Camp and Hospital Life
Much of a soldier’s time and energy was spent trying to make himself comfortable in camp—getting enough sleep, building huts for long winter encampments, finding food and improvising meals, writing letters home, and anxiously awaiting news from families and friends. Artist Winslow Homer played an important role in documenting and explaining the nature of soldiers’ camp life for Northerners back home.
In images like Winter-Quarters at Camp—The Inside of a Hut and Thanksgiving in Camp, both published in Harper’s Weekly, Northern citizens found longed-for pictures of their boys at the front. Food—the subject of this print—was also a subject of many letters between soldiers and their loved ones.
Many soldiers were cared for in camp and field hospitals immediately following a battle. As seen in Homer’s Harper’s Weekly illustration The Surgeon at Work at the Rear During an Engagement, doctors struggled to make soldiers comfortable. Battlefield first aid was primitive and terrifying by today’s standards. Bullet wounds were extremely large and almost always destroyed part of the bone, thus amputation was considered the only option and was extremely common. The importance of sterilization was not yet understood, so there was a high rate of infection.
The situation was somewhat better in the permanent hospitals away from the battlefield, such as The United States General Hospital featured in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. In these hospitals, thousands of nurses, such as those shown in Samuel Hollyer’s book Women of the War—Famous Nurses of Union Soldiers, provided essential medical assistance and comfort to the wounded who lay recovering or dying.
Images of the military experience made a profound impact on the nation. Illustrators and photographers were instrumental in helping the larger public understand the immense scale of the war, its brutality, and its impact on the soldiers and others enlisted to help wage it. Their images complicated notions about the glory of war; they remain a potent source today for learning about this critical event in American history.