Saturday, April 18, 2015

Storied Civil War painting in northwest Ohio enjoys a new window to the world

(Click to enlarge: Courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art)
(Courtesy of Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society)

Oh, the places it’s been.

Commissioned by aging Ohio Civil War veterans who wanted to be remembered on canvas rather than by a monument, the large painting won a medal at the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago and then adorned a wall at Memorial Hall in Toledo, garnering praise for its striking, realistic detail of an artillery battery in action.

By World War I, however, “Battery H 1st Ohio Volunteers Light Artillery in Action at Cold Harbor” had largely slipped out of public view and went into storage after interest in such artifacts waned. The painting suffered damage while it was stored in a damp basement storage room at the city’s zoo and in a garage. 

About 25 years ago, an historical society across the Maumee River in Oregon, Ohio, received the oil painting after a complicated sequence of events. It was restored in 2002 and has since presided over the second floor of an old school building housing the society’s collection of Civil War and other artifacts.

Until now.

Military artist Gilbert Gaul’s six feet by 10 feet creation is on loan and is the centerpiece of the Toledo Museum of Art’s exhibit, “The American Civil War: Through Artists’ Eyes” (through July 5). The free exhibit “uses paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs and artifacts to retell the events of the time.” It includes famed photographer Alexander Gardner’s sketchbook.

How the Gaul painting got to the museum has added another small chapter to its interesting history: Workers had to remove it through a second-floor window of Brandville School, home to the Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society.

That’s because the main stairway was reconfigured after “Battery H” was returned in 2002, making it impossible to go through a door.

Last November, workers removed the canvas from its impressive, gilded frame. Both pieces were covered and taken out via an exterior lift.

“We had a party that day. We had cups of chili and everyone could walk around …. and watch the whole thing,” society President Connie Isbell told the Picket.

Isbell tells the story of a soldier’s great-grandson who one day brought in a photo of his ancestor to see whether he could identify him in the painting.

“It took us only a few minutes,” said Isbell. “There was not a doubt about it.”

David Brown last year told The Press that he believes Iraneaus A. Geren is the man wearing the bandana in the center of the painting, near a caisson wheel.

The unit saw action at the battle that ended in a major defeat for Union forces. “They were able to gallop into battle right now and they were the first onto the field,” Brown told The Press. “They were in action before the infantry was.” One battery soldier died in the fight.

Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer had encouraged the battery to get to the front, according to the article.

A Toledo chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic commissioned the painting for $2,000. The artillery battery had about 265 soldiers, about half from northwest Ohio.

The artist was William Gilbert Gaul (1855-1919), a well-known painter of military scenes, especially of the Civil War. While “Battery H” is not one of his more famous works, people have been mesmerized by its rich detail in depicting a scene from combat at Cold Harbor, Virginia, in June 1864.

Workers prepare to move painting from historical society (Courtesy of OJHS)

An article describes Gaul’s style as “usually denoted as realism with some hints of romanticism.” The artist primarily worked in Tennessee and New York City, with the Civil War, the West, Native Americans and pastoral scenes among his legacy. The Tennessee State Museum has many of his works. He was among the artists featured in “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.” His work fell out of favor later in this life, but his reputation has been restored in recent years.

The painting belonged to the Toledo Soldiers’ Memorial Association, which kept its large collection of Civil War artifacts at Memorial Hall. Future President and then-Gov. William McKinley attended the unveiling of the painting in 1894.

A local judge at the time spoke of the pride in having the painting in Toledo, calling it “a memorial of those days of blood and courage, a symbolism of sacrifice and heroism which shall thrill future generations with patriotic pride.”

“Battery H” fell onto hard times within decades of its triumphant debut.

A 2002 Toledo Blade article detailed how many of Toledo’s historic items had faded from view, many of them disappearing or enduring damage. The painting and other Civil War items were moved to various locations; Memorial Hall was demolished in 1955.

Frame is removed (Courtesy of OJHS)

Many artifacts were displayed at the Toledo Zoo and the military items eventually were moved to the basement. A society volunteer told the Blade that the painting, once the glory of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was propped against a wall in damp darkness.

“It had a great big scratch and there was a little bit of water damage,” Isbell said of the painting before its restoration. “It was not in real good shape.”

But these are much better days for “Battery H.” The Toledo Museum of Art approached the historical society about borrowing the treasured painting and has agreed to provide an official appraisal in return, said Isbell.

The historical society loaned the painting to the Tennessee State Museum in 1993, but Isbell acknowledges its prominence at the exhibit in Toledo will bring it to a much larger audience. (The Toledo Museum of Art had about 346,000 visitors in 2014 and saw an uptick when the Civil War exhibit opened earlier this month. The historical society in Oregon is open only on Thursdays and by appointment).

“We are going to have a big party when it comes back,” she said.

COMING SOON:  Other items in the Toledo Museum of Art’s Civil War exhibit.

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