Thanksgiving in Camp

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Thanksgiving in Camp
Winslow Homer
published by Harper's Weekly November 29, 1862
Wood engraving on paper
9 3/16 x 13 3/4 in. (image); 11 3/8 x 16 1/16 in. (sheet)
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Arthur and Hilda Wenig

How would you know that these men are celebrating Thanksgiving? Because Winslow Homer had witnessed army life firsthand, the images of camp conditions he portrayed in weekly periodicals carried weight with the public. In this wood engraving depicting Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays, a dwindling campfire and bored, unmotivated soldiers reminded the American public of the different sort of celebration their “boys” were having. Homer’s eye for detail shows the varied ages, moods, and ranks of the men—note the different types of clothing worn by the infantry and cavalry soldiers, enlisted men and officers. Can you read the signs on the tent? The one that says “Sutler” tells us that the tent is a soldier’s store, where they would have come to buy their Thanksgiving meal. “Cider” would have been an alcoholic drink, which was only rarely available to soldiers. “Herrings”, a pickled fish, was an unusual and nutritious food for Civil War soldiers, but not particularly festive, as indicated by the attitude of the soldier on the far left! The same soldier also holds pieces of hard tack, a bland biscuit of flour and water that was a major staple of the military diet. The image documents the sparse physical comforts of army life but makes sure to include emotional aspects of camp life, too—its fun as well as its loneliness. Such an image reminded readers that their loved ones probably missed them as much as they missed their soldiers. Although an annual feast to give thanks had been celebrated on various days for more than a hundred years before this, it was Abraham Lincoln who established Thanksgiving on a fixed day beginning in 1863, one year after this image was made. 

1. Homer paid close attention to body language. Can you tell what the soldiers are experiencing by looking at their poses—the way that they sit and stand?
Further reading: 

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. 136. 

Coco, Gregory A. Civil War Infantryman: In Camp, on the March, and in Battle. Gettysburg:Thomas Publications, 1996.

Portland Museum of Art. “Winslow Homer Illustrations.” Accessed February 29, 2012.
(For more details on the image click on “Learn More about 20 Illustrations.”)

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

Stein, Gloria Sananes. Civil War Camp Life. Xlibris, 2008.

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

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