Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on May 18, 2011 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author at the Gibbes Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:

A Soldier's View of Civil War Charleston

by Pamela S. Wall


The Civil War shaped the course of American history and greatly impacted the city of Charleston, South Carolina. This spring is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, marked by the bombardment of Fort Sumter that began in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. In observance of this anniversary, the Gibbes Museum of Art organized A Soldier's View of Civil War Charleston, an exhibition of paintings by Confederate soldier and artist Conrad Wise Chapman.

Chapman was born in Washington, D.C. in 1842. As a young child, his family moved to Rome, Italy where he received training from his artist father John Gadsby Chapman, a Virginia native. Despite being raised in Italy, Conrad felt a deep connection to his family's southern roots. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted in a Kentucky regiment of the Confederate Army. Chapman served in the West and was wounded in the Battle of Shiloh. After recovering, he was transferred to a Virginia regiment under the command of General Henry A. Wise, a family friend for whom Chapman was given his middle name. In September 1863, Chapman's regiment was sent to Charleston, South Carolina.

During the early part of the Civil War, in 1861 and 1862, the city of Charleston remained full of life with residents maintaining active social calendars. This changed, however, by the fall of 1863, when Chapman arrived and found the city quite desolate. On September 30, 1863 Chapman wrote the following description of Charleston to his father:

The streets are rather narrow and in that respect remind me of Rome. Everybody has left the city, all of the ladies at least, and all those who have anything to remove have done so, and everything presents a gloomy appearance, and but for the booming of canon and the explosion of an occasional shell not a sound is to be heard. As I now sit here writing in a magnificent house in the parlour, a feeling of loneliness and sadness creeps over me...What a different picture this place would have presented a few months ago, to what it now does with a soldier as the only guardian of the premises.

In Charleston, General P. G. T. Beauregard assigned Chapman to create a pictorial record of the Confederate defenses surrounding Charleston Harbor. Beauregard recognized the importance of documenting his military efforts and wrote official orders for Chapman to illustrate a "Journal of the Siege of Charleston." Chapman began in September 1863 by sketching Fort Moultrie and the surrounding batteries located on Sullivan's Island. Positioned near the mouth of Charleston Harbor, Fort Moultrie was a key component of the Confederate defenses. Chapman created two small paintings of the fort along with the largest and most ambitious of his Charleston paintings: Bombardment of Fort Moultrie, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.

Bombardment of Fort Moultrie portrays a scene from November 16, 1863, and despite the dramatic title, depicts a rather minor skirmish. In the early morning hours, the Union monitor Lehigh steamed into Charleston Harbor where it became stuck on a sandbar as the tide receded. At daybreak, as the immobile ship became visible, the guns of Fort Moultrie opened fire. Three Union monitors were dispatched to tow the Lehigh off the sandbar and out of range of the bombardment. Fort Moultrie sustained little damage in the engagement while the badly leaking Lehigh was finally towed to safety after it had been struck twenty seven times.

Along with Fort Moultrie, Chapman's artistic efforts focused on Fort Sumter, located at the entrance of Charleston Harbor. In October 1863, he sketched Flag of Sumter. This painting captures the intense pride associated with Fort Sumter, which came to be a symbol of Confederate resistance against the Federal blockade in Charleston. Though the fort stands in ruin, the tattered Confederate flag flies proudly, dominating the composition. A sentinel stands alert and resolute, gazing toward the Federal fleet that looms ominously on the horizon.

Following the end of a long bombardment, Chapman spent three days at Fort Sumter beginning on December 7, 1863. He arrived in the company of fellow artist Lt. John Ross Key, and the two created numerous sketches. Fort Sumter, Interior Sunrise captures the ruined state of the fort, as it appeared in the early morning light on December 9, 1863 (though Chapman mistakenly inscribed the frame December 9, 1864). Chapman described the painting as follows: "A scene at sunrise; it was cool in the early morning, and the negroes before starting to work would warm themselves at the fires; there was continual work to be done, getting ready sand-bags for breaks in the fortifications."

A few weeks later, on Christmas Eve 1863, Chapman sketched the defenses at White Point Gardens, on the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula. His observations resulted in a meticulously rendered painting that offers an expansive view of Charleston Harbor and a number of significant military sites including, from left to right, Castle Pinckney, Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter, and Fort Johnson. In the left foreground, a number a soldiers surround a Blakely gun. Though imposing in size, the gun was rather ineffective in combat. Chapman later remarked of the Blakely gun, "It was always referred to as 'the big gun,' and although it often ploughed up the water, the damage done by it, if any, was very slight."

In addition to the forts and batteries, the Confederate fleet was crucial in the defense of Charleston, including an innovative vessel known at the H. L. Hunley. The Hunley was a submarine that could sail beneath the surface and attack enemy ships with a torpedo mounted to a spar extending from her bow. On February 17, 1864, the Hunley sank the USS Housatonic to become the first submarine to sink an enemy ship. However, the crew's victory was short-lived as the Hunley sank within minutes of attacking the Housatonic. The submarine remained on the ocean floor near Sullivan's Island until it was recovered on August 8, 2000. The Confederate fleet also included a number of small torpedo boats known as Davids. These vessels were outfitted with ballast tanks that could be flooded, allowing the boat to ride low along the water's surface. Like the Hunley, each David was equipped with a torpedo attached to a long spar designed to detonate upon impact with an enemy ship.

To round out the Charleston series, Chapman spent February and March 1864 sketching the Confederate defenses located on James Island, including Fort Johnson and Batteries Cheves, Harleston, Haskell, Simkins, and Wampler. Chapman described these batteries as the most dangerous of the Confederate fortifications, due to their close proximity to Federal troops on Morris Island. The James Island sketches completed Chapman's studies for his Charleston series, and in the spring of 1864 he was granted furlough to visit his ill mother in Rome, Italy. When he left for Rome, Chapman brought his sketches and used them to create the paintings included in this exhibition. While painting in Rome, he received assistance from his father, John Gadsby Chapman, to whom six of the paintings in the exhibition are attributed. These attributions are based on an interview Conrad gave in 1898 during which he identified these specific paintings as the work of his father, noting they were copies made from Conrad's original sketches.

When completed, the series of 31 small paintings remained in the Chapman family for over thirty years. In 1898, the series was sold to Granville Valentine of Richmond, Virginia for a total of $1,500. In the same year, Valentine sold the series to the Confederate Memorial Literary Society in Richmond, known today as The Museum of the Confederacy. The Museum of the Confederacy recently conserved the paintings and generously loaned them for the Gibbes exhibition. Shown together for the first time in Charleston, Chapman's paintings are a valuable record of the Civil War and illuminate an incredibly significant part of Charleston's history.


About the author

Pamela S. Wall is the Curator of Exhibitions at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, where she manages the museum's special exhibitions and develops adult public programming that supports the museum's education and outreach initiatives. Prior to her tenure at the Gibbes, she worked at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. She holds a B.A. in Art History from Washington and Lee University and an M.A. in Art History from the University of South Carolina.


About the exhibition A Soldier's View of Civil War Charleston

The above article was written in conjunction with A Soldiers View of Civil War Charleston, on view from April 8 through July 10, 2011 at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on May 18, 2011, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on May 6, 2011.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Marla Loftus of the Gibbes Museum of Art for her help concerning the permission for reprinting the above text.

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