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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of 2014: Painting of Civil War Farriers Adds Aesthetic Dimension to History, Horseshoeing





I just stared at in disbelief. It was beautiful. It looked accurate. And it depicted something that, to the best of my knowledge,  had never been painted before. And if it has been painted before, it was never painted so carefully and so artistically. Even the details of the forge wagon look correct.

I was staring at Booth Malone’s painting, “Farriers on the Peninsula, 1862”. I shook my head as I read that it had been on exhibit at the Kentucky Horse Park earlier this year. And I didn’t know it. It won Best of Show. No surprise there.
And it’s for sale. No doubt some reader or friend of a reader or friend of a friend of a reader will be as intrigued as I was by this original work of art and be able to purchase it and give it a good home. I hope it is someplace where I will be able to see it someday.
“Farriers on the Peninsula, 1862” needs and deserves some explanations, and I hope you find them interesting. I was lucky to be able to interview Booth for this article.
Farriers on the Peninsula, 1862 by Georgia equestrian artist Booth Malone won the “Best in Show” award at the American Academy of Equine Art's “Shades of Blue and Gray, The Horse in the Civil War” show at the Kentucky Horse Park this fall. (Cropped from full painting)(image © Booth Malone)

The artist
Booth Malone is a familiar name to anyone who is interested in American equestrian art. His paintings often grace the cover of the Chronicle of the Horse, and his work is well-represented in collections and exhibitions. Frequent subjects are eventing, foxhunting, Thoroughbred racing and polo. He is director of painting for the American Academy of Equine Art (AAEA) and he was instrumental in steering the association toward a specially-themed show this year on horses in the US Civil War.
Booth’s own interest in the Civil War stems from his desire to learn more about his great-grandfather, who enlisted as a drummer boy in the Third Alabama Regiment at the age of 17; he advanced to become a sharpshooter. Although wounded, he returned home to live a long life, which apparently included a lot of storytelling about his war days; his stories still resonate with his family. Booth is working on a historical novel about the Third Alabama Regiment, to be called “The Fortunate Sons”.
One of Booth’s special interests in painting is moving subjects, which makes the horse so ideal for him. But he is also interested in painting farriers, and has an edition of prints of his painting of former Kentucky Horse Park farrier Harlan Pennington.

This illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, published March 14, 1863, is one of the few illustrations or photos from the Civil War showing men in uniform shoeing horses. Notice the forge wagon billowing smoke in the background. Were the uniforms added by the artist?

Civil War farriers
Booth Malone’s interest in the Civil War and penchant for painting farriers naturally made him curious about who was shoeing the horses during the War and how they did it. Very few photographs of farriers on either side of the War exist.
The painting has many details to ponder and whoever buys it will have many interesting stories to tell about it. The first and most important detail is that it is not obvious whether the horseshoeing camp is servicing horses of the Confederate or Union forces. Both sides employed civilians to shoe horses and even enlisted horseshoers were not likely to wear uniform jackets while working.
Booth insists that the peaked "forage cap" of the African American man in the right foreground is accurate. It is dark blue, which suggests the Union forces, but he contends that a dark peaked cap would have been worn by workers on either side.
Freed African-American horseshoers and wheelwrights built the shop at New Bern, North Carolina and offered their services to the Union military forces. You can read about them in "Brief report of the services rendered by the freed people to the United States Army in North Carolina in the spring of 1862 after the battle of Newbern" by Vincent Colyer. Image courtesy of New York Public Library.
The horse in the foreground of Booth Malone's painting portrays an officer’s mount; Booth picked out a horse that is actually in the background of one of the few Library of Congress farrier photographs available for study, and moved it to a more prominent place in the foreground. It is held proudly by its groom, who is staring straight at the viewer of the painting. Neither Booth nor I could come with a reason why the horse’s tail is knotted, unless it is in preparation for shoeing to spare the horseshoer from a swishing tail, although a thwack! with a mud knot can hurt! The tails on other horses in the painting are not knotted.
Sharing the groom’s stare at the viewer is a skinny red mongrel dog. Booth said the dog was added almost as an afterthought, but he fills in a good detail; many regiments had dogs for mascots and no doubt the war created many stray dogs, as well. Any dog would gravitate to the horseshoeing area of a military camp, since dogs would know that a meal of hoof trimmings might be had there.
When I mentioned the trimmings aspect of the dog’s presence, Booth agreed. “Now I wish I’d put a hoof trimming in his mouth,” he chuckled.
The picket line of horses at the left of the painting may be an actual picket line, or it may be a line of horses or mules waiting to be shod.

The forge
After the fine officer’s horse, the forge wagon and anvil are the center of interest of the painting. The detail of the forge appears very much according to detail and the limber fore-axle is shown, as well. Booth would prefer that it be called a "field forge". I have seen both names used. These wheeled forges (by any name) have enjoyed quite a revival in recent years and can be built from plans; thanks goes to Civil War re-enacters and museums for some hard work in documenting their construction and use.
The anvil is positioned quite low, and Malone has painted the farrier's face in the shadow--is he an African-American too? (Booth says he is not.) He is watching the farrier on the right working on a hind foot and is in turn being watched by the red-shirted farrier, who has his hands on his hips as if he is giving orders or instruction to the farrier at the anvil. All three men in that part of the painting are wearing aprons and dark forage caps.
And what about the bellows? In civilian life, an apprentice would be on hand for that job but Booth thinks that the farrier at the anvil would have been able to do his work and pump the bellows himself, based on his observations of Harlan Pennington and his forge wagon.
The Peninsula Campaign
“The Peninsula” in the painting’s title refers to a series of battles in 1862 in an area of land that extends southeastward from near Richmond, Virginia toward the sea near Norfolk. The peninsula is bordered by the York and Rappahannock Rivers on the north and by the James River on the south and includes the historic region around Williamsburg.
It was a spring-to-summer campaign, launched when 100,000 Union troops, led by Major General George B. McClellan, invaded Virginia via the Peninsula. When General Joe Johnston of the Confederacy was wounded during the Battle of Seven Pines in this campaign, leadership of his forces was passed to Confederate Army Chief of Staff General Robert E. Lee, who maintained direct command for the remainder of the war, and forced the Union troops to withdraw from the Peninsula three weeks later. The Confederates succeeded in preventing McClellan from capturing their capital city of Richmond, but it was close.
Booth titled his painting so that it is connected to the series of battles on the Peninsula but that is his artistic license and there is no direct tie or evidence linking it to that particular event.

This illustration from Harper’s Weekly shows how farriers in the war might have converted the traditional three-man forge team from a shoeing shop to the battlefield. The fireman works the bellows (left, standing), the farrier is still at the anvil, and the floorman is under the horse. Note that the man shoeing the horse appears to be an African-American. Were these farriers from the Union or the Confederacy?


North or South?

What details we have from the Civil War are larged based on textual records and the photographs of Matthew Brady and other photographers who were sent to the war by Lincoln and the War Department in Washington. The Confederate farriers are left to our imaginations, based on what little text description survives. We do know from the research published previously on this blog about the slave "Negro Ellick", that slaves did work within the Confederate army system shoeing horses.

With any luck, this painting will find a good home and this article may get it in front of more people so that more interest can be raised in the horses and horseshoeing of the US Civil War. If either or both of those things happen, it will be “mission accomplished” and should inspire Booth Malone to get to work painting another Civil War farrier scene.

Painting details: Title: Farriers on the Peninsula, 1862 by Booth Malone Medium: Oil Price: $7,000 Size: 32 x 40
For more information about purchasing the painting, please email Booth Malone. Visit his website to see more horse paintings. 


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