Speaking Through Wood

Sammy Dalati Furniture & Decorative Arts

The Civil War has left its mark on two important pieces of vernacular furniture acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum

Fig. 1. Secretary-bookcase attributed to members of Connecticut’s 16th Infantry, made to honor brothers Wells (1845–1904) and John Bingham (1844 –1862), 1876. Walnut, oak, ebony, poplar, pine, maple, metal, glass, muslin, silk, bone, horn, abalone, and Seth Thomas movement; height 95 1⁄2, width 42, depth 19 3⁄4 inches. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connect­ icut, Douglas Tracy Smith and Dorothy Potter Smith Fund.

On the opening night of the January 2015 Winter Antiques Show, senior leadership, curators, and trustees from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art huddled excitedly in front of a towering secretary bookcase offered at the booth of Allan and Penny Katz. Made, according to family lore, by Civil War veterans, surviving members of Con- necticut’s 16th Infantry, to honor the brothers Wells and John Bingham of East Haddam, the piece brought the Wadsworth staff and trustees to immediate consensus: the Bingham secretary should return to Connecticut. It now stands in the museum’s American Decorative Arts galleries as a monument to the heroism and tragedy of the Civil War period (Fig. 1).

Not far from it stands another totem to that pivotal era in America’s development—a fall-front desk acquired from the Ricco-Maresca Gallery in 2012 that was made by William Howard, a former slave of the Kirkwood Plantation in Mississippi following his emancipation in 1865 (Fig. 2). Howard adorned the desk with a carved, pictographic assemblage of domestic and agricultural tools illustrating the grueling work of slaves on southern plantations (see Fig. 5).

Both pieces enhance the Wadsworth’s rich collection of artworks that relate to the Civil War, which range as widely as veteran Sanford Robinson Gifford’s A Passing Storm in the Adirondacks (Fig. 4) to Eliza Trask’s celebratory monument embedded with family daguerreotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes to commemorate the return of her husband Adoniram from the war (Fig. 6), and to Samuel Colt’s technologically advanced New Model pistols, carbines, and rifles, which gave Union soldiers an advantage over their Confederate counterparts at the front. In particular, the Bingham secretary-bookcase and Howard desk expand the museum’s ability to present more intimate narratives on the Civil War and Reconstruction while distinguishing art-making as a means of negotiating traumatic experiences by those who endured the conflict.

Fig. 3. Detail of the Bingham secretary, showing some of the applied ornament, including a star from the flag carried by the 16th Infantry at Antietam.

The eight-foot secretary is a folk art masterpiece constructed by marrying a bookcase and desk and ornamenting the whole with patriotic motoes  and emblems that were hand-carved from cow bone, horn, and abalone shell. Open the upper doors and a small music box plays the upbeat marching tune “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” A handwritten note mounted on the door opposite the music box transcribes the last four lines of Henry Clay Work’s popular song “The Little Major” (1862) and casts a gloomy shadow on the gaiety of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”: “Yet to die, by friends forsaken,/With his last request denied–/This he felt his keenest anguish,/When at morn, he gasp’d and died—.”

Crowning the cornice is a Seth Thomas movement draped with a chain that links to eight spires signifying Wells and John Bingham and their six blood and step brothers who also fought in the Civil War.1 A small plaque at the center is inscribed “Presented to Wells A. Bingham by his friends. The secretary a remembrance of his brother John F. Bingham who offered up his life at Antietam, Maryland Sept. 17, 1862. The encased star a remnant of the colors carried that day by the 16th Infantry. The memory plaque made from a shard of his knife. July 4, 1876.”

Tragically, only three weeks after his enlistment, John Bingham, aged seventeen, had perished at the Battle of Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. His brother Wells survived the war but likely suffered from what we now identify as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and many years later took his own life.

William Howard’s fall-front desk is derived from high-end Empire style furniture, which he may have observed in the plantation home of his master, William McWillie (1795–1869), or even in the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson, where McWillie served a term from 1857 to 1859. Indeed, the Governor’s Mansion possessed an elegant suite of Empire style furniture (which remains there today), from which Howard may have appropriated such features as the saber legs or the secrétaire à abattant form.Howard’s adap- tation of these Empire design elements cloaked in a pictographic skin illustrating slaves’ work effectively broke down traditional hierarchies of access and ownership to elite goods in the nineteenth century. The hybridized form expresses his liberation from slavery in the way it manipulates the design to reflect personal experience and his community.

Both the Howard desk and the Bingham secretary are ingeniously crafted to manifest their makers’ observations, utilizing visual and textual codes to communicate their narratives. The symbolism on these desks suggests a sense of membership within the  communities in or for which they were made and an understanding of the afflic- tions endured by those to whom they belonged. But the makers’ dialects are distinctly different. The Howard desk speaks through a metaphoric storyboard of tools known intimately by slaves, while the textual inscriptions, commemorative tone, and Civil War relics on the Bingham secretary proclaim the country’s military strength as a device of cultural and political unity. On it stars, swags, fans, and Latin mottoes dangle like medals on the uniforms of Civil War veterans. Latin mottoes adorning it praise the veterans: “ANNUIT COEPTIS” (He [that is, God] has approved of our undertakings), “in VINDICIAM LIBERTATUS” (In defense of liberty or For the restoration of liberty), and “E PLURIBUS UNUM” (Out of many, one).3 The mottoes celebrate the sacrifices of Connecticut’s 16th Infantry, but also connect to a wider audience by evoking patriotic slogans that appear on the national seal and would have been well known to many during the Centennial celebrations of 1876, the year the secretary-bookcase was made.

By contrast,William Howard’s choice not to include written words signals a connection to the oral traditions within the African-American community of the nineteenth century, when illiteracy was widespread. Amidst their oppression, slaves found more clandestine means of communication through storytelling, music, and codes within visual imagery. Pictographic scenes on quilts,  pottery, furniture, and other decorative arts accompanied oral recitations of folklore or lyrics.4 The material culture produced by African-American slaves served as storyboards for family histories, cultural perseverance, and spirituality. On the desk washboards, goffering irons, scissors, cutlery, and pitchers suggest an understanding of the domestic slaves that dressed and fed the plantation’s master, mistress, and their family. Picks, axes, shovels, water buckets, and oxen yokes give voice to the grueling hardships of the field slaves. The placement of a pistol in the center has led many to wonder what Howard’s narrative intention was. Could it be a statement on violence in the American South during the antebellum and Civil War periods, or does it simply relate to other tools made and repaired in a blacksmith’s shop, such as the anvil, anchors, slave tags, and agricultural apparatuses depicted around it?

The vernacular narratives of the Howard and Bingham desks offer an intimate look at the development of America during the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras and prompt a stimulating dialogue with the Wadsworth’s other holdings of nineteenth-century fine and folk art.

Fig. 4. A Passing Storm in the Adirondacks by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880), dated 1866. Oil on canvas, 37 1⁄2 by 54 inches. Wads­ worth Atheneum Museum of Art, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt Collection.

Fig. 5. Detail of the Howard desk.

Fig. 6. Parlor Memorial by Eliza Trask (1834 – 1919), Nobleboro, Maine, after 1865–1870. Cherry, seashells, mastic, daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes; height 50 3⁄4, width 15, depth 15 1⁄2 inches. Atheneum Museum of Art, gift of H. Carl Cramer,  by exchange.

ALYCE PERRY ENGLUNDformerly the Richard Koopman Associate Curator of American Decorative Art at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, is now the assistant curator of American Decorative Arts in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.