A Civil War Find

 

by Clayton Pennington

You don't need to go to "Chubb's Antiques Roadshow" for a great find. Just ask Leo Oaks of Grants Pass, Oregon, and he'll confirm, it can happen anywhere.

According to Oaks, four years ago several pickers he described as "hippie types" were hired to clean out an old shed in Josephine County, Oregon. They were told they could have whatever they wanted. The pickers found a 16 7/8 inches x 23 7/8 inches oil on canvas face up in the shed's rafters. Though it was filthy, they planned to take it to a secondhand shop where they frequently sold things.

Oaks intercepted them and bought the painting for the princely sum of $25. The canvas was loose, and there was a piece of corrugated board jammed in the stretcher. (Oaks knows corrugated board. He worked for 40 years as a shift supervisor in a wood products plant that produced plywood.) For a year after he bought it, the painting sat dirty and untouched.

"The image was so familiar, maybe because I have so many Civil War books," said Oaks. "I didn't recognize the monogram."

When Oaks eventually took the backboard off, he discovered, written on the back, "Camp of the 3rd Kent., nr. Corinth, Miss. May 11th 1862. Painted by C.W. Chapman Co. D."

C.W. Chapman was Conrad Wise Chapman, an artist well known for his Civil War pictures and Mexican landscape scenes. Oaks said that the writing on the back is in Chapman's own hand. Oaks knew it was a find of some importance. "I said, `God Darn, that's him!' Then I got excited," said Oaks. "I'll tell you, my hair stood up." He took the painting to a West Coast restorer who cleaned it up and repaired a small hole.

Not only was it a rare find, but it is the image that made Chapman famous. This particular scene provided the basis for a widely published print by Louis Zimmer, Confederate Camp During the Late American War. From the Original Painting by C.W. Chapman, Ordnance Sergeant, 59th Virginia Regiment, Wise's Brigade.

There are differences, other than the two state regiments cited, between the print and the original work of art. One notable difference is that Chapman included a self-portrait as the solitary soldier leaning on a rifle in the lower left. In the print, he is shown talking with a water carrier.

Few, if any, original Chapman Civil War paintings are on the market. The print is available through a listing on the Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd.'s Web site (www.philaprintshop.com/chapman.html) for $1600. Oaks is offering to sell his painting for $500,000. Confident of its rarity, he said, "This is the only game in town."

Oaks said that he had not offered to sell it for three years, but he had been approached by people "wanting to make deals." One reason he waited so long after his discovery to sell it was his hope that the capital gains tax would be decreased. It was, but unfortunately works of art are excluded.

Deals for the painting didn't seem to interest Oaks much, and the auction route doesn't either. "I'm just not comfortable with that," he said. In fact, he added, "I don't give a hoot whether I sell it or not. I really enjoy the painting."

This is Oaks's first big find. "This is wonderful. I finally found something important. It's a national treasure."

Chapman was born in Washington, D.C., in 1842, second son of the artist John Gadsby Chapman. The elder Chapman was already well respected, especially for his oil on canvas The Baptism of Pocahontas, placed in 1840 in the United States Capitol rotunda. In 1848 the family moved to Europe, trying several cities before taking up residence in Rome. While in Europe, John Chapman taught both his sons, Conrad and John Linton, to paint.

When news of the Civil War reached Rome, Conrad rushed to join the Confederacy. Unable to get to Virginia, he enlisted in a Kentucky regiment. During the battle of Shiloh, he suffered a serious head injury. "Some people think he shot himself," said Oaks. The fierce fight at Shiloh happened on April 6 and 7, 1862. Both sides suffered major losses; the North lost 13,047 men, the South, 10,694. After the battle, Confederate forces retreated to Corinth, Mississippi, the site of the painting.

If the date on the back of the painting (May 11—the same day Confederate forces destroyed their own Merrimack, renamed the Virginia, to prevent it from falling into enemy hands) is right, Chapman was probably recovering from his wound when he painted this picture about a month after Shiloh. Later in 1862, Chapman was transferred to a Virginia regiment, mostly at the request of his well-connected father, who wanted him out of the line of fire and into a staff position. Transferred to Charleston, South Carolina, he was assigned to sketch war scenes and weaponry.

A series of 31 oils of Charleston, based on the sketches and with some completed by Chapman's father, is hanging in the Museum of the Confederacy. The Richmond, Virginia, institution, which opened in 1896, acquired the series in the first part of this century for around $1000. Malinda Collier of the museum said that in her experience, works by Chapman in the Civil War marketplace don't generate much interest. "He just doesn't have the name recognition," she said.

In 1865 a disgruntled 22-year-old Chapman joined with hundreds of other Confederate sympathizers to cross the Texas border into Mexico. He was quite taken with the country. In a letter to his father, Chapman wrote, "...Mexico is the most thoroughly picturesque country I was ever in." His paintings of Mexico shaped the rest of Chapman's artistic life, and he is far better known in the art market for his Mexican scenes.

The highest auction record we could find for him was $123,500 for an 1877 oil on canvas Mexican Landscape, 19 inches x 25 5/8 inches, which sold at Sotheby's Latin American art auction on November 21, 1995. Two Chapman Mexican scenes, Texcoco and Valle de México, sold at Christie's Latin sale on November 25, 1997. Each 4 1/4 inches x 5 1/2 inches oil on board brought $63,000.

Oaks's discovery is not the only rare find that has a Chapman connection. In 1863 in Charleston, he painted a picture of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, one of the first submarines used successfully in warfare. In May 1995 the Hunley itself was found off Sullivan's Island in South Carolina.

It also may not be the last Chapman find. Ben Bassham, a professor of art history at Kent State University and author of a forthcoming book on Chapman, wrote in the February 1997 American Art Review that by September 1865 Chapman had painted two large Mexican landscapes, A View of Monterrey and A French Encampment at Monterrey. He sold both paintings to an Englishman visiting Mexico, but their whereabouts now are unknown.


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