Winslow Homer’s “Veteran in a New Field” and Postwar Toil for Civilians and Soldiers Alike

“Veteran in a New Field,” by Winslow Homer (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 1865, as hundreds of thousands of former Union soldiers returned home, Winslow Homer painted “Veteran in a New Field.” Homer had worked as an “artist-correspondent” for Harpers Weekly during the war. He spent much of the Peninsular Campaign of 1862 virtually on the front lines. His vast body of wartime work is known not for depictions of glorified charges (like those drawn by many of his contemporaries) but rather for candid scenes of camp life. In his painting “Home Sweet Home,” he portrayed a small group of soldiers bivouacked in a muddy camp as they listen with somber demeanor to the plaintive song being played. “Veteran in a New Field” captures an equally poignant moment. The scene depicts a Union soldier just home. He has dropped his uniform coat, haversack, and canteen (which bears the badge of the First Division, II Corps—the unit in which Homer was “embedded” for a time). It would seem as though the veteran has immediately picked up a scythe and set to mowing, perhaps without even a word to the folks at home. While some art historians focus on the implications of the scythe in his hands—the tool of the angel of death—there is also a strong sense of optimism about the painting. The discharged soldier has returned home but nonetheless has a bright, blue sky and a “new field” ahead of him. Like Cincinnatus, he has turned his back on the battlefield and, despite all he has endured, he has returned to civilian life, is already readjusting and setting to work.[1]

Three years earlier, Morris C. Fitch, a member of the Board of Managers of the Discharged Soldiers Home in Boston, employed a similar metaphor—but he was not speaking of veterans.[2] In a letter printed in the Boston Evening Transcript, Fitch urgently called for donations to the Home which had been founded just two months prior. He expounded on the good work already being done for disabled, discharged soldiers and the work ahead for all those at home. “Remember,” he wrote, addressing Boston’s civilians, “that the battle[s] of Maryland and Virginia are to be fought over and over again at our own doors, in the horrible shape of disease and of lifelong incapacity for work, and that we whom home has preserved in health and a full complement of limbs, are to be the toilers in the new field.”[3]            

My work-in-progress explores more deeply this “new field” of toil for civilians as they volunteered for relief organizations in the years immediately following the war.

[1] Christopher Kent Wilson, “Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field: A Study of the Harvest Metaphor and Popular Culture,” American Art Journal 17.4 (1985), 10-13, reflects on the optimism reflected in the painting (both for the readjustment of veterans and the democratic future of the U.S.) and the more grim symbolism of the soldier as a reaper of men; Marc Simpson, Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War, (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1988), 16-17, 143.

[2] “An Appeal in Behalf of the Discharged Soldiers Home,” Boston Evening Transcript, September 26, 1.

[3] “An Appeal…” Boston Evening Transcript.  

Published by Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate

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