Famous Paintings

Then Again: Painting of Civil War battle involved heroics, arguments and politics

Then Again: Painting of Civil War battle involved heroics, arguments and politics
Written by Noah Roy

In his painting “The First Vermont Brigade at the Battle of Cedar Creek,” Julian Scott depicted on one canvas events that occurred at different moments in the fighting. Courtesy of the Vermont State Curator’s Office

Painting may be an art, but it is also a business. With that in mind, Julian Scott returned to Vermont in 1870.

Scott was a well-regarded young artist and he was hoping to drum up business. The trip would ultimately net him a major commission that would boost his reputation, but also strain his nerves.

Scott, who had grown up in Johnson, was already famous in his home state for his service during the Civil War. Scott had quickly signed up when war broke out, though he was only 15 at the time. Judged too small even to be a drummer boy, he was given a fife instead.

Scott served with extreme value. During the Battle of Lee’s Mills in Virginia in 1862, Scott had braved heavy Confederate gunfire to wade across a creek several times to drag wounded soldiers to safety. For his heroism, he was made one of the nation’s youngest Medal of Honor recipients.

Later in the war, while recovering from a wound at an Army hospital, Scott spent his time sketching scenes around him. The sketches impressed a philanthropist who visited the hospital regularly. After Scott’s tour of duty, the man paid his tuition at the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York. Scott quickly settled into the city’s artistic community.

When the war ended, his experiences as an artist-soldier came in handy. States began commissioning paintings to commemorate their roles in the conflict. Winning a commission was both an honor and solid income for the artist. Scott thought Vermont should commission him to create such a painting.

So he approached state Rep. Franklin Fairbanks of St. Johnsbury, whose father, Erastus, had been governor during the war. Fairbanks liked the idea so much he successfully guided a bill through the Legislature, and Scott was hired.

Scott clearly understood the art of politics. He would soon learn about the politics of art.

The commission allowed him to pick the subject of his painting. But what scene should it be?

No shortage of ideas

Scott told Gov. John Stewart that he had already painted a scene of the Vermont Brigade fighting in the famed cornfield battle at Antietam in Maryland. Scott proposed expanding that scene to fill a suitably grand 7-foot-by-15-foot canvas. The project would take two years, he estimated.

Scott told the governor he would be happy if he only broke even on the project. Stewart agreed to pay him $5,000.

The public immediately began offering its own suggestions about what the subject should be. The idea of ​​commemorating Antietam proved unpopular. Too bloody. Union losses had been shocking that day.

At a large reunion in Rutland, a group of Vermont officers discussed the matter and issued a resolution calling for the painting to commemorate the Battle of Cedar Creek. The battle is mostly forgotten today. It started as a Southern rout, until Union forces, with Vermont units playing a prominent role, made a late-day charge to regain the ground they had lost.

The suggestion was perhaps a political one. More Vermont regiments saw action at Cedar Creek than at any other battle, so fewer would have to be left out.

Other Vermonters continued to lobby for different battles. Scott was in a quandary. “(In) which one of the (Shenandoah) valley battles did the Vermont Brigade gain the greatest glory?” he wrote.

At another reunion of officers, Scott spoke with Col. Aldace Walker, who had led Vermont troops at Cedar Creek. Walker lobbied hard for the battle. Scott agreed to visit the site during the summer of 1871 with Walker and Stewart.

Battlefield visit

Julian Scott, who grew up in Johnson, won a Medal of Honor for an act of bravery during the Civil War and later became a painter in New York City. Courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society

The governor, the colonel and the painter walked the Cedar Creek battlefield. As they went, Walker described the scenes he had to witness on Oct. 19, 1864. Scott stopped periodically to sketch stone walls, ridgelines and vegetation, and studied how the light looked there at sunset, the time he would depict on canvas. The visit sealed the deal. Scott would paint Cedar Creek.

The sprawling battlefield convinced Scott he would need to use a larger canvas to capture the action. Scott nearly doubled the size of the painting. It would now be 10 feet by 20 feet. He would have to order a canvas from Europe, since no American mill made one so large.

The change also doubled the cost of materials. Stewart was sympathetic to Scott, writing that “it is plain the price is too small” and suggesting the Legislature might increase his pay.

The grander scale of the project caused another problem. Scott’s Greenwich Village studio couldn’t accommodate so large a canvas, so he moved to a studio up the Hudson, in West Point, and set to work.

The constraints of the medium forced Scott to compress events, to paint actions that occurred at different moments as if they were happening at once. But he took pains to get the details right.

Scott corresponded with veterans of the battle, asking them to set their memories on paper and to mail him photographs of themselves. Scott wanted to paint the faces accurately. Photos from the war years were cherished possessions. Many veterans sent them anyway.

While he worked on the massive canvas, Scott was constantly distracted from the Cedar Creek painting by etchings he had to do for magazines and by paintings for patrons. The demands of work meant that Scott spent much of his time away from his wife, Mamie, and their young daughter.

A showing in Vermont

In May 1874, Scott was still toiling over the canvas. He hoped to finish in time to unveil it at the start of the session that fall. But a group of veterans persuaded him to bring the painting to Vermont sooner.

At a gathering of veterans in August, Vermonters got their first glimpse of the still-unfinished painting, which he titled “The First Vermont Brigade at the Battle of Cedar Creek.” Scott hung it, unframed, in Burlington’s city hall. It was, one newspaper declared, “a faithful reproduction of a real battle scene. … A real soldier will recognize it at once.”

Scott’s arrival in Vermont prompted more veterans to remember finally to mail him their photographs. Scott remained in Vermont, working on the piece in city hall through the spring and summer. By fall, it was ready.

On Oct. 6, 1874, Scott shipped the painting by train to Montpelier. Its massive frame, which Scott designed, arrived three days later. The frame, which was stored in three crates, was hauled to the Statehouse, where workers labored overnight to install it and the painting on the north wall of the governor’s office. (It would be moved next door 14 years later, to what is now known as the Cedar Creek Room.)

Julian Scott’s monumental painting, “The First Vermont Brigade at the Battle of Cedar Creek,” takes up one wall of the Cedar Creek Room at the Statehouse. Courtesy of the Vermont State Curator’s Office

The painting caused a sensation. Vermonters visited the Statehouse just to see Scott’s creation, frequently interrupting the governor’s work.

It wasn’t a priceless painting, however. Though it had cost the state $5,000, it had cost Scott $8,500 to produce. He buttonholed legislators, requesting more money. He asked his famous artist friends, among them Winslow Homer, to write in support. John Stewart, no longer governor, also backed his claim.

The Legislature considered paying another $5,000. Lawmakers haggled on the House floor, some balking at the extra expense.

Newspapers took sides in the debate. A correspondent for one paper claimed to have overheard legislators arguing at their hotel.

One farmer-lawmaker had supposedly noted that one of his barn doors was larger than that painting and he had painted both his doors for only $10. Another then defended the work, since it depicted a favorite son who had been wounded in the fighting. To which, the farmer had retorted that Scott should have found room on the canvas to include one of the state’s famed Hammond sheep. The conversation only devolved from there.

After all the arguing, the Legislature finally approved paying Scott another $4,000. For his countless hours on the work, Scott had made a profit of only $500. It may be one of the best bargains lawmakers have ever struck.

Detail of “The First Vermont Brigade at the Battle of Cedar Creek.” Julian Scott painted the faces of the soldiers from photographs of Vermonters who actually fought in the battle. Courtesy of the Vermont State Curator’s Office

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Noah Roy

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