Mad In Pursuit Notebook

Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer's War: Finding Inspiration

7.4.13. In the 21st century, those of us who wouldn't be caught dead in a uniform tend to idealize the military, especially on national holidays. Everyone who serves is a "hero." Maybe because we can't trumpet our "great military victories" in this age, we need to pay homage to the so-called heroism of each individual. Hate the war, love the soldier. Okay.

Consistent with my skepticism about every soldier a hero, I tend to dismiss war memorabilia as so much faux glory, like draping yourself in the victory of the hometown sports team. But then during inventory weeks like these, I'm forced to take a closer look. The subject: U.S. Civil War, aka The Great Rebellion. Yes, there were victories and episodes involving great bravery. But most of the individual soldiers were just guys doing their duty, keeping low and praying they'd see their families again.

It came to me sharply when reviewing a number of Winslow Homer prints from the War. For every glorious display of killer soldiers, there are many more depictions of camp life, whether camaraderie around the campfire or brawling over a game of ball or waiting in line for a paycheck.

The woodcut below is the famous The Army of the Potomac--A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty [Harper's Weekly, Nov 15, 1862]. The print became very popular in its day but Homer himself once wrote that sharpshooting was "as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army."* He preferred drawing scenes such as the one above -- Winter-Quarters in Camp--the Inside of a Hut [Harper's Weekly, Jan 24, 1863]. Here, the soldiers are drying their socks over the fire, reading letters and newspapers, and arguing over a card game. They are no doubt hoping that no heroism will be required to make it through to the next evening of welcome collapse in a warm cabin.

Winslow Homer

The glory of military victory accrues to generals. Acts of true heroism -- acts of bravery that defy rationality -- are few and far between. But in looking at this old material, I find myself responding more to a certain kind of everyday courage -- call it fortitude -- the guts to accept an obligation and see it through, day after hot rainy cold muddy mosquito-infested day, when a person might be tempted to believe death would be a relief but instead finds joy in dry socks, a game of cards, and a good night's sleep.

In today's world, glory and victory are something we look to our sports teams for. But the determined energy it takes to "soldier on," as the expression goes, might be a better inspiration.

*North & South, May 2006, Vol 9 No 2, p. 96.