Filling Cartridges at the United States Arsenal at Watertown, Massachusetts

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Filling Cartridges at the United States Arsenal at Watertown, Massachusetts
Winslow Homer
published by Harpers Weekly July 20, 1861
Wood engraving on paper
10 15/16 x 9 1/4 in. (image); 15 11/16 x 10 3/4 in. (sheet)
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Arthur and Hilda Wenig

How are the roles of men and women separated in this image? Who is doing the more "dangerous" work? This cover illustration for Harper’s Weekly shows how Civil War bullets were made. You might be surprised to see women employed in this way. In fact, both women and men participated in the war effort, working in factories that produced guns and ammunition for the troops. Winslow Homer was familiar with the Watertown Arsenal as it had been a major provider of weapons since the early nineteenth century. The arsenal employed three hundred people whose work was broken down along gender lines: men poured gun powder into paper cartridges and women put lead bullets (called minie balls) into the cartridge, on top of the power. These were then wrapped and sealed with another layer of paper. Women then stacked the cartridges neatly into ammunition boxes. In battle, soldiers had to load their rifles after each shot. This involved tearing open the cartridge—usually with their teeth—and pouring the powder, then the bullet, down the barrel of the gun. The soldier then tamped down all this with a ramrod, cocked the rifle, and fired. It was agonizingly slow, and soldiers stood exposed while they performed all these tasks. Published in July, 1861—early in the war when it was still believed the Union would secure a rather quick victory—Homer’s image may have served as an encouragement to civilians to take part in the war effort. Reflecting the speed of production at the arsenal, the accompanying article stated, “It is evident that, in the course of a few weeks, there will be no lack of this material of war, at all events.”

1. If you look closely, can you find Homer’s signature?  Throughout his career, even in his paintings, he would do clever things with his name.

2. What do you think is the purpose of the crossed rifles in this picture?  How do they relate to what is being shown in the picture?

3. One imagines that men handle the gunpowder because it is more dangerous. What other images from this website show the different roles and attitudes about men and women during the Civil War? What can you find out about gender roles in weapons factories today?

Further reading:
Brooklyn Museum of Art. "Collections: American Art: Filling Cartridges at the United States Arsenal, at Watertown, Massachusetts." Accessed February 29, 2012.

Brownlee, Peter John, Sarah Burns, Diane Dillon, Daniel Greene, Scott Manning Stevens, and Adam Goodheart. Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 114. 

Massey, Mary Elizabeth. Women in the Civil War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Portland Museum of Art. “Winslow Homer Illustrations.” Accessed February 29, 2012.
(For more details on the image click on “Zoom in on 250 Illustrations.”)

Simpson, Marc. Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1988.

Tatham, David. Winslow Homer and the Pictorial Press. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003.


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