Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Art of Lew Wallace: Over the Deadline

1865 was a year of events and activity for Lew Wallace. Early in the year he was sent to Mexico to prevent Mexican support of the dying Confederacy. While in Mexico he learned of the end of the Civil War and the death of Abraham Lincoln. Upon his return to Washington, D.C. he served on the tribunal that tried the Lincoln conspirators and he was the presiding judge of the tribunal that tried Commander Henry Wirz for war crimes. Wirz was in charge of the infamous Civil War prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia. After a two month trial, Wirz was found guilty on eleven of thirteen counts of murder and sentenced to death. On November 10, 1865, Wirz was hanged on the site that is now occupied by United States Supreme Court.

During the trial of the Lincoln conspirators Lew Wallace made small pencil sketches to pass the time. During the Wirz trial he also spent time sketching. As the trial unfolded one story in particular haunted the general. He heard stories of the deadline—a line within the stockade which the prisoners were forbidden to cross. Just beyond the deadline was a small stream. In gripping testimony the court heard about a prisoner of war stretching his emaciated arm toward the stream, his hand holding a tin cup. When his hand crossed the deadline, he was shot and killed by one of the Confederate prison guards.

Wallace sketched a vivid image of this unnamed man in tattered pants lying in the mud with his outstretched hand over the stream. This sketch survives, but the whereabouts of a painting based on the sketch is not known. The finished painting was exhibited in Chicago in 1867, in Boston in 1873 and in Indianapolis in 1878. The painting was generally praised for its boldness of conception, technical skill and somberness—although the Boston Advertiser did find it too “horribly realistic.”

Sometime after its exhibition in Indianapolis, the painting disappeared. Whether Wallace retained ownership of the painting and gave it to a friend, whether it was damaged and discarded by family, or perhaps was given to an association or museum and resides deep in a vault somewhere has been lost to history. While the fate of the painting and the name of the subject are both shrouded in mystery, we are fortunate that the sketch survives to convey both the extent of the General’s talent and the personal side of the trauma of the Civil War still so fresh in 1865.

No comments: