Halfway through the commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the War Between the States, the South Carolina State Museum has mounted an exhibit on the one conflict in our nation’s history that most haunts the collective imagination of our people. It can also be argued that there is no artist working today who has been better able to capture the essence of that tumultuous period than Mort Kunstler, a Brooklyn native who has been painting images of the key figures and events in the Civil War for almost 30 years.
Now until April 17, “For Us the Living: The Civil War Art of Mort Kunstler” brings to a regional audience about 30 paintings and sketches by an artist who renders in meticulous detail and with a devotion to historical accuracy the compelling stories of the men and women of that dramatic period in our history.
Some of the images have particular meaning to South Carolinians. Take, for example, an oil entitled “Final Mission,” which resulted from a special invitation from the Hunley Commission, whose chairman urged Kunstler to visit the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston where the small submarine is now on display after it was raised from the bottom of the sea in August 2000.
In Kunstler’s painting, the third crew of the H.L. Hunley – the first two died in practice dives – is gathered on the dock at approximately 6:30 on the evening of Feb. 17, 1864. They are about to launch their last mission from which no man would return alive, although they did manage to detonate a spar torpedo against the side of one of the federal ships blockaded the harbor, the USS Housatonic.
Illuminated both by a cloud-draped moon and the light of a single lantern, held aloft by Gen. Beauregard, the third commander of the submarine, Lt. George Dixon, consults his pocket watch to tell the time. That watch was one of a number of artifacts retrieved from the vessel submerged for 130 years; Kunstler also incorporates in his painting a signal lantern, compass box, canteens and tobacco pipes used by the doomed eight-member crew.
Many of the current works on display capture scenes of combat, but perhaps the most compelling examples focus on the unbelievable carnage resulting from particular battles. In the painting entitled “Bringing Cleburne Home,” for example, an ambulance crew carries on a stretcher the dead body of Gen. Patrick Cleburne, an Irish native who aligned himself with the Confederate cause. The stretcher crew is perhaps the initial focus of the viewer’s gaze, but that perusal is eventually drawn to the lower half of the canvas where a host of dead soldiers cover the ground.
The scene is part of the aftermath of the Battle of Franklin during which Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood made the disastrous decision to launch numerous frontal assaults against fortified federal positions during which his forces sustained enormous casualties including the loss of six generals. One of them was Cleburne, who had opposed Hood’s plan but nevertheless bravely carried out his superior’s orders.
Another scene of the aftermath of battle I found particularly evocative because of my academic specialty in 19th-century American literature. The work is entitled “Angel of the Battlefield,” and it features both Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, and Walt Whitman, perhaps our country’s greatest poet, ministering to the wounded after the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. When Whitman, then 43, learned that his brother George had been wounded in the battle, he set out to find him. As it turned out, George didn’t need his care – his wound was superficial – but Whitman got his first taste of the horrible consequences of armed conflict when he stopped at a field hospital, then called Lacy House but now called Chatham Manor, where he stopped to lend a hand in caring for the wounded.
In his journal Whitman wrote the following about the medical care afforded the numerous casualties: “impromptu, no system – all the wounds pretty bad, some frightful, the men in their old clothes, unclean and bloody.”
Kunstler depicts Whitman giving water from a canteen to a wounded soldier whose upper torso he braces against his chest. Nearby is Barton ladling water out of a bucket to another young man on the ground, one of an estimated 1,200 wounded combatants being treated at that single facility.
For more information on the paintings of this revered Civil War artist, now on view in the fourth-floor Recent Acquisitions Gallery, call (803) 898-4921 or visit www.southcarolinastatemuseum.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” has just been published by The History Press (Charleston, SC and London, UK).