John Elder’s Crater

This is probably the most famous painting of the Crater and it was completed in 1869 by John Elder. Elder was born in 1833 and studied under Daniel Huntington in New York. The painting was commissioned by William Mahone who is best remembered for leading the successful Confederate counterattack that resulted in the retaking of the salient on July 30, 1864. The Crater painting measures 38-by61 inches and hangs in the Westmoreland Club of Richmond. In addition to the painting of the Crater, Elder completed studies of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and a monument of a Confederate soldier that stands in downtown Alexandria, Virginia.

The content of the painting reflects the beginning of a radical transformation in the public memory surrounding the Crater fight. The painting was completed just as former Major General William Mahone and the “Hero of the Crater” was consolidating his various railroad lines into what became the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad. Consolidation was a divisive issue in the state legislature and among Virginians generally. An examination of his correspondence with Elder reveals that Mahone viewed the painting, in part, as a way to advance his business interests by reminding his fellow Virginians of his service in the war. One critic offered a colorful review: “The suspense in this . . . scene is fearful; and one dreads that the reinforcements will arrive to[o] late. But they are hurrying on. With their wild impulsive yell, so characteristic of the Southern army, regardless of rank or line, in double column, Mahone’s brigade comes pouring in.” The reference to “Mahone’s brigade” highlights Elder’s goal of concentrating specifically on his old Virginia brigade rather than on the entire division, which included brigades from Alabama and Georgia. This tendency to focus on Virginians at the expense of those outside the Old Dominion became a contentious issue among the former comrades by the 1880′s.

More interesting is the way in which United States Colored Troops are depicted. Any analysis of the racial references in Elder’s painting must be understood in the context of the noticeable inroads African Americans were making in state governments throughout the South by the end of the 1860’s.Black assertiveness was much more pronounced in the former capital of the Confederacy, as the delegates debated provisions for the disfranchisement of high-ranking rebels, the confiscation of rebel property, the structure of taxation, and the improvement and integration of public facilities. In addition to advancement within the political realm, Virginia’s black population openly celebrated Emancipation Day, July Fourth, the fall of Richmond (known as Evacuation Day), and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.Such public displays served only to remind white Southerners of their subjugation to “Yankee” rule.

The extent to which audiences viewed Elder’s painting through a political lens is difficult to gauge.Many, no doubt, simply saw the painting as an attempt to celebrate the heroism of the common soldier.This was the case for the reviewer of one Richmond newspaper who concluded that Elder had “admirably illustrated that distinguishing trait of the Southern soldier” who “paused not to count the odds, but rushed in forward to the conflict, where death stared him in the face.”While other painters concentrated on bringing to life scenes from the war that focused on Confederate generals, this reviewer praised Elder for drawing attention to the “heroism of the private soldier.

At least one reviewer understood Elder’s depiction of the Crater as more than an attempt to praise the fighting prowess of Mahone’s men, but “to rescue from oblivion one scene of our country’s glory, and to lift the veil which the conqueror has attempted to cast over our nation’s existence, and to show to posterity that, however ultimately defeated, it was only after a struggle worthy of our principles, when our half-starved, emaciated troops, in their tattered uniforms, could in the very jaws of death snatch the victory from the overwhelming numbers opposed to them.” By portraying black soldiers along with their “abolitionist” allies as either confused, killed in action, or about to be seriously harmed, Elder was able to draw in sharp contrast the growing racial division within Virginia between the white Southern population and the forced social change taking place through black political action. Elder’s depiction of Mahone’s charge could be interpreted as nothing less than a call to white Virginians to commit themselves to regaining control of the political field, which would be a first step to restructuring the social/racial hierarchy in a way that more closely reflected their antebellum world.

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