The works of soldier-artist Julian Scott have been acclaimed by historians and art critics alike from the moment the paint was dry. The reason is a simple one: authenticity.
By Robert J. Titterton
from Civil War Times Illustrated September/October 1991
Published by Cowles History Group
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The American Civil War was the first large armed conflict to be substantially documented through photography. Traveling with the armies or working in their studios, photographers turned out riveting views of persons and places caught up in the colossal struggle. There was, however, something missing from the great body of Civil War camera images. Mid-19th century photographic technology was unequal to the task of fully depicting war. In an age predating telephoto lenses and split-second shutter speeds, pictures of soldiers in pitched battle or on the march were impossible. Photographers were limited to recording smoldering remains of ruined buildings, lifeless bodies and wooden groups of proud posed men.
To be fair, even with modern cameras and film, the photograph would have been no match for the magic conveyed through the hand of a painter or sketcher. An artist could unveil from a scene the smoke of a thousand rifles and the dust kicked up by twice as many boots. Only then could the faces of individuals, uprooted from comfortable lives as jewelers and farmers to serve their causes, be seen.
Being an artist was not, in itself, enough to assure an authentic portrayal of war. Lacking the perspective of participants, many artists produced romanticized, and hence false images of the Civil War. Men who had marched under the blazing Southern sun, fought other Americans and eaten wormy hardtack drew their pictures from personal experience. Their legacy is a powerful record of events they not only witnessed but lived. One such soldier-artist was Julian Scott, whose military career is overshadowed only by his art.
Scott's military experience began in spring 1861. As one Southern state after another seceded from the Union, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for Federal troops. Scott, a slightly-built 15-year-old from Johnson, in Vermont's Lamoille County , longed to go off to war. His great-grandfather had organized the militia of Bennington, Vermont, to fight for American independence in the Revolutionary War, and had won a lieutenant's commission. His grandfather had sailed across lake Champlain September 1814 to battle the British at Plattsburgh, New York, during the War of 1812. Scott's older brother, Lucien, was already riding the spirited Morgans of the 1st Vermont Cavalry and writing home about his adventures.
Unwilling to miss his own opportunity for adventures, Scott managed to enlist as a fifer in the 3d Vermont Volunteer Infantry. In his enlistment papers he boldly proclaimed his occupation as "painter"-a vision of the future perhaps, but closer to the truth than his age, which the official register listed as 16, just old enough to allow admission as a fifer. Scott mustered into service with the 3d Vermont on May 16, 1861. Before the end of the month, he was on his way to the main encampment of Federal troops in Washington, D.C.
The Green Mountain Boys were giants by the standards of the day, with an average height of 5 feet 10 « inches. Onlookers crowded the streets of New York City as the Vermont troops marched through en route to Washington clad in fine uniforms, sprigs of pine affixed to their caps. Scott's oversized uniform half covered his hands, smothering the air holes of his fife whenever he played.
By August, the 3d Vermont was at Camp Lyon, guarding the Chain Bridge outside the Federal capital from nearby Confederate forces. Just four weeks after he had left Vermont, Scott saw an example of how serious a matter military duty was. A Private William Scott (not relation) of the 3d Vermont was found sleeping while on sentinel duty, and was sentenced to die. When the appointed day came, the 3d Vermont somberly fell in for the execution. Happily, however a reprieve from Lincoln arrived just in time, and was read to the cheering troops in lieu of the firing squad's report.
The letters Scott sent home describing his army experiences also provide the first glimpses of his art. His simple, linear pen-and-ink said more than his words. A sketch made during his regiment's initial foray into hostile territory, in September 1861 depicts an autumn view near Lewinsville, Virginia, with Munson's Hill in the distance. It shows a rolling countryside crisscrossed by rail fences, and a farm nestled in gentle surroundings, framed by trees in full leaf. As a child fascinated with art and things military, Scott had drawn Persian King Xerxes army on the march into Greece in 480 B.C., using the back of a large map for the outside scene. Now, he had military themes from his own experience to translate into art.
By October 1861, Scott's regiment was part of the 1st Brigade of Brigadier General W.F. 'Baldy' Smith's Division , in the Army of the Potomac's IV Corps. Stationed at Camp Griffin in the Defenses of Washington, the brigade, which consisted entirely of Vermont units, suffered through the raw, rainy winter of 1861-1862, fully one fourth of the brigade was off duty because of illness. Relief finally came in March, with orders to prepare two days' rations and be ready to move. Scott and his comrades, now wearing army blue instead of their original gray, excitedly prepared to join the rest of the Army of the Potomac in one of the greatest military enterprises in modern history.
Scott marched to Alexandria, Virginia, with the 3d Vermont. There the regiment boarded a transport ship, which steamed down the Potomac River and across the Chesapeake Bay to join a virtual city of ships off Fortress Monroe, Virginia, each waiting to put its men ashore. Major General George B. McClellan, a commander of the Army of the Potomac, had begun his Peninsula Campaign, a plan to move a massive Union force up the peninsula between Virginia's James and York rivers and strike the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia.
It was only a matter of days before the whole campaign bogged down east of Warwick Creek at Yorktown - the very place where British General Charles Cornwallis was defeated 80 years earlier in the Revolutionary War. McClellan settled his army into a siege against a Confederate force he mistakenly believed much larger than his own. About noon on April 16, 1862, the general arrived at the point of Warwick Creek where the Vermont Brigade was stationed. With him were the Prince de Joinville and the Comte de Paris, exiled French noblemen . McClellan ordered 'Baldy' Smith "to occupy the opposing works, but by no means to bring on a general engagement, and to withdraw his troops if serious resistance was encountered."
Led by Captain Samuel Pingree, future governor of Vermont, four companies of the 3d Vermont crossed the creek to feel out the enemy. Securing a rifle pit on the opposite shore and holding off as many regiments as there were companies, the Vermont men held on for nearly an hour. They signaled repeatedly for reinforcement, and sent a man back across the creek with a plea for help, but none was sent.
Having broken through the perimeter of Rebel defenses, it would have been logical and reasonable for McClellan to follow the first wave of men with a full assault, march up the largely undefended peninsula and take Richmond. But it was not to be. As the men retreated through the creek's swollen waters, carrying their wounded captain, the Confederates kept up a steady fire.
Scott was not content to remain a bystander while his fellow soldiers struggled to cross the creek alive. Though not a combat soldier, he waded into the water under fire to help rescue the wounded. He later described the situation in the creek to a correspondent of the New York Tribune, saying, "Why, sir, it was just like sap-boiling, in that stream, the bullets fell so thick."
Smith was so deeply impressed by Scott's courage that he instructed a subordinate to prepare a recommendation that the young fifer be cited for bravery. Scott was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor, with the citation, "Crossed the creek under a terrific fire of musketry, several times to assist in bringing off the wounded."
McClellan's army continued its movement toward Richmond. The commanding general's overcautiousness, however, compounded by deep mud and brisk Confederate resistance, slowed the pace of the march to a crawl. The Federals fought their way so close to Richmond that they could hear the city's church bells, but retreated in haste when their commander erroneously concluded they were vastly outnumbered. The engagements of this failed campaign carved vivid images in Scott's memory, images that would later appear in paintings such as "Portrait Of General Hancock At Williamsburg." "The Battle of Goldings Farm" and "The Rear Guard At White Oak Swamp."
The retreating Union army retired to Harrison's Landing, on the James River at the head of the peninsula. There, Scott observed Independence Day as a nurse detailed to the camp hospital. When the Army of the Potomac evacuated the Peninsula in mid August 1862, he was detached from the 3d Vermont to serve as a nurse at the General Hospital on David's Island, in New York's Long Island Sound.
The unrelenting misery of the hospital took its toll on Scott. He tended to the spirits of men inside shattered bodies, toted slop buckets, changed clotted rags that adhered to wounds and lent his hand to a dying man's grasp. It was not long before he himself was a patient.
To amuse himself while he convalesced, Scott sketched scenes of hospital life. He was judged to have unusual talent and attracted the attention of Henry E. Clark, a prominent and influential philanthropist who visited the hospital frequently Clark supplied him with drawing materials and a warm friendship began, one that would be instrumental in Scott's development as an artist.
In spring 1863, Scott was discharged from the army on grounds of disability. Clark immediately secured him an enrollment at the National Academy of Design in New York City, and promised to pay all his expenses. His destiny now clear, the young artist dedicated himself enthusiastically to his vocation. Scott received instruction at the Academy, as well as private tutoring from prominent artists including Emmanuel Leutz, best known for his epic work, "Washington Cross the Delaware." Leutz was trained in the Dusseldorf School of Painting, and passed its virtues and vices along to his pupil as religion. One tenet of the school demanded that the artist become intimate with the subject he was to depict. This involved trips to the actual scene to be pictured and great attention to detail.
In spring 1864, when he was one year into his studies at the National Academy and with Leutz, Scott set out to gather subject matter for his art. A week of visiting army and government officials in Washington D.C. with letters of introduction won the artist permission to travel to Virginia as an honorary aide-de-camp to Smith, his former division commander. Scott joined Smith by then a major general and commanded of the Army of the James' XVIII Corps, in time for the May 1864 campaign on Bermuda Hundred, a strip of land between the James and Appomattox Rivers. He was to stay with the army for three weeks: the sole purpose of his visit was sketching.
At the scene of combat again, but this time without military duties to encumber him, Scott was in the best possible position to fully document the sights that surrounded an army at war. He put his new abilities to work producing drawings that would serve him in his painting for the rest of his life. By the time he returned to New York City, his sketchbooks were filled with "behind the scenes" looks at army life, seen from the common soldier's perspective. He drew captured Confederate soldiers, destitute escaped slaves, wounded men on litters, and the bloated corpses of pack animals. Scott also made portraits of all kinds. In reality, all Scott's drawings were portraits, close-up looks at individual beings. Even in crowded battle scenes, the soldiers whose faces are bit by the fires of destruction are often the very ones who actually participated in the events depicted.
Back in New York, Scott continued his artistic training at the National Academy and with Leutz. In the summer of 1866 the Civil War had been over for a year, and the 20-year-old painter felt the urge to travel. No artist of the era considered his education complete unless he had been abroad to see the great works of Western art and study with the European masters. So, Scott, now sporting a bohemian imperial beard, followed in the footsteps of renowned American artists George Caleb Bingham, Albert Bierstadt and Eastman Johnson, spending time in Paris.
By the time he visited Europe, Scott had developed an artistic style of his own. He was able to extract the pertinent values from his education and combine them with a fresh, personal approach, creating works with a distinctly American flavor. He also developed a professional -- perfectionism. His training and faithfulness to detail -the influence of his mentor, Leutz, with whom he studied until 1868 - got the best of him on occasion, as became evident early in his career.
The year 1870 brought Scott a commission from his native state to render a scene from the Civil War showing the Vermont troops in action. The commission seemed to give Scott license to render the scene of his choice, so he immediately began research on the dramatic action in the Cornfield at the September 1862 Battle of Antietam, Maryland. At a reunion in Rutland, Vermont, early in 1871, however, Vermont's erstwhile Union officers drew up a formal resolution for presentation to the governor. It asked that the memorial depict the battle that employed the largest number of Vermont regiments, the October 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek, in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
Unfamiliar with the terrain of the Cedar Creek site, Scott made arrangements to explore the area. The governor of Vermont traveled with Scott to the battlefield along with Colonel Aldace F. Walker, special consultant for the memorial project. Scott's research did not end with the trip to Virginia, however. Vermont officers and enlisted men who had fought there had to be interviewed. Portraits of those involved were required. Over 200 preliminary drawings were done. Then Scott began planning the painting itself, ultimately deciding the work would have to be 10 feet by 20 feet. No one in America manufactured canvas that large at the time, so the artist had to send to Europe for special linen canvas.
When Scott prepared to start work on the painting, he found it was too large for his studio in New York City. The project's coordinators arranged for a studio up the Hudson River at West Point, and Scott began painting. There was great public interest in the picture, and the newspapers closely followed the work's progress. Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan and former Major General McClellan visited the studio, along with Secretary of War William W. Belknap; all three men had positive remarks about the painting for reporters. Although not pictured, Sheridan had a personal interest in the work. He had been responsible for reforming collapsing Union forces at Cedar Creek and leading them in a final charge that resulted in a pivotal Union victory.
Fully three years after obtaining his commission and after spending some $8,500 on the project, Scott arrived with his painting at the reunion of Vermont troops in Burlington in August 1874. The work was displayed at City Hall, opening to mostly favorable reviews, then traveled to its permanent home in the governor's reception room at the State House in Montpelier. The state's original contract with Scott was for $5,000, but because that sum was clearly inadequate for the work that was delivered, additional funds were proposed in the legislature. After much huff and blowing, an additional $4,000 was appropriated in November 1874, netting the artist a mere $500 after expenses.
In 1870, as he was about to begin research for his painting of Cedar Creek, Scott married the daughter of the New York Post's proprietor __ a union that could only provide a catalyst for his fledgling career by ensuring his name was in print regularly. The same year, he was accepted as an associate member of the National Academy of Design, an honor that signified acceptance into the established body of significant American artists. His wife gave birth to a daughter, Bessie, a year later, and Scott's life seemed full of promise. He showed his works with well-known artists of the day, among them Winslow Homer, E. Wood Perry, William Page and Homer D. Martin.
Moving from New York City to the quieter town of Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1875, Scott set up a studio on West Front street. With the coming of the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, Scott focused his talents on commemorating the generation that had fought for freedom from British rule. "Jersey Minute Men." "March Of The Prisoners From Saratoga On Their Way to Boston," and "On Guard, 1776." Were the works of a veteran who understood the value of his forebears sacrifices.
Over the next 15 years, Scott returned tot he Civil War for his artistic inspiration. He relished portraying untested recruits on guard duty and spooked by the rustling of dry leaves, men lounging around a tent waiting for their coffee to boil, and drummer boys playing cards. To Scott, war was never something to glamorize, and the sentimental representations in vogue in his day were an affront to his sensibilities.
As the years passed, the domestic tranquility of Plainfield began to wear thin for Scott, a restless man and an adventurer by nature. In 1890, he received a commission from President Benjamin Harrison to report on the condition of the Indians of the American Southwest during the 11th census survey. For the next three years, Scott traveled extensively throughout the West, studying the Commanche, Navajo, Wichita, Kiowa and Pueblo Indians. Filling the dual role of writer and artist, he was responsible for 80 percent of the illustrations that appeared in the census report and for a subsequent extra census bulletin.
Scott was sympathetic to the plight of the Indians and was regarded by them as a friend. He is said to have been initiated by the Hopi into their Antelope clan with all of the mysteries and rituals of the ceremony - an uncommon honor for a white man.
His work for the government complete, Scott went back to his home and studio, and returned to the theme that had been central to his career - the Civil War. Working through deteriorating health, he painted one of his most moving pictures in 1899, "The Sentinel." A lone Confederate soldier, wearing a threadbare uniform, stands guard over a bleak winter landscape. It is near the end of the war and the hopelessness of the situation is evident in the soldier's visage. He tugs at the collar of his great coat in a futile attempt to stave off the chill air.
On July 4, 1901, at age 55, Scott died in Plainfield after a long illness. Following a Masonic service his body was laid to rest at the highest point in Hillside Cemetery. Members of the Winfield Scott Post of the Grand Army of the Republic fired three volleys into the air while the flag draped casket was lowered into the grave. Then, as the echoes of the musketry played in the distance, a lone bugler sounded "Taps," a fitting tribute to a soldier-artist.
Julian Scott's popularity during his own lifetime was certainly a result of the public hunger for pictures of the late war, and there is no refuting the fact that he amply fed that appetite. But he would not stoop to the kind of art that was turned out just to bring a quick financial return. Looking at this Civil War images today, we find soldiers' accoutrements and insignia reproduced accurately and painstakingly. Because of his dedication to painting not just events, but persons involved in events, many of his paintings are really more portraits than thematic works. It is possible to sense specific emotions in the eyes of the people he has represented. There is never any doubt that these are real people.
Art critics admire Scott's fluid treatment of figures and his solidly constructed compositions. Historians appreciate his concern for authenticity and precision but , most importantly, any viewer can sense the nobility with which Julian Scott treated his subjects. It is as though the poet Walt Whitman was thinking of him when he wrote:
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances.
Of unsurpass'd heroes,
(was one side so brave? The other equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth_
Robert Titterton resides in Elmore, Vermont, In 1989 he assembled an exhibit of Scott's work at the Dibden Gallery of Johnson State College in Scott's hometown of Johnson, Vermont.
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