Earlier in the fall we removed from the American Galleries an imposing marble bust of John C. Calhoun. On my instructions Chief Conservator Bill Brown carefully removed a layer of acrylic paint, powdered talc, and wax that had been applied 20 years ago to mask unsightly yellowish stains covering much of the sculpture’s surface. Stripped of their makeup, the stern features of Calhoun are undeniably blemished. Rather than restore the cosmetic, we recently returned the bust to its pedestal in order to pose the question: what happened? How did this bust of pure white marble become so damaged?
The answer—only recently discovered—leads to an astonishing tale from the Civil War.
When Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina sat for this portrait bust in 1835, he was at the height of his power as the fiery “apostle of States’ Rights.” Following the convention of the time, sculptor Hiram Powers presents Calhoun in the timeless robes of a Roman statesman—in contrast to the drab contemporary garb of senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, standing at right. The artist modeled the portrait in clay, from which he made a mold and a plaster cast. The cast would serve as the template for future marble replicas.
By the late 1850s, Powers was long established in Florence, where his studio was a required destination for every American tourist. One visitor was Wharton Jackson Green, a North Carolina planter then on an extended honeymoon. In the studio Green spotted the plaster cast of the Calhoun bust. A devoted admirer of the late senator, Green immediately ordered a marble version for his plantation home in Warren County.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Green was hot to get into the fight and dreamed of being the colonel of his own regiment. However, to win the commission, he would need 600 rifles to equip his troops. To obtain the rifles from the state’s armory, he needed to curry favor with the governor. So Green hatched a scheme that centered on—I kid you not—the loudly publicized donation of the Calhoun bust to the State of North Carolina. As ludicrous as it sounds, Green’s plan worked. With fulsome oratory the bust of Calhoun was installed in the Senate Chamber of the State Capitol, and the next day a grateful governor authorized the release of the rifles. (Alas for Green, the governor died shortly afterward, and his successor gave the rifles to another aspiring colonel.)
Fast forward to April 1865. The Confederacy had collapsed. Union troops under Gen. Sherman had moved into Raleigh. During the first chaotic days of occupation, someone, almost certainly a rogue Union soldier, wandered through the ransacked Capitol and found opportunity to vent his anger. Not long afterward an army surgeon toured the building. As he walked into the Senate Chamber, something caught his eye:
On a shelf behind the speaker’s desk, was a marble bust, on the base of which in relief were the words “John C. Calhoun.” Poised on its crown was an inverted inkstand, whose contents had descended in copious streams over the face. The marks of a brush or cloth charged with the same fluid, had still more besmutted the features. Under the name, in pencil, was written this explanatory clause. “Yes, father of Secessionism.”
This final act of violation gives the story of this bust a peculiar symmetry. At the beginning of North Carolina’s rebellion, this marble bust of the “father of Secessionism” was received with high ceremony into the State Capitol. And at the very end of the rebellion, this same bust was just as ceremonially desecrated, the stern features of the implacable defender of slavery “besmutted”—and quite possibly deliberately blackfaced. Degrading a proud southerner to a minstrel character would have been an outrageously satisfying prank for a northern soldier exhausted by years of war.
Despite early efforts to clean away the ink, the effects of the long-ago vandalism remain. Instead of masking the damage, we have elected to reveal it in all its unsightly splendor, the better to tell a remarkable story. The full story of the Calhoun bust is told in the winter issue of Southern Cultures, available in many bookstores and news outlets and online, along with a related video.
Hiram Powers, John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), originally modeled 1835, carved 1859, marble, H. 29 ½ in., Presented to the State of North Carolina by Wharton Jackson Green, 1861; transferred to the North Carolina Museum of Art, 1956
Lieut. Col. Wharton J. Green, n.d., handcolored photograph (proof sheet from Clark, Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861–’65, vol. 4, 1901, opp. 243). North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh (H.19XX.332.212).
J.A. Mowris, A History of the One Hundred and Seventeenth Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers, (Fourth Oneida), Hartford, 1866, 210. Full text.