The U.S. Civil War, sharpshooters and Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer, “The Army of the Potomac—A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty,” 1862, wood engraving, illustration in Harper’s Weekly (November 15, 1862, Smithsonian American Art Museum) A conversation between Sarah Alvarez and Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott

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Homer, Sharpshooters


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Key points

  • Winslow Homer was one of a number of artist reporters who worked for Harper’s Weekly Illustrated Magazine during the U.S. Civil War. These artists produced images that helped convey news of the war to mostly Northern readers on the homefront. At times, the artists worked from sketches they made while traveling with the U.S. (Union) Army. The sketches were then sent back to New York to be engraved for printing. 
  • Harper’s was the most popular illustrated magazine during the years of the Civil War. The magazine was headquartered in New York City, the center of print technology and readership at the time, The print industry in the South was much more limited in scale and reach. 
  • Sharpshooters were a new, elite rank of soldier during the Civil War. Under the leadership of Hiram Berdan, these skilled marksmen utilized recently developed telescopic sights to increase the range and accuracy of their rifle shots. Sharpshooters were both feared and admired, as the images and characterizations of them published in the popular press of the time reveal.

Go deeper

This work at the Art Institute of Chicago

Learn about how printing worked in this period in Victorian Illustrators: From Sketch to Print

Explore the Winslow Homer Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Read about News and the Civil War at the American Antiquarian Society

Discover how Homer’s work for Harper’s Weekly helped shape his later career as a painter

Read about Winslow Homer and the Pictorial Press

More to think about

The role of sharpshooters during the U.S. Civil War introduced an offensive, tactical role that some (including Winslow Homer) saw as tantamount to murder. From this perspective, sharpshooting was a troubling facet of a war with an incredibly high death toll. Images like Homer’s print (and related painting) reflected Americans’ fascination with and fear of the evolving technology of war. Consider more recent conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved. Discuss how the news media conveys or contributes to the moral anxiety of the time about the tactics and technology of war through visual imagery.

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.