Book: Near Andersonville
Author: Peter H. Wood
Review by: Philip P. Bolton, publisher of Global Atlanta
Northern victory in the U.S. Civil War during the summer months of 1864 was far from assured. Even the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln was severely in doubt. Nor was Union Gen. William T. Sherman‘s capture of Atlanta guaranteed; his troops had been unable to destroy the railroad lines from the city’s north.
In a foolhardy attempt to cut supplies to Georgia’s commercial capital, Gen. Sherman approved a two-pronged cavalry assault to the south to attack the Macon & Western Railroad between Fayetteville and McDonough with the columns supposed to converge at Lovejoy.
Though successful in some marauding, wearied Yankee cavalrymen far behind enemy lines eventually were destroyed by Confederate forces with as many as 600 or more taken hostage.
While Yankee officers were spared through prisoner exchanges, the rank and file soldiers were sent to Andersonville, a virtual death trap where 100 of its 40,000 prisoners have been estimated to have died every day.
Winslow Homer, the “artist correspondent” for Harper’s Weekly, was intimately acquainted with battlefront conditions and completed many wood engravings for the magazine.
In 1866, one year after the war ended, he completed the oil painting that launched his career as one of America’s most celebrated artists. The painting “Prisoners from the Front,” currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, depicts a union officer addressing three Confederate soldiers who had been captured on the battlefield at Petersburg, Va., on June 21, 1864.
Much has been made of this painting, including elaborate profiles and descriptions of the demeanors of the captured and the Yankee brigadier general overseeing them. Some commentators have seen it as representing a presumed reconciliation between the North and South and the more optimistic hopes for Reconstruction.
Peter H. Wood, professor emeritus of history at Duke University, however, chooses Mr. Homer’s painting “Near Andersonville” as the artist’s work which “cracks the code” about the pre-war South.
When one considers that Bill Gates bought a Homer seascape in 1998 for more than $30 million, it’s amazing that the whereabouts of “Near Andersonville” remained unknown to even the most knowledgeable connoisseurs for 100 years.
For much of that time it remained in the attic of a New Jersey banker. How the painting came to light is part of the drama of Prof. Wood’s book, but its extraordinary achievement is how it reveals Southern history from a painting of a lone African American woman standing in front of a cabin witnessing the procession of Yankee prisoners being taken to the Andersonville camp.
Prof. Wood confronts a century of Southern historiography with this single painting, which, he says, presages the work of many historians who are examining this history today. Readers of his text, which numbers only 88 pages, will be rewarded with a lifetime of conjecture about the complexity of the history of the South and a profound appreciation for the artistry, skill and perceptiveness of Mr. Homer.
Those who are motivated to learn even more about the painting can find lectures that he gave in 2011 at Emory University by going to https://southernspaces.org/2011/winslow-homer-and-american-civil-war.