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Letter: Adding details to Order #11, Bingham art

To the Editor:

As a scholar who studies the art of George Caleb Bingham I very much enjoyed reading the lively article on the painting “Gen. Order No. 11” that appeared recently in your online edition!  Thank you so much for bringing this wonderful cultural and historical treasure to the attention of the public. I also applaud Linda Emley’s efforts to induce readers to come to Butler to see the Order No. 11 memorial plaque dedication!
I have a few minor comments related to the article that may only be of interest to obsessive history buffs.  I most certainly don’t want to discredit Ms. Emley’s excellent prose and research. She could not be expected to be aware of all the historical minutia that my job requires that I study!
My first comment is in connection with the line, “It’s also known as ‘Order #11’ and is now in the Cincinnati Art Museum.” While this statement is not incorrect, your Missouri readers would probably like to know that the most famous version of Bingham’s “Order No. 11” can be viewed right here in the state!  Bingham painted two versions of the picture, but the one that is illustrated in your article is housed in Columbia  in the free public art gallery of The State Historical Society of Missouri in Ellis Library on the University of Missouri campus!
My second comment relates to the line, “The artist Bingham was in the Union Army, but he was appalled by his fellow Union soldiers and the consequences of Order #11.”  Again this statement is not incorrect, but it deserves some clarification. Bingham joined the Unionist Missouri Militia or Kansas City Home Guard in the summer of 1861, not the federal Union Army.  By 1862, he had completed his service and accepted a job in Missouri’s Unionist provisional government as State Treasurer under Gov. Hamilton Gamble.  He was serving as State Treasurer when Order No. 11 was issued in 1863.  Also, the soldiers executing the order in Bingham’s pictures are not federal Union troops, but Unionist Kansas militia members (including red legs) called in by the federals to carry out the order
My third and fourth comment come in connection with the line, “ He wrote to Gen. Thomas Ewing saying, ‘If you execute this order, I shall make you infamous with pen and brush.’” This is an often repeated legend, but there is no evidence from the period to back it up. No extant letters contain this quote, and the quote first appears as a hearsay account in the 1930s in a footnote written by Curtis B. Rollins.  Again, the quote is often attributed to Bingham, even by scholars who should know better, so I cannot criticize Ms. Emley for including it.
Although Bingham discussed “Order No. 11 in many of his extant writings, the artist never claimed to have spoken with Ewing, nor to have threatened the general in 1863.  There is also no evidence that Bingham was in Kansas City when Order #11 was issued.  The artist only claimed  to have gone to the area “in hopes” that he could modify the order in its aftermath. Indeed there is a letter in the Kansas City Museum collection at Union State from resident Henry Boulton written to Bingham on Aug. 28, 1863.  Boulton begs the artist to come to K.C. and describes the effects of “Order No. 11.”  This letter indicates that Bingham was not in Kansas City to confront Ewing.  He only arrived later (probably in September) to see the refugees that are so evocatively described in the quote Ms. Emley includes in the article.
Thanks again for bringing this important artwork to the public’s attention!

– Joan Stack, Ph.D, Curator of Art Collections
The State Historical Society of Missouri

“Thanks, Joan, for the additional details. While I was at the Order #11 dedication in Butler, I met Ralph Monaco and got a copy of his book, “Scattered to the Four Winds.” He explained to me about the two pictures and other details that you are referring to. As a true history buff, I appreciate you giving us the rest of the story. – Linda Emley”

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