Sunday, July 7, 2013

Civil War stamps for 1863--that is to say, 2013

I've been absent from the blog for over six months, mostly due to a mild case of exhaustion--not fatigue or burnout, just an accumulated period of sleep deprivation.  I'm all rested now, I've made some permanent changes to my schedule and one thing I missed blogging about back in May when it was news was the release of this year's Civil War stamps.  Every year during the sesquicentennial the Postal Service issues two stamps, each commemorating a key military event from 150 years earlier.  The 2013 stamps commemorate, inevitably, the siege of Vicksburg and the battle of Gettysburg, the twinned events that turned the course of the war toward Union victory during the first week of July 1863.  The Vicksburg stamp is taken from a Currier and Ives print published while the seige was still ongoing; the Gettysburg stamp is from an 1887 painting of the battle done by our old friend Thure de Thurlstrup, whose painting of the battle of Antietam was the basis for one of last year's stamps and who also painted "Sheridan's Ride." 

The specific event portrayed by Currier and Ives was summed up in the caption they gave their engraving:  "Admiral Porter's Fleet Running the Rebel Blockade of the Mississippi at Vicksburg, April 16, 1863."  Here's the original, via the Naval Historical Center:

The script under the headline caption gives these details:
"At half past ten P.M. the boats left their moorings & steamed down the river, the Benton, Admiral Porter, taking the lead -- as they approached the point opposite the town, a terrible concentrated fire of the centre, upper and lower batteries, both water and bluff, was directed upon the channel, which here ran within one hundred yards of the shore. At the same moment innumerable floats of turpentine and other combustible materials were set ablaze. In the face of all this fire, the boats made their way with but little loss except the transport Henry Clay which was set on fire & sunk."
Fun fact to know and tell:  Admiral David Dixon Porter was the brother by adoption of Admiral David Farragut, whose capture of New Orleans was depicted on one of last year's stamps

The Thurlstrup painting upon which the Gettysburg stamp is based depicts a moment of Pickett's Charge, perhaps the climax of the whole war.  Specifically, it shows General Winfield Hancock overseeing the devastating Union defense against the charge.  Thurlstrup had been commissioned to paint twelve Civil War battles by L. Prang and Company, the commercial printer who popularized the Christmas card.  Prang paid for careful research, and preliminary sketches were vetted by survivors of each battle depicted. 

Thurlstrup's (or perhaps Prang's) title for the painting was "Hancock at Gettysburg," though today it's more often called simply "Battle of Gettysburg."  A further indication of how much Hancock's Civil War fame has faded is that the Library of Congress makes a rookie error in its listing for this painting:
Shows Major General George Hancock leading the attack popularly known as "Pickett's Charge."
"George" is Pickett's first name, not Hancock's.  And of course Hancock is not leading the charge, he's defending against it.

One other thing:  I want to stress just how great this whole series of stamps is.  Compare them with two other Gettysburg commemoratives.

The one to the left was issued in 1963 as part of the Civil War Centennial.  Nothing wrong with it, of course, but it doesn't even attempt the richness of historical detail or the sheer  gorgeousness of  the stamps we're getting now.  It is, however, miles above the cheesiness of what they issued in 1995, shown on the right.  This one purports also to show Pickett's Charge, but except for the stone wall it could almost be any generic Civil War battle.  And, for crying out loud, Brenda Starr had better artwork. 

The art designer for the Civil War Sesquicentennial stamps is Phil Jordan, and if the budget sequester hasn't eliminated his contract, he should renegotiate for
more money.  I learn from the website for something called Knottywood Treasures that he was art director for Air and Space, the magazine of the Smithsonian Institute's Air and Space Museum, for fifteen years and has designed over 250 stamps for the USPS on a contract basis since 1991.  He designs a lot of air-and-space-related stamps, commemorating things like the first moon landing and classic American aircraft.  He also did the great Thornton Wilder stamp, which I'm inserting here because I find playwrights more interesting than airplanes.

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