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U.S. Steamer Bienville, 1862, 1862
Xanthus Smith (1838-1929)

View Artist Bio
Oil on panel
8 7/8 x 121 inches
Signature Details: Inscribed on verso
Status: Private Collection, Greenville, South Carolina

Renowned for his detailed and realistic Civil War marine paintings, Xanthus Russell Smith was born in Philadelphia, into a highly accomplished family of artists. He was the son of the successful theatrical and landscape painter, William Thompson Russell Smith (1812-96), and Mary Priscilla Wilson Smith (1819-74), who specialized in still life and floral genres. Both parents gave Xanthus his early training. From 1851 to 1852, the family which included Xanthus and his sister Mary Russell Smith (1842-78), who was also an artist, resided in Europe, where they studied, sketched, and painted in the academic style of art education.  They also traveled extensively, visiting art collections, museums, and important sites. During their time in London, Xanthus studied at the Royal Academy.

In 1854, the Smith family moved to a country home called Edgehill near Philadelphia.  As a youth Xanthus sold house views of neighboring estates. He continued his formal training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1856 to 1858 and also studied at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. The US Navy History Center states that the name came from Sieur de Bienville, one of the founders and settlers of New Orleans. 

The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861, with the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.  In November 1862, Xanthus Smith enlisted in the Union Navy and served as a captain's clerk aboard the USS Wabash, the flagship of Admiral Samuel F. DuPont.  Admiral DuPont had led the massive Union attack on Port Royal Sound on November 7, 1861, that captured a foothold on the South Carolina coast.  That base was the chief installation of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which sought to strangle the Confederacy by destroying its overseas trade.  Charleston was a chief target of the blockade throughout the Civil War.  Smith's talent for military draftsmanship was immediately recognized by his officers, and he was assigned to create sketches and small paintings of the Wabash and other vessels. He made hundreds of sketches of military life in the Navy and at the Union camp at Hilton Head, later using them to create finished oil paintings.  In addition, he created small ship paintings in oil upon commission or for the purpose of retail sale.  His account books among the Mary, Xanthus, and Russell Smith Papers at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art record the business aspects of his ship-painting enterprise.  Smith took an eleven-month leave in 1863 to assist Admiral Du Pont in compiling a book on monitors. The following year, he returned to active service aboard the steamer, USS Augusta.  Smith's usual practice was to compose studio landscape and marine paintings from the storehouse of drawings and sketches rendered during his military travel.

The conditions under which Smith created his Bienville painting are recorded in an entry in his account book for 1862, the artist sold the painting to James S. Earle and Son, a commercial art gallery and picture frame shop in Philadelphia.  The price of the painting was ten dollars.[1] 

In addition to his painting of the Bienville, Smith created similar small finished depictions of at least thirteen other warships that had captured Port Royal or served on the blockade.  Among them were the Wabash, Powhatan, New Ironsides, Keystone State, and the ironclads Patapsco and Weehawken.  Several illustrations of the ship are found in Harper’s Weekly and other Civil War-era publications.[2]  A wash drawing of the Bienville by Frederick Albert Castle, dated New Orleans, September 21, 1864, is among the collections of the Museum of Fine Art Boston.[3] 

Upon discharge from the service, Smith returned to Philadelphia, dividing his time between the city, Edgehill, and occasional travel in Pennsylvania and north to the Maine seacoast. During his career, he was admired for creating a wide range of landscapes--from naval subjects to pastoral river views such as this finely detailed sketch. Between 1866 and 1876, he painted fifteen large-scale paintings that he called the "Civil War Series," representing the major naval engagements of the war.

The USS Bienville was a highly successful Federal warship.  It saw action throughout the Civil War, beginning in late 1861 and continuing until after the Confederate States’ surrender in April 1865.  The vessel was a transport and a very successful participant in the South Atlantic and then the West Gulf Blockading Squadrons.  The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion United States Navy Series I are replete with documents relating to the activities of the Bienville and its two commanders Charles S. Steedman (1811-90) and James R. Madison Mullany (1818-87). 

The Bienville was built by Lawrence & Foulks, Brooklyn, New York, and launched in 1860.  The side-wheel wooden steamship was acquired August 14, 1861, by the United States Navy and converted to a warship as part of the “90 day gunship” expansion of the Navy.  The Bienville displaced 1,583 tons; was 253 feet in length with a beam of 38 feet with a draft of 16 feet 2 inches.  It was fitted with one 30-pound rifled and eight 32-pound smoothbore cannon. 

Commander Charles S. Steedman (1811-90), a native South Carolinian, was assigned to the Bienville on October 16, 1861, and the vessel was commissioned on October 23, 1861.  Steedman commanded the vessel in Admiral Samuel F. DuPont’s flotilla that attacked and captured Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, on November 7, 1861.  The Bienville then joined the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and performed distinguished service as a transport ship and a captor of blockade runners.  James Robert Madison Mullany (1818-87) replaced Steedman as commander of the Bienville in June 1862 and remained in command until the end of the Civil War.  In 1863 the Bienville was transferred to the West Gulf of Mexico Blockading Squadron.  Because his command vessel required repairs, Mullany was briefly assigned to the USS Oneida and commanded that warship at the Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864.  On February 7, 1865, the vessel participated in an amphibious assault in Galveston Bay, Texas, and seized two schooners. 

            The Bienville was very successful as a captor of blockade runners.[4]  As the ship took its post off of Charleston in June 1862, J.B. Marchant described the Bienville to Admiral Samuel F. DuPont as “a vessel equal in speed to any which may attempt to escape.”[5]  From December 1861 to February 1865, the Bienville captured fifteen blockade runners or other Confederate freighters.  One vessel, the British steamer Stettin, was captured off of Charleston on May 24, 1862.  It was retained by the US Navy and converted to a gunship.  In circa 1863 Xanthus Smith depicted the Stettin capturing the blockade runner Aries.[6]

The Bienville was decommissioned at the conclusion of the Civil War. It was retained in the naval reserve until 1867 when it was sold to a private company.  Operating under its original name, the Bienville was destroyed by fire on August 15, 1872 in the Bahama Islands.[7]

            Xanthus Smith’s ship paintings are valuable visual records of the warships of the United States Navy.  They are in truth portraits of naval vessels executed with all of the skill and aesthetic perception of an academically-trained artist.  His Civil War Series includes fully-realized paintings of the naval battles of New Orleans, April 24, 1862; the capture of Fort Fisher, January 15, 1865; and several versions of the battles between the Monitor and Merrimac, March 9, 1862; and the Alabama and Kearsarge, June 14, 1864.  These paintings chronicle the drama and visual impact of the American Civil War upon world history. 


[1]Xanthus Smith Account Book, from the Mary, Xanthus, and Russell Smith Family Papers, 1793-1977, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.


[1]“Merchant Steamers Converted into Gun-Boats,” Harper’s Weekly, October 26, 1861, 680-1; “Rhode Island Artillery Landing from the Steamer ‘Bienville” at Washington Arsenal, on April 25,” Harper’s Weekly, May 18, 1861, 305; “Destruction of a Schooner off Cumberland Inlet, Georgia, by the Boats of the ‘Alabama,’’ Harper’s Weekly, February 1, 1862, 65 (Bienville in right background).  Depictions of the November 7, 1861, capture of Port Royal identify the Bienville among the many attacking vessels.  See “The Bombardments of Forts Walker and Beauregard, Port Royal Inlet, South Carolina, November 7, 1861,” Harper’s Weekly, November 30, 1861, 760-1.  See also “Bombardment & Capture of Forts Walker & Beauregard, Port Royal, S.C., Nov. 7, 1861,” from Joel T. Headley, The Great Rebellion (Connecticut: Hurlburt, Williams & Co., 1862).

[1]Frederick Albert Castle, “U.S. S. Bienville. W.G.B. Sq’n./Second Class. Paddle wheel. 11 guns. 1,558 tonnage”; also inscribed New Orleans, Sept. 21st 1864.”  M. Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, accession no. 57.314.

[1]The service history of the USS Bienville is well documented among the volumes of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1 (Washington: GPO, 1897), volumes 12, 13, 21.

[1]Ibid., Series 1, vol. 13, p. 157.

[1]Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS), Art Inventories Catalog, Inventory of American Paintings, control number 80300021.  The painting was described in an exhibition catalog, "Maritime Exhibition," Wilmington Society of The. Fine Arts, 1955

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