City's siege, on canvas: Artist's Charleston scenes coming to Gibbes

Zinnia Willits, director of collections administration at the Gibbes Museum of Art, inspects "Quaker Battery," one of 31 Conrad Wise Chapman paintings of Charleston during the Civil War. Chapman's series of Charleston work is being exhibited in Charleston for the first time.

Conrad Wise Chapman was enchanted by the Holy City.

When he arrived here in September of 1863, the 21-year-old Confederate soldier not only saw a city devastated by fire and enemy shelling, the young artist could picture what it had been like before the horrors of the Civil War.

"Charleston must have been a delightful place in time of peace, but the streets are deserted, the houses tenantless, some have been turned into barracks by troops in the city, and many are occupied by officers of different commands," Chapman wrote in a letter to his parents.

"The citizens are glad to let any one have their houses who will take care of them."

By that time, Chapman thought he had seen it all. He had been shot in the head at the Battle of Shiloh but miraculously survived, then trudged through the western theater of the war before landing in his beloved Virginia.

In the late summer of 1863, his company was sent south to assist in the defense of Charleston, and it was an order that would change his life.

Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard's chief of staff quickly plucked Chapman from his boring duties guarding the Stono River at Adam's Run. He was ordered to draw pictures of weaponry for Confederate brass in Richmond, a thankless but easy job.

Soon, Beauregard dreamed up a new assignment for the young man, son of the famous 19th century artist John Gadsby Chapman.

So on Sept. 16, Chapman boarded a ferry to Sullivan's Island to make a sketch of Fort Moultrie. The idea was for him to document the heroic defense of the city for posterity.

Over the course of the next several months, the young man -- defiantly Southern, brilliantly talented -- would wander the city and surrounding environs, creating a series of 31 paintings of Charleston at war that would cement his reputation and illustrate life in a city under siege that is unmatched in detail.

Today, the entire series -- including Chapman's famous portrait of the H.L. Hunley -- goes on display at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

It is the first time the collection has ever been shown in the city.

Narrow escape

This week, Greg Jenkins and Zinnia Willits stood in the Gibbes rotunda and began the slow and meticulous work of unpacking the Chapman collection from a custom-built crate.

Jenkins, director of operations for the museum, and Willits, director of collections administration, were awestruck. They marveled at the tiny paintings, at what Chapman could do on canvases barely more than a foot square.

"There is an amazing amount of detail in them," Willits said. "It's quite stirring to get a sense of what was going on here, to see what it looked like."

The collection has been owned by the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond for more than a century, soon after the Chapman family, which had fallen on hard times, sold it for $1,500 (the 2011 equivalent of $38,780).

Angela Mack, executive director at the Gibbes, contacted the Museum of the Confederacy about a showing at the suggestion of a friend. She got her first look at the paintings as Jenkins and Willits laid out the exhibit.

"It really gives you an interesting look at the scenery in Charleston at that time," Mack said. "What better place to show them than where they were painted?"

Chapman became the premier artist of the Confederacy on the strength of these paintings. No doubt he had talent, but his good fortune was in part the result of being in the right place at the right time.

He had been born in Washington, D.C., in 1842 while his father was working on a painting for the U.S. Capitol's rotunda. From there the family moved to New York City. When he was 8, the Chapmans departed for Europe, and he lived in Paris and Florence before the family settled in Rome.

There he began an apprenticeship under his father, where he and his brother learned to paint. Although he had never lived there, Conrad Wise Chapman held his father's native Virginia close to his heart.

When the South seceded and war began, 19-year-old Chapman slipped away to join the Confederacy, much to the distress of his family.

He was popular with the other soldiers, who called him "Rome," and seemed eager to fight. After missing the first day of fighting, Chapman was sent onto the battlefield at Shiloh to make a sketch.

Chapman had a piece of white tape on his sleeve to identify his duties. But when a group of Confederates charged by to intercept a Union attack, he ripped the tape off and went into battle. Soon, he was hit by enemy fire.

The ball hit him in the head, burrowing under his skin. The surgeon called it a narrow escape, and in "Conrad Wise Chapman: Artist & Soldier of the Confederacy" biographer Ben L. Bassham would later speculate that Chapman might have been hit by a spent ball, or one that had ricocheted off a tree.

After his convalescence, Chapman's regiment moved around Tennessee and Mississippi, but he wanted to serve Virginia and wrote to Gen. Henry A. Wise, his father's friend and Chapman's namesake. Soon, Chapman was on the move.

Within a year, many of Wise's men were shipped to Charleston.

Defiant images

As he began his artistic duty to the Confederacy, Chapman was morose. He had not heard from his family in months, in part because they had a hard time keeping up with him. Chapman feared that he had let his father down.

But John Gadsby Chapman was glad to know his son was with Wise. The general had lost a son in the war, and would take particular care of Conrad. Painting was much safer than fighting, Wise likely assumed.

Not the way Chapman did it, however. One soldier would later recall that Chapman sat sketching Sumter and other forts while they were under heavy fire, but paid the shelling no mind. The scenes of battle seemingly inspired him.

In one letter, Chapman said that the Sumter ruins were beautiful, "But it is more than this, it is emblematic also. ... Is it not in some respects an image of the human soul, once ruined by the fall, yet with gleams of beauty and energetic striving after strength, surrounded by dangers and watching, against its foes?"

Through the fall and winter, Chapman visited minor batteries -- Quaker, Chevis, Haskel -- as well as the major forts such as Moultrie, Sumter and Johnson. He painted dark, brooding portraits of Sumter's interior, as well as colorful and patriotic images of its tattered flags waving defiantly in the ocean breeze.

He took a special interest in the strange boats built for defense of Charleston Harbor, sketching the David just weeks after its attack on the New Ironsides, and depicting two ironclads, probably the Palmetto State and Chicora, as they swung at anchor just off the peninsula.

Then, on Dec. 2, he came across men restoring the privateer H.L. Hunley. It would become arguably his most famous painting, and posthumously solidified his reputation as an expert at detail.

When the sub was recovered off the Charleston coast in 2000, scientists soon realized that Chapman's painting was more accurate than drawings made by the men who built it.

Chapman would first sketch his subjects using pencil, oil or watercolors, then later paint them. While he painted six of them in Charleston -- no one knows which six -- he eventually finished the series back in Rome.

In March of 1864, Chapman was forced to request leave when he learned that his mother was ill. Although he meant to return, the young artist did not reach America again until the spring of 1865.

By then the Confederacy was lost.

Chapman would live in Mexico, return to Rome and eventually come back to the States. He painted a variety of subjects, but none were ever as famous as his Charleston series. Chapman, a devotee to the Confederacy until the end, was still painting war scenes when he died in 1910.

But it would be more than a century before his most famous work returned to the city that inspired it.