Saturday, May 13, 2017

Examining Homer's haunting 'Skirmish in the Wilderness'

Harpers Weekly sketch artist-correspondent Winslow Homer's "Skirmish in the Wilderness."
The painting is displayed in the New Britain (Conn.) Museum of American Art.
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Circa-1880 photo of Winslow Homer,
one of the greatest
painters in American history.
In Winslow Homer's haunting painting "Skirmish in the Wilderness," faceless Union soldiers fight an unseen foe as battle smoke drifts through the dark, dense thickets. Upon close inspection of the original, oil-on-canvas artwork at the New Britain (Conn.) Museum of American Art, details often overlooked become apparent: an officer leading a company of soldiers, their bayonets glistening; an apparently lifeless form sprawled in the foreground; another officer, perhaps with a head wound, sitting against a large tree by a cluster of three other soldiers while clutching his saber; an upraised arm brandishing a sword.

Homer -- a sketch artist-correspondent for Harpers Weekly who was attached to the Army of the Potomac -- witnessed the great battle, fought May 5-6, 1864, about 15 miles from Fredericksburg, Va. The Wilderness painting is believed to be based on one of his sketches. A placard on the wall next to his battle painting describes Homer's harrowing work: "Nature threatens to engulf the soldiers," it reads, in part, "physically and psychologically."

Indeed, fighting in the Wilderness was especially terrifying, Soldiers often could not see their enemy as sulfurous smoke from gunfire lingered in the air. When trees and thick undergrowth caught fire, some helpless wounded soldiers burned to death, their bones and skulls found scattered about the battlefield months or even years later.

Paired with cropped enlargements of Homer's 1864 painting, here are Union voices from that awful battle:



"No man can claim that he saw this battle, and although undoubtedly it had a line and formation of its own, it would puzzle even the Commanding General to lay it down on the map. There is something horrible and yet fascinating in the mystery shrouding this strangest of battles ever fought -- a battle which no man could see -- and whose progress could only be followed by the ear. It is, beyond a doubt, the first time in the history of war, that two great armies have met, each with at least two hundred and fifty pieces of artillery, and yet placed in such circumstances as to make this vast enginery totally useless. Not a score of pieces were called into play in the whole affair, and I may mention, it as a fact strikingly illustrative of this battle, that out of the three thousand wounded in the hospital of  [Winfield] Hancock's command alone, not one of the wounds is a shell wound."

SOURCE: New York Times correspondent, published May 13, 1864



The smoke was so dense and blinding that we could see with difficulty but a short distance. Under such conditions it seemed hardly possible to reform the regiment.

It was at this juncture that I saw General John I. Curtin, a little to my right, standing alone. I rushed to his side and asked him if we had lost our colors. He replied, apparently disheartened, 'I do not know.' But presently, through the smoke, we saw a flag being borne in our direction and discovered that it was our color bearer. I immediately grasped the colors, and with an energy born of the calamity, and inspired by a realization of its meaning, sang out:
'Rally round the Flag, boys!
Rally once again!
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.'
"Those of the comrades nearby joined in with all their might. As if by magic the regiment reformed, each comrade took his place. The air was filled with smoke from the burning underbrush; the whistling of deadly missiles; but above all that bedlam of excitement, disorder and danger ... "

-- Captain Rees G. Richards, Company G, 45th Pennsylvania

SOURCE: History of the Forty-fifth regiment, Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer  Infantry



"So thick were the trees that it was difficult for the men to advance in line and we could seldom see further than a few rods ahead. Before long the scattering fire in front of us had grown more rapid and in a few minutes the skirmishers fall back and though we cannot see them, we know that we have encountered the main body of the enemy. A tempest of bullets cuts the air and the men fall from the ranks like autumn leaves in a November gale. Without any order that I heard, our line paused and in another instant countless tongues of flame leaped from the muzzles of our rifles and speech is drowned by the deafening and unintermitted roar of musketry."

-- Adjutant William Hincks, 14th Connecticut

-- SOURCE: History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry



"He was with his company and regiment engaged in the battle of the Wilderness on the 6th day of May 1864 in which ground was lost and regained several times by the Brigade to which the regiment belonged. And a large number of men were killed and wounded and left on the ground which the enemy burned over by firing the woods so that the wounded who were unable to escape were burned to death and ... the dead were so burned as to be unrecognizable. Some of the wounded escaped from the fire into our own lines and some into the enemy's; but, although special inquiries have been made in his case, nothing whatever has been learned either from those who remained within our own lines or those who became then or at any other time prisoners to the enemy concerning said Jones,  except that some of his comrades reported him to have been wounded, but how bad it was not known. And it has been and still is the universal belief of all who knew him both in and out of the Army that he was killed in the said battle or burned to death there on the said 6th day of May 1864 and I verily believe such was fact."

-- 126th New York Captain John B. Geddie on the fate of Corporal Edward Jones of Company H. 

SOURCE: Jones' widow's pension file, affidavit from Aug. 1, 1865, National Archives via

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For more "Voices in the Wilderness" on my blog, click here.

1 comment:

  1. This has brought the painting and the battle to life...