BRUNSWICK, Maine — The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has reached the halfway mark, more or less. A bumper crop of exhibitions opened in 2011. There have been far fewer shows since. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Photography and the American Civil War,” earlier this year, is a notable example. For the most part attention has turned elsewhere. It shouldn’t. Duration was among the chief reasons for the war having such an enormous and lasting impact. So even if “ ‘This Mighty Scourge of War’: Art of the American Civil War” weren’t so well done, which it is, its presence would be welcome. The show runs through Jan. 5 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
“ ‘This Mighty Scourge of War’ ” takes its title from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The president might never have been in a position to deliver it — instead, George McClellan would have been giving his first — but for two key events in 1863: the fall of Vicksburg and the Union victory at Gettysburg, both in July.
The latter helps account for the show’s timing and location. One of the battle’s heroes was Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, whose defense of Little Round Top leading the 20th Maine helped preserve the Union victory. Chamberlain was Bowdoin class of ’52, as well as a former faculty member and future president of the college. Hometown heroes hardly come any more heroic.
THIS MIGHTY SCOURGE OF WAR: Art of the American Civil War
“ ‘Mighty Scourge’ ” includes a Mathew Brady portrait of Chamberlain. It’s one of just 25 items in the show. That’s a small number, but the items are choice and impressively varied. Among them are six Winslow Homer woodcuts (one is his celebrated “Sharpshooter”), two Homer drawings, a Martin Johnson Heade painting (“Newburyport Marshes, a Passing Storm,” symbolically evoking the distant conflict), a Timothy O’Sullivan photograph, two by Alexander Gardner, and another by Carleton Watkins.
A Civil War photograph by Watkins? Now that would be a find. Instead, it’s one of his magnificent renderings of Yosemite, “The Three Brothers.” It was in 1864 that the federal government set aside Yosemite for preservation. Watkins’s image is a reminder that far from the battlefield historic events continued to occur.
The interplay of art and the war is brought home by the presence of paintings by Sanford Gifford and Jervis McEntee, two of the few artists to serve in the war (both on the Union side). Homer, in contrast, was a journalist. His press pass appears in the show. Imagine what the Newseum would give to have it.
Homer’s pass has prosaic company in the show. There are several Confederate greenbacks. They’re a further example of how wide-ranging “ ‘Mighty Scourge’ ” is, its small scale notwithstanding. The inclusion of a Lincoln tintype, after a photograph by Anthony Berger (working in Brady’s studio), suggests how shrewdly assembled it is. The portrait provided the basis for the president’s image on the $5 bill. There it sits in the gallery, cattycorner to the Southern currency, serene in its awareness of a vastly superior future fungibility.