Civil War Art: “A Moment of Decision”

One of my favorites pieces of art showing Civil War soldiers and painted by a Civil War veteran is Julian Scott’s “A Moment of Decision,” which was created around 1890. As suggested by the title of the painting, it represents the final calm before an attack. The officer and soldiers pause and wait. A bugler clutches his instrument – perhaps reminiscent of Scott’s own role as a musician. Hardly visible in the lower right background, a wounded or dead soldier lies with his face upward while another soldier crouches over him, but looking ahead. The background is nondescript, making it hard to place the scene to a particular battle. However, the VI Corps badge is prominent on a soldier’s kepi, suggesting these might be troops from Scott’s homestate: Vermont. 

The feeling that the artist conveys through the poses of his subjects and the anticipation shown in their expressions may have been inspired by similar scenes that Scott witnessed on the Virginia Peninsula. In fact, in addition to his memorable Civil War art, Julian Scott was a Medal of Honor recipient. 

The citation for his Congressional Medal of Honor reads: “Crossed the creek under a terrific fire of musketry several times to assist in bringing off the wounded.” A simple statement for the actions of teenage drummer boy Julian Scott of the 3rd Vermont Infantry. 

The young soldier had enlisted in June 1861 and assigned to musician duties because of his age and slight build. His enlistment papers included his lie about his age (he was actually fifteen in 1861, not sixteen) and his stated profession, “Painter.” Fine art was not his profession at the time; instead, he painted signs to help his widower father support the family. His three older brothers had already enlisted, and he seems to have volunteered without his father’s knowledge.

Once in camp, Scott made friends with his comrades and some drew sketches of them which were sent home to their families. When the 3rd Vermont went into battle on the Virginia Peninsula – fighting near Lee’s Mill on April 16, 1862 – Scott became a rescuer of the wounded, a typical duty for musicians and other noncombatants attached to regiments. He rescued at least nine men and later received the Medal of Honor for these actions. Later in the campaign, Scott was badly wounded in the hip during the battle of White Oak Swamp.

Sent to a hospital in Long Island Sound, Scott amused himself and his wounded companions by drawing sketches. One day a wealthy visitor to the hospital, Mr. Henry E. Clark, noticed Scott’s sketches and offered to pay for him to attend the National Academy of Design, a prominent art school in the United States. Eventually arrangements were made for Scott to receive an honorable discharge from the remainder of his military duties, and when he recovered, he entered the world of art studies. 

In 1864, Scott returned to the scenes of military actions…with a pass…as an artist. He joined Union troops during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign and then headed north with troops to Cold Harbor. As the war drew to a close in 1865, Scott moved through Virginia, sketching sites of battles and other points of interest. With ideas from the days when hearts were touched by fire, Scott had material for a lifetime of art. 

After the war, Scott became an internationally acclaimed artist, noted for his military scenes and depictions of Native American culture. A biographer notes that he was one of the first artists of the Civil War to break away from painting generals or battles to focus on the scenes familiar to the common soldier. Some of his pieces tell humorous stories about soldiers’ experiences. The color palettes that he used are also interesting to note, sometimes using lighter, almost pastel hues and other times using more realistic tones, conveying darker themes. 

His most famous piece of art is probably his rendition of the battle of Cedar Creek which was commissioned to hang in the Vermont State House and is still displayed there. In 1876, the legislature paid Scott $10,000 to create the large painting, and his New York studio became a reunion place for veterans arriving to pose, advise, or just observe his creative process. An interest moment in Civil War memory, art, and post-war culture. 

Julian Scott lived until July 4, 1901, and when he died, he was buried in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. His art “lives” on – showing scenes of war and the west that inspired the artist and post-Civil War America.


“Julian Scott,” Congressional Medal of Honor Society:

Robert J. Titterton, Julian Scott: Artist of the Civil War and Native America (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 1997).

Howard Coffin, Full Duty: Vermonters in the Civil War (Woodstock: Countryman Press, 1995).

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