The summer before the end of the Civil War, sculptor John Rogers created a statuette of a runaway slave aiding an injured, white Union soldier. While the black man in the sculpture keeps an eye out for slave catchers and Confederates, a copperhead snake, symbolizing the Northern “copperhead” politicians who opposed the war, threatens to strike.
Rogers, a white man, is famous for making affordable art available to middle-class families in the 19th century. So, like Rogers’s other works, there isn’t just one edition of this statuette, titled “The Wounded Scout, a Friend in the Swamp.” Rogers used moldings to mass-produce copies, and it became a widely collected artwork from the war, praised by President Abraham Lincoln.
At the time, artists were eager to create an appreciation of culture in America that could rival that of European countries. People like Rogers wanted “to broaden the collecting audience,” said Karen Lemmey, the curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). “And they very much hoped that in the United States it would not just be an elite gentlemen’s activity.”
SAAM has one of the “Wounded Scout” statuettes in its collection, which you can explore in the 3-D model. Although it’s not technically on view in the museum right now, visitors can still get a peek at it behind the see-through walls of SAAM’s Lunder Conservation Center. This copy of “Wounded Scout” has one conspicuous difference from the others: The white man’s left hand has fallen off.
Amber Kerr, the acting chief of conservation at the center, was quick to point out that the soldier’s missing hand is not a battle wound, it’s a sign of deterioration. His left arm is supposed to be a sturdy limb, while the right arm is the one with the nasty gash and a tourniquet tied so tight that his veins bulge.
The museum did try to replace the hand in 2005, but it didn’t go very well. That year, SAAM sought out the bronze master copy of “Wounded Scout” at the New-York Historical Society to make a mold that it could use to create a new hand. However, the bronze hand turned out to be too big — an indication that the statuette’s hands had actually been made from different molds.
Gregory Bailey, another conservator at SAAM, said they aren’t sure how they would replace the hand if they decide to try it again. He said 3-D scanning and printing is not yet polished enough to produce the type of detail needed for a replica of fine art.
Until then, the museum’s conservation of “Wounded Scout” will largely consist of work that often appears “invisible” to the public, Bailey said. This includes monitoring the statuette’s environment to combat what Kerr called “agents of deterioration.”
For example, X-rays show that the iron wires that provide the statuette’s internal structure have shifted over time; the careful observer will see the tips of them poking out of the plaster. These exposed ends have rusted a little, and conservators have been trying to limit further rusting by controlling the humidity and temperature around the sculpture.
“Wounded Scout” remains on display in the conservation center because it highlights conservation methods, but also because of its craftsmanship and historical significance.
“This is definitely a turning point in the history of American sculpture,” curator Lemmey said, “to be showing an African American man, especially one who is presumably running for his life, pausing to save a Union soldier.”
It contrasts with previous “deprecating images” of African Americans by white artists, Lemmey said, and hints at the kind of country the United States could become if the Union were to win the war and abolish slavery. When Rogers sent a copy of the sculpture to Lincoln, 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.”
Yet today, viewers may see the piece as upholding different types of stereotypes about black Americans. When Rogers debuted the statuette in 1864, the New York Times praised its portrayal of a white scout “rescued and raised up by a faithful and kind-souled negro.” In 1872, art critic Benson J. Lossing played down the black man’s heroism by patronizingly asserting that slaves helped white Union soldiers during the war “more through the natural kindness of his heart than from any partizan feeling.”
Lemmey noted that the same white, middle-class families who might have displayed “Wounded Scout” in their parlors may also have been fans of the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Although the book preached abolitionism, it is today criticized for portraying a slave who stays with a white master out of loyalty rather than escaping to freedom.
Similarly, “Wounded Scout” depicts a black man who puts a white person’s well-being above his own prospects for escape. The price of their being caught is high — but for one of them, there is substantially more at stake.
Photography by Goran Kosanovic and Salwan Georges. Photo production by Wendy Galietta. Design and development by Seth Blanchard and Armand Emamdjomeh. Kolin Pope contributed to the 3-D model. Art direction by Suzette Moyer.