In honor of our upcoming exhibition, John Rogers: American Stories, curator Kim Orcutt will be writing a series of posts about his life, his work, and how he earned the nickname “The People’s Sculptor.” Watch Kim Orcutt and Harold Holzer tour the exhibition on YouTube.
Over the night of February 9/10, 1864, more than one hundred Union soldiers escaped from their Confederate captors at the infamous Libby Prison, tunneling out of the former warehouse and boldly strolling out through the streets of Richmond, Virginia. More than half of them made it to Union lines.
Just a few weeks later, the sculptor John Rogers debuted what would become one of his most popular and acclaimed works, Wounded Scout: A Friend in the Swamp. It’s one of the stars of the exhibition John Rogers: American Stories. He depicted a Union scout who has been shot in the arm while on a mission in Southern territory and is weak from loss of blood. An escaped slave has come to the scout’s aid and is guiding him through the swamp. In just a few years, Rogers had developed a nationwide reputation for his small sculptures of War themes, but until now he had focused on amusing scenes of soldiers at leisure or comforting vignettes of civilian life. Wounded Scout shows a soldier in real peril, and it confronts sensitive questions of race. In this narrative, the black man is the hero. Though he is ragged and barefoot, he is also tall and muscular. He supports the soldier protectively and looks up with an alert, commanding gaze.
Rogers’ timing was fortuitous. Union General Ulysses S. Grant had suspended prisoner exchanges just a few months before, so captured soldiers would not be exchanged, but rather would be held prisoner in places like Libby Prison, sometimes under terrible conditions. Rogers’ soldier, injured, vulnerable, and, until his rescue, alone, would have struck an emotional chord for those at home who worried about their loved ones being captured. The artist sent a version of Wounded Scout to President Abraham Lincoln, who recognized both the insightful subject and its masterful execution when he replied: “I can not pretend to be a judge in such matters; but the Statuette group ‘Wounded Scout’-‘Friend in the Swamp’ is . . . excellent as a piece of art.”