It was late 1861 and the Baltimore dentist Adalbert Volck faced interrogation by Union Maj. Gen. John Adams Dix over a series of scathing caricatures of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, who had occupied the city the previous May. Dix quickly secured a confession from Volck, and decades later, the artist recalled what happened next. After Dix retired to a nearby room, with drawings in hand, “sounds of loud laughter” could be heard. When he returned, Dix told Volck he was free to go, so long as he issued no more caricatures of Butler.
Volck was not chastened by the experience. A German immigrant, he would go on to launch some of the Civil War’s harshest visual assaults on Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. While no more than a few hundred people ever saw his etchings during the conflict, Volck captured the prejudices and passions that shaped the secessionists’ cause better than any other visual artist of his time. His sharp caricatures stand as vivid representations of his view of Northern perfidy and Southern nobility.
Volck seemed an unlikely Confederate sympathizer. The son of a well-to-do chemical manufacturer, he was born in 1828 in Augsberg, Germany. He studied the sciences, first at Nuremberg’s Polytechnic Institute and then the University of Munich, and also spent time with a colony of artists from whom he learned to draw and etch. In Munich, Volck was caught up in political protests that culminated in an early 1848 march on Berlin to demand liberal reforms and a unified Germany from Frederick Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia. His arrest guaranteed forced service in the Bavarian Army, which led Volck to emigrate to America.
Volck’s movements upon first arriving in the United States remain somewhat mysterious. He went first to St. Louis, where his brother-in-law was a Lutheran minister, and may also have traveled west to California’s gold fields. By 1850 he was in Boston, working as an assistant to dentist Nathan Keep. Impressed with his knowledge of chemistry, Keep recommended Volck for a position teaching science at the Baltimore School of Dental Surgery in 1851. While teaching there, Volck also completed the requirements for a doctorate in dental surgery. Several months after his graduation in 1852, he opened his practice and married Letitia Roberta Alleyn, a Baltimore woman with whom he would have two sons and three daughters.
Volck seemed an unlikely Confederate sympathizer
We can only guess at what compelled the young professional to adopt the Confederate cause. One biographer suggests that “Volck’s professional activities and cultural affiliations had placed him in closer contact with the more radically Southern portion of the city’s population and that in the process he had absorbed its outlook.” No doubt the Southern sympathies of his brother Frederick, who spent the war years in Virginia, also influenced Volck’s thinking. Before long the young dentist’s house on Charles Street was a refuge for Confederate agents, and Volck began smuggling intelligence and medical supplies across the Potomac River. Volck also allegedly recruited mechanics and artisans for the South’s cause and at one point acted as a special agent for Jefferson Davis.
Specifics about Volck’s Confederate activites are somewhat suspect: the sole source is the artist himself in a late-in-life interview. At times he appeared to exaggerate his role as a Southern supporter, claiming frequent arrests when none seem to have occurred. Several of his etchings do, however, attest to his presence behind enemy lines and it is likely that Volck narrowly escaped imprisonment for smuggling, thanks to a $500 bribe paid to a Union officer. Furthermore, his postwar correspondence suggests that he enjoyed a personal relationship with Davis and his family.
What is clear is that by the summer of 1861 he was at work on his first satirical foray against the Union. Ye Exploits of Ye Distinguished Attorney and General B. F. B. (Bombastes Furioso Buncombe) targeted General Butler, who on May 13, 1861, had occupied Baltimore, arrested several prominent citizens, interfered with the Maryland legislature’s debate on secession, and confiscated weapons intended for Confederate forces. Butler’s actions directly contravened instructions from Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, the Union Army’s commanding general. But Northerners, anxious to avenge the April attack on the 6th Massachusetts Regiment when it passed through Baltimore, applauded the move. Within five days, Butler was promoted to major general and reassigned to Fortress Monroe.
Butler’s heavy-handed occupation made a lasting impression on Volck. While the sketches comprising Bombastes Furioso Buncombe lack the technical polish of Volck’s later work, they display a characteristically venomous eye for his subjects’ human foibles. Butler appears as a disheveled, somewhat bloated character given to personal indulgence and military misadventures. Volck issued two packets of six prints each, accompanied by satiric comments. In 1868, Volck would repurpose many of the 1861 prints as illustrations for James Fairfax McLaughlin’s The American Cyclops, the Hero of New Orleans, and Spoiler of Silver Spoons.
A second portfolio, Comedians and Tragedians of the North, followed close on the heels of Bombastes Furioso Buncombe. Butler and Lincoln both appear twice among the dozen caricatures. Other Union luminaries lampooned included Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greeley, John C. Frémont, Simon Cameron, and Winfield Scott. In summer 1863, Volck began distributing Sketches From the Civil War in North America, 1861, 1862, 1863, the portfolio that would cement his critical reputation with future generations. Relying on the pseudonym V. Blada—the initial of his last name and the first five letters of his first name in reverse order, he issued 10 etchings to 200 subscribers. In July 1864, he issued 20 additional prints in a second portfolio.
Volck’s etchings contained in equal measure harsh attacks on the North and benign Confederate portrayals. The portfolio’s first etching—“Worship of the North”—is among Volck’s most detailed and vitriolic works. It illustrates a white man being sacrificed by a knife-wielding Henry Ward Beecher on the altar of “Negro Worship,” while Lincoln, Stanton, and other Northern leaders look on.
A second etching in the portfolio, “Passage through Baltimore,” is today one of Volck’s most well-known images. It reveals the president-to-be, poorly disguised in a cloak and a Scotch cap to help foil an assassination plot, fearfully reacting to a spitting cat while passing through Baltimore on a late February morning. The suggestion that he had skulked into Washington bedeviled Lincoln until his death.
The Scotch cap appears again—draped over a statue of Liberty—in “Writing the Emancipation Proclamation,” another image familiar to students of the Civil War. Volck’s image shows a beleaguered Lincoln laboring over the executive order that Confederate President Davis would describe as “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.”
Volck’s opinions of Northern society and Union soldiers were equally jaundiced. “Free Negroes in the North” suggests a level of poverty and debauchery that gives the lie to Northern claims of moral superiority over the slaveholding South. Two etchings, “The Enlistment of Sickles Brigade” and “Buying a Substitute in the North during the War,” capture Volck’s belief in the degenerate qualities of the Union soldier. The first shows Union officers recruiting troops from a New York City mob, while the second shows a dandified Yankee selecting a paid substitute from among a roomful of disreputable-looking characters.
The release of his second portfolio of 20 etchings in mid-1864 included a flier announcing plans for an additional 17 images. But, Volck told his subscribers, “In consequence of the great depreciation in Currency…the present rate of Subscription will barely cover cost of the materials required for completing the undertaking, leaving nothing to repay the time and labor bestowed upon the work.” Volck’s investments of time and labor were extensive. “From nightfall to far into the small hours,” he recalled more than four decades later, “I worked alone on these sketches, drawing, etching, and printing them myself alone. There are only 200 copies by my hand in existence issued to subscribers only.” Payment in advance was vital if the additional etchings were to be published.
An apparently disappointing response from his subscribers and the end of the war stymied plans for the third portfolio. Shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, Volck sent 18 engraved plates to England with a friend, with instructions for their publication in London. The death of his friend before financial arrangements with the publisher were finalized consigned the plates to storage for nearly a decade until Volck’s brother Paul discovered them in a ruined condition. By that time, Volck recalled years later, “Feelings and time had changed much of my sentiment of the war and I had neither heart nor energy to make them over again.”
Volck’s reputation today as one of the South’s greatest caricaturists rests on the publication of his work in the decades after the Civil War. In 1882, 100 sets of Sketches From the Civil War in North America were printed under the title Confederate War Etchings. Another set appeared 10 years later, although they were of a smaller scale. And in 1917, the Magazine of History published a bound photogravure edition as a supplement.
Volck remained a southern partisan to the end
A Republican newspaperman of the era wrote that “these etchings [are] full of the sharpest scorn and of rancorous hatred…a record of the fierce animosities, the bitter resentments, the implacable prejudices, the passion, the frenzy, and the ferocity of the war.” In Volck’s eyes, the South was home to brave women sewing uniforms for Rebel soldiers, slaves hiding their master from Union cavalrymen, and God-fearing troops and their general who prayed regularly for divine inspiration. And his portrayal of the South evoked themes that would become central to the creation of the Lost Cause myth. The brave nobility of Southern women, the chivalric qualities of the Confederacy’s leaders, the loyalty of enslaved blacks, and the wartime depredations of Union troops, many of them recent immigrants, would all fuel the psychic needs of defeated Southerners for decades to come.
Volck lived until 1912 and remained largely unapologetic for his Confederate sympathies. During an 1870 visit to Washington College, he made sketches from which he painted the last life portrait of Robert E. Lee, and in 1872 he illustrated an admiring biography of the recently deceased Confederate general. In a 1905 letter to the Library of Congress confirming that he was V. Blada, he did express “the greatest regret ever to have aimed ridicule at that great and good Lincoln.” But, he continued, “outside of that the pictures represent events as truthfully as my close connections with the South enabled me to get at them.” Four years later, when the nation was celebrating the centenary of Lincoln’s birth, Volck chose to present a carved silver shield to the Confederate Museum in Richmond to honor the “Brave Women of the South.” Volck remained a Southern partisan to the end.
Rick Beard, an independent historian, museum consultant, and frequent contributor to Civil War Times, writes from Harrisburg, Pa.