he wrote again, described his role in the struggle just ended—and echoed a universal lament: “I wish we were done with this fighting.” A few days more and he actually was done with fighting. Wounded near Petersburg on June 15, Omenhausser fell into enemy hands. He spent the next 12 months far from the musketry, as a hungry, restless, bored prisoner of war. Fortunately for the historical record, he stayed active through his long imprisonment with a brush and watercolors.

Private Omenhausser’s war-weariness, while understandable, had infinitely less basis than did the angst afflicting most of the hundreds of thousands of other long-serving Confederate soldiers. His company (the renowned Richmond Light Infantry Blues) and regiment belonged to a brigade under General Henry A. Wise that had wandered all across the South and only rarely smelled gun smoke in any volume.

In a few instances, the drawings that make this book remarkable illustrate infantry camps and service, but the vast majority depict life as one of thousands of Southern prisoners at Point Lookout, Md. [note that a portfolio of Omenhausser’s paintings, “Blacks & Whites in Color,” appeared in the December 2014 issue of CWT].

Omenhausser’s art frequently exhibits a touch of irrepressible sardonic humor, laced with quiet whimsy. Captions in balloons convey the tenor of his work: “Boys, thats my rat if you kill him, he been eating my bread for the last three days.” “Mr. did you put those flies in this beer for a flavor?” “Did you never see a man catching lice before?” “Tell me how I can get out of this place, I want to fight the Ing-ins.”

Although most of the paintings date from Omenhausser’s captivity, he wrote the bulk of the surviving correspondence while still in the field. Of the 40 letters printed in the book (seven written to Omenhausser, the rest by him), 17 are from after his capture, and 10 of those postdate Appomattox. The earlier missives, as might be expected, also run to far greater length than those he managed to post from Point Lookout.

The editorial additions that support Omenhausser’s words and drawings in “I Am Busy” might be used as a model for that important literary art. Between them, veteran historian Ross Kimmel and legendary archival oracle Mike Musick searched out an impressive array of details that provide rich context and understanding. They tracked down Omenhausser paintings in nine institutions and six private collections. The publisher employed high-resolution technology that renders the paintings vividly, to the level of a coffee-table book. Private Omenhausser’s lively art, skillfully abetted by Kimmel and Musick and an adroit publisher, combine to produce one of the most unusual Civil War books in recent memory—a really splendid piece of work.

 

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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