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Aquia Creek Engagement, 1867, 1867
Gideon Denny (1830-1886)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
23 1/2 x 41 1/2 inches
Signature Details: G.J. Denny 1867
Status: Available

This imaginative maritime scene depicts an artillery battle between the “Potomac Flotilla” comprised of the United States sloop-of-war Pawnee, and the repurposed armed tugboats Thomas Freeborn, Resolute, and Anacostia, and Confederate batteries on Aquia Creek, Stafford County, Virginia.  In May 1861, Virginia state troops, established two artillery batteries at the confluence of Aquia Creek and the Potomac River, 45 miles down the Potomac from Washington, DC. The place is now called Brent Point.  At the same time the Virginians were at work Union Navy officials created the Potomac Flotilla to guard the river and protect the nation’s capital.  From May 29 to June 1, 1861, the opposing forces fought engagements that are called the Battle of Aquia Creek and the Battle of Mathias Point.  In a later artillery exchange on June 27, 1861, Captain James H. Ward, commander of the flotilla, was killed in action while sighting one of the cannon on his flagship, the Thomas Freeborn.  Ward was the first Union naval officer to be killed in the American Civil War.  Soon thereafter Confederate military authorities built two more batteries on Aquia Creek and also placed maritime barrel mines offshore.  This was the first use by Confederates of “infernal machines,” as the mines were called in that day.  These batteries briefly cut off transportation on the Potomac but soon became obsolete and were abandoned in 1862.  Soon after the campaign, Confederate troops in charge of the batteries evacuated them. 

         Despite its brevity and inconclusive nature, the battles at Aquia Creek included a few “firsts” that the marine painter Gideon Jacques Denny incorporated in his 1867 rendition of an idealized Aquia Creek Engagement.  It is this combination of firsts and the artist’s conflation of events into a single painting that makes this painting particularly interesting.  In addition, because he was living and working in San Francisco during and after the Civil War, Denny relied for visual and narrative inspiration upon stories and illustrations in 1861 issues of Harper’s Weekly newspaper.  Using his considerable talent and skill as a marine painter, Denny was able to transform woodblock prints into a distinctive painting, one that, among all his maritime paintings, may be his only extant Civil War battle scene. 

Gideon Jacques Denny (1830–1886) was born in Wilmington, Delaware, on July 15, 1830.  In his youth Denny was a seaman on the waters of Chesapeake Bay but, as did many Americans, he traveled to California in 1849 to join the Gold Rush.  Discovering his talent as a painter, he headed back east and settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and trained as a painter with Samuel Marsden Brookes (1816‒92).  Denney returned to California in the late 1850s and had a successful career as a marine painter.  Brookes followed Denney to San Francisco and the two were leading painters and also leaders in artists’ association that promoted the fine arts in northern California.  In addition to creating numerous depictions of California ships, harbors, maritime events, he traveled to Hawaii, Canada, and South America in search of subjects.  Gideon Jacques Denny is considered one of the pioneer California artists, and his works are well represented in museums, galleries, and private collections throughout the nation. 

         Gideon Denny took not only the subject but also the physical arrangement of his Aquia Creek Engagement from a woodblock engraving published in Harper’s Weekly Newspaper, Volume 5, no. 234 (June 22, 1861), p. 297, to accompany a story titled “Bombardment of Acquia [sic] Creek.”  Regarding the engraving, the editors of Harper’s Weekly stated:

We publish herewith, from a sketch by Mr. Thomas M. Cash,

of the Freeborn, a picture of the recent engagement between

the Pawnee, Freeborn, and the Anacostia on our side, and the

Acquia Creek batteries on the other.  Mr. Cash was engaged

in the battle, and his sketch may be relied on.

Cash, a Union Navy lieutenant stationed on the Freeborn, depicted the spatial relationship between the three vessels and the shore batteries in the same way that Denney painted them.  The Freeborn is in the foreground off center; the Pawnee is slightly in the background on the right; and either the Anacostia or the Resolute is in distant background on the left side of the painting.

Although he copied much from Lieutenant Cash’s published sketch, Denny used his painting skills and his seascape artist’s eye for narrative to enhance the dramatic effects of the painting.  Specifically, he included in the foreground a depiction of a wooden barrel that was the flotation device of one of several marine mine that the Confederates had placed in the Potomac River on July 7, 1861.  News about the mines and a schematic drawing of them was published in Harper’s Weekly, Volume 5, no. 239 (July 27, 1861), p. 471.  In the picture’s background were images of the Freeborn and the Pawnee.  The illustrator, “Jerome,” also contributed a letter in which he described the mine-laying tactic as a “Chinese expedient of torpedoes and infernal machines.”  Crews from the Pawnee and Freeborn soon discovered the mines and carefully retrieved one for examination.  Finally, Denny’s depiction of the Freeborn’s gun crew at work on the foredeck may be an artistic testimonial to Captain James H. Ward, commander of the Potomac Flotilla and of the Freeborn.  Ward was shot and killed by a Confederate sniper on June 27, 1861, while sighting his vessel’s nine-inch cannon.  An article describing Ward’s death and a woodblock engraved portrait of him were published in a later issue of Harper’s Weekly (Volume 5, no. 237 [July 13, 1861]) with the information that Captain Ward had been the first United States naval officer killed in the war.  With access to these issues Denny had all the information necessary to create this distinguished painting.  By 1867, when he signed and dated the work, he likely had access to more information that may have deepened his understanding of the Aquia Creek engagements, but by then he had all of the facts and images he required to create his painting. 

         After completing Aquia Creek Engagement Denny seems to have returned to painting maritime scenes and coastal landscapes.  The Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) lists sixty-nine paintings by Denny in its register but does not include Aquia Creek Engagement.  To date this painting—with its conflated images of time and event—stands alone among the artist’s work.


Harper’s Weekly, Volume 5, nos.234, 236, and 239 (June and July 1861).

“Battle of Aquia Creek.” Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wkik/Battle-of-Aquia-Creek, accessed July 17, 2017.

Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS), “Gideon Jacques Denny.” 


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