As embedded artist with the Union army, Winslow Homer captured life at the front

As most 25-year-old men marched off to war in 1861, artist Winslow Homer took a different path to the front.

Armed with drawing utensils and paper, he was one of a select group of artist-reporters embedded with Union troops, documenting battles as well as camp life for Harper’s Weekly Illustrated, then the premiere illustrated newspaper in the country.

“Homer is an original. He probably did as much as anyone to give us a visual representation of the Civil War,” said David Blight, the Class of 1954 Professor of American History and director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition

See also: Yale remembers the Civil War

A number of the Harper’s Weekly Illustrated issues, including every one published between 1857 and 1901, are housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The Yale University Art Gallery holds more than 100 wood engravings Homer made for the paper.

“Harper’s was Life magazine and television wrapped into one,” said Blight. “People would open their Harper’s as a newspaper, but also because of the great illustrations and artwork.”

Started in 1857 by Harper & Brothers publishing — now Harper-Collins — Harper’s Weekly Illustrated covered politics, presidential elections, international news, cultural events, and the war. At the height of its circulation between 1861 and 1865, it reached as many as 200,000 subscribers. This number doesn’t include the thousands who saw it second-hand each week, hanging in post offices or shared between neighbors, said Blight.

“The Civil War was the first great visual event in our country,” he noted.  

An artist’s path to war

Born in Boston in 1836, Homer was largely a self-taught artist who started his career as a lithographer and then became a freelance illustrator for magazines.

Cover of the Aug. 31, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly, showing General Lyon at the Battle of Springfield. Wood engraving by Winslow Homer. Beinecke Library.

“By the time he went to work for Harper’s, Homer was already an experienced illustrator for the popular press,” said Keely Orgeman, acting assistant curator in the Department of American Paintings and Sculpture at the art gallery. “He was freelancing, but worked exclusively for the paper during the Civil War.”

According to Orgeman, Homer was one of about 30 artist-reporters producing around 6,000 images during the war for the three illustrated weekly newspapers based in New York City.

Photography was a recent development in the mid-19th century, and the limited technology for processing photographs in the field and reproducing them in print made artists’ illustrations the best choice for newspapers.  

“This was the first war with widespread illustrated representation. Not until the 1850s were the technologies sophisticated enough to produce engraved images on a mass scale,” said Orgeman. “Pictorial journalism, the illustrated news, provided a much larger audience with depictions of the war than photography.”

The other major illustrated papers in New York were Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and the New York Illustrated News. The Southern newspapers had neither the resources nor enough skilled engravers to compete on the level of their Northern peers. In May 1861, Montgomery Blair, postmaster general of the United States, ordered the cessation of mail between the North and South; as a result only Northerners followed the war through illustrated papers.

“This is a very Northern story,” said Orgeman.

Artist-reporters on the front

Artist-reporters had to be more than merely good draftsmen. They had to be astute observers, have an instinct for story and drama, the ability to sketch quickly and accurately, and no small amount of daring, as they faced battles, injuries, starvation, and disease first hand. The work was both dangerous and exhausting.

Winslow Homer, “The Surgeon at Work in the Rear, during an Engagement,” from Harper’s Weekly, Jul. 12, 1862. Wood engraving, Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Allen Evarts Foster, B.A. 1906

According to Orgeman, scholars can verify that Homer made two or three separate sustained visits to the front. Details of his military assignments come from his sketches or correspondence from the soldiers and officers he encountered. Homer traveled to Alexandria in April 1861 and sketched the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, the only Union regiment to carry lances. He spent two months with the 61st New York Infantry near Fort Monroe and Yorktown, and at some point was with the 5th New York Infantry, also known as Duryee’s Zouaves.

“Homer, like other war correspondents, considered what he did to be a public service and felt as though he endured some of the same kind of experiences as soldiers did,” said Orgeman. “When Homer was stationed in Yorktown on the front, he was unable to eat for three days, along with all of the soldiers. According to his mother, he was completely changed by that experience.”

Homer also grew a beard and mustache like most soldiers, and his clothes were dirty from long marches on the road and poor conditions in camp. He witnessed violent events — a bayonet charge at the Battle of Seven Pines and surgeons working frantically on wounded men at the rear of battle — as well as daily life in the camps. Some of Homer’s most poignant illustrations depict the men getting their Christmas boxes from home, tugging on a “wish bone” after Thanksgiving dinner, and playing football in camp.

He also joined small groups of soldiers on picket duty — scouting assignments — such as the one depicted in Homer’s painting “In Front of Yorktown,” hanging in the art gallery.

“Homer occupied a position of privilege as an artist-reporter,” said Orgeman. “It was this very small, select group of men. He was respected by those around him, except for those in charge, who questioned the accuracy of his illustrations. Homer was in some ways one of them, but was also an outsider and not fully trusted during his stays with the army.”

From sketch to mass production

When he was traveling with the Union army, Homer dispatched his sketches from military posts to the Harper’s New York office. A team of engravers waited on the other end to translate his drawings for the paper. 

Winslow Homer, “The Army of the Potomac– A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty,” from Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 15, 1862. Wood engraving, Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Allen Evarts Foster, B.A. 1906

The process began by piecing together a number of 2” x 3” boxwood blocks to create the desired size of the picture. One engraver would then make the outline of the illustration by carving lines that stretched across the seams.

Once the rough contours were laid down, the blocks would be broken apart and given to individual engravers. According to Orgeman, each engraver typically had a different role. One artist might specialize in trees, another in figures.

When completed, the blocks were bolted back together. Because they needed to form a cohesive image that represented the work of a single artist — Homer — someone would review the finished piece to ensure the engravers had consistently represented an individual hand.

With the uniform image finished, the engraving was ready for print. Many of Homer’s illustrations were full-page, printed on the front of the 12” x 16” paper, which had 16 pages per issue.

“Homer gave people views of the war that most would never see,” said Orgeman. “Illustrations of battles might not run until many days after the actual event. For that reason, depictions of camp life and portraits of important figures were useful.”

Orgeman said that Homer became known for his scenes of daily life in the army. One of his most famous is “A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty.” Homer was so taken with the subject that he conceived of an oil painting at the same time as the illustration, which was printed in the Nov. 15, 1862 issue of Harper’s.

“He’s an illustrator and artist-reporter first, and his painting practice grew out of these experiences,” said Orgeman, noting that “Sharpshooter” became Homer’s first significant work in oil paint. It was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1863 and is now in the collection of the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) in Maine, which also manages the Winslow Homer Studio, just 12 miles south in Prouts Neck.

When Homer was not traveling with the Union army, he depicted scenes of life at home, including dances, soldiers returning home, and the important role that women played. An 1862 engraving “Our Women and the War” shows them caring for wounded and dying soldiers; making and washing clothes for the winter months; and writing letters from home.

Life after war

Homer’s reputation as an artist grew significantly during the Civil War, thanks to the reach of Harper’s Weekly. He was known throughout the United States and in London, as The Illustrated London News exchanged artists’ work with Harper’s.

Winslow Homer, “Surf, Prouts Neck,” 1883, watercolor, Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Doris M. Brixey

Homer went on to have a distinguished career as an oil and watercolor painter, known for his scenes of contemporary life — children at play and modern leisure pursuits like croquet — as well as his dramatic maritime paintings. He also continued to produce commercial illustrations for Harper’s and other publications.

The artist fell in love with the natural beauty of coastal Maine and moved from New York City to Prouts Neck in 1884, which would be his home and workspace until his death in 1910. His studio was declared a National Landmark in 1966 and purchased by the PMA in 2006, which renovated it and now offers guided tours.

While Homer never taught art professionally, his work influenced generations of American artists to come. In 1962, a little over 100 years after he first traveled with Union troops as a war correspondent, the U.S. Post Office released a commemorative stamp in his honor. The subject chosen was “Breezing Up (A Fair Wind).”

Arts & Humanities

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Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,