A Chapman painting and “a striking proof of their liberality”

Earlier today, Daily Observations of the Civil War ran this Conrad Wise Chapman painting:


The caption for this painting reads:

“This scene was sketched by the artist from the top of St. Michaels Church in Charleston, by means of a telescope. There is a gunboat out in the harbor; every time there was a flash, the artist states that the yankee soldiers in the batteries would disappear as if by magic.” – Conrad Wise Chapman, 1898

Such refers to the “skirmishing” seen at Charleston from the fall of 1863 until the city fell in 1865.  Unlike other sectors, this skirmishing took the form of heavy guns trading shots.  For every shot fired, there is an “outgoing” story and an “incoming” story.  Chapman provided some of the “outgoing” part.  Let me call upon the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery’s history for an example of “incoming” side of this sort of “skirmishing” with heavy guns:

Near the entrance, in Fort Putnam, was a battery of two guns facing the harbor and Sullivan’s Island, and on its parapet was a platform to admit of a howitzer in case of an attack.  On this platform stood General Gillmore, Colonel Brayton, Capt. A.E. Greene, Lieut. G.W. Greene, and other officers, surveying the front, and holding a consultation.  The enemy on Sullivan’s Island, seeing this group of officers, aspired to have a voice in their councils by opening on them with a huge mortar.  Our officers saw the puff of smoke, heard the loud report, and discovered the huge shell making its curved way directly towards them.  Our men in the fort saw the affair and intently looked to see the officers fly to cover.  Said one of the officers: “Though we saw the bomb had us in line, our pride and rank forbade our flinching, and we stood firm, and would have stood if our heads had been blown off. Providentially, the shell burst a little in front of us, right in our faces, and not a fragment of it injured us. We were then glad that we had not shown the white feather (whatever we felt) in the presence of the men.”

The account above is attributed to February 1, 1864.  While Chapman was generally good with dates, I am unable to find a corresponding Federal account for his February 12 caption.  Such would be of interest, as it might reference the rare use of Confederate gunboats in the “skirmishing.”  However, the 3rd Rhode Island did record this entry for February 12:

Feb. 12. For some uncommunicated reason the rebels chose to open simultaneously all their guns on our front, which occasioned special inquiry for the moment.   Major Ames, being Chief of Artillery on the island, at once ordered his horse and dashed up to the forts to investigate the matter.  Reaching Fort Putnam (Gregg), he had no sooner dismounted than his horse was struck in the neck by the fragment of an exploded shell, and instantly killed.  Of necessity our officers had frequently to be exposed more than the gunners, who usually had the protection of traverses and parapets.  Always, however, all of us were targets when approaching and leaving our batteries.  On this day the rebels tossed us more than 400 shells – quite a striking proof of their liberality.

This of course, referenced Beauregard’s “distraction” designed to facilitate operations on John’s Island,fired in the early morning hours. Perhaps the shots that Chapman witnessed were the tail end of that bombardment.  Or just another round of “skirmishing.”

Chapman’s painting is remarkably detailed, considering he was looking through a telescope.  Compare to this wartime photo of Fort Putnam:

The angle of the photograph is opposite that of Chapman’s, with Charleston just out of frame to the right.  I’ve referenced this photo before, but not offered a detailed examination as of yet.  There’s a lot of interesting things in the photo, so I’ll have to get to that!

As for the location where Gillmore and other officers braved Confederate fire:

I give you two guns facing Sullivan’s Island and a howitzer platform.

(Citation from Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, pages 235-6.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

4 thoughts on “A Chapman painting and “a striking proof of their liberality”

  1. Craig, I often visit Charleston simply because I like the feel, look and CW history of the town. I most always stay in the fine Planter’s Inn, and if it is available, I normally book the “Governor’s Suite.”

    Now it has been my experience that the more wine I imbibe, the better the view from that superb room, and well into the second bottle, I imagine I can see as well as Conrad Chapman did when sketching Fort Putnam (thorough a telescope!) the pristine scene as captured above. I can only assume that because Mr. Chapman was painting his picture from atop a church, he could see far better than me from the Planter’s Inn. (Nice touch, huh, the church as a painting platform?..)

    In other words, count me as truly skeptical–unless he drinks better wine than me–that Conrad Chapman painted that precise image as captured via a telescope.

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