Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Homer's Civil War Veteran: Battlefield to Wheat Field


The Lesson


Winslow Homer (1836–1910), The Veteran in a New Field, 1865

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.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Winslow Homer's Veteran in a New Field express the mood of the United States following the Civil War?
  • What emotions might a Civil War veteran experience as he re-enters his home life? How might these memories affect him?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to

  • Explain the symbolism in Homer's painting, The Veteran in a New Field.
  • Effectively "put themselves in someone else's shoes" in history to better understand what veterans have overcome.


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.

Painting Analysis and Symbolism

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."

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Look and Think, Compare/Contrast

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 Homer's painting students might observe a man, hat, suspenders, scythe, standing and cut wheat, jacket, canteen, white shirt, artist's signature, and date.

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.

  • Students might notice that both images are of men in a grain field with fallen stalks in each. However one man stands upright holding a scythe cutting wheat in the painting, but many men lay on the ground in the photograph. The sky in the painting is clear blue, but the sky is misty in the black and white photograph.

After students compare and contrast the photograph and the painting, discuss what is happening in the photograph Ask:

  • Why do you think all the plant stalks are on the ground? They were trampled in battle. Note that this is the Gettysburg battlefield after the battle.
  • Why are the men lying on the ground? They are dead.
  • What might have happened to their boots? Boots and weapons were taken off the dead to be used by survivors.
  • How do the different media influence perception of the work (in terms of mood, light, detail, perception of "truth"( Consider the "Does the Camera Ever Lie" link included in the lesson)
  • What is the man in the painting doing? harvesting, reaping, or cutting wheat. He is working hard in the hot sun.
  • How has artist Winslow Homer made the man important in this painting? He placed the figure in the center of the painting and created value contrast between his white shirt and the darker background. Nothing in the background distracts our attention from the central figure.
  • What shows that this man is former soldier or veteran? The jacket and canteen in lower right corner were part of a Union soldier's uniform and equipment. We assume that these belong to this reaper, and he has laid them aside.
  • What are two different ways to interpret the word "field"? What is the veteran's new field? What was his old field?
    • New kind of work (occupation)? Farming
    • Old field of work a few months ago? Fighting or soldiering
    • What kind of new field is he standing in? Wheat field
    • What kind of field did he probably stand in a few months earlier? A Battlefield
  • Compare the scythe of the Grim Reaper to that of the farmer. The Grim Reaper traditionally carries a medieval single bladed scythe like the farmer swings in the painting. Homer emphasized the connection between these two figures when he painted out the cradle of the 1860's scythe that he first had in this scene.
  • Find symbols of death and hope in this painting. Death: man holding a single bladed scythe and the cut or fallen wheat. Hope: field of abundant standing ripe grain, clear sky, the former soldier working in a peaceful occupation, and the cast aside military uniform and canteen.
Activity 2. Read a Civil War Soldier's Diary Entry

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.

Activity 3. Write a Monologue

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.

Extending The Lesson

  • Have students read the story of a returning Civil War veteran in The Return of a Private, short story in Main-Travelled Roads, 1891 by Hamlin Garland. It is on line at FullBooks.com.
  • Compare Winslow Homer's painting, The Veteran in the Field to Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Harvesters. Contrast the technology, socialization, mood, viewpoint, and landscape of Bruegel's 16th-century painting to that of Homer's 19th-century scene. In Bruegel's painting a group of peasants harvest a field and rest beside under a tree. It's a view in which a yellow sea of wheat extends into the distant landscape, and contrasts to the stark isolation and immediacy of Homer's single reaper.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Art History
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis
  • Visual art analysis
  • Kaye Passmore, Ed.D, Art Education Consultant (Corpus Christi, TX)
  • Amy Trenkle, NBCT, 8th Grade U.S. History Teacher, Stuart-Hobson Middle School (Washington, DC)