Wilson’s Creek, Wyeth’s Painting, and Memory

When I think of the battle of Wilson’s Creek, this image comes to mind:

"Battle of Wilson's Creek" - N.C. Wyeth

Newell Convers Wyeth completed this mural, along with a companion depicting the 1864 Battle of Westport, in 1920. Both pieces grace the Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City.   I’m not much of an art historian, but I do recognize the realist approach.  The art books mention Wyeth’s great influence, Howard Pyle, and the Brandywine School.  Wyeth was among the most prolific artists of the early 20th century, producing both paintings and illustrations.  But honestly, for someone who considers a Patton tank a work of art, the distinction between paintings and illustrations is lost in translation.

Working under a state contract, Wyeth considered accounts from veterans and made a visit to the battlefield while working on this painting.  But of course there is much artistic license at play.  The details of the painting don’t exactly match a specific instance in the battle or a particular location.  But the larger story of the battle comes forth.

To me this painting tells that story at the first gaze with action frozen in time.  In the center-foreground, a Missouri guardsman boldly steps into the creek to fire at the Federals while one of his comrades falls to a bullet. This is “in your face” close combat.

And that is Wilson Creek the soldier is stepping into, not Wilson’s.  After the battle nearly everyone attached the possessive to the name, and it stuck (save a few hold outs who talked about the Battle of Oak Hills).

Following the rifles, the eyes meet the Federal line on the opposite bank.  There, amid the smoke of battle, some blue coats return fire.  Some of their number falling.  While no flags or figures indicate such, the commissioners desired this painting to depict Missourians fighting Missourians.  But these troops match the US Regulars in dress.

Wounded men, with bandages around their heads, are re-engaging in the battle which rages all along the creek.  And the fallen lay at the creek’s edge.  Death is everywhere.

Looking back behind the Missouri State Guard (not Confederate mind you!) line, there’s “Old Pap” Price directing the troops.

And again there’s wounded troops returning to hold the line.  Dead Missourians lay beside a bullet scarred tree.

In what would otherwise offer a peaceful pastoral scene in the background, through the smoke are lines of infantry moving down the hill.

Captions for the painting indicate the artist depicted “Bloody Hill” in this portion of the painting.  If so, I can’t place the house on the hill top.

Wyeth proposed another version of the mural, depicting just a handful of soldiers fighting along a treeline.  The mural committee preferred the panoramic view now on display.  But a copy of that alternate depiction is preserved in the University of Missouri – Columbia’s Museum of Art and Archaeology.  Wyeth is known for other Civil War illustrations.  And he covered both Federal and Confederate subjects, but not many that depict both sides in the same frame.    Often mist or smoke cloak the figures, becoming an allusion to an unseen “enemy”.  In “The Battle of Wilson’s Creek” the smoke is all around and covering both sides.

My first introduction to the Wyeth mural was in fourth grade, where it was used in our Missouri history textbooks.  Later when we visited the state capitol, I saw the original.  In hindsight, I must say the committee selected the right version as the panoramic view fills the archway and provides a sense of depth.  If my vacation counts are correct, on that same trip my family drove to Springfield to visit the battlefield.  So there is much to link the mural to my recollections of the battle and battlefield.

From a broader perspective, regarding Wyeth’s painting there’s much to consider about collective memory of Wilson’s Creek and the Civil War in general.  Consider the time Wyeth painted this work, as the last of the Civil War generation passed and in the wake of World War I.  Absent, although perhaps out of scope, are reconciliation themes.  While deep red hues are absent, death and the other horrors of war are openly displayed.   Wyeth certainly embraced patriotic American themes in other works, yet here there is no national symbol.  Indeed the only authority in the mural is Price. But there is little in the way of glory in Wyeth’s painting.

Those points place Wyeth’s painting in contrast to an earlier depiction of the battle from the 1890s:

Battle of Wilson's Creek - Kurz and Allison

And we modern day folks are not immune to the purposing of imagery to reinforce our memory.  Consider Mort Kunstler’s 1992 painting depicting a scene from Wilson’s Creek.  Historical themed artwork might seek to expand understanding of events.  But they also speak volumes about the intended audience.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “Wilson’s Creek, Wyeth’s Painting, and Memory

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