September 26, 2012

Birth of Strother, "pencil holder"

David Hunter Strother was born on September 26, 1816 in Martinsburg, Virginia (now part of West Virginia), though he later became known by the pseudonym Porte Crayon (French for "pencil holder"). After a brief attempt at study at Jefferson Academy in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, he turned his attention to art and engraving in Philadelphia. His work as an artist for Harper's was renowned throughout the country; it was said that he was the most famous graphic artist before the beginning of the Civil War.

In the years leading up to the war, Strother (who witnessed the trial of John Brown, and considered it proof of the "majesty of the law") expressed a distrust for the fanaticism of some abolitionists in the North, though he was also skeptical of "fire-eating" Southerners promoting secession. Even so, Strother sided with the North during the war and became a topographer for the Union Army. In his private diary, however, he often criticized decisions made by President Abraham Lincoln. He later joined a cavalry and was eventually promoted to brevet brigadier general. His Union loyalty strained his relationship with most of his extended family, all of whom were steadfastly in support of the Confederacy. Years after the war, he served in the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes (as did poet James Russell Lowell).

Strother/Crayon created engravings mostly for magazines, but he also illustrated full-length books (including his own, The Adventures of Porte Crayon and His Cousins, in 1871). Much of his work, both in his art and in his writing, focuses on geography, travel, or landscapes. Over 800 published illustrations are credited to him before his death in 1888.

*I owe some of this information to Jonathan M. Berkey, whose essay on Strother is included in Enemies of the Country: New Perspectives on Unionists in the Civil War South (2004, edited by John C. Inscoe and Robert C. Kenzer)

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