FROM READERS: Mid-Missouri has unusual access to 19th century Civil War painter

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 | 10:00 a.m. CDT

Dr. Joan Stack, the Curator of Art Collections at The State Historical Society of Missouri, lends her expertise on George Caleb Bingham, a 19th century painter who lived in Missouri during the American Civil War. 

Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham is celebrated nationally as a great American painter whose work is in the National Gallery and the White House. He grew up in central Missouri, living in Franklin, Arrow Rock, Boonville and Columbia during the 1820s and 1830s. Not only was Bingham a perceptive artist who painted Missouri, he was also a politician and public servant. His social, political and artistic engagement in debates over slavery, secession, and civil liberties provide unusual insight into our understanding of the issues of slavery and the Civil War in Missouri.

Bingham grew up with slaves. According to federal censuses, he owned three African Americans in 1840 and two in 1850. Nevertheless, Bingham’s artworks and writings indicate that he had the capacity to regard and depict black people with unusual compassion and sympathy. By the second half of the 1850s, he came to see slavery as morally wrong, and his 1856 letters in the Columbia Missouri Statesman on the subject include the declaration that the institution was “out of harmony with those principles of equality, which lie at the foundation of our great political structure.”

In his paintings, Bingham’s message is more subtle, yet equally powerful. He wrote that he designed his 1852 painting County Election (now in the St. Louis Art Museum) to be “applicable to every state in the Union and illustrative of free people and free institutions,” yet his inclusion of a servile African American in the picture implied a slave-state setting and reflected the limitations of American freedom in the 1850s. White men vote as a black man serves a customer at a cider stand. While the painting makes no overt political statement about slavery, the conspicuous presence of a black worker encourages viewers to acknowledge the existence of slaves, to recognize their labor, and to “see” them excluded from the democratic process. By picturing African Americans, Bingham brings awareness to the role of slaves in Missouri’s (and America’s) economic, social, and political landscape. The viewer is left to determine the morality of that role.

County Election was produced at a time when political tensions over slavery had begun to dominate national politics, and as an elected official in 1849-50 and a vocal partisan thereafter, Bingham was actively involved in these political debates. He was among the members of the Whig Party who supported Missouri Democratic senator Thomas Hart Benton’s controversial belief that the federal government had the right to stop the expansion of slavery, a stance that resulted in the five-term senator losing his seat in 1850.

As a representative in the state legislature, Bingham lent his support to the “Bingham Resolutions,” a series of directives offered as an alternative to the more radical pro-slavery and state’s rights assertions of the “Jackson Resolutions” proposed by Missouri Senate Democrat Claiborne Fox Jackson in January 1849. This compromise was soundly defeated, and the Jackson Resolutions were signed by Democratic governor Austin King in March.

Bingham became gradually more anti-slavery in the later 1850s. In 1857 he wrote from Düsseldorf, Germany, that he would “march to the music” of the antislavery Missouri politician Frank Blair, whom Bingham hoped would “muster a strong party for emancipation by the time I get back.” When the artist returned to the United States, he adopted a moderate pro-Union position for gradual rather than immediate emancipation in Missouri, a position he hoped would temper secessionist tendencies in the state.

During the Civil War, Bingham devoted much of his energy to state service, first as captain in the U.S. Volunteer Reserve Corps in Kansas City (1861), then as Missouri state treasurer under Unionist governor Hamilton R. Gamble (1862-65). When the artist accepted the treasury post, he brought his family to Jefferson City, leaving his home in Kansas City vacant.

By the spring of 1862, the Union had secured control of Missouri, but the state’s divided loyalties led to the formation of gangs of roving guerrillas who operated independently from the regular armies of the Confederacy and Union. Guerrillas supporting the confederacy were called bushwhackers, while their unionist counterparts (primarily headquartered in Kansas) were known as Jayhawkers.

Bingham had a personal stake in attempts to quell guerrilla fighting. While serving as state treasurer in Jefferson City, his Kansas City home was commandeered by the Union to serve as a detention center for female relatives of Missouri bushwhackers. The house collapsed in August of 1863, killing four women, including the sister of famed guerrilla, Bloody Bill Anderson. The collapse was one of the impetuses cited by bushwhackers for the murderous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, led by William Quantrill. The raid left the town in ashes and nearly 200 people dead.

A few days after the Lawrence raid, the U.S. Army, under the leadership of General Thomas Ewing, attempted to cut off supply lines to the guerrillas once and for all by ordering most civilians in three and a half Missouri counties along the Kansas border to evacuate their homes, regardless of their loyalties. Despite his Unionist sympathies, Bingham was outraged by what he saw as a needless and unwise abuse of military power.

Immediately after the war, Bingham visualized the enforcement of General Order No. 11 in two nearly identical paintings(now in the Cincinnati Art Museum and The State Historical Society of Missouri’s Art Gallery in Columbia, Missouri). The artist represented the implementation of the order as a scene of violation and loss overseen by Ewing. Personal belongings litter a family’s front lawn as callous military personnel and Kansas Red Legs loot homes and burn property. The upheaval of the Civil War permanently altered society, and one can interpret the scene as a metaphor for the devastation of the war in general. The elderly patriarch who dominates the left side of the picture can be seen as a personification of the proud yet impotent past, while the droves of refugees (mostly women and children) evacuating the scene are manifestations of the undetermined future of war-torn Missouri. Two African Americans, a man and a boy, are among the refugees.

The suffering African Americans are emblematic reminders of the failure of America’s social, political, and economic systems. By failing to end slavery peaceably, America’s leaders had shirked their patriarchal responsibilities to the slaves. White America left its former dependents without the basic tools needed to build productive lives. As the war ended, the survivors of slavery were faced with a particularly difficult future. In Order No. 11, the fleeing African Americans are Job-like synecdoches for the nation. With the other refugees, they are the victims of the great “sins of our fathers” — slavery and the Civil War.

Mid Missourians have unusual access to this painting, which reflects Missouri’s complex and conflicted position during the Civil War. The picture is of national importance as one of the few works by a great American artist dealing with the war.

General Order No. 11 is on display in the State Historical Society of Missouri’s Columbia Research Center in Ellis Library on the Campus of the University of Missouri. Gallery hours are 9-4:30 Tuesday through Friday and 9:00-3:15 Saturday. Admission is free.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voice and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer

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