Research Curator Marjorie Searl speaks about this object.
The Night Before the Battle read by Marjorie Searl
One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. Only weeks later, South Carolina voted to leave the Union, followed quickly by six other states, the result of a growing conflict over states’ rights and slavery. A Southern diarist, Mary Boykin Chestnut, wrote: "We are divorced, North and South, because we have hated each other so." When Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, the Civil War formally began.
How do we begin to know what it felt like to be a soldier in that war? An artist like James Beard, who was, himself, a soldier in the Union army, paints a grim picture that helps us understand. The overall shadowy chill of the blue-gray is ominous; the full moon, associated with both luck and disaster, shines overhead; and a grim caped skeleton with blood red eyes commands a cannon, looking out on the battlefield beyond as if able to see the upcoming carnage.
Amidst the sleeping soldiers are signs and symbols of luck, danger and death. An abandoned game of cards, a letter to a loved one – perhaps with last words of love – and a flag draped across a sleeping soldier, suggesting the life that may be sacrificed for his country on the coming day…all of these details combine to create a narrative about the uncertain and potentially deadly outcome of the next day’s battle.
Near this painting are other works depicting Civil War figures. Abraham Lincoln, president during the Civil War, is represented in two different sculptures, one marble and one bronze. The two small bronze heads are studies for a larger sculpture that sits in Boston across from the Massachusetts State House, depicting African American soldiers who were part of the regiment of Civil War colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the hero of the film Glory. The painting to the right was inspired by another Civil War-related event, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. In the same way that Beard used artistic license to blend realistic details with an imaginative composition, the artist Hale Woodruff added the figure of Frederick Douglass to a group from which he was conspicuously absent in real life.
The Civil War inspired hundreds of works of art, often in the form of Civil War monuments that grace town squares in the North and South alike. While the cost of the war in lives – 620,000 is the current count – cannot possibly be redeemed by the creation of large numbers of works of art, the tribute paid by artists as well as the communities that commissioned their art is commensurate with the war’s impact on the country. James Beard’s painting, like the work of many others, successfully deepens our connection with this tragic national legacy.
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