ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Morris Museum highlights work of Civil War soldier-artist

  • Posted: Thursday, April 3, 2014 11:15 a.m.
Submitted photo
Pictured is Conrad Wise Chapman´s eyewitness painting of Confederate submarine the Hunley.
Submitted photo Pictured is Conrad Wise Chapman´s eyewitness painting of Confederate submarine the Hunley.

Largely because of his civil engineering experience, General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard was assigned in 1862 the responsibility of reinforcing the defensive positions in and around Charleston. It did not take him very long to decide that the city needed more troops and cannon power if it were to withstand a Union attack.

To support his request for additional support, he commissioned drawings of the harbor defenses that he could submit to the Confederate government in Richmond. The ultimate choice for that assignment landed on the shoulders of a young artist named Conrad Wise Chapman.

Chapman had joined the Confederate army as a member of the 3rd Kentucky Infantry Volunteers; but after he was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh, his father used his connections to get Chapman transferred to the 59th Virginia Infantry, which was soon to be redeployed to Charleston.

Because of his artistic background – he had lived a good part of his early life in Europe where his father kept a painting studio – Chapman was chosen by Beauregard’s chief of staff, Thomas Jordan, to sketch the Confederate defensive positions.

He accepted the assignment with relish and a great deal of courage – many of the sites that he sketched as he rowed back and forth across the harbor in a small rowboat were subject to heavy shell fire from blockading gunboats.

It is difficult to say if these images of the forts and batteries that encircled Charleston made much of an impression on the Ordinance Bureau in Richmond, but it is a fact that despite two significant battles in 1863 – one by sea and one on land – Charleston and Fort Sumter withstood Union occupation until General Sherman’s army invaded the state in 1865.

Chapman eventually finished 31 small-scale paintings – five are now ascribed to his father’s hand – based on the sketches he made between the autumn of 1863 and spring of 1864.

With the South’s defeat, no one was interested in purchasing them during the artist’s lifetime, but they eventually were acquired by the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.

For a limited time, all 31 paintings are on view at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta. Each small-scale work serves not only as a window on one of the most dramatic moments in our state’s history but also as a testament to one man’s creative vision. Indeed, these images are much more than textbook illustrations of military engineering; they are instead a blend of landscape and genre painting.

Take, for example, the work entitled “Fort Moultrie November 11, 1863.” At first glance, the viewer is confronted by a picturesque landscape with a rocky beach in the foreground, the earthen fort in the middle distance, and above it all a blue sky streaked with pink clouds.

Closer examination, however, provides the viewer with a glimpse of everyday life during the long siege of the city.

In the foreground, three barefoot soldiers return from a fishing expedition; beneath the ramparts, a crew of enslaved workers gather sand to repair damage done to the walls and then load their cargo into wheelbarrows, which they roll up planks positioned across trenches dug in front of the fortified embankment. In the distance, to the right of the fort, one can discern vessels from the Union blockade.

Each meticulously rendered image should intrigue both the art lover and history buff. General Beauregard himself makes an appearance in one painting, going over plans for defense of the city; in another, H.L. Hunley leans against the rudder of his legendary submarine.

Soldier Artist: Conrad Wise Chapman” will be on view at the Morris until May 25. For more information, call 706-724-7501 or visit the museum on the web at www.themorris.org.

Dr. Tom Mack currently holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. For more information about Civil War sites in this area, please consult “Circling the Savannah” and “The Hidden History of Aiken County” (The History Press).

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