Saturday, December 17, 2016

Where is Fredericksburg painting stolen in 1862?

War-time sketch by Arthur Lumley shows Union soldiers looting  Fredericksburg on Dec. 12, 1862.
(Library of Congress collection)
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Nearly 23 years after he served at the front with the Army of the Potomac in Fredericksburg, Va., Thomas Burke -- "a man of warm heart and unquestioned courage" -- died of pneumonia at a hospital in Hartford, Conn. A captain in the 16th Connecticut,  Burke, renowned for dramatic escapes from Southern captivity during the war, also suffered from financial hardship at the end of his life.

War-time image of 16th Connecticut
Captain Thomas F. Burke.
"He had not the business turn that would give him success," the Hartford Courant reported April 18, 1885, in a front-page obituary for the 50-year-old veteran, "and he saw hard days which he took quietly and without complaint." Burke, a widower who had lost his wife in a boarding house fire 13 years earlier, was buried with military honors.

A frame-maker when he enlisted in August 1862, Burke apparently had a good eye for fine art. On the walls of his residence on Asylum Street in Hartford, he had "works that another man would have sold easily and at high prices," the Courant noted, "but very often remained with him some time and then went back to their former owners."

During the Civil War, Burke added at least one painting to his art collection.

After the bombardment of Fredericksburg by Federal artillery on Dec.11, 1862, the town was looted by Union army soldiers -- actions that fueled the long-lasting enmity of Confederate soldiers as well as citizens who lived in the town along the Rappahannock River. Soldiers, some under the influence of  "Demon Liquor," dragged pianos from houses and absconded with silverware, rare books and even fashionable women's clothing.

"One [of our] rooms was piled more than halfway to the ceiling with feathers from beds ripped open, every mirror had been run through with a bayonet, a panel of each door cut out, furniture nearly all broken up, the china broken to bits, and everything of value taken away," a Fredericksburg woman recalled.

Among items stolen was a beautiful oil painting called "The Saviour at the Garden of Gethsemane," which had hung in the house of a 62-year-old woman named Juliet Neale, one of Fredericksburg's leading citizens. The painting reportedly was given to her by a "distinguished French nobleman."

A wealthy divorcee who was a founding member of the war-time Relief Society, Neale also served as a nurse at  Belvoir, where Confederate wounded were treated at the First Battle of Fredericksburg. (Neale's house at 307 Caroline Street, used as a Federal hospital, still stands. See it here on Google Street View.)
Juliet Neale, whose painting was "obtained" by 16th Connecticut Captain Thomas Burke.
(Courtesy of Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center)
PRESENT-DAY: 307 Caroline Street, where Juliet Neale lived in 1862.
(Google Street View)
The soldier who made off  with the painting, of course, was none other than Burke himself -- a man who, according to his obituary, was known for his "ample and spontaneous" charity.

Burke's war-time service was full of hardship and derring-do: On Sept. 17, 1862, he escaped the bloodbath at Antietam, the regiment's first battle of the war, without physical injury. At Fredericksburg, the 16th Connecticut was held in reserve, seeing little action. Captured with most of the rest of the regiment at Plymouth, N.C., on April 20, 1864, he spent six months in Rebel prisons, in Macon, Ga., as well as in Columbia and Charleston, S.C.

Thomas Burke (right) in a war-time image.
(Photo: BZC)
Burke's POW experience included two escapes. Packed into a train en route from Columbia to Charleston, Burke and two other 16th Connecticut officers leaped from the open boxcars with the aim to return to Union lines. Subsisting on parched corn, the men were captured asleep in the woods six days later by a hunter, whose dogs guarded the escapees while he went for help.

Returned to a POW stockade in Columbia, Burke and two other 16th Connecticut officers escaped again on Nov. 3, 1864, "with only rags to cover them, and nothing for their journey." Noted an 1872 account:
"The night was dreary and rainy and the roads were very muddy, but, emaciated as they were by over six months confinement and exhausted with the labors of the day and with anxiety, they resolutely pushed on all night and the next day, carefully avoiding the habitations of men, and finding their subsistence in the fields they passed through."
Joining forces with other escapees, the fugitives made a perilous journey on a South Carolina river on two boats supplied by local blacks. With a supply of sweet potatoes, turnips and cornbread and the "benediction of the faithful negroes," the eight former POWs traveled for nine days through dangerous back country to the Atlantic Ocean. Three of the soldiers, including 16th Connecticut captains Timothy Robinson and Alfred Dickerson, finally rowed their leaky rowboat miles into the Atlantic to the Union blockader Canandaigua, whose crew was stunned to see them:
"To the officers and men it seemed as if the thunder of their own guns must have startled these fugitives from the caverns of the deep, so incredibly daring was the voyage upon the foaming sea with a boat so leaky and so frail, as hardly to withstand a zephyr, and orders were at once given to take it aboard and keep it as a token of what men would dare to do."
The remaining five men were rescued. All eight soldiers were given new uniforms -- their "tattered, vermin rags were thrown into the sea" -- and furloughs to visit home. Perhaps it was during his furlough that Burke admired his ill-gotten goods: the painting from Neale's house. It's unknown how the artwork got to Connecticut in the first place.

A 16th-century version of "The Saviour at the Garden of Gethsemane." The appearance 
of  Juliet Neale's version of this painting is unknown.
Burke had the painting in his possession until 1880, when he sold it or gave it to Charles H. Owen, a Hartford man who served as a major in the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery. (Wounded at Cold Harbor, Owen was discharged for disability from the Union army in December 1864.)

Perhaps suffering with a guilty conscience, Owen decided sometime early in the 20th century to return the purloined painting to its rightful owner. In a front-page story under the headline "Relic of the War" on Nov. 26, 1901, the Hartford Courant wrote about Owen's make-good effort:
"Correspondence with Fredericksburg has revealed that the painting was taken from the home of Mrs, Juliet A. Neale, who had bequeathed the house and its contents to her niece, Mrs. H. Mcd. Martin, who is living. Mrs. Martin remembers the picture well as it hung in the house of her aunt."
The painting, the newspaper wrote, had been "obtained" by Burke in Fredericksburg during the war. Adding a bit of mystery to the story, the Courant wrote that  "for a time [the painting] was mislaid and recently it was recovered."

On  Nov. 26, 1901, the Hartford Courant reported about
the discovery of a painting "obtained" by a
Connecticut officer in Fredericksburg in 1862.
A day after the Hartford newspaper's report, the Richmond (Va.) Dispatch picked up the story, describing the painting as "valuable" and a "beautiful picture." And days later, "The Saviour at the Garden of Gethsemane," albeit damagedfinally was returned to Neale's heir more than 39 years after it was stolen.

"Before it came into my hands it had been cut from the frame, rolled tight and cracked," Owen wrote in a letter to Neale's niece. "It has been oiled several times to preserve it, but experts say it can never be restored to its original appearance."

The story doesn't end here. Sadly, Juliet Neale's painting again is missing. While aware of the long-ago media coverage of its return to Virginia, Neale's historically-minded descendants in Fredericksburg are unaware of its current whereabouts.

Could it be in a Virginia museum, perhaps somewhere in the Fredericksburg area?  Was it donated to an historical society? Is it rolled up, crumbling and forgotten, in an attic or basement somewhere in Fredericksburg? Could it have been sold at a flea market to a buyer unaware of its rich history?  Perhaps readers can provide clues. Without details of the size or even content of the painting, the search could be fruitless. But we hope ...

We also wonder what Thomas Burke, the man who started this story, would think of it all. Perhaps his long-ago obituary in the Hartford Courant offers a hint:
"He would pinch himself to help a stranger and never would think twice of it. He will be singularly regretted by those who knew him well enough to understand the real man that lay somewhat hidden under a rather misleading exterior."

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Baltimore Sun, Nov. 27, 1901
-- Confederate Veteran, Vol.25, 1917, Page 534
-- Connecticut War Record, December 1864
-- Bristol (Conn.) Press, June 7, 1872
-- Fredericksburg Remembered -- Musings on history, public history, and historic Fredericksburg, "The Women of Fredericksburg Mobilize," Oct. 3, 2010 (blog accessed Dec. 17, 2016.)
-- Hartford Courant, Jan. 19, 1872, April 18, 1885, April 20, 1885, Nov. 26, 1901
-- Richmond Dispatch, Nov. 27, 1901
-- The Free Lance, Fredericksburg, Va., Nov. 30, 1901
-- 1860 U.S. census

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