Thursday, May 3, 2012

Battle of Malvern Hill Engraving

This is a colored, woodcut engraving of the U.S. Navy's James River Flotilla supporting the Army of the Potomac during the July 1-2, 1862 Battle of Malvern Hill.  It shows the ironclads USS Galena and Monitor, along with the wooden gunboats USS Jacob Bell and Mahaska at a section of the James River known as Turkey Point.  This engraving is in the museum's Civil War gallery. This illustration is widely used by many museums and media sources to show the Navy's involvement in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign.

Prominent English-born artist Charles Parson produced the original sketch and then handed it over to the Anglo-American print firm of Virtue, Yorston & Company out of New York.  Parson's talents as an artist were in high demand in the mid-19th century.  He worked for several of the nation's leading print shops, including Endicott & Company; Currier & Ives; and Virture, Yortson & Company.  In 1863, Harper's Weekly hired him as chief artist and he remained there for several years.  He in turn mentored several up-and-coming artists, including Winslow Homer. 

While the print makes a fine addition to one's living room, it does not do much for the historian.  Parson produced the illustration without the benefit of an eyewitness sketch. Compare this illustration to a Harper's Weekly engraving of the same event (above).  The Harper's Weekly engraving was based on an eyewitness drawing from an unknown Naval officer.  Notice there are only two ships, Galena and Mahaska.  However, one shouldn't be too hard on Parsons.  All four ships were present during this final phase of the campagin and participated in covering the Army of the Potomac's retreat at different phases of the battle.

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