Winslow Homer (1836–1910), The Veteran in a New Field, 1865. Oil on canvas. 24 1/8 x 38 1/8 in. x 61.3 x 96.8 cm.).
Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967 (67.187.131). Image © 1995 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He came home so changed that his best friends did not know him, but is well & all right now.
— Henrietta Maria Benson, describing her son, Winslow Homer, when he returned from the Civil War.
How did Civil War soldiers and their torn country return to peace after four years of fighting? In this lesson students consider Civil War veterans' possible memories and emotions as they returned to civilian jobs. Students study symbolism in Winslow Homer's painting, The Veteran in a New Field, and compare it to a photograph of the aftermath of a Civil War battlefield. After reading James Wren's Diary entry they write about and role-play a returning veteran.
After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to
With the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, the Civil War officially ended. However, it would take days for the news to spread, months before troops returned home (on either side of the conflict) and some will argue that life never returned to the way it was. For many soldiers they faced the double difficulty of returning to the daily routine of life and trying to make sense of all they had witnessed as a soldier.
In 1865 as the U.S. mourned President Lincoln's death and hoped for better times, Winslow Homer painted The Veteran in a New Field. American soldiers were returning home to resume civilian careers, many to farming in the U.S.'s largely agrarian society.
Artist Winslow Homer identified with the returning veterans. He too had been at war for the past four years, but rather than fighting, he had been an artist correspondent. In 1861, Harper's Weekly sent him to Virginia to cover the front lines of the war. For the duration of the war, he sketched soldiers both on and off the battlefield.
Far from the battlefront, other artists made wood engravings based on Homer's sketches. Although photographs were taken of the Civil War, they were not yet printed in newspapers. Therefore, the general public "saw" the war through these wood engravings printed in newspapers and magazines.
Winslow Homer was born in Boston and apprenticed to a local lithographer. At 21 he opened his own studio and became known for his commercial illustrations. However, he did not have formal art training until he moved to New York City in 1859 where he pursued his illustration career and took life-drawing classes at the National Academy of Design. After the war, Homer became a painter, often painting outdoor scenes of ordinary people in everyday life. His later paintings featured humans struggling against the power of nature, particularly the pounding Maine coast surf.
In Veteran in a New Field an unknown farmer intently harvests wheat in the center of a composition divided into three bands: background of sky; middle ground of standing wheat, and foreground of cut grain. The sun shines so hotly on his back that he has laid aside his soldier's jacket and canteen (in the right corner).
19th century viewers would recognize this symbolism in this painting:
The man— We know he's a veteran from his coat and canteen insignia. Although he probably removed them because he was warm, symbolically he has laid aside the warrior's uniform for that of a farmer. He is diligently pursuing a civilian occupation. In 1865 there was concern about how returning soldiers would adjust to their new roles. Their peaceful transition from war to peace was seen as a national strength.
Scythe— The farmer cuts the wheat with a medieval single bladed scythe, not a modern 1865 scythe with a cradle. Look closely to see that Homer first painted a cradle on the scythe, but painted over the cradle. The ancient figure of death, the Grim Reaper, traditionally holds a single blade like this farmer uses to cut the living wheat.
Wheatfield— This will be a bountiful harvest with plenty of food, a symbol of hope for better times. However, many Civil War battles were fought in fields such as this. In previous years this man may have cut down opponents with a sword or gun instead of cutting wheat with a scythe. In this sense the standing wheat represents the living, but the cut wheat in the foreground is the fallen soldiers and assassinated president.
The Veteran in a New Field is an elegy (if unfamiliar with this term, consult EDSITEment's Literary Glossary) for thousands of slain Civil War soldiers and a lamentation on the recent death of the nation's assassinated president. When newspaper readers saw engravings based on this oil painting in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in 1867 and in Harper's Weekly in 1872, they understood its reference to biblical passage Isaiah 2:4: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks."
Use the Look and Think worksheet to structure a class discussion about Homer's Veteran in a New Fieldpainting. Project the Look and Think Images page to help students compare and contrast Homer's painting and Timothy H. O'Sullivan's photograph A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, 1863. This photograph (which is a rearrangement of the bodies as they were actually found) later appeared in photographer Alexander Gardner's portfolio of Civil War photographs. See Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War of 1865-66, for the photograph, Gardner's accompanying text, and more information.
In O'Sullivan's photograph they might observe men in dark jackets lying on their backs in contorted positions on a field of broken grain stalks. The men are in their socks without shoes. Debris is scattered about the field. A faint horseman, standing figures, and hill and tree shapes are in the blurry background.
Create class lists to include all students' observations for both images.
After students compare and contrast the photograph and the painting, discuss what is happening in the photograph Ask:
Have students read the excerpt from the Civil War Diary of Captain James Wren. As they read the diary entry, encourage them to imagine what it must have been like to be there with James. When students have finished reading the diary entry, have them answer the questions on the Reading a Diary Entry sheet.
Once students have answered the questions, give them the "In His Shoes…" worksheet. Students should complete this worksheet, imagining what the man in the painting is thinking. They are to pretend that he was on the same battlefield at the same time as the men in O'Sullivan's photograph. The students should think about what the man in Homer's painting is thinking as he tends to his wheat, alive, while his comrades lost their lives. Push students to use their comparisons and contrasts from the beginning of the lesson, as well as information gleaned from James Wren's diary entry.
Students should now pretend that they are the figure in Homer's painting. Using the assessment paragraph at the bottom of the "In His Shoes ..." monologue sheet as a guide, students should pose themselves as the man in the painting is, and then share their monologue while cutting the wheat.
2-3 class periods