We acquired a really cool piece for the collection this week to help support one of the Museum’s archival collections. The collection is the William McBlair Papers (MS0018) and it’s one of the Library’s best slavery-related collections. It includes official documentation of McBlair’s US Navy activities and letters to his wife. The collection also documents his Civil War service during which time he supervised the building of the CSS Atlanta (which he then commanded).
William McBlair was appointed a midshipman in 1824. He served on various duty stations, including Falmouth, Massachusetts and Norfolk, Virginia. As a Lieutenant Commander McBlair commanded the armed storeship USS Erie (it had been converted from a sloop-of-war in 1843) and made several voyages to supply the African and Mediterranean Squadrons.
It was during his time on the USS Erie that McBlair carried a family friend to Italy–Alexander Galt, Jr. (apparently civilians regularly hitched rides on US Navy ships!). Some of you may recognize the name as Galt became one of the best-known American sculptors of his day. Those of you who live near the University of Virginia have probably seen his work as he is best known for a life-sized sculpture of Thomas Jefferson. We think Galt, who was only about 20 at the time, may have been traveling to Italy to study.
Three letters McBlair wrote during the voyage (the ship left New York in September 1848) mention Galt and McBlair’s belief that Galt’s experience on board was a positive one and that he seemed happy. During the voyage, Galt, who had become quiet adept at carving cameos from conch shells, carved a small cameo portrait of McBlair. Thankfully Galt signed and inscribed the portrait on the reverse “Galt Sculpt U.S.S Erie 1848” otherwise the sitter might have remained anonymous.
This is a fantastic little piece. It not only gives the Museum a portrait image of the man whose collection we hold but it’s also a great example of ship board art. Now all we need is our own image of the USS Erie and the collection will be complete!