Monday, 23 August 2010

‘Prisoners From the Front’ – Winslow Homer

PrisonersFront1866 Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910). Prisoners from the Front, 1866.
Oil on canvas. 61 x 96.5 cm (24 x 38 in.)

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ stunning TV documentary series on the unspeakable tragedy that was the American Civil War—four years when the country tore itself apart over the stain of slavery the Land of the Free should never have countenanced.

The character of the men making up the war’s two armies is well expressed in Winslow Homer’s classic portrait, representing three rebel soldiers of varying temperaments undergoing the interrogation of a sober Union general.

It remains one of the most well-known images from the whole blood-soaked struggle.


  1. Robert Winefield24 Aug 2010, 15:37:00

    4 years preceded by blood-letting (albeit on a smaller scale) on the Kansas-Missouri border.

    The civil war did not just arrive out of the clear blue sky. There were warning signs.

    This is one of the reasons I rate the Presidents from Quincy Adams to Buchanan as the worst in history with the possible exception of Zach Taylor. They had it in their power to fix the problem and instead spent their political capital on other crap - including grandiose canals and wars in Mexico.

  2. Tom Hunter said...

    Great series indeed. I watch it probably every 3-4 years because it's about more than facts.

    The series inspired me to buy Shelby Foote's three volume "narrative" of the conflict. Written in the late 1950's the sales of exploded following the PBS broadcast and Shelby's star turn in it (with his Southern drawl and humour). A year or so later he commented to the producer Ken Burns that "you've made me a millionaire Ken"

    I've never seen the painting though: very reminiscent of one photo Foote loved, showing three captured Confedrate soldiers standing by a split-rail fence.

  3. @Robert: Yes, it's so bloody tragic that not one of those arseholes had the gumption to bite the bullet and do what was necessary. They let another generation pay the price instead. In blood. Like you, historian Scott Powell ranks these as the worst presidents of history.

    @Tom: Ha, it was Shelby talking about that photograph thart reminded me of Homer's painting. And I actually had Shelby's history in my hand today--well, both hands, the boxed set is heavy--and contemplated the purchase. $180 for the three tomes. Have to think about it a bit more.

  4. Tom Hunter says...

    $180 does make you think. It certainly gave me pause - but in the end I bought it for that price and I do not regret it. It is slow reading, but that is due less to the writing (which has Foote's characteristic dry wit) than the simple intrusion of work, home and children. It seems more a poem like the Iliad than a straight-forward history (Foote was a novelist first so refused to call it a history). So - another contract is done and Summer approaches - time to pick it up off the table for the first time in months and spend some serious time reading.

    The funny thing is that there is another piece from the TV series that has been running through my mind more often as I contemplate what has been happening to my second home of America. It is a piece of writing from Lincoln, written in 1837 (from the first episode)

    From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step o’er the earth, and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or set a track on the Blue Ridge, though the trial last a thousand years.

    No: if destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide.


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