Among my first introductions to the American Civil War was Robert Paul Jordan’s 1969 book The Civil War. It was a volume in a series of National Geographic Society illustrated books. Most were about regions, but there were the odd historical tomes. The book on the Vikings left quite an impression, but Jordan’s The Civil War stuck out. Not so much the personalized narrative, which is passable if at times distracting. More impressive were the paintings and illustrations. Several of them I have not seen in any other book, including a dramatic depiction of the 54th Massachusetts attacking Battery Wagner, a lone Union drummer boy on a foggy morning, and a trio of Southerners (a slave woman, southern belle, and Rebel soldier) looking in horror as a cannonball lands in front of them during the shelling of Vicksburg.
The one that I gazed at the longest was the sinking of the C.S.S. Alabama. It is curious that this painting never elicited a strong interest in the battle or the storied careers of the ships involved. I know generally of the Alabama’s impressive voyage, but it did not draw me in. Of nautical matters, I would later take more interest in R.MS. Titanic and the battleship Bismarck. My attraction was more to the visual elements. The painting is a blend of sorts between impressionism and realism. Impressionism at its best suggests memory and movement, and the painting is like a reconstructed memory of an event, with artistic flourishes. You can see men leaping into the sea or struggling aboard the lifeboat. The American flag flies high and straight but looks faded. The Confederate flag is vibrant and flies away from the water, defiantly fleeing the inevitable doom of the ship. The fate of the cause was a little less certain when the vessel went down. Alabama sank on June 19, a day after a major Confederate victory at Petersburg. The painting was crafted in 1864 although whether it was before or after the fall of Atlanta is unknown.
My love of art and obsession with the war has led me to search out artistic recreations of the conflict. There are good novels, poems, movies, and games, but I find the music and visual art to be my favorites. I have no reason beyond both are often more immediate than the written word, and convey a fast visceral reaction. My search for the painting was hard though. The only images online were small and did it no justice. I noted that in Jordan’s book, it was attributed to Edwin Hayes and owned by the Chicago Historical Society. After some digging, I found that the society’s holdings were with the Chicago History Museum. However, it was not listed among their holdings online. After a variety of emails the painting was found and I decided to buy a high resolution scan. It might be the most frivolous purchase of my life, but I wanted it. In the Jordan book, it is impressive but split by the spine. Now I can see it in its full glory.
Edwin Hayes is something of a mystery. According to various Internet websites devoted to art, he was born in Bristol in 1820, where his father owned the Bristol Hotel and Tavern on Marlborough Street. However, Hayes grew up in Dublin. He studied at the Dublin Society Art School and became a maritime artist. Much of it was due to his life choices. He was a sailor for much of his youth and apparently lived near the docks. His first exhibit was in 1842 at the Royal Hibernian Academy. He moved to London in 1852. In 1854 he had breakthrough success at the British Institution with View of the River Liffey and the Custom House. He did a show at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1855. He would show his work there for fifty years. He also had showings at the Society of British Artists and the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, becoming a full member of the latter in 1863. In 1871 he was made a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy. Given his upbringing, subject matter, and popularity in Ireland, he is typically associated with that country.
Hayes’ works were mostly slice of life depictions of the coasts of Europe. Subjects included places in Ireland, England, Belgium, Holland, France, Spain, and Italy. Of his work, I have noted a love of waves, of the sea in revolt. It is said Hayes was inspired by J. M. W. Turner’s work, such as Calais Pier with French Poissards Preparing for Sea, an English Packeet Arriving and The Slave Ship (also known as Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on). Even if not showing a full storm, the waves in Hayes’ paintings are usually choppy and sometimes cover half of the canvas. Indeed, he was praised most for his ability to depict water in all its forms, but most were impressed with the scenes of crashing waves. Yet, his work was of an academy style that fell out of favor among the purveyors of high taste. The nineteenth century saw a variety of artists who were realists, but also given to romantic or impressionist flourishes as needs required. Many were conservative in subject, such as paintings of military moments and great historical events. Although such works became out of fashion, they are still beloved, sought after, and can fetch a handsome price. Hayes never reached the front rank but he appears to have had steady success in a chaotic world. He also lived and worked for a long time, dying in 1904.
In 1864 Hayes crafted Destruction of the Confederate Steamer Alabama by the Kearsarge, 1864 (Chicago History Museum, ICHi-062518). What led him to paint the battle remains unknown. Historical events do not seem to have been a subject he often dealt with. He may have witnessed the battle from Cherbourg, but I suspect that he met the crew and was commissioned by them or a member of Deerhound. The yacht was owned by John Lancaster, a Lancashire businessman who later became a Liberal MP from 1868 to 1874. He was very wealthy and he seems a likely candidate, particularly as his yacht features fairly prominently in the painting, coming to rescue Confederate sailors. In addition, the painting is from a Confederate point of view given the prominence of the ship, flag, and its crew. Yet, how did the painting come to Chicago? Of that I cannot say.
Either way, I think Hayes’ work is outstanding, an under-appreciated classic of the military and nautical genres. Naturally Hayes was not alone in depicting the sinking. Xanthus Russell Smith, Louis Le Breton, and most famously Édouard Manet each took a stab at the subject. Manet’s work is the better known and is a fine painting, with a dark and somber feeling. Hayes’ work is a study in contrasts. The U.S.S. Kearsage appears sturdy and undamaged next to the doomed Alabama, while Deerhound speeds in to save the shipwrecked Rebels. The sea churns around the wreck, while elsewhere it looks like a flat calm. There is a certain glow to the sky as a maritime legend plunges, defiant but doomed.
In getting the painting, I would like to thank the staff of the Chicago History Museum, particularly Julie Katz.