- Historic Sites
General Sully Reports
In vivid paintings and prose a professional army officer recorded a career that spanned nearly forty years and mirrored the history of the American West
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
Alfred Sully, son of the famous American portrait painter Thomas Sully (1783-1872), spent his entire adult life in the Army, and his service record is almost a summary of mid-nincteenth-ccntury frontier history. Yet his varied experiences were not really extraordinary for a Regular Army officer of his time. What was unusual was his ability to recapture them vividly, not only in writing but with a considerable artistic talent inherited from his father. Growing up in a congenial atmosphere in Philadelphia, Alfred Sully began to draw as soon as he could hold a pencil. By 1834, when he was thirteen, he was making such sophisticated sketches as that of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Prison, above. Entering West Point in 1837, he shortly thereafter did a water-color view of the barracks and parade ground, below. The young soldier left the Academy as a second lieutenant in fuly, 1841: by the following autumn he was leading troops in Florida against the Seminoles—the start of thirty-eight years of active service. On the pages that follow, some of Sully’s many sketches and paintings illustrate distinctive phases of his career, while excerpts from letters written to his family reveal his character and explain the pictures in his own terms. Neither letters nor pictures have been published before.
Sully’s regiment joined General Winfiekl Scott’s command at Tampico, Mexico, late in 1846, and sailed to attack Veracruz the next March. At the end of the successful three weeks’ campaign, during which he was promoted to first lieutenant, Sully said in a letter home: “I am writing (his in an old Mexican Apothecary’s shop ̾ such a scene of destruction I never wish again to witness. [The city] is very closely built … in consequence of which our shells and shot have caused dreadful havoc, going through and through t lie houses and in some places cutting a complete street where before were rows of buildings. I am sorry to say women and children have sullered very much from our fire, though they had nobody but themselves to blame for it. General Scott gave them warning of his intentions, but Mexican like, they depended too much on the strength of the place. The surrender was truly an imposing sight. Our troops were drawn up in line of battle tinder the walls of the town and out of the gates marched the Mexicans in full plume, passed in review, halted, wheeled into line, piled their arms and filed off.”
After the conquest of Mexico, Sally’s regiment spent about a year in garrison in Mississippi. Then it was sent to New York for transportation to California by way of Cape Horn, and the young officer painted the picture below of the flotilla coming into port. From shipboard he wrote his parents: “Ship Iowa, Dec. 19, 1848. Seated in my little room, 3 feet by 6, my bunk for my chair, a book for my table, holding my ink bottle in my hand & my feet braced well against the bulkhead. We left Sandy Hook, the guns of the Fort firing a farewell salute, with a brisk N’Wester. … The next morning we were going as if the old gentleman had kicked us on end, as the sailors say. Not many showed themselves at the breakfast table, not a single lady I’m sure. … Light winds and sunshine brought the ladies and children out of their beds & into their health. … Then my troubles … our troubles began. Such children I never saw in all of my life, nothing but fighting, squalling, crying. It was beyond the bearance of any man but Job, so we, that is the bachelors, got together all the Indian rubber capes, built a sort of tent on the deck and staid there in the rain rather than in the hot nasty cabin. … The water is becoming bad. Ladies make wry faces at it & complain of the bugs in it. It’s hard on the temperance people, but I don’t mind it much. I have a way of killing the bugs before drinking them.”