Winslow Homer, Army Teamsters

Is this painting of five men, possibly formerly enslaved, working for the Union Army during the Civil War a product of racist stereotypes, or does it humanize its subjects?

Winslow Homer, Army Teamsters, 1866, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 72.39 cm (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the American Galleries at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and we’re looking at a really interesting painting by Winslow Homer called “Army Teamsters,” 1866. So, this is painted just after the end of the Civil War, but Homer spent quite a bit of time painting and making prints showing the war to a Northern audience.

Dr. Christopher Oliver: [0:26] In Homer’s travels with the Union Army, he became acquainted with the everyday aspects of this huge operation that required the moving of so many men, goods, arms. And so in “Army Teamsters” we see five men who are presumably taking a moment off from their main role in moving the Union Army.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] In art history, when we think about paintings of wartime, we think about battle scenes or depictions of heroic victory or heroic death, but here we have a very everyday scene which Homer would have witnessed, and these are the men who are driving the wagons that we see in the background.

Dr. Oliver: [1:07] For him, it was that interest in the humanity of all of these different people with the Army and recognizing their hard work. The four men who are leaning against the tent are those that were absolutely exhausted from having moved these wagons and mules. The mules, themselves all looking quite bedraggled, show the amount of work that has just occurred.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] We know that the issue of Black people serving in the Union Army was a contentious one.

Dr. Oliver: [1:36] The Union Army did train and arm many Black Americans, but also men like these might’ve been swept up into the Union Army as they went through especially Southern states. They flocked to their freedom, to the Union Army, where they could be enlisted or at least provided with the daily requirements of life through this very arduous labor.

Dr. Harris: [1:57] During the Civil War, enslaved people who make their way to the Union Army, who make their way north, don’t have to be returned as property to their owners, but can be kept as what was called contraband of war. Contraband is a difficult term to use to talk about human beings.

Dr. Oliver: [2:16] Absolutely.

Dr. Harris: [2:18] One term that we use instead is refugees, these figures who fled north, who want to serve in the Union Army and are often put in the role of teamsters, of driving mule trains.

Dr. Oliver: [2:29] They are self-emancipating, and they are trying to make the best of their lives through continued hard labor. These figures don’t seem to rely on caricature. We have Homer’s original sketches that are presumably based on five people, and I think he’s recognizing them as fellow participants in this cataclysmic war.

Dr. Harris: [2:50] In fact, when we compare Homer’s figures to illustrations in Harper’s, there’s one in particular of teamsters who are being paid where the Black figures are very caricatured. We clearly see that that’s not what Homer is doing here. Nevertheless, a scene of Black figures relaxing in the sunshine did bring to mind stereotyped images of enslaved people as lazy.

Dr. Oliver: [3:19] Critics and viewers were responding to that. There is a decades-long visual history of precisely that, the Black body in a moment of relaxation, asleep in the sun, something akin to what we see here.

Dr. Harris: [3:31] And for Homer, this interest in this lovely late afternoon light where the figures are casting long shadows on the tent behind them.

Dr. Oliver: [3:40] Perhaps there’s a coolness setting in, and capturing those last moments of warm sunlight is important to these men.

Dr. Harris: [3:47] The bright side perhaps alluding to the future of these men, a future that’s brighter than enslavement.

Dr. Oliver: [3:54] Homer sees that as looking towards what’s coming.

Dr. Harris: [3:58] Let’s talk for a minute about the figure who’s sticking his head out from the tent, and who’s the only figure who seems to be engaging with us.

Dr. Oliver: [4:06] Critics did respond to his expression, his emerging from the tent, as wholly playing into pre-existing stereotypes and caricatures of the comic Black figure that you could see in places like popular illustration but also the minstrel stage. But what’s interesting is the grin or smirk that were often ascribed to him in contemporary printed reviews doesn’t seem to be apparent in the actual painting itself.

Dr. Harris: [4:30] We have four figures here, one of whom’s torso and head are almost completely eclipsed by the figure in the foreground.

Dr. Oliver: [4:37] The figure in the foreground, who is holding a whip, seems to be blocking the view of a man who’s wearing a blue Union Army kepi cap, something that would have been given to the enlisted soldiers.

Dr. Harris: [4:48] It’s impossible not to read the whip, which would have been used to drive the mule train, also as an instrument of punishment for enslaved people.

Dr. Oliver: [4:57] This object that was previously used for punishment, it can now drive one forward into a new stage in life.

Dr. Harris: [5:04] Because Homer is embedded with the Union troops, we get this view into the everyday life of the Union Army and the role that formerly enslaved people could play serving the Union effort.

Dr. Oliver: [5:18] For Homer and many of his colleagues, who would have seen this as a positive element, being able to offer these men freedom, labor, housing, food, all in the continued effort to win the war and be done with slavery once and for all.

[5:33] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Christopher Oliver and Dr. Beth Harris, "Winslow Homer, Army Teamsters," in Smarthistory, December 2, 2021, accessed June 15, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/winslow-homer-army-teamsters/.