Civil War Profiles: Winslow Homer sketches the Civil War


Most people would not readily associate the names Alfred Waud, Thomas Nast, Frank Vizetelly, Theodore R. Davis and Alexander Simplot with the Civil War. However, these men played an important role accompanying the armies in the field, employed as sketch artists for publications such as Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Photography was still in its infancy in the mid-19th century. Therefore, newspapers hired artists to supply imagery of military activity as men enlisted, trained in encampments and fought on battlefields from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River and beyond.

In 1861, an artist named Winslow Homer joined the ranks of the “Bohemian Brigade,” as Civil War reporters and artists dubbed themselves, for Harper’s Weekly. Future generations would celebrate his work and recognize his remarkable talent.

Initially self-taught as an artist, in 1859 the Bostonian Homer had enrolled in New York’s Life School of the National Academy of Design. The following year, he opened a studio on Washington Square in Greenwich Village and began taking private lessons as a painter.

When Harper’s appointed him as an artist-correspondent, Homer went to Washington and initially made sketches of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration as president. From there, he began to follow the Union army, first at the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 and later on the Virginia Peninsula south of Richmond.

Winslow’s father, Charles, wrote to his other son, Arthur, who was serving in the Union navy, that Winslow was more in danger “of being shot” as a sketch artist than Arthur was aboard ship. Homer’s proximity to the battlefield produced drawings such as “A Night Reconnaissance on the Potomac,” depicting Union scouts crawling up a mountainous ridge to observe a Rebel encampment in the valley.

In 1862, Homer sketched “The War for the Union — A Bayonet Charge,” based on the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia. A striking example of his art is titled “Sharpshooter,” featuring a member of Hiram Berdan’s talented marksmen hidden in a tree, sighting his Sharp’s rifle at an unseen Rebel victim.

Lloyd Goodrich’s evaluation of Winslow Homer’s Civil War collection is revealing. He explains, “These were not military subjects in the usual sense, but genre pictures of military life. But with all his avoidance of the tragic aspects of war, no other artist left so authentic a record of how the Civil War soldier looked and acted.”

The July 27, 1997, issue of the Washington Times cited Homer’s artistry as “insightful drawings of men at the front [that] largely formed the public’s image of the war. He lived with the Union troops, sharing their risks and hardships for four long years.”

Fine art inevitably becomes valuable property. A testimonial of this is the sale for $2.64 million to the National Gallery of Art of Winslow Homer’s melancholy “Home Sweet Home,” depicting two soldiers outside their shared “home” of a shelter half-pup tent in a Union encampment, listening to the regimental band playing the popular song of the same title.

This high-priced sale lends credence to the English critic John Ruskin’s assertion, “There is no great art possible to a nation but that which is based on battle.” This quote appeared in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Bedford Arts publication “Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War” by Marc Simpson, with contributions by Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. , Lucretia Hoover Giese, Kristin Hoermann, Sally Mills and Christopher Kent Wilson.

While Homer is the most renowned Civil War sketch artist, others — particularly Alfred Waud — are remembered for their contributions to the pictorial record of our nation’s most catastrophic period. The names of these artists, along with reporters and photographers from both the North and South, are inscribed on the National War Correspondents Memorial dedicated to their service, which sits on the crest of South Mountain west of Frederick, Md.

This monument was the brainchild of Delaware’s eminent wartime correspondent, George Alfred Townsend, a native of Georgetown, who set aside land on his mountaintop estate for this project. He dedicated the monument to the army correspondents and artists “whose toils cheered the fireside, educated provinces of rustics into a bright nation of readers, and gave incentive [in the future] to narrate distant wars and explore dark lands.”

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in
the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com,
or visit his website at
www.tomryan-civilwar.com.