Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Simka Simkhovitch's Mural

On June 21, 1911, the ocean liner Olympic, a sister ship of the Titanic, completed her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. The Olympic’s captain that day was Edward Smith, who would lose his life the next year at the helm of the Titanic. Unlike her sister ships in the White Star line, Olympic had a career which lasted until 1935, when larger and more luxurious ocean liners finally rendered her obsolete. After service as a troop ship in World War I, the Olympic (left) was again a popular cruise ship in the 1920s, attracting such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Prince Edward. One of the attractions of steaming on the Olympic, apparently, was the ship’s similarity to the Titanic, making an Olympic voyage a way of experiencing in some way the Titanic disaster (without actually sinking, of course). Not all passengers were among the rich and famous. The Olympic also carried thousands of immigrants to the land of opportunity. One such immigrant was Simka Simkhovitch, who arrived in New York on February 27, 1924.  At 31 years old, Simkhovitz was already an accomplished artist by the time he landed in New York. Within a few years after arriving in America, he established a solid reputation as a painter and was awarded numerous commissions.

The son a Jewish department store owner, Simka Faibusovich Simkhovitch was born in Russia in 1893.  When he was seven years old, he developed a severe case of measles and spent a year confined to his bed.  To pass the time, he made sketches of an old mill he could see from his bedroom window.  From this, he began to develop as an artist. At age fifteen, he went to the Odessa Art School and then to the Royal Academy at St. Petersburg, where at age twenty he was selected to teach drawing and painting at the academy. Simkhovitch, like many others, was swept up in the chaos of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Unlike many artists and intellectuals, however, he survived and continued his work as an artist under the new Soviet government, even receiving an award for a painting he did on a theme of the revolution. In 1924, Simkhovitch was sent to the United States to do research for illustrations in Soviet textbooks; almost immediately upon arrival in New York, Simkhovitch decided to stay and filled out the paperwork to become a U.S. citizen. In an interview for LIFE magazine in 1941, he cited an increasingly intolerant Soviet regime as the reason for his defection.*

When Simkhovitch arrived in New York, he could barely speak English, but soon landed a job as an illustrator for screenwriter Ernest Pascal, who wrote the screenplay for "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (starring Basil Rathbone), among other films. Pascal would later serve as president of the Screen Writers Guild. Impressed with Simkhovitch's work, Pascal introduced him to a gallery owner in New York City, who purchased and exhibited two of his paintings in 1927. He was an immediate sensation and commissions quickly followed. Simkhovitch's paintings, although utilizing the skills learned in Russia, were typically lighter when illustrating American themes. "My painting has become brighter in
the use of colors," the artist explained, "more cheerful in subject matter, and lighter in execution…To my students I emphasize the American scene as it presents itself in daily life.” In the 1930s, Simkhovitch moved to Connecticut with his wife Elsa (who was a model) and their three daughters. He established his studio in his home (above left) and continued to produce works by commission throughout the Great Depression. In 1936, Simka Simkhovitch was selected to paint a mural in an unlikely locale for a Russian Jewish immigrant: Jackson, Mississippi.

Simka Simkhovitch was selected by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department, a government entity similar to the Works Projects Administration, to paint a mural for the new Federal post office and courthouse in Jackson, built in 1933. The mural, to be located behind the judge's bench, was meant to depict typical scenes of Mississippi life. Among those competing for the commission was the celebrated and eccentric Mississippi artist Walter Anderson. When Anderson failed in his bid to secure the commission, he spiraled into fits of depression and spent the next few years in and out of mental institutions, including the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield. Simkhovitch was awarded the contract for the mural in November, 1936, and it was installed in January, 1938. At the time, the artist described the mural as "a representation of the typical people and life in Mississippi." For Simkhovitch, who had little, if any, experience in the South, depicting life in Mississippi must have been a challenge. What he produced was artistically pleasing but has in recent years been interpreted as racially insensitive and inappropriate. Titled "Pursuits of Life in Mississippi," the mural depicts black workers engaged in manual labor, including picking cotton, and playing a banjo, while whites are depicted in more professional and socially dominant roles. Within the context of the period and considering the artist’s limited exposure to Mississippi, however, the mural may well be an accurate depiction of Simkhovitch’s view of the state. Regardless, in modern times, the mural was covered by a curtain to hide the offending scenes. The 1933 courthouse has since been replaced by a modern Federal courthouse and the original building (above) is slated for rehabilitation.

The following year, Simkhovitch won another commission in the South, this time for a Post Office mural in Beaufort, North Carolina. After selection by the Public Buildings Administration, Simkhovitch spent a few days in Beaufort and then returned to Connecticut to paint the four panels, for which he was paid $1,900. The main panel depicts a tragic incident in 1886 involving the schooner Crissie Wright. During a winter storm, the boat was driven onto the shoals off the coast of Beaufort. With the storm unleashing its fury, it was impossible to send a rescue party until the next day, when the rescuers found four of the six crewmen frozen to death. The two survivors died after being brought to shore. Today, some “old-timers” in Beaufort still refer to extremely cold and windy days as a "Crissie Wright day." The Cape Lookout lighthouse, built in 1859 and now part of the National Park Service, is depicted on another of the panels. 

In February, 1949, Simkhovitch purchased a home in Milford, Connecticut. The property included a barn which was to serve as the artist’s studio. In an interview, Simkhovitch remarked that the Connecticut countryside reminded him of his native Russia. Tragically, he never had the opportunity to enjoy his new home. While in the process of moving, Simka Simkhovitch developed pneumonia and died two weeks later on February 25, 1949. He was 56 years old. Since his death, Simkhovitch’s work has continued to be appreciated by art collectors and his paintings are included in numerous museums, including the National Museum in Krakow, Poland, and the Whitney Museum in New York. Elsa Simkhovitch (seen here in a portrait by her husband) remained in the family’s Milford, Connecticut residence until her death in 1966. A daughter, Sonja Simkhovitch Carroll, promoted her father’s artistic legacy throughout her life. She died in June 2013.

* The December 1941 Life magazine issue also included the magazine’s first photographs from the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

(1) RMS Olympic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Olympic
(2) Simkhovitch: http://books.google.com (December 29, 1941 LIFE Magazine)
(3) Studio: http://books.google.com (December 29, 1941 LIFE Magazine)
(4) "The Picinic": http://americangallery.wordpress.com
(5) Jackson mural: https://www.flickr.com/groups/pomurals/pool/with/8068935176/lightbox
(6) Eastland Courthouse: http://www.apps.mdah.ms.gov
(7) Beaufort mural: http://beaufortartist.blogspot.com
(8) Elsa Simkhovitch: http://americangallery.wordpress.com

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"A most unfortunate collision": The Sinking of the Steamboat Horizon

On the night of April 30-May 1, 1863, Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant began moving his army across the Mississippi River at a place called Bruinsburg, located between Rodney and Grand Gulf. Grant had been stymied in his effort thus far to cross the river onto Mississippi soil. The most recent effort to effect a landing had been at Grand Gulf. Unfortunately for the Union navy, there were Confederate batteries posted at Grand Gulf which could not be silenced by Admiral David Dixon Porter’s “city class” ironclads and Grant was forced to look further south for a suitable landing. He found one at Bruinsburg, where a black informant reported that there were good roads and no Confederates. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee began crossing in the early hours of April 30 and by that afternoon had more than 20,000 men ashore. 

By May 7, with the addition of Sherman's XV Corps, Grant would have approximately 33,000 troops available for the final phase of the campaign to capture fortress Vicksburg. With the successful amphibious landing at Bruinsburg, Grant felt a great sense of relief. "I was now in the enemy's country," he wrote in his post-war memoirs, "with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the River with the enemy. All of the campaigns, labors, hardships and exposures from the month of December previous to this time that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishment of this one object." The amphibious operation conducted by Porter and Grant, the largest by any American force until the November 1942 landings in North Africa during WWII, had been a complete success. Almost.

With any complicated military operation, some mix-up or accident is likely to occur. And so it was on May 1, 1863, when two steamboats, the Horizon and the Moderator, collided. Both were involved in ferrying troops and equipment to the shore and were running without lights on a moonless night to avoid detection. Originally named the John C. Fremont, the Horizon was built in 1854 for Capt. Jackman T. Stockdale of Georgetown, Pennsylvania, who owned a number of commercial steamboats. In 1861, the Horizon entered military service under contract with the Union army and was at Pittsburg Landing during the battle of Shiloh before moving to the Cumberland River to help with sick and wounded soldiers. On April 22, 1863, the Horizon, Moderator and four other steamboats were selected to run past Vicksburg's batteries. Just six days earlier, Admiral Porter’s river fleet managed the same feat with the loss of just one transport. Unlike the first attempt, however, none of the steamboats were armed and the boats’ crews were soldiers and not naval personnel (as this was an army operation). The result was decidedly less successful. This time, the Tigress was sunk by Confederate cannoneers, while the Empire City was completely disabled and the Moderator was badly damaged. Only the J.W. Cheesman, Anglo-Saxon and Horizon escaped without serious damage. Still, most of the steamboats made it below Vicksburg with much-needed supplies for Grant’s army and, more importantly, were available to help move the army across the river. 

At about 3:00 a.m. on May 1, the Horizon was en route toward the east bank of the Mississippi when she collided with the Moderator. Like the Horizon, the Moderator had been built as a commercial steamboat but was now under contract to the Union army. After use on the Ohio River as a supply vessel in 1862, she was purchased by Capt. O.C. Williamson and participated in operations on the Mississippi. Both Williamson and Richard Calhoon, who was likely the pilot for the Horizon, were experienced pilots. However, the Moderator was still damaged from the action on April 22 and was very difficult to manage, especially without lights. On board the Horizon were the men, guns and horses of Battery G, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery, commanded by Captain Frederick Sparrestrom. Also known as Stolbrand's Battery, the unit included a number of men of Swedish origin. Although the Moderator was already a wounded vessel, it was the Horizon which sank in the collision. * As a result, virtually all of the battery's guns and equipment were lost, including all but thirteen horses and six mules. More importantly, two privates, Francis Linderbeck and Nicholas Carlson - both Swedish immigrants - drowned in the black, swirling waters of the Mississippi. Linderbeck, from Chicago, had enlisted with the unit in August, 1861. Carlson was a later recruit, joining the battery on New Year's Day in 1862. According to Samuel J. Churchill, who would be awarded a Medal of Honor for action at Nashville in 1864, the loss of life could have been much greater. "We had a very narrow escape from being drowned," he wrote. "We lost all our guns, nearly all of our horses (except what broke away and swam out); but all our battery was saved except two men, who were in the stern of the boat with the horses and could not get out." Churchill, seen here (above left) in a postwar photograph, died in 1932.

Another member of the battery, Sgt. Edward Webster, managed to save the captain’s horse (named “Sam”) and a couple of other horses and mules, but lamented that the men lost everything else. “Men had knapsacks with blankets & overcoats strapped to gun carriages & wagons so they saved only what they had on at the time,” he wrote. “I called roll from memory – an anxious roll call.” Sgt. Webster, a schoolteacher from Belvidere, Illinois, before the war, also reported that the survivors found themselves on a “low wet piece of ground, with a wide strong current between us and the levee.” Despite the danger, Webster bravely swam to shore to report the disaster to headquarters on the Louisiana side of the river. There, he managed to secure a wagon loaded with “chickens, pigs, beef, preserves, &c, &c.” to relieve the suffering of his men. The same day, firing could be heard from the opposite shore, signaling the battle of Port Gibson. The soldiers of Battery G remained stranded on the little island in the Mississippi River for another day before being rescued. Sgt. Edward Webster (right), a native of Ohio, was promoted to 1st Lieutenant in March 1864 before being transferred to the 4th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. He died in 1918 and is buried at Arlington Cemetery. 

Aside from the loss of men and horses, the wreck messed up the timetable for the river crossing. Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, commanding the XVII Corps, of which Battery G was a part, called the steamboat accident "a most unfortunate collision" which "delayed very materially the embarkation of the Second Brigade and the remainder of the artillery of the Third Division." Indeed, Logan's division was delayed in getting across the river because of the collision. For Battery G, the delay would be much longer: because all of their equipment, including knapsacks, tents and, of course, their guns and caissons had been lost, the men had to go all the way back to Memphis by a circuitous route to be refitted and given new equipment, a move which did not begin until May 13, when they departed from Milliken’s Bend aboard another steamboat. They would not return to Mississippi until a few days before the end of the Vicksburg siege. Despite not participating in the siege for more than a couple of days, there is a monument to the battery detailing the sinking of the Horizon and the loss of the two men. The monument is located just outside the Vicksburg National Military Park along the old Jackson Road east of the monument to Gen. John Logan. Captain Sparrestrom, meanwhile, was reassigned and served with another artillery battery from Illinois throughout the siege. 

In late May, Lt. Commander Elias K. Owen, who would lead an amphibious expedition up the Yazoo River in February 1864, was given the task of recovering what he could from the wreck of the Horizon. According to Owen (right), Confederate guerrillas had already raided the vessel and had removed flour, saddles and other items. On May 27, Owen wrote from aboard the USS Louisville that he had only succeeded in recovering three gun carriages due to "the stench arising from 60 dead horses and men [which] made my officers and men sick." To attempt another recovery, Owen reported that the post commander at Grand a Gulf would "send some negroes down with me" to cut away the roof of the Horizon and allow the dead bodies to drift out and allow fresh water in, thus allowing divers to secure, if possible, the unit's artillery pieces. Interestingly, the divers used in the recovery operation were also black. On June 5, Owen reported that after the roof had been burned off, the boat had shifted and that he was "led to believe the guns slipped off the deck." After using probes, all that was found were the dead horses and caissons. The bodies of privates Linderbeck and Carlson were recovered, however, and buried in the vicinity. Presumably, the battery’s four 6-pound James Rifles were never located and the burial places of the two soldiers are unknown.

The sinking of the Horizon on May 1, 1863, is just a footnote in the much larger story of the Vicksburg Campaign, but it was certainly a significant event in the history of Battery G, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery. It was also a tragic day for the families of Nicholas Carlson and Francis Linderbeck, two young immigrants who lost their lives in the service of their adopted country.

 For more information on the history of Battery G, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery, please visit http://www.batteryg.org/batteryg/history/BattGhom.html

* The Moderator was repaired and continued in service until January 1864 when she was lost in the iced-over waters of the Mississippi at St. Louis.The owners of the Horizon, meanwhile, sought payment from the U.S. government after the war for the loss of the steamboat but apparently never received any compensation.

(1) Map: http://www.loc.gov
(2) Grant: http://www.civilwar-online.com
(3) Steamboats at Pittsburg Landing: http://patrickgwhalen.com
(4) Churchill: http://www.findagrave.com
(5) Webster: http://www.ebay.com
(6) Monument: http://www.nps.gov
(7) Owen: http://www.nps.gov