Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Burning of Chambersburg by Daniel Ridgway Knight

The Burning of Chambersburg
Post by: Elizabeth Johns, PhD

The WCMFA currently has on view a landmark exhibition, "Valley of the Shadow," to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Gettysburg and other important regional events of the Civil War. The collections inventory project assisted in the planning of this exhibition by making searches of the collection database easier and documenting of loans more efficient.

Elizabeth Johns, PhD wrote about one of the WCMFA’s paintings that is one of the highlights of the exhibition – Daniel Ridgway Knight’s “The Burning of Chambersburg” of 1867.   

The Civil War inspired a number of images, many of them painted after the war. Included in the "Valley of the Shadow" exhibition is a painting by artist Daniel Ridgway Knight, an eyewitness to the devastating experience of the burning of the town of Chambersburg, Pa.

A Chambersburg citizen and a Union soldier, Knight decided to pay tribute to the Confederate burning of his city some two years after he had left the army and set up his studio in Philadelphia. He chose not to represent the violence itself, but the effects of it, with the result being a memorable history painting.

This dramatic painting depicts exhausted Chambersburg civilians who had fled for safety from their burning city in 1864. On July 28, Confederate Brig. Gen. John McCausland had demanded a ransom of $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in U.S. currency to save the city from being burned to the ground. However, the skeptical town leaders refused to pay it. So on July 30, Confederates fulfilled their threat, although some soldiers refused to participate, considering it to be barbaric.

Daniel Ridgway Knight was not only present at the conflagration but actually carried infant James A. Hamilton, a future local leader, to safety. He walked the 10 miles to Shippensburg, Pa., with the infant on his shoulders. In 1867, Knight, by this time settled in a studio in Philadelphia, painted this remembrance of the trauma experienced by Chambersburg residents, focusing on some who had fled to the countryside. In the painting, "The Burning of Chambersburg," exhausted refugees rest in the foreground of the barn interior, while three young men peer out the collapsing door at the flames in the distance. Knight later wrote a friend that he could remember every single house in the town.

Elizabeth Johns, PhD, who lives in Hagerstown, is professor emerita of art history from the University of Pennsylvania.


1 comment:

  1. Not many paintings come with such a vivid story!
    I've always especially loved the three figures peering out at the fire in the background.