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War in Watercolors

By Michael A. Peake
8/3/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Of all the soldier artists who chronicled the war, perhaps none was more accomplished than German immigrant Adolph G. Metzner. His field-drawn illustrations survive today as a time capsule of Western Theater history.

Born in the village of Lörrach in southwest Germany, Metzner graduated as a pharmacist from the University of Freiburg. He immigrated to the United States in 1856, first settling in New York but two years later relocating to Louisville, Ky., where he started a pharmaceutical business. Four months after the attack on Fort Sumter, Metzner was recruited into the Union Army. He mustered in at Indianapolis on August 24, 1861, as a second lieutenant in Company A of the 32nd Indiana Volunteer Infantry, which included many men of German descent. The more than 130 evocative images Metzner created provide rare insight into the 32nd’s operations over three long years, starting in Kentucky and ending during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

From the beginning, Metzner created caricatures and camp scenes in the form of sketches, drawings and watercolors. Initially his works tended to reflect the hopeful sentiments of soldiers on both sides of the conflict, who believed that one or two glorious battles would send their foes scurrying and make them willing to settle the differences dividing the nation.

At the outset of his service Metzner’s works focused on fellow Germans, especially field and staff officers. His drawings often reveal the personalities of his subjects. Photographs of those same men show that even his caricatures are remarkably accurate.

After his understrength regiment was rushed to the central Kentucky front in October 1861, Metzner’s art started to reflect a more serious tone. He unflinchingly depicted the unit’s baptism of fire at Rowlett’s Station that December. The following spring Metzner’s work would trace the Army of the Ohio’s route south through Mount Pleasant, Tenn., across the Duck River into Columbia, and then west to Waynesboro.

On April 7, 1862, the 32nd arrived at Pittsburg Landing, Tenn. Metzner re-created in macabre detail the nightmarish scenes that he had seen at Shiloh. The horrors he depicted now accurately reflected the conflict’s stark realities, including the staggering casualties incurred by both sides. For Metzner and the nation as a whole, Shiloh made it clear that neither side would relinquish its cause without a long, bloody struggle.

Metzner sometimes depicted himself in his drawings, including one that shows him being wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga. A round passed through his leg and killed his horse, which rolled over Metzner, breaking several ribs and puncturing a lung—injuries that plagued him for the rest of his life.

He returned to duty in time to chronicle the offensive toward Atlanta the following spring, as well as trench warfare at Resaca, Ga. His last battle image shows a cavalry assault at Peachtree Creek, Ga., on July 20, 1864. Soon after that, the three-year men of the 32nd Indiana were mustered out. Metzner remained in Indiana for some time, opening a pharmacy with his former commander, Frank Erdelmeyer. He also completed an oil-on-canvas painting of the Union flying artillery rushing into battery.

After that he began creating beautiful ceramic tiles. He and his two sons became ceramics experts, known for their enameled tiles and specialized glazes. By the time Adolph Metzner died at age 83 in February 1918, his wartime artwork had long been in storage. Fortunately, family members preserved his priceless watercolors over the years.


Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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