The St. Mary’s Enigma

A 19th-century painting of a warship sailing into Mobile Bay offers a small dose of history — and a large serving of mystery.

Like any respectable body of water, Mobile Bay boasts its share of historic marine art. Some of these paintings are well known, such as William Heysham Overend’s spectacular “An August Morning with Farragut” (1883), while others are not. Among the latter is a handsome mid-19th century canvas of the USS St. Mary’s coursing into the Bay, flags flying, crewmen on deck and dolphins cavorting off her bow. This picture was brought to my attention recently when local developer Mike Rogers acquired a reproduction. The original’s location is unknown. 

As usual with maritime art, the ship’s flags provide much helpful information. To begin with, the large 30-star United States flag narrows the picture’s probable dates. This banner was adopted on May 29, 1848, with Wisconsin’s admission to the Union and lasted until California joined three years later. The white pennant at the vessel’s mainmast displays her name, and the star-crowded blue Union Jack at her foremast confirms her to be a Navy ship. 

The picture’s bottom border features elegant but cracked lettering that reads: “Alex Milliken Commd’r Entering the harbour of Mobile. Evans. M. Painter.” The name Milliken presents a conundrum, however. There is no Alex (or Alexander) Milliken listed in the era’s naval records. Nor is there a Milliken among the vessel’s many captains. Who was he? Until further information emerges, he must remain a mystery. 

The painting’s signature also requires a little sleuthing. The painting is typical of James Guy Evans, a self-taught Louisiana artist who was active between 1835 and 1860. Evans was born in New York City in 1809. During the early 1830s, he served in the Marine Corps and after his discharge visited Cuba, briefly lived in Mobile and finally settled in New Orleans. The “M. Painter” after his name probably stands for “Marine Painter,” since that was how he preferred to be professionally known. During the autumn of 1850, for example, a Daily Orleanian reporter paid the artist a visit at his Poet Street address and admiringly wrote, “Our next door neighbor, J. G. Evans, is certainly a capital marine painter. He has in his studio some splendid objects of art, well entitled to approbation.” Evans enjoyed modest success and enhanced his income by painting houses and ornamental signs. More than 100 of his canvases have been identified, a few held by institutions, such as the Peabody Museum and the Louisiana State Museum.

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Happily, the St. Mary’s service history is more straightforward than her elusive Capt. Milliken or her thinly documented artist. She was built at the Washington Navy Yard during the early 1840s with an overall length of 149 feet and a beam of 37 feet. She carried 18 guns and was bark rigged, which Evans’s painting shows. Bark rigged ships featured fore and aft sails at their mizzenmasts, which made them maneuverable in tight bays and rivers. Immediately after commissioning, the St. Mary’s was dispatched to the Gulf where hostilities loomed with Mexico. She saw extensive action during the Mexican War and added her broadsides to the siege of Veracruz in 1847. In between fighting and blockading, the St. Mary’s made visits to friendly ports like Pensacola, New Orleans, Galveston and Mobile. She was transferred to the Pacific in 1848 and served there for 24 years. She then returned east and, after a stint as a school ship, was finally scrapped in 1908.

John S. Sledge is the author of “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.”

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