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The Civil War Soldier After the War: The Veteran in a New Field

Written on:May 11, 2011
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He came home so changed that his best friends did not know him, but is well & all right now.

— Henrietta Maria Benson, describing her son, Winslow Homer, when he returned from the Civil War.

The painting is “The Veteran in a New Field” (1865) by Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910).

Painted through summer and fall 1865, not long after the nation came to grips with Robert E. Lee’s surrender and mourned President Lincoln’s assassination—both of which occurred during the second week of April—Homer’s canvas shows an emblematic farmer who is a Union veteran, as signified by his discarded jacket and canteen at the lower right. The painting seems to blend several related narratives. Most soldiers had been farmers before the war. This man, who has returned to his field, holds an old-fashioned scythe that evokes the Grim Reaper, recalls the war’s harvest of death, and expresses grief at Lincoln’s murder. The redemptive feature is the bountiful wheat—a northern crop—which could connote the Union’s victory. With its dual references to death and life, Homer’s iconic composition offers a powerful meditation on America’s sacrifices and its potential for recovery. (Source)

The symbolism is poignant and haunting. The average Civil War soldier was a farmer, and for many Union soldiers, they were wheat farmers. They returned to their farms, their homes, and to the harvest. Soldiers from Wisconsin, for example, who enlisted in 1861 recalled often in their letters home in 1862 of the harvest. For as we know, most thought they would be back in time to plant the next crop. The fields of death as captured by Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s famous photo, present a forceful dichotomy of the fields of life and death.

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2 Comments add one

  1. tim says:

    Great blog. I remember reading about a Union veteran going home after the war. He said he went to bed that night and got up went to the fields with his dad as if nothing unusual had happened. Wish I could remember where I read that. I also remember reading an article in a Civil War magazine years ago about a fellow who returned from the war with what would become known as post traumatic stress disorder and would eventually die driving a horse and wagon while intoxicated.

  2. Chris says:

    Tim, thanks for the comment. I have read several diaries and letters that dealt with those awkward moments when men returned home. It’s very rare to find one with a lot of substance, but you still can get a sense of their melancholy in returning home. The soldiers, it seems, felt a disconnect from those who stayed behind. When soldier’s returned they were expect, in many instances, to return to “life as normal” or at least as it was. So indeed, a very touching painting and I am looking into getting it for my office.
    Kind Regards,
    Chris

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