December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
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
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.”
Arriving at Monterey, California, in April, 1849, Sully wax made chief quariennasier loi the U.S. troops I here. The Gold Rush was at its height, and the effect of that, in addition to the impression made by the Spanish culture of California, was soon reflected in Sully’s letters. What follows is a combination of observations he made between April 16 and September 20, 1849: I am writing this in the Capitol of California. The Adjutant General is on my right making out his returns for the mail. Near me the Secretary of State is doing the same. The Governor General (General Rilcy) is I suppose gone aboard ship, for it is near 10 o’clock at night and the Quarter Master of this important dependency of the United States is smoking his pipe, writing to his mar and par. High sounding titles we all have but when you have sounded the titles you have done all, for we are names without meaning or rather an executive or power without the force. Ask a man to do anything for you and he will laugh at you though you öfter to pay him well. A gentlemen the other day arrived, offered to pay a loafer on the wharf $4.00 to carry his trunk. His reply was, ‘Stranger, I’ll give you two ounces ($30) if you’ll carry it up yourself. I would like to see you carry that darned thing with your kid gloves.’ … Monterey is situated on a bay opening on the sea, well protected. The country around beautiful. Covered with tall trees. Well built (for a Mexican town) but badly populated. Plenty of the female proportion; the males have all gone to the mines. There is nothing to eat. People are all too busy digging gold to cultivate the ground. Our standing bill of Tare is: breakfast, coffee, ham, dapjacks and molasses. Dinner, beef and rice, tea, coltee, ham, (lapjacks and molasses. Lunch and supper, whiskey and pipes. And another thing, got some wood this morning. Not dear, only six dollars a cord, but it never saw an axe. I have got (he top of a tree in the fire. The trunk and branches are on the door, reach about the middle ol the door. As last as it burns olf, we push it further in. … Our men have mostly left us. A party of go started off together. The officers armed themselves, mounted and brought them back. They are now serving out their time in irons. Some have furloughs with permission to dig gold. So out of a company of yo we have but 20 left for duty. Our band we also found we could not keep together, so we have given them leave Io go and dig for a time. Refore they left we gave a grand ball. The ladies did all the cake baking, and we furnished all the wine and music. We managed to get some thirty good looking young ladies but the gentlemen were rather scarse as most of them had gone to the gold mines. They danced all night, as il it was a very regular piece of work they had to perform, and broke tip very pleased with the performance.
I was sorry to sec them Amcricanize their dress; … they look ninth better with their short skirts and rebosas. A remarkable thing about these Californians is their large families. They generally marry when they are 12 or 16 years old and have an addition to their family every year until they are 50. Thank God they don’t all live or the country would not be large enough to hold them all. … Many are making fortunes, but many will have to smash. The Yankees arc driving out of the mines everything that talks Spanish. Thousands of Mexicans are on their way home swearing death and plunder to all Yankees. Many not able to leave will turn to cultivating and hope lor a better state ol things next year. The other day we rode out on a beautiful road ditched and lined on both sides with willow trees (the work of the priests in olden times) to the mission house. Like all other missions in the country a long line ol low buildings enclosing a square, with a large church in one corner, surmounted by a cupola filled with bells. What, a happy set of devils those priests must have been. … They had the whole control of the country. Every thirty miles along the coast their large mission houses taking thousands of acres. The Indians were their slaves and their will the law. Yet I have been told by old inhabitants the country never was in a happier state. They never abused their power, were hospitable and kind to all, particularly so to strangers.”
The irregular conditions of army life in Monterey led Alfred Sully to the most intense happiness he was ever to know—and the most intense anguish. Since there was no established officers mess, he went to board with one of the local Spanish families. It turned out to be the most distinguished family, as well as one of the wealthiest, in that part of California. The romantic and tragic consequences were recounted in a scries of letters that Sully wrote over a period of two years—from June, 1849, to May of 1851:
“I was lucky enough to get to a Castillian family, Don Manuel de Guerra and his wife, Donna Angustias. Her oldest child is a daughter about 15 or 16 years old, Donna Manuela, remarkably pretty and gay, dances and sings, plays the guitar, & is, like all Spanish girls, monstrous iond of a flirtation. When first I came to Monterey I lived in the house & Manuela was to me as a sister. Though I was then in love with her, she was so young, such a wild rattle brained creature having many admirers, and I believe at the lime engaged to be married, I never let my feelings be known. Becoming sure within a month or two of the girl, I went to the Mother and Father, got their permission to address the daughter, which was given I suppose under the firm belief that the daughter was only flirting with me as she had with others. But after they found that the girl was firm in her feelings they opposed me under the plea of my not being a Catholic, but as I now know with the wish to marry their daughter to a wealthy relative. The family being considered the first of the Spanish population, the whole of Monterey turned against me & used all arguments & invented all kinds of lies to assist the parents & oppose our union. Seeing how things stood I determined to run away with the young lady. Not a very easy matter in a Spanish country where girls are watched and put under lock and key, but I had many friends to help me. I believe it’s the first elopement that’s occurred in California. The old folks are as mad as well can he. I am however told from good authority that they will romc around before long. I have quite a family now. My old grey, who is called by Manuela Dispensation as he was the horse that carried my friend to San Francisco and back, a distance of 240 miles in less than six days when lie went for the permission from the high priest to allow this priest here to marry a heretic to a Catholic, Manuela’s (ream colored mare, six chickens and twelve eggs that will be chickens in two or three days, [servant] boy Sam, a wife & a yaller cat. Got a (me garden with plenty of fresh vegetables and live well. Quite a change from an old bachelor s room full of segars and brandy. … I have made arrangements with two men to settle on some land for me. I am about to put up a saw mill and if i can find a good opportunity shall also go in for a Hour mill. …”
At this point, Sully was planning to resign from the Army, a determination that grew when Manuela presented him with a son.
Then tragedy struck a shattering blow that was to change the entire course of Sully’s career: “You must by this time have received my short letter announcing the death of my Manuela. So sudden, so unexpected was it, that I am just beginning to believe it reality & not a horrible dream. She was well on the 26th [of March, 1851], walking about the house. That morning she brought the child into my room and placed it in bed with me, nibbing her little hands together in perfect child like delight to sec me playing with the baby. She wanted to eat an orange that had been sent her, but I, thinking I know not why they might be bad, told her no. Her mother who was present thought they would do her no harm, she would however ask the Doctor. … The next morning with the consent of the doctor she ate that fatal orange which in a short time brought on vomiting that nothing could stop. Towards night she became better, much better, and I laid down towards ,4 in the morning with the lull expectation of her recovering. I had hardly got asleep before I was woke up by the doctor. There was no more use Tor his service. I had to go hunt a priest. Poor girl, what must have been her feelings, while the Priest was going through the last ceremonies of the Church, to know that she must die, so voting, so beloved, so beautiful. … She was unable to speak, but her eyes when they rested on me told her feelings too deeply. Through the whole day she suffered tortures, apparently unconscious of all around her. Every room in the house was filled by her friends who by their tears showed me how great a loss I was about to suffer. Towards evening she for the first time in the day recognized me, called me by name, put out her little hands to embrace me, but with a gentle smile of resignation sunk back on her bed. … AIy negro boy Sam, who has been with me some three years, was so much attached to Manuela that between sadness and drink [he] became crazy. In this state of mind he believed that in the world to come we would all be united once more together. He came into my room one morning, the 8th of April, crying and talking to me about it, and with the intention (as I have since round very good reason to believe) of sending me to join my wile. As I was very busy I ordered him 10 his room, the door of winch opens into mine. He IeIt my room, locked his door, and a lew minutes alter I heard the report of a pistol. I broke open the door and found him stretched on the floor. … Knowing that his affection for my wife was the cause it cast a greater gloom on my spirits, but I tried to cheer up, thinking that I had another duty—to attend to the boy that Man uela had left me. Donna Angustias took charge of it. At first her milk did not agree with it, but with great care and attention it soon recovered. It was beginning to take notice of me and e to (enter all ihc love I had for the Mother in him. But this consolation was not to be enjoyed by me. On the night of the 14th it was accidentally killed by its Grandmother. She was nursing it in bed, fell asleep. When she woke tip he was dead. She had strangled it in her sleep. The doctor persuaded her that it died of a convulsion, but to me alone he told the true story, and now I am once more alone in the world. … A few weeks ago we were all so happy, so contented. What a change. … I shall leave this place as soon as I ran. I will give tip my rancho & mill, for f have no intention now of leaving the army. …”
The decade following the death of Manuela and his infant son saw Alfred Sully on frontier assignments in California. Minnesota, and the Dakotas. During the first half of the Civil War, in which he rose from captain to brigadier general, he fought in many famous battles, including Yorktown, Kair Oaks, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsvillc. (Evidently he was too busy for art during this period, lor his sketches and paintings were few.) Hut it was his prewar experience in the West that led in May of 1863 to his assignment as commandant of Dakota Territory. That territory was in a very troubled state, with thousands of Sioux threatening to sweep through Minnesola and Iowa. In Minnesota only the year before, other Sioux braves had risen against the whites, massacred many, and forced 30,000 others to fiée their homes.
Sully set up his headquarters at Fort Pierre (just across the Missouri River from present-day Pierre, S. D.), and between forays against the Indians lound time for such paintings as that of the fort in winter (at left), and of the band ol Dakota Sioux (below) breaking camp to move to a new location. His actions as an Indian fighter were highly successful, and it is in the Dakotas that he is chiefly remembered today. Various historical markers in the vicinity of Pierre record his achievements in subduing the savage Sioux.
Indian disturbances continued to occupy Sully in the years following the end of the Civil War. He was assigned to Kort Vancouver, Washington, in iKyo, but spent ninth ol his time in Idaho in campaigns against the Nez. Perces. By 1873 he had begun to develop rheumatism and arthritis, which plagued his last years. Unable any longer to take the Held, he was made post commander at Fort Vancouver, and there he once again indulged his interest in painting, producing placid landscapes like the view at left of Mt. Hood, with the Columbia River in the foreground. It was during his last years, also, that he painted a self-portrait in oil, ol which a copy is reproduced below. In his last letter he wrote: “I am still very sick. … The lever has left me, but left me so weak … I have no appetite for anything. The only things I could eat are the things that it is entirely impossible to gel, but no doubt if I did get them I would not want them.” Soon after, in 1879, pneumonia took ihe life of the old soldier.