Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Scholar's Corner: Abraham Lincoln and Done Gone

On Saturday, June 28, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln received an unusual delivery. Norman Wiard sent a painting entitled Done Gone to the White House “for the inspection of President Lincoln, and to afford him a laugh.” Wiard later recalled thinking “its grim humor might enliven his careworn spirit if it was presented at the appropriate time, and I had the satisfaction to notice that the great man took great interest in it. He saw speaking points in it not before discovered, and took new hope from it, saying it was prophetic.”[1]

Wiard had purchased the painting from artist William M. Davis, of Long Island, New York. Davis was primarily a painter of landscapes and maritime themes, but in 1862, he received national recognition for three paintings based on the Civil War. In the spring of 1862, Done Gone, the second of the trio, portrayed the “miseries of expiring secessionism,” according to the New York Times.[2]  Edward Anthony of New York City produced photographic copies of Davis’s paintings in carte de visite size, and they sold widely for 25 cents each.

“Done Gone.” ca. 1862. Albumen print carte de visite. 
Part of the Library Company's Prints and Photographs collection

In the spring of 1862, it was easy for northerners to predict the end of the Confederacy. Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, within miles of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Many expected the war to be over in months; very few suspected the truth that it would last for three more years. Employing his trompe l’oeil style, Davis portrayed in Done Gone a series of objects to symbolize and illustrate the Confederacy’s demise. A frayed Confederate flag drapes a tombstone with the inscription “Hic Jacet Secesh” (Here lies Secesh). Around the tombstone are an empty demijohn labeled “Old Rye,” the “Act of Secession” puncturing a planter’s straw hat, a bare corn cob, a rusty Bowie knife, a bayonet as a candlestick with the wick fizzling out, a toe-less boot, a stump of a cigar, and a letter with the postscript, “Dear Alexander. Don’t forget to kill one Yankee for your affectionate Delilah.” On a couple of playing cards, the ace of spades (an oblique reference to African Americans) trumps King Cotton.

Norman Wiard was born in Canada and became an ordnance expert and inventor. In 1861, he provided the Union army with dozens of semi-steel cannon from a foundry in Pennsylvania. Wiard corresponded frequently with President Lincoln in the latter half of 1864 on political and military matters, but it is unclear whether he had met the President before taking Done Gone to the White House in June 1862. Lincoln’s sense of humor and appreciation for satire were well-known at the time, and Wiard clearly expected Davis’s painting to amuse the President. 

We have no letter from Lincoln reflecting on Done Gone, though one reminiscence reported that the President “could not conceive of its being a painting until he put his hand upon it.”[3] When Wiard donated the painting to the Grand Army of the Republic in 1869, he recalled a conversation with President Lincoln in 1864:  “the war had not ended, and the President seemed so much to enjoy [Done Gone], that I soon took occasion, in the presence of a mutual friend, to ask him to accept it as a present for the decoration of his private office, after he had ceased to be President. He said, ‘No;’ and added, ‘let me keep it here a while—it seems like a friend; and after the war is over, and secession is buried indeed, give it to some soldier who, in your opinion, has done most to put down the rebellion.’”[4]

As late as 1900, Davis’s original Done Gone painting seems to have been hanging at the Grand Army of the Republic’s departmental headquarters in Washington.[5] Unfortunately, whether it has survived and where it is remain a mystery. What has survived are a few of the photographic copies of the painting that held such hope in the spring and summer of 1862 for a speedy conclusion to the American Civil War.

Dr. Daniel W. Stowell
Director and Editor 
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln

[1] Robert B. Heath, History of the Grand Army of the Republic (New York: Bryan, Taylor & Co., 1889), 104.
[2] “The Neglected Picture,” New-York Times, 26 April 1862, 8:4.
[3] Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), 14 June 1896, 23.
[4] Beath, History of the Grand Army of the Republic, 104.
[5] Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), 7 July 1900, 17.

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