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Art with 100 stories - Horrors of (local) war

June 01, 2008|By ELIZABETH JOHNS

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of profiles of artwork featured this October in the book and exhibition, "One Hundred Stories: Highlights from the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts."




The scene is inside a barn. Three men look cautiously out a sagging plank door in the back. Distant flames are visible through the door. Across the barn floor are men, women and children who have collapsed in exhaustion. At least one man is wounded.

This is "The Burning of Chambersburg," by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839-1924). The painting is at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Inspired by the horror of the burning of Chambersburg, Pa., by Confederate soldiers on July 30, 1864, Knight (1839-1924) painted not the drama of the flames, but the effect of the attack on citizens who had fled to a nearby farm for safety.

Whether the artist was actually in Chambersburg at the time is not certain, but he was a Pennsylvania native who had left his artistic studies in Paris in 1863 to fight for the Union during the Civil War. By 1867, when he painted this large picture, there was still a great deal of talk in Chambersburg about the experience.

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There are various accounts of the attack and burning, but they all contain these elements: Confederate troops under the leadership of Gen. John A. McCausland pushed north into Pennsylvania to retaliate against the Union after federal troops burned cities in the Shenandoah Valley. They threatened to burn Chambersburg to the ground unless the town paid a ransom of $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in U.S. currency.

Warned about the advance, most Chambersburg citizens, including the bankers with the contents of their vaults, refused to pay and fled to the countryside. The troops ignited the fires, which destroyed much of the central part of the town. The next day, the soldiers attacked Hancock with a similar strategy.

Knight returned to France in 1871. For the rest of his life, he painted idyllic gardens and peasant landscapes. He had apparently seen enough of war.

The painting is on display at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts and will be featured this October in the book and exhibition, "One Hundred Stories: Highlights from the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts."

Elizabeth Johns is a guest curator with the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. She is curating the museum's "One Hundred Stories" exhibit this fall.

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