ELEANOR HARVEY: Of the six American artists whose works are featured in this podcast only one of them actually enlisted and fought on the Union side in the American Civil War. That was Julian Scott, the artist who painted this picture in 1873. In this painting, Scott focuses on a small synecdoche of the surrender of the American South. Here we have a confederate officer in his butternut uniform, his CSA buckle on his belt, behind him sits his wife cradling an infant, and beside him the family’s enslaved servant. Together, they form the core family unit of the prewar south. He has found a white cloth seemingly impossible at a time during the war and has raised it tied to a branch in order to affect his surrender. It’s a surrender with dignity which was an important concept for both North and South.
The awkwardness of the war stretched to the fact that for so many combatants they had been colleagues and friends at West Point and in business prior to the outbreak of war, at which time they were forced to choose sides. Whether you ended up fighting for the Union or the Confederacy, if the goal was to bring the country back together at the end of the war both sides had to find a way to affect that end in a dignified manner with a great deal of respect.
What Scott has painted here is in fact that moment where it isn’t just the Southern army that’s capitulating, but in effect it is the surrender of the Southern way of life. With emancipation and abolition, the black man who was looking off into the distance contemplates a very different future from his past. The woman and child aren’t quite sure what to think, and the soldier himself, standing rigid, awaits his fate. It’s a painting that is designed to appease both Northern and Southern audiences to make both sides realize that with the cessation of hostilities there needed to be a reappreciation of what both sides of the country brought to the Union, reason in fact to restore the Union as it was before war had broken out. What Scott accomplishes in this small personal picture really is a kind of summary of both why the war was fought, what it was fought over, and what the losing side had to deal with in the aftermath.
In this podcast, curator Eleanor Jones Harvey discusses 6 featured paintings from The Civil War and American Art exhibition. This episode looks at Surrender of a Confederate Soldier by Julian Scott. The Civil War and American Art examines how America's artists represented the impact of the Civil War and its aftermath. The exhibition follows the conflict from palpable unease on the eve of war, to heady optimism that it would be over with a single battle, to a growing realization that this conflict would not end quickly and a deepening awareness of issues surrounding emancipation and the need for reconciliation. Genre and landscape painting captured the transformative impact of the war, not traditional history painting.