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Courtesy of Dennis Keesee Collection
Boonslick's W.B. Cox
The pencil sketch, Our Mess, is of officers imprisoned with Cox at Johnson’s Island at Ohio.
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COURTESY OF DENNIS KEESEE COLLECTION
The Boonslick's W.B. Cox Gets His Due
W.B. Cox endured the horrors of battlefields and prisons. In July 1861, he served as a captain with the Missouri State Guard (a pro-Confederate state militia) at the Battle of Carthage. At Wilson’s Creek that August, Cox acted as adjutant and had two horses shot from under him. The following September, Cox participated in the successful siege of Lexington and became a lieutenant colonel before the battle at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March 1862.
After the dissolution of his Missouri State Guard unit, Cox joined the Confederate army as a captain, and in December 1862, he fought at Prairie Grove, Arkansas. In the summer of 1863, Cox traveled to Richmond, Virginia, to deliver muster rolls—incidentally, his first exposure to the city where he would blossom as an artist.
That September he was captured at Little Rock and began six months as a prisoner of war. He was first taken to Memphis, then to the Gratiot Street prison at St. Louis where he responded under oath to a four-page questionnaire respecting his suitability for a prisoner exchange.
His occupation was “painter.” When asked, “Are you a southern sympathizer?” he responded, “I am.” Asked whether he wanted the authority of the U.S. government restored over the secessionists, he said, “I do not.” Citing Cox’s honesty, the examining officer approved his request for exchange, according to National Archives documents.
However, Cox continued through the Union’s prisoner-of-war system. After two weeks at Camp Chase, Ohio, he was taken to Johnson’s Island—a Lake Erie prison for officers near Sandusky, Ohio—where he was held from November 14, 1863, into the following February.
Here, in January 1864, he produced a pencil sketch, called Our Mess, shown at left. One of the eleven depicted officers, Cox holds a sketchbook and is seated in the center of the group just behind two men playing chess. The others seem strangely stiff, withdrawn, and disinterested in the ongoing game of chess. Their stolidity may reflect wretched living conditions.
A Virginian, who was at Johnson’s Island while Cox was there, wrote in Confederate Veteran that starving officers ate candles bought from the sutler and “rats that lived upon the sinks.” Cox, however, relieves the somber mood by depicting a puckish, smiling officer waving a sketch of a mounted horseman. Reproductions of this sketch frequently illustrate accounts of the Johnson’s Island prison and general articles on Civil War prisoner-of-war camps.
Cox was exchanged from Point Lookout, Maryland, on March 17, 1864, and went to Richmond. Before resigning his commission, June 3, 1864, Cox began painting Virginia battle flags. In May, he received $420 for painting two regimental flags and the centers, or insignia, for five others at $60 each. In January 1865, he was paid $600 for painting six flags.
During the war, Cox painted likenesses of Confederate leaders from photographs. The Richmond Times (August 2, 1865) called attention to a “full-length portrait of General Lee in the window of Mr. E.O. Townsend’s bookstore. It has deservedly received much attention. … The artistic performance, the blending of light and shade, the almost tangible distinctness of the various articles of dress and uniform are the work of the most unusual talent. The artist is Mr. W.B. Cox, a young Missourian.”
This may well be the portrait, signed “By W.B. Cox, Richmond, Virginia, 1865,” depicting Lee outside his tent with his horse and orderly that hangs in the Jay P. Altmayer Collection in Mobile, Alabama. Altmayer purchased the 24-inch-by-20-inch oil painting in 1961 from a Charleston, South Carolina, antique shop.
Cox is thought to have painted a similar, unsigned, and undated portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee with a hilly background that hangs in the Virginia Historical Society Museum at Richmond. Set against a mountain landscape with a few soldiers barely discernible in the background, Lee wears a military sash and dress sword in this 21.5-inch-by-17.5-inch likeness—said to be a favorite of Lee’s daughter, Mildred. It was presented to the society in 1957 by the daughters of a Confederate major. For his Lee paintings, Cox depended on 1864 photos taken by Julian Vannerson at Richmond.
The West Point Museum is home to another of Cox’s works, The Heroes of Manassas, which juxtaposes triumph and disaster. As Jefferson Davis and his victorious commanders (P.G.T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Joseph E. Johnston, and J.E.B. Stuart) confer on horseback after the first battle of Manassas, a shell with a burning fuse threatens to blow them to bits.
David M. Reel, the museum’s Curator of Fine Art and Decorative Art, says late nineteenth-century photographs of the painting were reproduced for sale. The 18-inch-by 24-inch work, which has been restored recently, was presented to the museum in 1968; but it took till the 1990s to establish that Cox painted it. It too is undated and unsigned.
Cox returned to the Boonslick in time for the 1870 census and painted portraits of two Glasgow residents in 1871. He joined the Order of Good Templars there and delivered at least two temperance lectures elsewhere. He moved to Miami, Missouri; Brunswick; and Trenton, where he married and divorced. By the end of the decade, he had a studio at Sedalia where he gave violin lessons and published poetry.
He specialized in portraits, which might be in crayon for economy, with a few landscapes and depictions of historic persons. Five of his Missouri portraits have been located, two of which are owned by Friends of Arrow Rock. In 1874, he launched a project to paint a large picture of the Civil War Battle of Wilson’s Creek and produce engravings of it. He completed a painting of Gen. Sterling Price for this work; however, there is no trace of a finished product.
Cox was popular in Miami, Missouri, where he spent long periods living in hotels and the homes of his patrons. He won medals for his paintings at several fairs. Despite his temperance efforts, he died of delirium tremens at an Iowa poorhouse in 1882.