War, before & after

Tucked away in a corner of the Capitol hang three paintings that tell the story of the Civil War. 

The paintings’ subject is Fort Sumter — the South Carolina naval base where America’s bloodiest war began. Though the fort is best remembered for the destruction that the Confederate Army brought down upon it, the works of art don’t depict any battle scenes. 

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The absence of combat in the three Sumter paintings is no coincidence. John Logan, chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee in 1870, commissioned landscape artist and retired Army General Seth Eastman to produce 17 paintings of army forts around the United States. Logan asked Eastman to paint the garrisons without battle scenes.

“Even though it was only five years after the Civil War, what they were really trying to do was show that this is what the United States looks like now,” said Farar Elliott, the chief of the House’s Office of Art and Archives. “This is the new order of a unified nation.”

A quick glance around the House’s Central West Corridor, where these paintings are located, shows that Eastman went above and beyond the intent of the committee. Almost every aspect of the American landscape — including mountains, prairies, coastlines and river valleys — surrounds the forts in his paintings. Eastman even included people in the foregrounds of the forts. Native Americans gather below the garrisons on the frontier; sailors skim the surface of the rivers and oceans in the east. 

But what is unique about the three Fort Sumter paintings is that the subtle details — the water that surrounds the fort, the people nearby, the clouds that float in the sky — offer viewers a look into the American psyche at the time. 

In “Fort Sumter Before the War,” the base is serene, with symmetrical windows and an American flag waving high above its battlements. Its surroundings, however, portend turmoil ahead. Whitecaps crest in a dark Atlantic ocean, and a small sailboat lies broken by the shore. The sailors sit on a beach near their ruined boat, surrounded by bits and pieces of the shredded mast, as dark clouds move in. 

In “Fort Sumter After the War,” the ocean looks as smooth as glass — a dim reflection of a ruined Sumter can even been seen on its surface. Two children, who are getting pulled in from the shore, sail smoothly in an immaculate boat.

Elliott said both the sailors and the weather in these two paintings symbolize the nation’s mood before and after the war.

The prewar painting “has this prefiguring that something is going to go wrong,” she said. “If we imagine this in 1860, those people are Southerners and their worlds are about to break up even as the union is about to break up.” 

Elliott added, “In Sumter after the war it is exactly the reverse. The fort is broken up and it’s bombed into a heap of rubble. But in the foreground, the people that are there look very happy. Although there are these scars on the landscape from this war that are not to be denied, it is better for the people of America now because they are unified. They’re in a boat that’s not sinking.”

The third painting, “Fort Sumter After the Bombardment,” portrays a bird’s-eye view of a crumbling and bombed Fort Sumter. Along the wall of the ruined fort are two curious people touring the historic site. 

“By the 1870s [Fort Sumter] is still not in great shape, but what the artist is alluding to is that it is peacetime now,” Elliott said. 

She called Eastman a classic landscape artist, adding that his Army experience helped him create such detailed paintings. 

“He’s trying to show you that these forts are in a pastoral landscape in a lot of places,” she said. “Some of that is because when he was on the frontier … he became very interested in the interaction between the fort and the landscape and the people who lived there.”

It took Eastman approximately five years to complete all 17 fort paintings. And though Logan was the driving force behind the project, he wasn’t still presiding over the Military Affairs Committee when they were finished — he had moved to the Senate by then.