The War for the Union, 1862—A Bayonet Charge

Click image to enlarge

The War for the Union, 1862—A Bayonet Charge
Winslow Homer
published by Harper's Weekly July 12, 1862
Wood engraving on paper
13 5/8 x 20 5/8 in. (image); 15 1/2 x 21 5/16 in. (sheet)
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Arthur and Hilda Wenig

Here is the chaos of battle! Men are so close that they are fighting hand-to-hand, using swords and razor-sharp bayonets. It is not likely that the artist, Winslow Homer, was really this close to the action. But, as a war artist, he certainly witnessed battles from afar, saw the effects of fighting, and talked to soldiers who had survived them. The magazine Winslow Homer worked for, Harper’s Weekly, sent him to live and travel with the Union Army on three separate occasions, in 1861, 1862, and 1864. This particular event occurred during the Battle of Seven Pines (or Fair Oaks), Virginia in May and June of 1862. As the accompanying article in Harper’s explained, the drawing was particularly dramatic because bayonet fights were rare, largely because men would retreat before having to face it: “All the strength and all the bravery in the world will not protect a man from being run through the body by a bayonet if he stands still while it approaches him end on.” As Homer’s picture shows, bayonet charges were a fierce and bloody way to take charge of an area. In an era in which images of the war often relied on first-hand renderings, his wood engravings published in Harper’s Weekly gained widespread popularity for their truthfulness and drama. Look at the faces of the men in this battle—they are terrified, determined, and angry. Not many civilians truly realized how ugly and confusing Civil War battles were for the soldiers who experienced them, but Homer’s works brought these realities home.

1. What might it have sounded like to be at this battle? What details in the image can you identify as sources of that sound?

2. Can you pick out at least three different facial expressions or poses? What do your observations tell you about the experience of this battle?

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

Portland Museum of Art. “Winslow Homer Illustrations.” Accessed February 29, 2012.
(For the accompanying text from Harper’s Weekly, click on “See 10 Illustrations with Magazine Pages.”)

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

Nosworthy, Brent. The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

© Art Institute of Chicago
For information about reproducing collection images, please contact Image Licensing at the Art Institute of Chicago.