On November 17, 1862, 19-year-old James Wells Champney drafted a collection of small images titled “First impressions of North Carolina, sketched in cars on the [way] to newbern.”
The son of a painter-illustrator, Champney apprenticed in Boston to become a master wood engraver, but the outbreak of war interrupted his artistic training. He volunteered for the 45th Massachusetts and deployed to North Carolina in November 1862 as part of reinforcements for the Union occupational forces then at New Bern.
Like many artists-turned-soldiers, Champney used his artistic abilities to document his wartime experiences, depicting military installations, soldiers, African Americans, civilians and other scenes in and around New Bern. When he left the service after falling ill with malaria in July 1863, Champney had filled two sketchbooks, which are now held by the Outer Banks History Center.
After the war, Champney moved to Europe to study under renowned artist Pierre Édouard Frère. He returned to the United States an expert in pastels and established a studio in New York City where he worked for the remainder of his life. He died unexpectedly at the age of 59 after falling down an elevator shaft.
Visit: Champney’s sketches are featured in “Face to Face: Civil War Sketches and Stories,” an exhibit at Tryon Palace in New Bern that tells the story of the Union occupation of the area, and the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo, which holds the Champney sketches in its collection.
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