We now live in challenging times with the pandemic and social upheavals occupying our conscious minds and social media. I’ve chosen to revisit one of Winslow Homer‘s most poignant images as a reminder of our humanity, that we can come together and be better than we were.
Homer traveled with the Union Army, but the story of the moving event that he depicted in this painting is told by a Confederate soldier who was present. That story follows, toward the bottom of this article.
Home, Sweet Home is one of the most famous paintings of the American Civil War, depicting a moment in time, painted by Winslow Homer. On opposite shores of the Rappahannock River, opposing armies are caught up in an awareness of brotherhood, as music becomes the medium that lays bare the humanity of the soldiers on both sides.
Winslow Homer was best known for his landscapes featuring the many moods of the ocean, but he also painted many iconic images of that turbulent time before, during, and after the American Civil War. His art captures a sense of familiarity, a feeling that the viewer knows these people and their stories intimately.
Wikipedia says, “Harper’s (magazine) sent Homer to the front lines of the American Civil War (1861–1865), where he sketched battle scenes and camp life, the quiet moments as well as the chaotic ones. His initial sketches were of the camp, commanders, and army of the famous Union officer, Major General George B. McClellan, at the banks of the Potomac River in October 1861.
“Although the drawings did not get much attention at the time, they mark Homer’s expanding skills from illustrator to painter. Like with his urban scenes, Homer also illustrated women during wartime, and showed the effects of the war on the home front. The war work was dangerous and exhausting. Back at his studio, Homer would regain his strength and re-focus his artistic vision. He set to work on a series of war-related paintings based on his sketches, among them Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (1862), Home, Sweet Home (1863), and Prisoners from the Front (1866). He exhibited paintings of these subjects every year at the National Academy of Design from 1863 to 1866. Home, Sweet Home was shown at the National Academy to particular critical acclaim; it was quickly sold and the artist was consequently elected an Associate Academician, then a full Academician in 1865.”
The story behind the painting, Home, Sweet Home, is told poignantly in the autobiography, Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson, who served in the Confederate Army.
“The Yankee band would play the popular airs of theirs amid much yelling and cheering; our bands would do the same with the same result. Towards the wind-up the Yankee band struck up “Yankee Doodle.” Cheers were immense. When they stopped our band struck up “Dixie,” and everything went wild. When they finished this, both bands, with one accord and simultaneously, struck up “Home, Sweet Home.” There was not a sound from anywhere until the tune was finished and it then seemed as if everybody had gone crazy. I never saw anything to compare with it. Both sides were cheering, jumping up and throwing up hats and doing everything which tended to show enthusiasm. This lasted for at least a half hour. I do believe that had we not had the river between us that the two armies would have gone together and settled the war right there and then.”
Quote from: Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson (1910)
Sources and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “Winslow Homer,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Winslow_Homer&oldid=817253575 (accessed January 4, 2018).
Home, Sweet Home: “Had we not had the river between us,” posted by Marek, https://civilwarfolkmusic.com/2013/12/15/1862-home-sweet-home/ accessed 04 January 2018.
Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson (published 1910 by Columbia, S.C., The State Company)
Home, Sweet Home (oil on canvas) by Winslow Homer – circa 1863 | Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed 04 January 2018.