July 2008 Issue
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman is finally back where he belongs –– at home in Lancaster. Twenty-six years ago, a portrait of the renowned Civil War general and Ohio native was stolen from the town’s Sherman House Museum during a break-in. Last November, an eagle-eyed museum volunteer spotted the picture in a catalog from Garth’s Auction House in Delaware, Ohio.
“This painting is unusual because it’s an early image of Sherman, so unlike the portraits and photographs done after he became famous,” says James Strider, the Ohio Historical Society’s director of collections.
The seller, a Missouri resident, acquired the likeness at an auction near her home several years ago and decided to sell it in Ohio because of Sherman’s connections here. “She’s clearly an innocent party,” Strider says, “who was very understanding and gave it back to us.”
Although it’s unusual for a relic to be returned to the Ohio Historical Society after such a long absence, it’s not unheard of. A case in point is a Civil War battle flag that disappeared in 1972 as it was being restored and turned up 33 years later in a history buff’s private collection.
“We certainly don’t have a lot of theft,” Strider says. “Fortunately, accurate proof-of-ownership records are kept on the objects we have in case these kinds of incidences occur.”
Strider is happy about Sherman’s unexpected homecoming. Born in 1820 and named after the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, the future general graduated sixth in his class from West Point in 1840. Prior to the Civil War, he served as the first superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy (which would become Louisiana State University). It was there in 1859 that Sherman had the portrait painted depicting him in civilian dress.
Before it was returned to the dwelling in which Sherman was born, the portrait underwent a thorough restoration process that removed decades of dust, grime and discolored varnish, and repaired cracks in the paint caused by improper storage and temperature fluctuation.
“We don’t collect paintings and portraits so much for their artistic value as for their connections to the state’s history,” says Strider. “This one certainly fits the bill.”
The Sherman House Museum is located at 137 E. Main St., Lancaster, Ohio 43130. For more information, call 740/654-9923.