Friday, July 31, 2020

"A Bit of War History"

When I first saw "A Bit of War History," by Thomas Waterman Wood, I was struck by its honesty and  realism. Painted in 1866, it is a three-part painting depicting an African American man's transition from freedman refugee to soldier to veteran. 

Wood, born in Vermont in 1823, apparently received the inspiration to paint the series of images while living in Louisville, Kentucky, and seeing an African American man attempting to exercise a measure of independence and mobility on homemade crutches. 

The first image, titled "The Contraband," (above) shows the picture's subject in the wear of an formerly enslaved field hand. He doffs a tan slouch hat and has a sack coat with a bundle of dried tobacco leaves in coat's pocket. He seems to own only the clothes on his back and the small bundle and stick he holds in his left hand. He arrives at the provost marshal office where a broadside declares, "Volunteers Wanted." In the doorway to the office is a United States flag and a war drum. A corner of staked tent appears at the bottom left foreground. A Springfield rifle-musket and soldier's accouterments lean against the stucco wall next to a ladder-back chair on the right side of the painting. A smoking cigar is on the ground at his feet.

In the second view, "The Recruit," the man appears as a fully equipped United States Colored Troops soldier. On his belt is the distinctive "US," and a brass eagle rest on his chest as part of his cartridge box sling. He wears an infantryman's overcoat and military shoes. A forage cap sits at a jaunty angle on his head, which features a determined countenance. He carries his Springfield rifle on his right shoulder. The "Volunteers Wanted" broadside has seemingly faded from the first image, and a United States flag sketch has been added to the wall. The U.S. flag and drum remain in the office doorway and the ladder-back chair remains but instead of supporting the gear the soldier now carries, it contains a newspaper and a cigar. Wooden chips litter the ground as if the chairs' former occupant had been whittling. 

In the third and final view, "The Veteran," our soldier is depicted after his campaigning is over. The war has not been kind to him, taking his left leg at the knee. A couple of crutches help support him while standing to give a salute to show his continued commitment to the army. His sky blue great coat and trousers have faded through hard marching, camping, and fighting. Unable to manage his crutches his rifle and equipment, those tools of war again rest against the wall. The chair's top rung support has worn through since the last scene, and a double-bag knapsack rests on the ground before the chair. The flag still stands in the doorway, perhaps indicating the success of the cause, but now that the war is over, the drum is gone. The look of determination of "The Recruit" seems to have transitioned to satisfaction as "The Veteran." Perhaps he felt willing to give a leg to end slavery, stake a claim for citizenship and equality, and maintain the Union. 


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