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 


Additional resources

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

[0:00] [music]

Sarah Alvarez: [0:05] We’re looking at a print called “The Army of the Potomac — A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty,” published in “Harper’s Weekly” illustrated magazine on November 15th, 1862 by the American artist Winslow Homer.

Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott: [0:17] During the Civil War, it wasn’t yet possible to reproduce photographs at mass scale. Instead, artists went along with the armies, sketched what they saw, and then they might have sent back these sketches for engraving in New York, so that the Northern public could get a firsthand look at what was happening.

[0:43] Homer made many of these images, showing not only individual soldiers, but also battles.

Sarah: [0:50] I really want to know, what’s a sharpshooter, and how do they factor into the Civil War? I’m also wondering if Homer saw this himself, or did he come up with this based on things he’d heard about, or other experiences that he’d had.

[1:02] Who would’ve seen this? What did the image mean to them? How did his compositional choices reflect what he hoped to convey to his audience?

Dr. Elliot: [1:10] I see a man in uniform, in a tree. He has a canteen that’s suspended in front of him and he has a rifle. He’s wearing a kepi — that’s the hat that was frequently used by Civil War soldiers — and he’s staring down what looks to be a scope.

Sarah: [1:32] He’s balanced in a really precarious way. His rear end seems to be shifted off the branch, just a little bit, but he’s held on with his foot lodged in the nook of the branch. He’s also holding on to the branch just below the rifle. At the same time, that canteen provides a counterbalance.

Dr. Elliot: [1:49] The soldier and the canteen almost look like the sides of a scale, with the rifle itself providing the balance in between. You can see that the soldier has the rifle tucked into his shoulder, which would steady it and prevent kickback from having pushed him out of the tree.

Sarah: [2:07] We don’t see who he’s shooting at. We don’t see anything beyond this tight frame. We assume that he’s looking out at a target of some sort or looking for one, but we don’t know what he’s seeing. We also don’t know who can see him. There’s this uncertainty about not only his position in this tree, but what might happen in another minute.

Dr. Elliot: [2:26] There’s this element of suspense; at the same time, the soldier is cool. He seems calm, he seems focused. He’s not nervous.

“[2:36] Harper’s Weekly” was the most popular illustrated newspaper in this time period. I think they had about 200,000 subscribers, and that doesn’t count people that might have gotten the magazine secondhand from a friend or family.

[2:52] A lot of people would have been seeing “Harper’s Weekly” and following the progress of the war. The war in the popular press was a Northern phenomenon, because New York City is where, then as now, almost all of the publishing houses were located. They had the print technology and the readership to share news and images of the war on a scale that really wasn’t possible in the South.

Sarah: [3:20] Prior to the start of the war, “Harper’s” appealed to an audience across the country, readers North and South. Just as the war was breaking out, “Harper’s” and other publications made a shift and acknowledged their support for the Union effort.

Dr. Elliot: [3:35] This is one of the first conflicts where telescopic sights were available, and so expert marksmen were able to hit targets at distances of greater than 200 yards. [The] sharpshooter in this image is quite likely one of those expert marksmen for a number of reasons.

[3:57] First, the rifle that he’s holding is not something that would have been issued to your everyday soldier. In fact, it’s probably his own personal rifle. It is a match-caliber rifle, which means that it was intended for a shooting competition, a shooting match.

[4:18] Sharpshooters were recruited through competitions to be part of these elite marksman units. Homer noted the presence of one of these sharpshooter units, called Berdan’s Sharpshooters, at the siege of Yorktown.

[4:36] Sharpshooters were both appreciated for their skill but also looked at a little bit askance during the Civil War, because they were not acting generally defensively. They were going up in trees, going up on ridges, maybe out ahead of the main force, and trying to pick off important targets. That might have been officers, artillery men.

[5:04] There’s a sense that it was perhaps not a fair fight. In fact, Homer himself later wrote that one of the sharpshooters he encountered at Yorktown let him look down his telescopic sight, and he saw the target on an individual. He said, “It’s about as close to murder as anything that I can think of.” It was very good to have these expert marksmen on your side, but they were feared as well as loved.

Dr. Elliot: [5:34] This is interesting, because Homer doesn’t talk a lot about his perceptions and the images that he produced for “Harpers” really range. The few scenes of battle that he produced are somewhat conventional. They remind us a bit of history painting, where we see significant battles.

[5:51] It’s unlikely that he was right there in the action, so he’s maybe relying on some of these conventions. Some of the images that he portrayed of life in camp gave the sense of camaraderie, even of bravery. These images of the sharpshooter convey something a bit different.

[6:08] The use of this word “murder,” that isn’t just coming from him, there were others at the time that were skeptical. This image stands in contrast to some of the other work that we see from Homer.

Sarah: [6:19] We also know that there was a general interest in sharpshooters during this period. If you look at Alexander Gardner’s photographs of Gettysburg, for example, he identifies many of the slain soldiers as sharpshooters, whether or not they actually were. This idea of a sniper was something new in the Civil War and people wanted to see and purchase images of sharpshooters.

Dr. Elliot: [6:47] There are multiple images that come up in popular literature. Some of them are humorous, some of them show them fumbling with loading their gun, and some of them show them in a kind of romanticized, idealized way.

Sarah: [6:59] If we go back to that idea of the composition as reminiscent of a scale, you could think of the sharpshooter weighing his options, weighing his decision about whether to take a shot and having the power of life and death.

Dr. Elliot: [7:18] There’s also another way to see the balance. Once they shoot, they give themselves away. The canteen might catch the glint of light and draw attention.

Sarah: [7:27] The violence that is implied is happening outside the frame, but we can’t forget that something lethal is about to happen.

Dr. Elliot: [7:35] I think that’s why this image is so compelling, because we can’t see it, but we know it’s going to happen. The sharpshooter is ever-patient, ever-concentrated, ever-focused, and that moment of violence is always just outside, so we must use our imagination. It brings us in every time we look at it.

[7:53] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott and Sarah Alvarez, "The U.S. Civil War, sharpshooters and Winslow Homer," in Smarthistory, April 12, 2021, accessed April 16, 2024,