[The wound around his eye] has been constantly open, suppurating and discharging ever since … with loss of strength and increasing blindness in the left eye which is very weak & he is less & less able each year to do any manual labor or care for himself.1
Applying in 1882 for an increase to his Civil War pension, Private James M. Greenleaf, who received his facial wound at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, attempted to convince the government that his eye—unhealed and rapidly losing its sight—was so debilitating as to prevent him from earning a living through gainful employment. To the above statement in his pension application, Greenleaf added an “affidavit signed by 24 acquaintances stating that his wound was worse than the loss of an arm or a leg.”2 Though Greenleaf also complained of pain in his hip, it was the wound to his face, with its leaking pus, that made him “totally & permanently helpless,” as the government surgeon wrote on examining him in 1907.3 The claim that Greenleaf’s partial blindness incapacitated him more than the amputation of a limb stands out in a narrative—one of pathos, to be sure, given how frequently his applications were rejected by the government—that was all too common throughout the post-Civil War era. I take Greenleaf’s story not as a representative case of the logistical problems faced by veterans of the Civil War but rather as a signpost to a larger cultural narrative that emerged as a response to war trauma in the years following the conflict: that of blindness.
Two eyewitnesses to the war, author Ambrose Bierce and artist Winslow Homer, used different artistic media to come to terms with the trauma of the war. I argue that instead of being mere “realists,” as they are often described, they used metaphors of blindness or compromised vision in their literary and artistic works.4 Bierce and Homer deploy these strategies of incomplete representation as a commentary on the futility of using traditional forms of representation to depict the unprecedented horrors of mechanized warfare. Though working in different media, both men questioned how one might begin to represent such a conflict. After examining the ways that both Bierce and Homer developed theories of truth and vision, this essay will examine different modes of “blindness” that they presented in their representations of the war. These modes range from the paradoxical narrowing of vision created by technologies specifically designed to enhance natural sight, the moral and literal blindness of participating in a military engagement, and, finally, the ways that their war experiences caused both Homer and Bierce to question their own self-knowledge and clarity of vision.
The project of representing the Civil War took place in an atmosphere of widespread popular visual culture, manifested primarily in forms that were easy to mass-produce and disseminate. These forms of visuality—most notably popular illustration and photography—emerged in the 1850s in a reproducible form more or less similar to those they took during and just after the war. Displayed in prominent photographic galleries or seen every day in the pages of the illustrated magazines that dominated American news in the 1860s, these images familiarized ordinary viewers with horrific scenes of modern, industrialized warfare. Homer and many of his fellow artists such as Theodore R. Davis, Edwin Forbes, and William and Alfred Waud worked as “special correspondents” during the war, sketching scenes of battle and everyday events of camp life for the most popular illustrated weekly magazines of the nineteenth century, Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Both publications began circulating in the mid-1850s and both experienced massive increases in their readership during the war years, partly due to their exhaustive and timely visual coverage of the conflict. At the end of the war both magazines maintained competitive circulations, reaching audiences of hundreds of thousands each week.5 Advancements in the printing press and technologies of reproduction generally, in addition to increased speeds of communication between reporters on the front lines and their editors in New York, created a visual milieu saturated with war reportage, maps, humorous scenes of military life, and portraits of heroic generals. The “faces and events which the war has made illustrious,” appeared often “tacked and pinned and pasted upon the humblest walls.”6
Photography, too, contributed to the ways that nineteenth-century Americans visualized the war.7 While common soldiers still had their daguerreotypes made before leaving home, the newly-invented wet collodion plate process, with its drastically reduced exposure times and ability for replication using glass negatives, changed both the appearance and functions of photography. The collodion process allowed commercial photographers to take easily reproducible images of the war, though not, crucially, of the action. The photographs that have become famous—shots of bloated corpses on the battlefield at Gettysburg taken by the studio of Alexander Gardner and stark photographic documents of survivors’ ghastly wounds compiled by army surgeon-photographers such as Dr. Reed B. Bontecou—would seem to attest to photography’s supposed objectivity. Of course, despite the indexical nature of the medium, even early photographs were doctored or manipulated. Despite this, the first viewers of Civil War photographs, notable among them the prominent Boston physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., viewed the images as “terrible mementos” capable of truthfully illustrating “what war is.”8
Our perception of photography’s access to the “real,” its status as an impression from a thing that has been, gives it an important role in the reliving of trauma, as Michael S. Roth argues. He notes the apparent ability of photography to bring a “distant real” to the viewer, “making the temporally distant present.” He continues, “Photographic images seem to offer the possibility of reexperiencing the past, or of experiencing a past for the first time without a subjective intermediary.”9 In this interpretation, the very distinctness of Civil War photographs would seem to be a mechanism for facing—literally—the trauma of the national schism, for seeing it in the most straightforward light possible. It is the direct gaze forced by photography that allows one to deal with trauma; as Roth writes, “traumas seem to urge us not to look away.”10 In her article on Civil War medical photography cultural historian Kathy Newman reacts to the images of mutilated young men confronting the camera directly, which she characterizes as stark medical documents that “assaulted [her] senses.” As a scholar and a humanist, she claims, one “can neither refuse nor transform their traces of violence.”11 Newman argues that only through an intimate visual encounter with these images can their pain and discomfort be discharged; a greater disservice is done to the wounded in turning away, in not seeing, than in gazing at their wounds. And yet I argue that Bierce’s and Homer’s suspicion of vision is not a cruel rejection of pain but a legitimate and common response to the trauma of the war. Artists who attempted to depict the war faced obstacles, one of which was the inability of traditional modes of representation to express the political complexities of the war and the deep pain and confusion it caused to those who witnessed it. As Steven Conn records in his study of history paintings of the Civil War, the traditional narratives belonging to that genre—in the American context, most frequently nationalistic and teleological fictions of inevitable progress—were not applicable to this war.12 It was difficult to accept an overtly nationalistic interpretation of the conflict without mortally offending half the population, and a war in which crucial industrial and transportation infrastructure was damaged on both sides could hardly be said to contribute to progress. There also seemed to be a crippling lack of consensus on the causes and goals of the war—a topic that still bedevils scholars today. The war was, in Conn’s estimation, an event of “narrative trauma,” one that saw the collapse of “traditional representational strategies, the familiar ways of creating order and coherence out of experience.”13 Uncertainty about the best ways to represent the war stifled the traditional outlets of patriotic battle painting and hagiographic portraits of charismatic generals, leading to a breakdown in visual representation, at least among “high” art circles.14
To this uncertainty we may also apply what transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson termed the “angle of vision,” a moment when “the poles of the eye should coincide with the axis of the world” and the subject reach enlightenment.15 Throughout his writings, Emerson attempted to make sense of the individual’s capacity for acquiring spiritual knowledge using metaphors of vision, referring to the eye as the “first circle” of the perceived world.16 According to Emerson, writes literary scholar Sherman Paul, men might reach a “higher” state when “seeing became a unitary act” that combined physical, mental, and spiritual forms of knowledge.17 Tragically, in the Civil War, such elevated vision revealed itself as an impossible achievement and the “angle of vision” turned out to be oblique. Into this traumatic void stepped artists like Homer and Bierce who, instead of becoming paralyzed by the inability to represent the war through traditional means, adopted stylistic and formal tropes of blindness as metaphors for the dislocating experience of the war itself.
Both Bierce and Homer served on the front lines of the war, though in vastly different capacities. Bierce enlisted in the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Infantry regiment in 1861 and for the following four years served in the army as an infantryman until becoming a military engineer and mapmaker around 1862. Bierce suffered physical and emotional trauma during the war years. He fought in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and sustained a major head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864, experiences that influenced his later Civil War works profoundly.18 After the war, Bierce became known for the acerbic humor and spare realist prose he employed to document his experiences during the conflict. Traditional interpretations of his work, such as journalist and critic H. L. Mencken’s comment in 1927 that Bierce was “the first writer of fiction ever to treat war realistically,” often focus on his evocation of war’s horror through precise details, sparingly and simply told.19 Yet Bierce’s Civil War stories contain another, more disturbing, theme: that of the impossibility of using vision alone to comprehend the full enormity of the war. Cathy N. Davidson adopts this perspective, arguing that in his stories Bierce consistently structures the narrative “in such a way that the nature of the self, the nature of the world, and the nature of the relationship between the two are called into question.”20 To Davidson’s interpretation I would add the peculiarly visual nature of Bierce’s writing and its contribution to this exploration of the interplay between inner and outer truths. To his constant focus upon explicit visual details Bierce adds moments when the abilities of sight break down, when epistemological knowledge cannot be gained by mere vision. Bierce intersperses vivid descriptions of the war’s mise-en-scène with ruminations on the instability of sight. His characters withdraw from the visual world in tragic errors of misrecognition or stumble blindly without vital visual information.
Bierce’s contrarian self-presentation in print makes it difficult to assess his attitudes toward the traumatic events he had witnessed as a member of the army. His sarcasm and rejection of sentiment may have functioned as a mechanism for repressing scenes better forgotten, though the grotesque forthrightness of some of his descriptions, such as this one from the short story “Chickamauga,” suggest a willingness to engage in depth with the more horrific elements of the war: “The man … turned upon him a face that lacked a lower jaw—from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone.”21 Bierce’s stories are peppered with such horrific evocations of wartime injuries. However, the larger thematic thrust of his work is taken up with the difficulty of searching for truth amid such chaos. A close examination of entries from Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of humorous definitions of common words that he published serially in American magazines starting in 1875, demonstrates that Bierce took his own role as an interpreter of truths quite seriously. Under the entry for “geographer,” Bierce’s own profession during the war, he quips that he is “a chap who can tell you offhand the difference between the outside of the world and the inside.”22 Underlying Bierce’s humorous cynicism is the implication of a separation between the external and internal worlds, the sphere of things and that of thoughts, matter and mind. Nineteenth-century American culture was deeply concerned with whether external appearances offered a reliable reflection of the inner life of things and people. An underlying anxiety about the authenticity of images and people pervaded the postwar years as Americans pondered the complexities and contradictions of life in the modern nation.23 Bierce proposes himself as a guide to the gaps between observed realities and lived experience.
Importantly, Bierce also proposes himself as a figure who sees properly, sees things others cannot. A self-described cynic (the first edition of the Devil’s Dictionary was titled The Cynic’s Word Book), Bierce defined his own vocation thus: “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision.”24 The emphasis on vision again makes an explicit reference to Bierce’s role as a revelatory figure uncovering truths that others would rather not face. But ironically, this vision is only “faulty” when seen from the point of view of an optimist, the cynic’s foil and bête noire. Bierce excoriates the philosophy of optimism using another visual metaphor: “Being a blind faith, it is inaccessible to the light of disproof—an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death. It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.” The optimist’s blindness causes him to mis-see, to believe “that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly.”25 The cynic’s “faulty” worldview is, in Bierce’s estimation, far the more truthful. But it is also threatening to the hegemonic establishment of optimists, who visit violent trauma upon the cynic, correcting his “faulty vision” by the extreme expedient of creating a state of total blindness.
Bierce would probably have greatly appreciated—if in an ironical fashion—the disapproving review his 1892 collection of war stories received in the Atlantic Monthly, an apotheosis of the optimist’s rejection of the cynic: “It has never been our fortune to read a collection of tales so uniformly horrible and revolting. Told with some power, and now and then with strokes of wonderfully vivid description, with plots ingenious in their terror and photographic in their sickening details, we must pronounce the book too brutal to be either good art or good literature.”26
Though he was also a direct witness to major battles as well as to the day-to-day experience of life in camp, Winslow Homer, a visual artist, had a quite different experience of the war. Almost ten years older than Bierce, Homer was already a somewhat well-established professional at the outbreak of the war, having served for the previous four years as a freelance illustrator for various New York-based magazines. Along with a large group of other artists, Homer traveled with the Army of the Potomac on assignment with Harper’s Weekly during 1861-62 and later as a freelancer. After returning from the Peninsular Campaign, he began to experiment with oil painting; his first canvases were of Civil War scenes, some based on the same sketches he translated into wood engravings for Harper’s. Though he was untrained as a “fine” artist, his oils of the war earned acclaim and he was elected a full Academician of the National Academy of Design (NAD) in 1865 at the age of 29, quite young for an artist with very little formal training. From 1863 through the early 1870s, Homer painted at least twenty canvases related to both the home and camp life during the war.27 His works were considered truthful, straightforward, and honest representations of life on the front and in the wartime domestic sphere; one critic wrote in New Path that Homer was the only American artist “to tell us any truth about the war.”28 The London Art Journal concurred: “These works are real: the artist paints what he has seen and known.”29 The strong reception of Homer’s war paintings as documents of lived experience seems to contradict my claim that Homer’s war works thematize blindness and trouble the reliability of vision, but I believe that an examination of the spiritual elements within Homer’s art may demonstrate how his indeterminate visions of war suggest a special, privileged kind of vision. The primacy Homer himself placed on the role of the eye, or of vision, as part of a revelatory experience may be seen in his angry response to John W. Beatty, who inquired whether the he “modified” nature in his compositions: “‘Never! Never!’ the artist cried, ‘When I have selected the thing carefully, I paint it exactly as it appears.’”30
Homer had a long and successful career in the decades following the war, during which he pursued formal and stylistic experimentation, and it is usually these later paintings that are credited with possessing a sense of indeterminacy, for all their lifelike bodies and violent, crashing waves. Art historians Jules Prown and Charles Colbert interpret Homer’s representations of survival and rescue at sea from the 1880s as manifestations of a battle that is spiritual rather than physical, separating the materiality of his artwork from the ineffable that lies within or beneath.31 In these works Homer uses metaphors of rescue and resuscitation to posit a relationship between external, tangible, and observable reality and inner faith. Contemporary reviews focused with startling regularity on Homer’s eye as an organ of both sight and deeper revelations. “This is the picture of a man who has the seeing eye,” wrote Eugene Benson in a review of Homer’s The Bridle Path at the NAD show in 1870, continuing: “We have no figure-painter who … sees the actuality of his subject better; not one who is closer to the objective fact of nature.”32 Homer’s supposedly direct access to nature was one way for professional art critics to praise him despite his untrained technique. A reluctant admirer of Homer, art critic Mariana van Rensselaer, wrote: “But always, whether it be austerely beautiful or frankly ugly, his work is vital art—not mere painting, not the record of mere artistic seeing, but the record of strong artistic feeling” (emphasis original).33 This confluence of sight and emotion, of the outer skin of things somehow invested with an inner life or spirit, this seems in some ways similar to Bierce’s formulation of himself as a privileged figure possessed of uncommon understanding. Learning that Homer possessed a copy of George Chaplin Child’s religious tract The Great Architect, which posits a connection between the technical workings of the eye as an optical apparatus and the inner illumination required for salvation, Colbert reads the painter’s late oeuvre as concerned with the “‘correspondence’ of the material and the spiritual.”34 As previously mentioned, concern with the eye’s ability to perceive a higher “truth” through external observations permeated American culture during this period.35 But these truths, when it came to making sense of the Civil War, turned out to be fragmentary.
Thus far, both artists have been considered in light of their contemporary reception and self-professed role as figures with access to unique forms of truth. What was this privileged form of sight that both Bierce and Homer shared? Both realized that the real truth of the war was blindness. The contested nature of the war—its multiplied causes and meanings, the still-fractured nation it left behind—was the ultimate truth that Bierce’s and Homer’s direct vision grasped. Both understood that true vision was not purely optical. Concerns and anxiety about the trustworthiness of vision were rampant in these years, and there was a certain horror in the sheer amount of information that threatened to overwhelm the viewer or reader in a torrent of factuality. An odd review of Homer’s art, given by Eugene Benson in a cynical and almost Biercean phraseology, noted that his work usually “falls below the standard of finish and detail which is within the reach of our most childish and mediocre painters, and which misleads many, and deceives painters with the thought that by going from particular to particular, of itself insures a fine result in art.”36 While seeming to call Homer worse than mediocre, Benson in fact praises his ability to see only that which is important, removing extraneous detail. The act of a painter moving painstakingly “from particular to particular” sends a creeping horror down the reader’s neck as he imagines a painting—not unlike the Victorian parlor—completely crammed with objects, all rendered in delicate and excruciating detail. Bierce, too, seemed to find the modern obsession with detail a horror vacui; his definition of “telescope” describes an apparatus “enabling distant objects to plague us with a multitude of needless details.”37 Homer escapes this fate, van Rensselaer agreed: “He had boldly omitted everything that could not serve his purpose.”38 Bierce, too, was praised for the stripped-down, often spare forms of his prose. Both Bierce’s and Homer’s narratives, whether textual or visual, deal with the confluence of vision, memory, and trauma by conceptualizing blindness as a narrative strategy for dealing with traumatic events by appealing to non-visual, “inner” truths.
Art historians have usually only analyzed one of Homer’s Civil War scenes with explicit attention to vision: the artist’s earliest known oil painting, Sharpshooter of 1863 [Fig. 1]. Since the 1988 publication of an important article by Christopher Kent Wilson, academic discussion of Sharpshooter has tended to hinge on its relation to the new technology of the sniper’s long-range rifle and the intensified looking that the sharpshooter, armed with a highly accurate scope, embodied.39 Randall C. Griffin, for example, connects Sharpshooter with “the theme of intense looking” and Homer’s compositional “passion for clarity,” both of which would seem to be diametrically opposed to an interpretation of the work as a figuration of blindness.40 And yet, two key elements of the composition suggest blindness of different kinds. First, the very close-cropped, intense focus on the body and weapon of the sharpshooter actually serves to obscure the viewer’s larger frame of reference. In addition, the very weapon that enhanced the sharpshooter’s natural vision, the long-range rifle with its high-intensity scope, acts to create a new and fearful moral blindness in the body of the sniper himself.
By focusing his composition so intently on the isolated sharpshooter, high in his treetop vantage point, Homer excludes us from any engagement either with the man depicted or with the greater context of battle going on around him. Despite art historian Julian Grossman’s praise of “the sharpness of the soldier’s eye,” Homer paints that eagle eye as an obscured smudge under the shadow of the marksman’s cap.41 We are completely cut off from the consciousness of this soldier and from what he actually sees through the scope of his rifle. Bierce might give some hint. In “One of the Missing,” he composes the inner monologue of just such a reconnaissance man, Jerome Searing:
After a keen reconnaissance from the safe seclusion of a clump of young pines Searing ran lightly across a field and through an orchard to a small structure which stood apart from the other farm buildings, on a slight elevation. This he thought would enable him to overlook a large scope of the country … Searing looked across the open ground between his point of view and a spur of Kennesaw Mountain, a half-mile away. A road leading up and across this spur was crowded with troops—the rear-guard of the retiring enemy, their gun-barrels gleaming in the morning sunlight.42
Bierce encapsulates the extremely long range of Searing’s view and the precision with which his “searing” vision appreciates his surroundings, elements intentionally excluded from the composition of Sharpshooter.43 Technological advancements in riflery, as Wilson notes, greatly increased the speed and accuracy of long-range marksmen; Civil War sharpshooters were feared because they could bring instant and unseen death, as one Confederate lieutenant later reported: “I’ve seen them pick a man off who was a mile away. They could hit you so far you couldn’t hear the report of the gun. You wouldn’t have any idea anybody was in sight of you.”44 However, the viewer can only speculate as to what Homer’s sharpshooter sees. Homer’s deceptively simple composition cleverly blinds the viewer to the larger context of the sharpshooter’s situation.
The emphasis on his role as a highly-trained marksman, in combination with the importance to the war of sharpshooters’ technologized vision, leads to the second blindness represented by this painting: that of the moral blindness of the sharpshooters and of the war itself. As Wilson argues, the technological developments in marksmanship were crucial to Northern successes, but they were also connected in the contemporary mind with a troubling new phenomenon: that of the machine-like killer, uncaring of human life, who, rather than using his newly-accurate weapon as a tool, was himself becoming a dispassionate extension of that weapon. In a much-quoted letter, Homer later wrote that he regarded sharpshooting “as near murder as anything I ever could think of in connection with the army.”45 Bierce was no fan of these marksmen, either, having been severely wounded by one at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. In his 1888 essay “Modern Warfare,” he complained that humankind was “taking a deal of pains to invent offensive weapons that will wield themselves … A modern battle is a quarrel of skulkers trying to have all the killing done a long way from their persons.”46 His evocation of the interior life of the Union sharpshooter in “One of the Missing” is less snide but far more chilling: “Jerome Searing drew back the hammer of his rifle and with his eyes upon the distant Confederates considered where he could plant his shot with the best hope of making a widow or an orphan or a childless mother,—perhaps all three, for Private Searing, although he had repeatedly refused promotion, was not without a certain kind of ambition.”47 Fears about these marksmen’s distance from the sites of the deaths they caused gave many civilians a complicated reaction to their skills. Though they look with exceptionally sharp eyes, they are blind to the suffering they cause. They were represented in the press, indeed, as terrifyingly calm and dispassionate.48 A soldier should do his duty in wartime, true, but a kind of moral panic indicted sharpshooters for suspected ethical blindness and even, most fearfully, an enjoyment of killing like that of Bierce’s Searing.
Bierce addressed the impersonality of technologized vision in “The Coupe de Grâce,” a story in which Captain Downing Madwell performs a mercy killing on his childhood friend Sergeant Caffal Halcrow, whom he finds lying on the ground partially eaten by roving pigs but still, painfully, alive. Both Halcrow and Madwell exhibit a kind of temporary blindness; Halcrow, half-conscious “stared blankly into the face of his friend,” while above him Madwell’s “tears splashed upon the livid face beneath his own and blinded himself.”49 Recognizing that the kindest gesture would be to kill his old companion, Madwell finds himself unable to do so and departs. Seeing a wounded horse nearby, he shoots it quickly and then noting how its “sharp, clean-cut profile took on a look of profound peace and rest” after its agonized death throes, he changes his mind and returns to where Halcrow lies wounded. “Apparently lost to all sense of his surroundings,” Madwell takes the pistol he has just used to execute the horse, holds it to his friend’s head, “and turning away his eyes pulled the trigger.”50 The sharp irony of the story comes from the fact that his gun is empty; he has used his last bullet to put the dying animal out of its misery. Determined, however, to complete the deed, Madwell next takes out his sword and plunges it into his friend’s chest. “This time he did not withdraw his eyes,” Bierce records, despite the gruesomeness of the death.51 It seems telling in this atmosphere of technologized warfare and heightened vision that Madwell cannot bring himself to watch Halcrow’s death by pistol—surely the more humane, if not the more human, method—but looks directly at his friend as he skewers him with a saber. Guns, by which the killing of men had become no different than the killing of animals, had rendered slaughter impersonal and thus terrible to witness, while Madwell’s final execution of the wounded man becomes a deeply personal and thus moral act from which he need not look away.
To return to the figure of the sharpshooter, a final example from Bierce’s “The Mocking-bird” depicts the cruel impersonality of shooting at distant enemies. Posted on picket duty, Union Private William Grayrock spends his night “staring at the darkness in his front and trying to recognize known objects.”52 Upon hearing the approach of someone he cannot see, Grayrock shoots blindly into the night and is certain he has hit a man in the darkness. For, as Bierce informs us, “he had a marksman’s intuitive sense of having hit; for he was one of those born experts who shoot without aim by an instinctive sense of direction, and are nearly as dangerous by night as by day.”53 Grayrock is an even more terrifying version of Homer’s Sharpshooter, because not only is the reader blind to the enemy he shoots at, but Grayrock himself shoots blindly and still manages to execute his man. The danger of this blind shooting becomes apparent the next day when Grayrock searches for the enemy soldier he is certain he has wounded and finds the dead body of his own twin brother John, a Confederate soldier. Shooting blindly at invisible enemies was not particular to the marksman’s routine, however. It was woven into both the symbolic meaning and the lived experience of Civil War battles.
The Battle of the Wilderness, a fight Homer probably witnessed firsthand, was described in 1888 by participant Robert Stoddard Robertson as “the strangest and most indescribable battle in history.” Robertson added that as it was fought in an impenetrable forest at close hand, “the lines of battle were invisible to their commanders … the enemy was also invisible.”54 Homer famously rendered this obscurity in his only oil painting of a Civil War battle in progress, Skirmish in the Wilderness, which shows indeterminate clusters of men lost in a dark thicket of trees, puffs of smoke from rifles providing the only clues to the action [Fig. 2]. It was indeed, as another eyewitness, William Swinton, described it, “a region of gloom and the shadow of death.”55 But such opacity of battle was not specific to the Wilderness action; Bierce also utilized the theme of visual impenetrability in the autobiographical essay “What I Saw of Shiloh.” Throughout the piece, Bierce and his men experience the bewildering attacks of unseen enemies as they fight through dense, gloomy forests. “What I Saw of Shiloh” may, indeed, be titled ironically, as much of the piece chronicles the difficulty of viewing what is going on around the narrator. First, as Bierce and his men wait to be ferried across the Tennessee River to relieve embattled troops, he records the confused impressions of the battle going on nearby, “obscured … by blue sheets of low-lying smoke.” Bierce continues: “The farther edge of the water could not be seen; the boats came out of the obscurity, took on their passengers and vanished in the darkness.” The air is lit with “blinding flashes” and the soldiers on the opposite bank are seen only as “moving black figures.”56
Bierce’s description of the scene at Shiloh matches Homer’s evocation of the Battle of the Wilderness, a small and obscure canvas showing a tangled cluster of soldiers taking cover from enemy fire behind a tree. The viewer sees the scene from a vantage point a little behind them, facing the ongoing action. Homer outlines their figures against a haze of white smoke from the discharge of their weapons. The color of the men’s uniforms—whether a grey darkened by the gloom of the forest, or a blue made grey by the sickly yellow light filtering through the leafy canopy of the woods—is indistinguishable. From the right, a column of Union soldiers marches into the scene; in the space between the central grouping and this more orderly formation, an undulating mass in the green-black murkiness of the background may herald approaching enemies or may merely be tangled vegetation. The “blinding” flashes of gunfire do not serve to elaborate the positions of either friendly or unfriendly troops.57 Grossman writes of Wilderness that it “gives some idea of the difficult terrain, in which dense thickets broke up battle lines and the enemy, more often than not, remained unseen … in the tangled woods.”58 Homer’s indistinct topography contrasts with Bierce’s own visual renderings of the war: the maps he produced as personal cartographer to General W. B. Hazen were “meticulous” with “never an erasure, never a smudge.”59 Their sharp black lines differ starkly from the chaotic, indeterminate milieu of Homer’s Wilderness.
And yet Bierce’s exquisite maps are explicitly dissimilar from his descriptions of the confusing sights that greeted him and his men when they eventually reached the scene of battle at Shiloh. Sensory deprivation strikes both the eyes and the ears of his unit as he notes: “A few audible commands from an invisible leader had placed us in order of battle. But where was the enemy? Where, too, were the riddled regiments we had come to save? … What protected our right? Who lay upon our left? Was there really anything in our front?”60 Bierce’s litany of questions speaks to the confusion of this contentious battle—considered a failure of strategy on the part of Ulysses S. Grant, despite the Union’s eventual victory on the second day of fighting—but also to an epistemological instability inherent in the condition of battle more generally. Throughout the piece, Bierce speaks of troops—enemy and ally alike—that are “screened from view,” woods “impervious to sight,” men directed “we knew not whither.”61 Homer’s visual articulation of the confusion of battle suggests the contingency and confusion of modern warfare and, through its sketchy and episodic character, the failure of traditional narratives of heroism. Conn’s theory of “narrative trauma” comes again to mind. A fragmented, indistinct canvas reflects the unpleasant realities of this fragmented, indistinct war in a way that no traditionally composed history painting could. In Skirmish in the Wilderness, Homer uses visual confusion, limited sight range, and intentional obscurity of figures in relation to the landscape and to one another to represent the actual conditions of this 1864 clash, but he employs them in support of a larger argument that the Civil War proved to be “impossible to paint” because it “stood as the great, glaring, and unarguable challenge to any facile notion of American progress.”62 Bierce’s writings, Sharon Talley asserts, “reflect not only his own psychic conflict but also the related national crisis in sensibilities, marking the transition between concepts of the heroic.”63 Likewise, as both Conn and Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., argue, Homer succeeded as a painter of the Civil War precisely because he turned away from the traditional narrative conventions of wartime representation.64 But the turn from battle painting to the domestic side of war—what art historian Elizabeth Johns terms “American males in social relationship with each other as men”—had its areas of blindness as well.65 The homosocial camaraderie and ersatz domesticity created by wartime conditions enabled observers to contrast soldiers’ lived realities with their idealized visions of prewar household life.
For the first time during the Civil War, army doctors treated homesickness as a deleterious illness that affected the troops as they camped far from their loved ones.66 Homesickness can in many ways be defined as visual, and the thought of one day seeing far away people rings out in soldiers’ letters. Aides-memoires such as daguerreotypes or tintypes kept soldiers’ visual memories alive in their homes, while those on the front might have carries likenesses of wives, sweethearts, or mothers with them. But despite its underlying visual qualities, homesickness is, at base, about the absence of persons and scenes one most desires to see. Homesickness is based on a kind of interrupted vision, a blankness on the retina, filled in with snatched glances at a tintype in its protective case or re-imagined with the eyes closed. It is in light of this visually impenetrable homesickness that I reinterpret Homer’s 1863 painting Home, Sweet Home, which one reviewer described as possessing a “hearty, homely actuality.”67
Home, Sweet Home, Homer’s first exhibition picture, appears to be a sentimental scene of camp life in which Union soldiers listen to a band play the popular sentimental melody “Home, Sweet Home.” [Fig. 3] This supposed focal point is located in the far background of the scene, barely discernable as a cluster of blue-clad men listening to music. Homer instead focuses on the ersatz home of two weary soldiers: a meager fire of twigs, a boiling can of broth or coffee, discarded items of equipment placed on makeshift coat and boot racks. The two central figures seem intensely quiet, contemplative, their faces highlighted with broad strokes of the brush that make out sketchy lineaments rather than identifiable physiognomies. In her recent evaluation of the relationship between “inner” life and observed reality in Homer’s work, Elizabeth Johns interprets Home, Sweet Home as part of Homer’s maturation as an artist. She suggests that this canvas demonstrates the artist’s increased interest in psychological realism rather than the drama of battles, for it “probed other aspects of male psychology in war … [such as] homesickness.”68 Julian Grossman agrees that Homer did experience a shift at some point during the war: “like other sensitive artists, he turned away from the face of death, away from the front, to scenes in camp, concentrating on the camaraderie formed during trials suffered together.”69 In its rendering of a stand-in for the family hearth, Home, Sweet Home accessed both a generalized mid-century sentimentalization of family life and the fact of homesickness as a particular problem rampant among troops of both armies. In an 1862 letter to his wife, Union soldier John Henry Jenks specifically references the touchstone of the home’s hearth, here abandoned and cold “among all the desolations of war, the sundering of family ties, the deserted hearthstones, the vacant chairs, the intense solicitude for absent freinds [sic].”70
The problem of homesickness is not merely the subject matter of the painting. Through numerous lacunae in the viewer’s apprehension of the scene, Homer constructs a quietly powerful narrative of homesickness that imagines “home” as an unknown territory: a blind spot. The first such blind spot is the immediate “home” of the camp as it is shown. The two-man tents that compositionally bookend the men and act as their temporary homes—mobile and ever-shifting sites where they merely rest themselves occasionally—are drawn as blanks: triangular, black gaping holes surrounding the central figures. In the crooks of their arms and the opening of the man on the right’s jacket to reveal a blood-red shirt beneath, the triangular forms of the tent flaps are mirrored in their bodies, physically tying them to these dim openings leading to unseen interior spaces. Barely emerging out of the left hand tent is the sole of a boot, catching a glint of light on its curvature, suggesting the body of a comrade within.
These darkened spots in the composition contrast directly with the beige canvas of the tents’ exteriors and, most dramatically, with the large and tattered piece of canvas hanging behind the standing man like a theatrical backdrop. Literary historian Martin Griffin uses the metaphor of the tableau vivant when discussing Bierce’s manipulation of time and memory in his Civil War stories. In the practice of tableaux vivants, a popular parlor game of the nineteenth century, human actors would recreate famous works of art or, dressed in elaborate costume and standing perfectly still, present a narrative in a series of posed scenes. Griffin argues that Bierce’s war stories may be read as tableaux, series of carefully framed narrative moments, complete with the gaps in memory, the temporal breaks, and the discontinuity this art form necessarily possesses. He writes: “Each tableau in the story is individually loaded with meaning, but exists only in its own context of realization.”71 It is an art form that is structured around the concept of a narrativity that is by necessity incomplete. Homer’s Civil War paintings, too, particularly the scenes of daily incidents in camp life including Home, Sweet Home, Playing Old Soldier, Pitching Quoits, The Last Goose at Yorktown, Sutler’s Tent, The Brierwood Pipe, and A Rainy Day in Camp, may be interpreted as a series of tableaux played out against sceneries as artificial as painted backdrops. This becomes even more striking when we note that five of these seven canvases feature similar backdrops of hanging or blank fabric.
But, particularly in Home, Sweet Home, which contains the largest and most prominent usage of this feature, these canvas curtains evoke not merely tableaux but also veils that block access to what lies behind, creating sites of indeterminacy. The representation of painted fabric curtains in the Western artistic tradition goes back to Pliny the Elder, and it has become a shorthand for epistemological uncertainty.72 In a contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius to paint the most convincing illusion, the latter wins by producing a painted curtain so lifelike that his competitor attempted to lift it to see the painting underneath. American artists and audiences were familiar with this story, most famously articulated by Raphaelle Peale in his painting Venus Rising from the Sea: A Deception.73 Oddly for Homer, who was known and often mocked by contemporaries for his somewhat clumsy modeling and large, flat planes of color, the effects of light bouncing off the folds in the large swath of canvas in Home, Sweet Home are rendered in precise and almost illusionistic detail. The care lavished on this expanse of fabric—the largest single section of the painting other than the sky—suggests its importance in Homer’s composition. It serves here less as Parrhasius’s actual curtain than as a test for the viewer’s eye. Instead it cuts off the “home” of the painting from that larger home beyond. As Grossman writes, “Perhaps because home was around the corner, just up the road but still agonizingly far away, the longing was greater.”74 As soldiers’ letters suggest, the true home ceased to feel real after a certain length of time in the “home” given by the army. One unknown young man wrote back to his mother in 1862: “What a day it was,—and a Sunday too! … I think of you all at rest, with the sound of church-bells in your ears, with a strange, distant feeling.”75 Many wrote of home as a place they could only dream of, as Josiah B. Corban told his wife in a letter of 1863: “I dreamed of being at home how I wish it might come to pass. I wish George and Julia [their children] would write often they cant think how much I want to see them they seem very dear to me all the time.”76 In Bierce’s story “The Mocking-bird,” which, as we have seen, ends with the tragic murder of John Grayrock by his twin, the main character “dreamed … himself a boy, living in a far, fair land by the border of a great river.”77 Bierce slowly reveals this vivid dream as an actual memory of his happy home life before the war. The heartrending juxtaposition of the two homes—family home and army home, with neither feeling entirely real—the knowledge that home may be just beyond the curtain (but, then again, it may not), is what creates the claustrophobic homesickness of Homer’s scene.
A final void appears in the foreground: a sheaf of white papers on the knee of the seated man. He rests his hand on the paper, not clutching it to him, but not careless enough that it could fly away. What can be seen of the paper is merely blank whiteness. But it is easy enough to guess that here is yet another reference to Homer’s title: a letter home, perhaps unfinished. Homer does not pay special attention to these papers, except that, folded in the shape of a rough triangle, they are the only place where he has used a large quantity of true white in the painting. Homer had received the English translation of the French chemist M. E. Chevreul’s The principles of harmony and contrast of colours from his older brother Charles in 1860. He referred to the book as “my bible” and carefully studied Chevreul’s analysis of the relationship between visual perception, artistic communication, and use of color.78 On the relationship between dark and light, he later told John W. Beatty, “It is wonderful how much depends upon the relationship of black and white. … The construction, the balancing of parts is everything.”79 In Home, Sweet Home’s small patch of paper, Homer utilizes such a contrast for great effect. He surrounds this flash of white with darker hues—the black of the tent openings, the deep blue of the uniforms—to highlight its importance but also its emptiness. Soldiers sometimes emphasized that they did not know what to say to their loved ones, or how to say it. In 1863 Harrison Clarke wrote a friend that “I have frequently made the attempt [to write you] and as often failed.”80 The page in Home, Sweet Home trumpets its blankness. There was no good way to describe the sights of war in a letter. But more importantly, home was a blind spot in the soldier’s mind, no matter how faithfully he attempted to conjure it in his imagination.
Though Homer and Bierce shared a sensibility in their representations of war, they seem almost diametrically opposed when it comes to depicting themselves in their art. Homer never painted a self-portrait; Bierce seems constantly to be re-articulating his own traumatic experiences of the war in his fiction by writing about the battles he fought. And yet, we may consider both of them in terms of a kind of faulty or flawed self-recognition that is expressed through their art and the record of their experiences in the war. Several scholars have commented on and evaluated how traumatic events in the war may have affected Bierce and Homer, based upon the form and content of their works surrounding the conflict. Bierce seemed to cling more tenaciously to the memory of the war than Homer, seeing in the war the experience of a sort of fracturing of the self, from which he retreated with a carefully-cultivated reputation for ironical misanthropy. The prominent twentieth-century leftist intellectual Carey McWilliams wrote of Bierce: “The war was a troubling memory. It never left him; he mused and puzzled about it all his life. … one is impressed with the frequency of his references to war, the constant presence in his mind of its images, and the color that it gave his thinking and even his vocabulary.”81 Martin Griffin reminds us of “the persistence of traumatic memory of combat experience within the psyche of the individual veteran,” describing Bierce’s literary output as a post-traumatic symptom characterized by “a merciless, almost nihilistic representation of contingency, violence, and unresolved conflicts of character and environment.”82 Similarly, art historian Peter Wood notes that Homer left little record of how the war affected him and that it is probable that “shadows of combat remained a lasting part of Homer’s life.”83 If these assessments of trauma seem presumptive or based on a sketchy foundation, we should recall that it was not until Bierce and Homer were both deceased that trauma related to wartime experiences became recognized as a medical condition rather than a constitutional weakness. The nature of historical trauma is complex, as Michael S. Roth reminds us. There is, on one hand, “the part that is repressed, or at least insufficiently attended to,” which can perhaps be seen in Homer’s apparent rejection of or lack of interest in the war later in his career. However, Roth continues, “the problem is not that the past event has been forgotten … but that the event has not been left behind successfully. It continues to have effects in the present.”84 It is impossible, of course, to gauge with any accuracy what the actual psychological effects of the war may have been, and whether they led to cases of lingering trauma in these two men. However, as multiple scholars have made clear, we must consider the possibility that the shattering effects of the war inflected their later artistic and literary outputs.
Bierce’s psychological state has been the focus of much scholarship, for the war evidently consumed him until the end of his life. Homer, on the other hand, had a long and prolific career—continuing unabated for almost fifty years after the end of the war—filled with works that seem to have little bearing on the conflict. And yet numerous art historians have focused on Homer’s seeming obsession with the fragility of man in the face of violent and uncontrollable forces, usually the forces of nature such as sea squalls or snowstorms. Jules Prown interprets this thematic fixation as an unresolved quest for spiritual salvation, while Sarah Burns has read it as a response to the late-nineteenth-century cult of rugged masculinity.85 But both interpretations may also be applied to the lingering effects of the war, which historians link both to a newly modern atmosphere of spiritual uncertainty around the turn of the century and to a crisis in masculinity brought on by the losses of the war, which was offset by increased focus upon manliness during the same years.86 Merely because Homer completed all of his important Civil War paintings within two years of the peace at Appomattox does not mean that he worked through his trauma and got over it. He constantly returned to the theme of conflict in his later paintings of fishermen struggling against violent natural forces; art historian Paul Staiti describes nature in Homer’s late work as “a cold and amoral environment of chance and brutality, devoid of justice.”87 Such an inexorable and pitiless conception of fate could almost have come from the pen of Bierce in his descriptions of muddled and terrifying Civil War battles. So also did Homer’s later work reflect continued interest in themes indirectly associated with the war, and can be seen in his dealings with postwar African American life and his focus on farm labor, a theme he began exploring during the war with The Brush Harrow, Haymaking, and On Guard, which portray children taking on grown men’s roles. Regardless of how we interpret the seriousness of the war’s traumatic resonance with Homer, it is clear that it had a lasting impression on the way he looked at and represented the world. The war changed both men greatly, and not only their minds were affected.
These men’s experiences of the war caused physical changes as well, leading to situations in which the authors’ very bodies became unrecognizable. Homer’s mother wrote to his younger brother that after being starved while traveling with the army on the Peninsular Campaign, her son was “so changed that his best friends did not know him.”88 We may interpret this as a mental change, perhaps, but as she comments on the hardships he faced on the front, it seems likely to have been a physical change as well. Homer’s lack of recognition by his friends is nothing to the lack of self-recognition faced by Bierce when, around forty years after the end of the war, he embarked on a tour of the battlefields. This trip seems to have underwhelmed but also disturbed him as he attempted to understand and recapture some of the feelings of his own youth. He described the tour in a letter to poet Herman Scheffauer as a meeting between his present and former selves:
twelve miles from here, my age and my youth met—the latter a trifle wan, ghostly, and absent-minded, inhospitable to questioning. What I mean is that I was in Oakland (Md.) forty-odd years ago, as a young soldier … This country has been Dreamland to me ever since. I know I should not have sought it again, to dispel the illusions, but I just had to; and I mean to go over all my old campaigning routes and battle grounds…89
The event of finding old familiar places to be strange and of finding the self irrevocably and unaccountably changed is chillingly recounted in the short story “A Resumed Identity,” which Bierce composed after he had taken his trip around those now unfamiliar battlegrounds. When the tale opens, the unnamed character is walking on a moonlit road during summer. Bierce describes how “the man looked curiously about him on all sides, as one who among familiar surroundings is unable to determine his exact place and part in the scheme of things.”90 During the night he sees a procession of soldiers moving, as he believes, to take Nashville. Meeting a doctor on the road the next morning, he informs the doctor that he is a lieutenant in the regiment of General Hazen (as was Bierce) and inquires about the troops. Learning that the doctor “met no troops” he stumbles further along the road in confusion.”91 Finally coming upon a monument “brown with age, weather-worn at the angles, spotted with moss and lichen,” he reads that it commemorates the troops of Hazen’s brigade lost at the Battle of Stone River in 1862. Still a sense of recognition does not seem to occur in the man, until he is finally granted direct access to his reflection in “a pool of clear water” just adjacent to the monument. “He uttered a terrible cry” upon recognizing his own elderly face; “he fell, face downward into the pool and yielded up the life that had spanned another life.”92 In the beginning of the story the soldier fails to recognize what should be familiar places, accounting his difficulty to a head wound he believes he has recently sustained in action; even the explicit signs of age appearing upon the monument do not seem to allow him to recognize his predicament. It is only the sight of his own time-ravaged countenance—his inner and most inviolate “home,” which he has consistently failed to recognize or know for sure throughout the story—that removes the veil of forty years and, ironically, is the cause of his ultimate death.
Homer offered no such haunting coda to his own wartime experiences, other than in the moody oil sketch Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave of c. 1865 [Fig. 4]. This quiet work was never exhibited during Homer’s lifetime. Though Homer never painted a self portrait, what the viewer can see of the man’s downcast face bears some resemblance to his own, at least in superficial features such as the “great waving moustache” and “red, or nearly red, hair” noted by Harrison Morris in an amusing description of Homer’s appearance.93 Covering his downcast eyes, the brim of the trooper’s cap blocks our access to his thoughts. The opening paragraph of Bierce’s “The Mocking-bird” finds Private Grayrock similarly with “his cap downward over his eyes, almost concealing them.”94 Homer repeated this strategic marker of blindness in many Civil War scenes, including Sharpshooter, A Rainy Day in Camp, Home, Sweet Home, Sutler’s Tent, and even his supposed masterpiece of psychological insight, Prisoners from the Front. As one critic wrote of Homer, “There is nothing personal, or rather, subjective in his work. … He must give the essential nature of what he sees. He gives the true import … and leaves you there, saying nothing of the effect of the scene upon himself.”95 While Bierce might give us too much of himself without ever coming to a resolution about the true identity of his war-shattered self, Homer holds back in indeterminacy, refusing to meet our gaze. Both display a lack of self-recognition. Bruised by the war, seeming to work through the catastrophe in different ways, Homer and Bierce show us continually, through the piercing power of their own ability to observe, that we cannot trust what we see, that we are always blind to the true story of the Civil War.
Vanessa Meikle Schulman is an Assistant Professor of art history at Illinois State University, where she specializes in the art and visual culture of the United States. She received her PhD in Visual Studies from the University of California, Irvine, in 2010. She recently completed a book manuscript on nineteenth-century depictions of industry and technology in the U. S. and is working on a new book project about epistemological uncertainty in the literature and visual culture of the American Civil War.