By Eric Durr, New York State Division of Military and Naval AffairsFebruary 5, 2015
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - A painting by a famous military artist that was lost in plain sight in 1959 was found by the staff of the New York State Military Museum in 2010.
Now, according to museum director Courtney Burns, the challenge is to find a place where the public can view the 12-foot-long, 5-foot-high "Battle of Resaca" painting once again.
The New York State Military Museum, located in a historic National Guard Armory here, is run by the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, the state agency which is also responsible for the New York Army and Air National Guard.
The massive painting by James Walker depicts a May 13-14, 1864, Georgia battle fought by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman during his advance on Atlanta. The painting originally hung in the armory of the New York National Guard's 12th Regiment on Columbus Avenue in New York City.
The painting was probably commissioned by Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, who had served as the commander of the New York State Militia's 12th Regiment at the start of the Civil War and remained active in veterans groups following the Civil War, Burns said. The painting appears to illustrate a moment in the battle at which the XII Corps, which included Butterfield's 3rd Division, enters the fight.
Walker, who was born in England but grew up in Albany, became famous after he painted "the Battle of Chapultepec" for the U.S. Capitol. Walker also painted "The Battle of Lookout Mountain" for Butterfield's friend Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.
Butterfield - who is widely credited with helping his brigade bugler compose the bugle call "Taps" in 1862 - was an enthusiastic collector of art. He bought many paintings and sculptures for the the 12th Regiment Armory when it was built in 1886-87, Burns said.
The painting was famous enough that a lithograph print of it was made and sold to collectors to raise money for a memorial to Civil War Soldiers, Burns said.
The Butterfield's also had a 3-foot-long copy made that apparently wrapped around some sort of pedestal. That painting is now in the collection of the Oneida County Historical Society in Utica where Butterfield was born, Burns said.
In 1958, the New York National Guard moved out of the Armory. The building was demolished to make way for the Lincoln Center arts complex.
The painting was rolled up and sent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard - then a federal facility - for storage along with other artworks, Burns said.
The man in charge of the New York National Guard's historical collections then, Frederick P. Todd, who is famous as an expert on Civil War-era military uniforms, had a "tight relationship" with the United States Military Academy museum. He had the painting shipped there for safe-keeping and potential display, Burns said.
The painting, somehow mislabeled as "The Battle of Gettysburg," was stuck on the back shelves of the West Point Museum until the 1970s.
At that point, the Military Academy historians realized that the painting belonged to New York and they didn't really want it.
"They sent it back to us," Burns said. "They said, 'Hey we got your painting of Gettysburg here and do you want it back?' and we said 'Yes.'"
But there was no facility to house and display the Division of Military and Naval Affairs historical collection so the painting sat in storage. Also, Burns said, nobody wanted to take a chance on destroying it by unwrapping it just to look at it.
"It was in such fragile shape that we were afraid to unroll it and we just assumed it was a Gettysburg painting," he explained.
Somewhere along the line, a St. Louis man who owned a remaining copy of the print of Walker's "Battle of Resaca'' - the ones that had been sold as a fundraiser in the 1890s - contacted the Military Museum to find out if New York still had the original painting. At that time, since the staff thought the rolled up painting was of Gettysburg, the answer was no, Burns recalled.
But in 2010 the Military Museum finally had a reason to start looking at its Civil War-related holdings and some money to restore them.
The museum hoped to put together a Civil War exhibit to mark the 150th anniversary of the conflict, and so some artifacts were earmarked for restoration. Among them was the "Gettysburg" painting from the 12th Regiment Armory.
It was sent to a painting conservator in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to be cleaned and restored.
When the picture was finally opened they realized it clearly wasn't a Gettysburg painting, Burns said. A little records sleuthing revealed that it was the Resaca painting not seen since the armory had been demolished.
The plan had been to incorporate the painting into the museum's Civil War exhibit, which opened in July 2013, but it was just too big, Burns said.
Now, he said, the trick is to find the space in the relatively small museum to show the painting. He's got another large painting he would like to show at some point - a mural depicting Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Saratoga that once hung in a Troy hotel - and other painting also compete for space.
The museum holds two other Walker paintings: One depicting the 12th Regiment on parade and another showing Soldiers of the 7th Regiment, New York State Militia, reading letters from home during the Civil War. Ideally, he would like to hold a show featuring all three paintings, Burns said.