Army of the Potomac—Sleeping on Their Arms

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Army of the Potomac—Sleeping on Their Arms
Winslow Homer
published by Harper's Weekly May 21, 1864
Wood engraving on paper
13 5/8 x 20 3/4 in. (image); 15 5/16 x 21 5/8 in. (sheet)
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Arthur and Hilda Wenig

Did you know that soldiers often had to “sleep on their arms”? This phrase refers to the way that men on the march were allowed to sleep briefly, but not to set up camp. To be ready to move again shortly, or to defend against sudden attack, they lay down with their arms, or weapons, nearby. Winslow Homer’s no-nonsense portrayal emphasizes the harshness of military life for readers of Harper’s Weekly, where this illustration appeared in late May of 1864. It also reports on changing military strategy in Virginia. Rather than stopping to rest after each fight, Union General Grant decided to continually attack Confederate General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. His soldiers were thus constantly on the move and sleeping on arms became a regular occurrence. Grant’s strategy resulted in horrible casualties, and nearly lost the confidence of people in the North. But it also wore down the Confederate army and led to the fall of Richmond.

Note how Homer has taken care to show the way the men slept—with coats thrown over their faces as blankets, heads propped on knapsacks or canteens, rifles at hand. He also suggests how dangerous it was to sleep in the open. Soldiers assigned as sentries stand guard, and, in the background, those assigned to picket duty patrol for signs of the enemy. And notice how the leaves and the limbs of the trees have been shot away during battle—the men sleep on a battleground that stretches far into the distance. The contour lines Homer uses to depict the resting bodies make them appear to become part of the landscape itself.

1. Compare this image to Homer’s Winter Quarters in Camp—The Inside of a Hut. What are the similarities and differences in these images of men at rest? What do they tell us about the difficulties of life as a soldier?

2. Homer’s print doesn’t indicate how dark it might have been on that battlefield at night. What do you think it would have felt like to be one of the sentries or pickets on duty that evening? What would your senses tell you—smell, sound, sight? Are there details in Homer’s image that help you answer this?

Further reading:
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. http:/
(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.

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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