Home Front: The Visual Culture of the Civil War North

Hana Layson with Daniel Greene

How did images shape the meaning of the war for people at home and the meaning of the home during wartime?

Introduction

How did the Civil War transform the daily lives of people who lived hundreds of miles from the front lines? Most of the battles of the Civil War occurred either in border states or south of the Mason-Dixon line. As a result, civilians in border states and in the South encountered the Union and Confederate Armies themselves and witnessed the military conflict firsthand. Civilians in the North and West may not have had such direct experience of battle, yet many nevertheless found their daily lives transformed. Families sent soldiers and nurses to the southern battlefields. Northern women and men worked to provide the Union troops with necessities and comforts—clothes, bandages, ammunition, food. They mourned the dead—more than 360,000 men from the North alone—and they received the surviving veterans, many severely wounded, who made their way back home.

In the North, popular illustrations, along with photographs and paintings, made up a rich visual culture related to the war.

Beyond the demands of the war effort, Northerners experienced the Civil War from a distance in historically unprecedented ways. Historian Adam Goodheart notes that changes in printing practices meant that, for the first time, “Americans did not simply read the news—they saw the news.” This had not been the case for previous generations. People who lived during the American Revolution had to wait weeks or even months for news of the war, which arrived by word of mouth or in the cramped columns of local newspapers. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the North had a flourishing periodical press that not only delivered news faster, it illustrated the news in pictures. Weekly periodicals, such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly, began printing large, woodcut illustrations in the years just before the Civil War and had circulations in the hundreds of thousands. The papers hired artists, such as Winslow Homer, to travel near the front lines and portray soldiers’ experiences on the battlefields and in Union military camps.

Periodical illustrations made up one part of a rich visual culture related to the war that developed in the North in the 1860s. The period is often referred to as the coming of age of photography. Photographs could not yet be effectively reproduced in large numbers, yet they had a profound cultural influence through the portrait studios that thrived in towns and cities throughout the North. Photographers such as Matthew Brady exhibited their works in galleries, introducing Northern audiences to devastating images of corpse-strewn battlefields. While some artists embraced the new standard of realism set by photography, others developed a strong, symbolic language to spur patriotic feeling. Both respected painters, such as Frederic Edwin Church, and popular illustrators, whose work appeared on sheet music and stationery, invested images of the U.S. flag with a new significance.

The following collection of documents brings together a wide range of images from sources both popular and highbrow in order to explore how visual culture shaped the meaning and experience of the Civil War home front. This digital collection is based on the 2013 Newberry Library and Terra Foundation for American Art exhibition Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North, curated by Peter John Brownlee and Daniel Greene.

Essential Questions

  • What was the visual culture of the Civil War North? Which subjects related to the war did artists and publishers portray for audiences away from the front?

  • How did artists use various media—painting, photography, printing—to convey the national experience of the war? What were the relationships between popular and elite forms of media?

  • How did images shape the meaning of the war for people at home and the meaning of the home during wartime?

The War Illustrated

The illustrations below are drawn from the popular, New York–based weeklies Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly and suggest some of the ways these publications pictured the war for their readers. The first portrays the bombardment of Fort Sumter and was originally published on April 20, 1861, less than a week after the event itself. This spectacular representation of the outbreak of war contrasts with the seemingly mundane illustration that follows of the “Morning Mustering of the ‘Contraband’ at Fortress Monroe.” The term contraband refers to former slaves who had escaped into the protection of Union forces. If mustering normally suggests the routine activity of soldiers, in this case, it evokes radical social change—the prospect of freeing slaves more than a year before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. (For more information, see The Contraband.)

“News from the War” presents a series of vignettes that depict the importance of wartime communication both to soldiers at war and to their families at home. The artist, Winslow Homer, went on to become one of the most-celebrated American painters of the nineteenth century. But he began as a commercial printmaker and, in October 1861, had been hired by Harper’s Weekly to serve as an artist-correspondent in Virginia.

The final image below is of the Myriopticon, a miniature panorama produced by toy manufacturer Milton Bradley shortly after the war ended. The Myriopticon was a shoe-box-sized theater. It presented the history of the “Rebellion” on a scroll of 22 hand-colored illustrations copied from Harper’s and mounted on spindles in a cardboard box. A presenter could turn a crank to move the scroll from scene to scene, while reading from an accompanying script. The toy was so popular in some areas that neighbors would gather in the owner’s house to watch the show over and over. One child begged Bradley to sell more of the devices, so “as to make it less crowded in our parlor.”

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe the illustration “The Bombardment of Fort Sumter.” What details did the artist include in the scene? Would you describe the image as realist, in the manner of today’s newspaper photographs, or symbolic? Use evidence from the illustration to support your interpretation.

  2. How does the artist portray the gathering of “contraband” at Fort Monroe? In what ways do the men resemble soldiers and in what ways are they visibly different from soldiers? How do they relate to other figures in the scene such as the Union Army officer and the dog? Would you describe the “contraband” as dignified or comic?

  3. Compare the “Bombardment” and “Mustering” illustrations as representations of the war. Keeping the newspaper’s northern audience in mind, what does each image say about the larger significance or meaning of the war?

  4. Examine the scenes in Homer’s “News from the War.” What is happening in each scene? What does the illustration suggest about the role of periodicals, such as Harper’s, as well as private letters in wartime culture?

  5. Why do you think the Myriopticon appealed to consumers after the Civil War? What kind of historical narrative does it offer?

“The Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, the 12th and 13th of April, 1861”

E. G. Squier. From Frank Leslie's Pictorial History of the American Civil War, 1862.

Image of The Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, the 12th and 13th of April, 1861

Leslie’s first published this illustration less than a week after Confederate forces attacked U.S. troops at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, in the first military assault of the Civil War.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title The Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, the 12th and 13th of April, 1861
Short Title Fort Sumter, 1862
Book Title Frank Leslie's Pictorial History of the American Civil War
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Frank Leslie
Creator E. G. Squier
Publication Date 1862
Pages p. 8
Call Number Dawes F 834 .496
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“Morning Mustering of the ‘Contraband’ at Fortress Monroe, on Their Way to Their Day’s Work, under the Pay and Direction of the U.S.—from a Sketch by Our Artist at Fortress Monroe”

From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, November 2, 1861.

Image of Morning Mustering of the ‘Contraband’ at Fortress Monroe, on Their Way to Their Day’s Work, under the Pay and Direction of the U.S.—from a Sketch by Our Artist at Fortress Monroe

Slaves who had escaped into the protection of Union forces were often described as contraband in the Northern press.

Metadata Details
Item Type Newspaper Article
Title Morning Mustering of the ‘Contraband’ at Fortress Monroe, on Their Way to Their Day’s Work, under the Pay and Direction of the U.S.—from a Sketch by Our Artist at Fortress Monroe
Publication Title Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
Short Title Mustering the Contraband, 1862
Publication Date November 2, 1861
Pages p. 373
Call Number oversize A 5 .34
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“News from the War”

Winslow Homer. From Harper's Weekly, June 14, 1862.

Image of News from the War

Winslow Homer illustrates the importance of newspapers and mail to both soldiers and their families.

Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title News from the War
Publication Title Harper's Weekly
Short Title News from the War, 1862
Creator Winslow Homer
Publication Date June 14, 1862
Volume Vol. 6
Pages pp. 376–377
Call Number folio A 5 .392
Location General Collections 2nd floor

The Myriopticon: A Historical Panorama: The Rebellion

Circa 1866.

Image of The Myriopticon: A Historical Panorama: The Rebellion

The Myriopticon is a miniature panorama illustrating the history of the Civil War. It was produced by toy manufacturer Milton Bradley shortly after the war ended.

Image of The Myriopticon: A Historical Panorama: The Rebellion

The back of the Myriopticon.

Metadata Details
Item Type Artwork
Title The Myriopticon: A Historical Panorama: The Rebellion
Short Title Myriopticon, 1866
Publication Date Circa 1866
Call Number VAULT Case oversize E468.7 .M96 1890
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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The Home at War

These two works by Winslow Homer suggest—directly and indirectly—some of the ways that the war changed the lives of civilians in the North. The 1861 cover of Harper’s shows men, on the bottom half of the page, filling paper cartridges with gunpowder. Women, on the top half, insert the bullets. The work was dangerous; in spaces full of live ammunition, the smallest spark could trigger a catastrophic explosion. Women in the North had worked in factories for decades, but the war greatly increased the necessity and the opportunity for women to take on wage labor outside the home. Homer’s 1864 painting On Guard portrays a boy watching over his family’s fields in his father’s absence, evoking changes to children’s lives as a result of the war.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe the women and men at work in the Watertown arsenal. How does the illustration portray this aspect of the war effort? What does it suggest about the ways that women’s and men’s lives were changed by the war?

  2. Examine Homer’s painting On Guard and particularly the boy’s posture and expression. In what ways does Homer compare the boy to a soldier? How has the war transformed the home, according to this work?

“Filling Cartridges at the United States Arsenal, at Watertown, Massachusetts”

Winslow Homer. From Harper's Weekly, July 20, 1861.

Image of Filling Cartridges at the United States Arsenal, at Watertown, Massachusetts

The 1861 cover of Harper’s shows men, on the bottom half of the page, filling paper cartridges with gunpowder. Women, on the top half, insert the bullets.

Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title Filling Cartridges at the United States Arsenal, at Watertown, Massachusetts
Publication Title Harper's Weekly
Short Title Filling Cartridges, 1861
Creator Winslow Homer
Publication Date July 20, 1861
Volume Vol. 5
Pages Cover
Call Number folio A 5 .392
Location General Collections 2nd floor

On Guard

Winslow Homer. 1864.

Image of On Guard

This Civil War–era painting portrays a boy watching over his family’s fields in his father’s absence.

Metadata Details
Item Type Artwork
Title On Guard
Short Title On Guard, 1864
Creator Winslow Homer
Publication Date 1864
Artwork Medium Oil on canvas
Artwork Size 12 1/4 x 9 1/4 in. (31.1 x 23.5 cm)
Call Number Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1994.11
Rights Photography ©Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago

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The Iconography of Patriotism

The sources below are all quite different and provide a sense of the popularity of images of the U.S. flag in the Civil War North. Renowned landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church created Our Banner in the Sky in response to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. The painting, on one level, exemplifies the allegorical and abstract approach to the war taken by members of the Hudson River school, at the time America’s most prominent fine arts movement. However, as the images that follow suggest, Church’s painting was one of many representations of the flag produced in the North during the war. Indeed, a New York publishing firm bought the copyright to Church’s painting, reproduced it as a lithograph, and sold numerous copies.

In this context, Church’s work does not seem entirely different from the mass-produced flag images that follow. “Capture of the Heights of Fredericksburg” was one of many illustrations to feature a tattered U.S. flag waving triumphantly over the scene of a battle. In a time before recorded music, sheet music, such as The Bonnie Flag, was another popular source for the ubiquitous icon. Finally, the flag appears in a more intimate context: the stationery on which a Union soldier, George Deal, wrote to his wife, Sarah. His photographic portrait appears later in this collection.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe what you see in Church’s painting, Our Banner in the Sky. What is the scene that Church portrays? Why do you think he formed this national symbol out of a representation of nature? How would the meaning of the painting change if the Stars and Stripes appeared on a manmade flag and flagstaff?

  2. How does Church’s painting respond to the attack on Fort Sumter? What feelings does the painting evoke now or might it have evoked in viewers at the time?

  3. Examine the Harper’s representation of the capture of Fredericksburg, Virginia, a town that the Union had lost six months earlier in a crushing defeat. Would you describe this illustration as a realistic or symbolic representation of the battle? Why? What is the place of the flag within the image’s composition, or arrangement of figures? What message do you think this image conveyed to its audience in the North?

  4. Consider the illustrations on the cover of The Bonnie Flag and the letter from George Deal. What does the image of the flag convey in each of these contexts? Why do you think flags were so ubiquitous in the North during the war years?

Our Banner in the Sky

Frederic Edwin Church. 1861.

Image of Our Banner in the Sky

Renowned landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church created this work in response to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861.

Metadata Details
Item Type Artwork
Title Our Banner in the Sky
Short Title Our Banner, 1861
Creator Frederic Edwin Church
Publication Date 1861
Artwork Medium Oil paint, over photomechanically produced lithograph, on paper, laid down on cardboard
Artwork Size 7 1/2 x 11 3/8 in. (19.0 x 28.9 cm)
Call Number Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.27
Rights Photography ©Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago

“Capture of the Heights of Fredericksburg by the Sixth Maine Regiment, of Sedgwick’s Corps”

From Harper's Weekly, May 23, 1863.

Image of Capture of the Heights of Fredericksburg by the Sixth Maine Regiment, of Sedgwick’s Corps

Many illustrations produced in the North during the Civil War feature a tattered U.S. flag waving triumphantly over the scene of a battle.

Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title Capture of the Heights of Fredericksburg by the Sixth Maine Regiment, of Sedgwick’s Corps
Publication Title Harper's Weekly
Short Title Capture of Fredericksburg, 1863
Publication Date May 23, 1863
Volume Vol. 7
Pages p. 324
Call Number folio A 5 .392
Location General Collections 2nd floor

The Bonnie Flag with the Stripes and Stars

James Lorraine Geddes. 1863.

Image of The Bonnie Flag with the Stripes and Stars

Sheet music from the Civil War North often featured illustrations of the U.S. flag.

The third verse reads:

We do not want your Cotton, we care not for your slaves

But rather than divide this land, we’ll fill your southern graves

With Lincoln for our Chieftain, we’ll wear our country’s scars

We rally round that brave old flag, that bears the Stripes and Stars!

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title The Bonnie Flag with the Stripes and Stars
Short Title The Bonnie Flag, 1863
Place of Publication Saint Louis
Publisher Balmer and Weber
Creator James Lorraine Geddes
Publication Date 1863
Call Number sheet music VM 1640 .G29b
Location General Collections 2nd floor

Letter to Sarah Cole Deal

George Deal. November 9, 1862.

Image of Letter to Sarah Cole Deal

Union soldier George Deal, stationed at Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati, Ohio, often wrote to his wife, Sarah, in Columbus, about his longing for home and the comforts of family meals. See also Deal’s portrait.

Camp Dennison Ohio

Nov 9/62

Dear Wife

I [illegible] my Self to [answer?] your kind letter whitch I recieved of you on last Tuesday A weeke and was glad to here frome you but I was [vary?] [sorowed?] to here you wer not all well but I hope these few lines will find you well fore it leves me well and hardy and my [going?] Soldering [illegible] if the Children dont get better I want you to take them [ofver?] to Dr [illegible] and see wat he can do fore them. we Expect to be paid upon next Thursday and if that is the case I wante

Image of Letter to Sarah Cole Deal

Back of George Deal’s letter to Sarah.

[p. 2]

you to call at the Express Office on next Sadersday I shall indever to send it thaire and you cane call and get it next Sadersday I think you better go on next Sadersd any how we intend to leave fore [illegible] as soon as we get our money Corneal Devenport got A letter from his wif last Thursday he and my self is on guard to day and it is a nice day fore standing guard well I have not much time fore to have much more writen (fore I have to go on Guard at 3 PM) we have bine having some good times here it is nice Soldering here fore my parte I would like to stay here all winter I thot I would be much pleasenter in camp here than in [illegible]

[p.3]

I shall Colse by saying that I send my best Respects to [Pernielius J. Cool?] and reserve a larger portion to your Self

Your Husband

George Deal

Address

George Deal

20th Regiment [illegible]

Camp Dennison

[illegible] in leave of Capt [Updegraff?]

don’t delay a moment in answer this letter fore I want to here frome you before I leave Write soon

Yours

George

My foote is well I can stand marching with the best of them

Metadata Details
Item Type Letter
Title Letter to Sarah Cole Deal
Short Title Letter to Sarah Deal, 1862
Creator George Deal
Publication Date November 9, 1862
Call Number Newberry Vault Case MS 10030 Box 1, Folder 2
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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War Photography

In the 1860s, photography was still a challenging medium, especially for reportage: the equipment was heavy and bulky, subjects had to be perfectly still when the camera’s shutter snapped, and processing images required mixing dangerous chemicals by hand. Yet photographers such as Matthew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan ventured into the field to make the Civil War the first war to be extensively documented through photographs. The stark realism of corpse-strewn fields shown in photographs such as the one below seemed to many viewers to capture the particular brutality of this war. Although photographs were still too difficult to reproduce to be used in mass circulation newspapers or magazines, people found innovative ways to exploit the medium’s realism. The stereograph shown below presents two copies of the same photograph, slightly offset, which creates the effect of a three-dimensional image when seen through a handheld viewer. It portrays the aftermath of fighting in Gettysburg in 1863, one of the bloodiest battles of the war and the site of a major Union victory.

The war spurred the development of a thriving photographic portrait industry in cities and towns throughout the North. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers had portraits made as mementos for those they left behind. This photograph portrays Private George Deal whose letter to his wife, Sarah, appears in the preceding section. The negative was printed backwards; the U.S. on Deal’s uniform appears in reverse. Deal was killed at the Battle of Atlanta in 1864.

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine the stereograph of the Gettysburg battlefield. What does this image convey about the war and the lives and deaths of soldiers who fought? How does it compare to the illustrations of the war that appeared in magazines?

  2. Describe George Deal’s dress and posture in this portrait. What does the image tell you about how Deal wanted to be remembered? How does this image compare to pictures that people share with friends and family today?

On the Battlefield at Gettysburg

1863.

Image of On the Battlefield at Gettysburg

This stereograph presents two copies of the same photograph, slightly offset, which creates the effect of a three-dimensional image when seen through a handheld viewer. It portrays the aftermath of fighting in Gettysburg in 1863.

Metadata Details
Item Type Artwork
Title On the Battlefield at Gettysburg
Short Title Gettysburg, 1863
Publication Date 1863
Artwork Medium Photograph
Call Number Midwest MS Barrett-Sandburg, Series 4: Photographs, Bx. 8
Location Special Collections 4th floor

George Deal

1864.

Image of George Deal

Sarah Deal saved this portrait of her husband, George, a Union soldier killed in battle in 1864. See also his letter to Sarah.

Metadata Details
Item Type Artwork
Title George Deal
Short Title George Deal, 1864
Publication Date 1864
Artwork Medium Photograph
Call Number Newberry Vault Case MS 10030 box 1 folder 55
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Coming Home

After the war’s end, many women and children at home adjusted either to the loss or to the return of their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers with serious wounds or trauma. Soldiers returned home missing legs or arms or eyes. Depictions of the end of the war celebrated soldiers’ homecomings, but often did so in a way that communicated profound loss, evoking the soldiers who would not return home or the permanent scars of those who did. The images below appeared in popular periodicals during and just after the war’s final months.

Questions to Consider

  1. What do these images suggest about the reintegration of veterans into civilian life? Will they be embraced or honored by those who stayed home? How do the two figures in each image relate to each other?

  2. Examine Homer’s “Our Watering Places.” Does the image suggest changes in gender roles as a result of the war? How does it do so?

“Suffering Heroes”

Vaningen, Snider. From The Mothers' Journal and Family Visitant, January 1, 1865.

Image of Suffering Heroes

This image of two Civil War veterans illustrates the losses suffered even by those who survived warfare and points to the challenges of returning to civilian life.

Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title Suffering Heroes
Publication Title The Mothers' Journal and Family Visitant
Short Title Suffering Heroes, 1865
Creator Vaningen, Snider
Publication Date January 1, 1865
Volume Vol. 30
Pages p. 35
Call Number A 5 .6079
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“Our Watering Places—The Empty Sleeve at Newport”

Winslow Homer. From Harper's Weekly, August 26, 1865.

Image of Our Watering Places—The Empty Sleeve at Newport

This illustration of a couple at a seaside resort after the Civil War suggests the enduring impact of the war on social and, particularly, gender roles.

Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title Our Watering Places—The Empty Sleeve at Newport
Publication Title Harper's Weekly
Short Title The Empty Sleeve, 1865
Creator Winslow Homer
Publication Date August 26, 1865
Volume Vol. 9
Pages p. 532
Call Number folio A 5 .392
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Selected Sources

Brownlee, Peter John and Daniel Greene, curators. Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North. Exhibition co-organized by the Newberry Library and the Terra Foundation for American Art. 2013.

Burns, Sarah and Daniel Greene. “The Home at War, the War at Home: The Visual Culture of the Northern Home Front” in Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). 1–11.

Burns, Sarah and Daniel Greene. “The Toys of War.” New York Times (February 27, 2014). http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com.

Goodheart, Adam. “Foreward: Picturing War” in Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). xv-xx.

Gugliotta, Guy. “New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll.” New York Times (April 2, 2012).

Terra Foundation for American Art. The Civil War in Art: Teaching and Learning through Chicago Collections. 2012.

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Classroom Activities

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This collection created in conjunction with Daniel Greene’s Teachers as Scholars seminar, “Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North,” on November 15, 2013.

Support for this collection was generously provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

This collection was last updated