Artists, historians reflect on 19th-century painting to commemorate Border War edict

Sunday, August 25, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:34 a.m. CDT, Monday, August 26, 2013
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of an edict that forced 20,000 Missourians from their homes after William Quantrill's raid on Lawrence, Kan., a group of artists and historians decided to interpret a famous painting by George Caleb Bingham.

COLUMBIA — A span of 150 years has passed since the Border War between Missouri and Kansas began, but it has stubbornly lingered in sports and popular culture ever since.

On Saturday, the feud took an artistic turn.

To commemorate the anniversary of an edict that forced 20,000 Missourians from their homes during that period, a group of artists and historians decided to interpret a famous painting by George Caleb Bingham.

Bingham's "General Order No. 11" documents the edict that was imposed to stop the guerrilla fighting between Missouri bushwhackers and Kansas jayhawks after William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kan.

On Aug. 25, 1863, residents of Bates, Cass, Jackson and Vernon counties in western Missouri were told to flee as their homes and crops were burned by Union soldiers.

The State Historical Society of Missouri marked the sesquicentennial on Saturday with a tours of an exhibit relating to the Civil War episode, thoughtful discussion of  Bingham's painting and a group of artists sketching bushwhacker pistols.

New generations

Thomas Rose, 41, came from Vernon County to mark the event. Rose said one of his relatives was hanged for being a guerrilla in Quincy, Ill., after the Civil War.

“It’s always been an interesting period of time for me,” he said.

He seemed to welcome the opportunity to look at antique weaponry and learn more about the Bingham painting, now housed in a gallery of the historical society on Lowry Mall.

“It’s probably my favorite Bingham,” Rose said. “For me, it was just kind of Bingham’s way of capturing the destruction that occurred because of Order No. 11.”

The painting shows white families and black slaves leaving their burning homes behind as one young woman clings to an older gentleman and another pleads with Union soldiers.

Rose said he nurtures an interest in Civil War and Missouri history. He is a member of the State Historical Society of Missouri, the Vernon County Historical Society, the William Clarke Quantrill Society and the Mid-Missouri Civil War Round Table.

Bushwhacker pistols

Rose brought his 9-year-old son, Liam,  on Saturday to watch local artists draw bushwhacker pistols. The artists included Jane Mudd,  Frank Stack and Byron Smith, who work together out of Grindstone Lithography Workshop.

Stack, 75, sketched the pistols with a Litho Crayon, a grease pencil used in lithography, on a smooth block of Bavarian limestone. Smith, 53, drew in pencil on paper, and Mudd painted brightly colored oils on a canvas propped on an easel.

Stack, a former art professor at MU, said his great-grandfathers were on opposite sides of the Civil War. One was an army sergeant in Texas, and the other was a Methodist minister opposed to secession.

His daughter, Joan Stack, is curator of art collections at the historical society and an expert on Bingham. Her research focuses on the role of "General Order No. 11" in creating a cultural memory of the Civil War in Missouri.

“Whenever we think about history, we are remembering it,” she said.

Stack researches how fine art and popular culture, especially visual representations from Civil War-era magazines and newspapers, influenced public understanding of the war. It helps determine who is included and who is excluded from the historical narrative, she said.

“This cultural memory was being shaped from the beginning of the war,” she said. “People’s conceptions of war were shaped by the newspapers.”

Interpretations vary

Bingham was one of the first artists to visualize the Union order, and it became a popular image among neo-Confederates and others who thought the painting represented oppression by the Union Army.

Stack hopes her research will change the way people think about the work.

“I want to take it back and say it’s not a Confederate picture," she said. "It’s a much more complex picture and even has elements relating to emancipation in it.”

She offered an interpretation that pieces together the artist's political background:

Bingham, who came from a slave-owning family, gradually came to accept the emancipation of slaves, Stack said. The artist eventually submitted antislavery letters to a local newspaper, the Columbia Missouri Statesman. His position was so radical at the time that he did not sign the letters.

He was, however, not an abolitionist, Stack said.

“Abolition was an extremely uncommon position to have in Missouri as a politician,” she said.

Divided loyalties

The painting gets at the complexity of Missouri during the Civil War where loyalties were divided between the Confederacy and the Union.

The black figures in the painting point to the presence of slaves in western Missouri during the Civil War, which has often been ignored by historians.

The man and boy walking out of the frame at the right of the painting, Stack said, “are not coming back.”  The man hunches forward and covers his face with his hands, crying, as the boy looks up, wide-eyed with fear.

At the time, there was little infrastructure in place to care for newly freed slaves, Stack said.

“I think George Caleb Bingham is saying, ‘How are we going to take care of them?’” she said.

“I think he thought it was a great painting.”

Two versions

Bingham painted two versions of “General Order No. 11.” The State Historical Society of Missouri displays the second version, which was finished from 1869 to 1870.

This one is painted on a woven linen tablecloth — the pattern of the weaving is visible under the paint. The artist also paid to have an etching made and photographed the earlier version of his painting.

It has also inspired more recent artistic interpretations. James Froese’s 1970 painting “Variation on Order No. 11,” on display at the historical society, is one example. Froese, whose lived near Selma, Ala., in the 1960s, emphasizes the black figures in the painting.

The boy in Froese’s painting is unfinished.

“The future of these people is unresolved,” Stack said, both in Bingham’s 1870 painting and in the 1970 interpretation.

“The idea of the Civil War is still there with us,” she said.

Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.

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