The Commissary's Quarters in Winter Camp

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The Commissary's Quarters in Winter Camp
Edwin Forbes
18 x 24 in.
Chicago Public Library
E491.F76 1876

What a strange scene! We see a horse’s rear end poking out of a make-shift stable. In the middle of the frame is a scale, on which the two men are weighing a small item. Behind them, a “lean-to” shelter covered with snow is attached to a tent. What you see here is the home of a Commissary Officer in a Union winter camp. It was very difficult for armies to fight in the winter due to the poor condition of roads, so soldiers frequently settled down into cabins and tents to ride out the coldest, wettest months. The Commissary Officer was in charge of supplying the army with all its food needs, and so was in charge of handing out “rations,” or the standard amount of meat and bread a soldier was given each day. Here, the two soldiers are weighing out a ration of war time foodstuffs.

Artist Edwin Forbes based this etching on a drawing he created in 1864 during the Civil War (see Weighing Out Rations). He was a field artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Newspapers hired artists like Forbes to draw scenes of battlefields and life in camp. Before the war, Forbes received a good education in art at the National Academy of Design in New York City. In his early work he focused on painting animals, and the inclusion of a horse in this image carries over his early practice into war time drawings. Forbes’ image provides insight into the everyday lives of soldiers. It also provides visual information about transportation, the horse, and soldiers’ makeshift living conditions in winter camp.

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