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Portland's Joseph Eaton remembered for his paintings of New Mexico
Randol B. Fletcher - The Oregon Herald
  Monday March 12, 2012 - 1:12 PM
Joseph Eaton is one of just two Civil War generals buried in Oregon. He rests in Riverview Cemetery in southwest Portland (Gen. Thomas Thorp is also buried in Riverview). Eaton served his country in two wars and was twice cited for gallantry in battle. The Daily Oregonian reported on the General's passing and commented that his one great hobby was fishing. "Nothing afforded him more genuine pleasure than an excursion to one of the local trout streams." The Oregonian did not mention another of Eaton's pastimes: As a young army officer stationed in remote western outposts, Eaton painted landscapes of the countryside where he lived. It is for these watercolors that Eaton is remembered today. The prestigious Zaplin Lampert Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico exhibits classic Western art, original paintings, and prints by the early artists of Taos and Santa Fe, as well as nineteenth and early twentieth-century American paintings. Hanging on old adobe walls are works by some of the region's early masters. Among the paintings in their collection are two watercolors by Joseph Eaton. The two small paintings, Don Fernando de Taos and Lower Corvero detail the low adobe shelters, mesas, and high deserts of frontier New Mexico as it appeared one hundred and sixty years ago.

West Point and Mexico

The son of a doctor, Joseph Horace Eaton was born October 12, 1815 in the historic seaside village of Salem, Massachusetts. At the age of fifteen, he won appointment as a cadet to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Eaton graduated from West Point in 1835 in a class that included George Mead, who would go on to command the victorious army at Gettysburg. Young Lieutenant Eaton proved to be an outstanding soldier. Initially assigned to army posts in Louisiana and Missouri, Eaton quickly earned a reputation as a detailed and studious officer. He was recalled to West Point and served as a teacher at the academy from 1839 to 1843. His service at the Point brought Eaton in contact with many of the most distinguished military men of his time. As assistant instructor of tactics, he drilled cadets Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, James Longstreet and many others. Eaton's managerial and administrative skills earned him promotion to captain and made him highly sought after as a staff officer. When the United States went to war with Mexico, Captain Eaton was selected as aide-de-camp to General Zachary Taylor.

At the Battle of Monterrey in 1846, Eaton volunteered to deliver dispatches from Taylor's headquarters to the army commanders on the front lines. Eaton carried out his mission in the face of grave personal risk, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire. As a result of his meritorious and gallant conduct, General Taylor promoted Eaton to brevet major of U.S. Infantry. Five months later, Eaton was again promoted, this time to brevet lieutenant colonel for courageous action at the Battle of Buena Vista where Taylor's six thousand Americans defeated twenty-thousand Mexicans under Santa Ana.

The artist emerges

It was in Mexico that Eaton began to comprehend his promise as an artist. While serving on Zachary Taylor's staff, Eaton made the acquaintance of prominent artists that visited Old Rough and Ready's headquarters. As Taylor's victories mounted in Mexico, the general became prime presidential timber back home. Whig newspapers sent artists to Mexico to paint heroic images of Taylor.

Eaton began with simple drawings. As a staff officer, he created official maps and made a detailed eyewitness sketch of the battle at Buena Vista. That sketch was used as the detail for a painting by artist Frances Flora Bond Palmer. In 1847, Fanny Palmer's painting of the battle was mass-produced and widely distributed as a popular lithograph.

When the war ended, Zachary Taylor was elected President of the United States and his aide Eaton received a prized appointment to the staff of the Army's Judge Advocate in Washington D.C. President Taylor died after just a year in office but Eaton retained his military staff position in the Fillmore administration. Eaton spent the next three years compiling official records and casualty lists from the war. He looked forward to a military career and advancement to senior rank in the nation's capital. Unfortunately, for Eaton, Millard Fillmore was defeated by Democrat Franklin Pierce in the election of 1852. With the Whig party out of power, most of their political appointees were replaced and favored army officers fell from grace. Joseph Eaton soon found himself reassigned to a remote outpost on the New Mexico frontier.

For the next four years, Eaton served on isolated army posts in the Far West. Assigned to the third Infantry he served at Fort Defiance, Fort Thorn, and at Albuquerque. Eaton brought his wife Susan and young son Frank west with him and the couple's first daughter, Sarah, was born at Fort Thorn. As part of his official duties, Eaton made sketches and maps of the army facilities. His black and white drawing of Fort Union was published in an 1857 book on New Mexico. His frontier duty came at a time of relative peace between the army and the Native Americans and Eaton had many hours to fill outside of his official duties. It was in the isolation and great emptiness of the American southwest that Eaton took up the paintbrush. He began to paint the horizons and landscapes of the land of enchantment. It was during this period that he painted the two works exhibited at the Zaplin Lampert Gallery. Another of Eaton's original paintings, Canoncito Bonito, was recently offered at auction with a starting bid of $16,000. The auction house described Eaton's work as "unpretentious, on-the-spot images, which in their simplicity beautifully document the West and Borderlands beyond mythology or drama. As early images of the Southwest, these watercolors rank with the U.S. iconography of Abert, Emory, and Bartlett." Other Eaton paintings are published in the book "The West Explored: The Gerald Peters Collection of Western American Art."

In 1856, after twenty-one years of active-duty Army life, Captain Joseph Eaton resigned his commission and retired from military service. He moved his family to Chicago where he was appointed Superintendent of Construction for the Federal government. In this capacity, he oversaw the construction of the U.S. Post Office and Customs House. The building was heavily damaged in the great Chicago fire of 1871 and was eventually razed.

Civil War ends retirement

After a five year civilian career, the War Between the States brought Eaton back into the army. He was commissioned as a major and assigned to the staff of General John C. Fremont in St. Louis. Major Eaton's attention to detail and reputation for meticulous paperwork once again earned him the notice of senior officers. He was assigned the trusted position of army paymaster for Kansas and Missouri and was reassigned to Washington D.C. where he was appointed as Assistant Paymaster-General for the entire U.S. Army. He oversaw the compensation of a military that had grown from ten thousand soldiers at the start of the war to nearly one million men under arms four years later. Eaton continued to rise in the ranks and at the end of the war was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General.

After the war, Eaton reverted to his previous rank of major but, as was the custom, would be referred to as "General" for the rest of his days. The life of a general staff officer in Washington, even during a time of war, was comfortable. While in Washington, the Eaton's added two more daughters, Louisa and Margaret, to their family. Census records indicate that in addition to his wife, son, and three daughters, the general's household included a cook, nurse, chambermaid, and a coachman. Eaton continued his duties in the paymaster department until 1874 when he was promoted to Chief Paymaster of the army's Department of the Columbia and assigned to its headquarters at Fort Vancouver. At the fort Eaton served under commanding officer, General O.O. Howard.

As a senior officer, Eaton was entitled to live in one of the fine Victorian houses across from the fort's parade ground. However, the Eaton family, accustomed to life in a larger city, chose to make their home across the river in Portland but two of the general's daughters did marry army officers from the fort. His son, Frank, went on to become a doctor. Apparently, Eaton did not continue with his painting after the Civil War. Undoubtedly too busy to paint during the war, once he was living in Oregon, Eaton preferred the fly rod to the paint bush.

In 1881, fifty years after entering West Point and following a lifetime of dedicated service to this nation, General Joseph Eaton finally retired from military life. Unknown to most Oregonians, Eaton is remembered as one of the earliest artists of the American Southwest. As a Civil War general, Eaton's autograph is sought after by collectors of that genre. Documents signed by General Eaton occasionally turn up on EBay and other auction sites with one signed document recently selling for $699.

Joseph Eaton can also be found listed in many popular books of quotation. Eaton's quote is about Civil War veteran Adolphus Greely who was to receive the Medal of Honor for an ill-fated Arctic expedition. It was rumored that in order to survive, Greely's party had engaged in cannibalism of their already deceased comrades. Many senior military officers were dismayed when President Cleveland promoted Greely from lieutenant all the way up to brigadier general. Hearing of Greely's promotion, Eaton is reported to have wisecracked to fellow officers that Greely "never commanded more than ten men in his life and he ate three of them."

General Joseph H. Eaton passed away in Portland on January 20, 1896. The epitaph on his tombstone speaks to his character: "A faithful and distinguished officer, a true Christian gentleman, a devoted husband and affectionate father."

May he rest in peace.

Randol B. Fletcher is the author of HIDDEN HISTORY OF CIVIL WAR OREGON published in 2011 by The History Press.

© 2012 by Randol B. Fletcher

Photo: Joseph Eaton is one of just two Civil War generals buried in Oregon.

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