Incarceration and Death
Throughout the North, the Union army established prisoner-of-war camps to house captured Confederate soldiers and some Northern political prisoners. Chicago was home to one of the most important prisoner-of-war camps in the Union, depicted here in an 1864 painting, Camp Douglas, by soldier Albert E. Myers of Pennsylvania.
By the end of the war, some 26,000 rebel soldiers had spent time in the camp, including Morgan’s Raiders, a guerrilla cavalry unit that invaded southern Indiana and Ohio in 1863 and whose men were documented a year later in the photograph Members of Morgan’s Raiders at Camp Douglas.
The 1893 engraving Prisoners Stripped and Searched in the Snow at Camp Douglas by an unknown artist speaks to the harsh conditions and treatment that rebel prisoners could be subjected to. Approximately 4,600 of the prisoners at Camp Douglas died of disease and malnutrition. Even so, Chicagoans were constantly afraid that the prisoners might escape and terrorize the city.
Death became an inescapable fact of homefront life; few families were thus untouched by loss. An 1865 print by an unknown artist, entitled The Bereaved Family, depicts a mother surrounded by four distraught children, a scene with which most Civil War-era Americans could empathize.
Patriot Mother at Her Boy’s Grave, made the same year, pays homage to the act of mourning at the graveside, so common throughout Northern and Southern communities alike. Artists who produced such images brought home the tangible, human effects of the horrors of war.
During the war other artists focused on the strange, even sublime, contrast between the peacefulness of the Northern homefront and the chaos and brutality of warfare. In Albert Bierstadt’s Mountain Brook and in Alfred Thompson Bricher’s The Hudson River at West Point, nature serves as a metaphor for the homefront: serene, steadfast, and greatly at odds with the disruption and dislocation of the conflict. Likewise, in Thomas Moran's Autumn Afternoon, the Wissahickon, the homefront is represented by a landscape of great beauty and tranquility.
The scale of change and devastation during the Civil War can be very difficult for Americans today to imagine. Examined together, pictures of people and places on the homefront can help us begin to grasp the significance of this event for the way civilians lived and worked day-to-day. At the same time, they remind us that people of that era also struggled to understand what was happening to their society. While a massive death toll reported in the newspaper could overwhelm and numb, a portrait of a grieving mother could touch hearts, allowing people to mourn and to confront the great uncertainty and challenges of their time.