Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Howard Pyle and the Battle of Nashville

Today and tomorrow mark the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville, a very significant event in the the history of my native city. The outcome of that battle was sealed a fortnight beforehand when Confederate commander John Bell Hood dashed his distinguished army like a porcelain pitcher against the well-entrenched Federal troops at Franklin. Following that disaster, the greatly diminished and demoralized remnants of the grey-clad army proceeded to “besiege” Nashville, which amounted merely to making a nuisance of themselves by camping out on the hills south of town and waiting to be driven back. This inevitable event was delayed by two weeks of miserably cold and icy weather (under which the Confederate troops again suffered much the worse), until a break in the wintry conditions allowed Union General George Thomas to begin the counter offensive on the 15th. The ensuing battle raged for two days—along the present-day route of Woodmont Blvd. and Thompson Lane on the first day, and along present-day Harding Place and Battery Lane on the second.

About forty years after the battle, Howard Pyle, the foremost illustrator of his day, was commissioned by Minnesota State Capitol architect Cass Gilbert to paint a large-scale depiction of the battle. (Minnesota lost a large number of her sons in the Battle of Nashville, particularly in the taking of Shy’s Hill on the second day.) The result became one of the most famous depictions of the Civil War, and it hangs in the Governor’s suite of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul to this day. I do not know if Pyle actually visited the site beforehand, or if he worked from photographs, or relied solely upon his own vast imagination. But if, on a cold, overcast day like that almost a century and a half ago, one visits the locale he depicted, where opulent houses dominate the once muddy cornfield where thousands of men fought and hundreds died, a renewed appreciation of a truly great artist’s ability to capture the essence of an event through his work is gained.

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