General Grant at Fort Donelson

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General Grant at Fort Donelson
c. 1870-1875
Paul D. Philippoteaux
Oil on canvas
18 x 25 in.
Chicago History Museum, Charles F. Gunther Collection
1920.1645, ICHi-62709

Look closely and find Union General Ulysses S. Grant, seated on horseback at the center of the painting. Now, look at the distant hill; do you see a small structure on top? That is Confederate Fort Donelson, overlooking the Cumberland River in western Tennessee. On February 6, 1862, General Grant had led his men in a successful attack against neighboring Fort Henry, guarding the Tennessee River. He then turned his attention to Donelson, and for a number of days Union forces attacked the fort and the Confederates holed up inside. On the early morning of February 15, 1862, rebel soldiers launched a surprise attack against Grant’s forces, inflicting heavy casualties. As Union troops retreated, all seemed lost. But Grant refused to panic. He quickly reorganized his forces and launched a strong counterattack that sent enemy troops fleeing for their lives, giving the Union one of its most important victories of the early Civil War.

After the Civil War, Paul D. Philippoteaux, a French artist, painted this scene along with a number of panoramic images of major battles. Here he captures the wintry and desolate surroundings of Donelson. Notice the detailed treatment of wounded men lying near the fire in the foreground. Also note two African American men in the lower right hand corner, carrying a wounded soldier; at this stage of the war, thousands of escaped slaves had been hired to work as aids and orderlies for the Union army.

1. Panoramic images were designed to help the viewer feel as if he or she were present at the events. Though this is a small painting, how did the artist convey the action of battle? What tools and equipment of war did the artist show, and why?

2. The title of the painting includes General Grant’s name, but this is not a portrait, exactly. How did the artist capture Grant’s significance in such a broad, sweeping image?

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