Civil War Art: Fort Fisher Watercolors of John W. Grattan

When Emerging Civil War announced it would host a mini-series about Civil War art, I immediately knew what artist I wanted to feature. Being a Navy man, one might expect that I would write up a focused look at one of the more famous artists that featured naval combat in the Civil War. Names like Louis Prang and Conrad Wise Chapman come to mind, but I wanted to instead feature a sailor who also happened to be an artist. Acting Ensign John W. Grattan witnessed some of the fiercest naval combat in the war’s closing months and his art centered around the January 15, 1865, Fort Fisher assault struck me as quite the powerful witness to such a chaotic battle.

In May 1862, John W. Grattan first enlisted for three months service in the 47th New York National Guard, spending time garrisoning Fort McHenry, in Baltimore Harbor. He mustered out of this dull garrison service in September 1862. A year later, in October 1863, he joined the Navy as a clerk. Assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron’s flagship Minnesota, Gratton was promoted to acting ensign (equivalent to an army second lieutenant) and made clerk to Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee. When Rear Admiral David D. Porter assumed command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in late 1864, Grattan retained his position on Porter’s staff.[1]

The collections at the US Naval History and Heritage Command contain three of Grattan’s watercolors from the second attack on Fort Fisher. One showcases the bombardment by naval ships, a second shows the amphibious assault by sailors and Marines to support the land attack, and a third shows the interior of the fort after Confederate forces surrendered. What is also great is that Grattan wrote a memoir shortly after the war that was edited by Robert J. Schneller Jr. and published in 1999 under the title Under the Blue Pennant: Or Notes of a Naval Officer. Combining Grattan’s watercolors with his recollections of Fort Fisher provides a unique and vivid account of that campaign.

John Grattan’s watercolor showing the naval bombardment before the second assault against Fort Fisher. The flagship USS Malvern is bottom right with signal flags hoisted and numerous Monitor-class ironclads are visible top right.
(NH 50468, Naval History and Heritage Command)

Assigned to USS Malvern, Porter’s flagship, Ensign Grattan described the bombardment of Fort Fisher on January 15, just before assaults against the fort took place. “Sunday, January 15, 1865 will be a day ever memorable by those who participated in and survived the army and navy expedition against Fort Fisher,” he began. “Early in the morning on that calm and beautiful Sabbath day the men-of-war were busy preparing their quota of sailors and marines to assist in the grand assault. The vessels took their stations and at 9:00 A.M. twenty-eight of them were engaged with the enemy.”[2] The squadron continued engaging as sailors and Marines boarded boats and made their way ashore. “The tremendous bombardment was continued with great vigor until 2:40 P.M., when the admiral received General [Alfred H.] Terry’s signal informing him he was about to commence the assault and requested the squadron to change fire, and pay attention to the Mound Battery and the batteries in the rear of Fort Fisher. … In a few seconds the flagship signaled to the fleet to change fire and commenced blowing her steam whistle.”[3]

John Grattan’s watercolor of the amphibious assault by sailors and Marines during the second attack on Fort Fisher. The flagship USS Malvern is center flying signal flags, three Monitor-class ironclads are visible at right, and the ironclad frigate New Ironsides is at right.
(NH 50467-KN, Naval History and Heritage Command)

From the deck of USS Malvern, Grattan had a front row seat to the military and naval assaults against Fort Fisher. Once again, his prose match vividly with a second watercolor of sailors and Marines striking the fort’s walls. “When the assault commenced by the sailors; which was several moments before the army was in motion, the enemy came out of their bombproofs and swarmed on the ramparts facing the sea, in great numbers.”[4] Grattan remarked that as the sailors and Marines “reached the palisades a murderous fire of musketry was opened on them. It was impossible to scale this obstruction and the sailors had to rush in the water to get on the other side. Upon reaching the moat they dashed forward and amid cheers and groans and yells charged up the steep face of the fort.”[5]

The sailors made little headway and suffered tremendous casualties in their attack. Grattan remembered observing how “the ground was soon covered with the dead and wounded” as “the slaughter was terrible.”[6] Fortunately, Terry’s troops did manage to breech Fort Fisher’s defenses and that night it was in United States hands.

John Grattan’s watercolor of the carnage inside Fort Fisher after the Confederate surrender.
(NH 50469-KN, Naval History and Heritage Command)

The morning after the assault, Ensign Grattan had the opportunity to step ashore and personally observe the post-battle carnage. He and several officers took a boat to the beach, landing after Fisher’s magazine exploded that morning. While sailors began burying those killed in the attack, Grattan and a few officers explored the area. “With some difficulty we managed to ascend the steep side of the fort nearest the sea, and stood upon the parapet from which a clear and uninterrupted view could be obtained of the interior and exterior of the immense earthworks. All around us in every conceivable attitude lay the dead and mangled bodies of both rebel and union soldiers. Fragments of our shell lay thick and scattered in every direction.”[7]

While I may be partial to the watercolors of John Grattan, there are many other wartime artists that focused on naval aspects of the Civil War; fortunately, there has been a host of recent scholarship highlighting these artists and their work through Civil War Navy – The Magazine. For the past several years, the editors there have devoted many pages to naval artists making paintings for display or drawings for newspapers.

There have been features in the magazine analyzing the biographies and works of Eduoard Manet (Fall 2017), Conrad Wise Chapman (Winter 2018), Julian Oliver Davidson (Spring 2018), Charles Sidney Raliegh (Summer 2018), William Torgerson (Summer 2019), Mauritz Frederik Hendrik de Haas (Summer 2020), William Heysham Overend (Fall 2020), and Duncan McFarlane (Spring 2022). Most recently in their Summer 2023 issue is a short piece on and Edward Moran and a major article on David McNeely Knox Stauffer.

Even better, the editors have placed articles previously published in the magazine about Civil War’s naval focused newspaper artist correspondents and illustrations on their website’s download’s page. There you can find articles examining naval illustrations published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, naval-themed cartoons published in Leslie’s, naval illustrations published in Harper’s Weekly, cartoons from Harper’s, and naval illustrations published in New York Illustrated News.

Finally, they have made articles available online about newspaper artists drawing these naval illustrations. These include Leslie’s William T. Crane, Henri H. Lovie, Francis Henry Schell, Frederic B. Schell, and Arthur Lumley. They also include Harper’s Bradley Sillick Osbon, Robert Fulton Weir, and William Waud. Finally, there are articles on Century’s Isaac Walton Taber and independent illustrator Herbert E. Valentine. Civil War Navy still has more artists in the works for future issues, so if you are interested in seeing more about naval artists, check out their upcoming (or past) issues.



[1] Robert J. Schneller, Jr., Under the Blue Pennant: Or Notes of a Naval Officer 1863-1865, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999), 3-7.

[2] Ibid, 166.

[3] Ibid, 168.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 169.

[7] Ibid, 175.

1 Response to Civil War Art: Fort Fisher Watercolors of John W. Grattan

  1. Thanks for this. I really loved the detail of his ships and the overall scale of the paintings! Very interesting works that I had no knowledge of before.

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