The Surgeon at Work at the Rear During an Engagement

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The Surgeon at Work at the Rear During an Engagement
Winslow Homer
published by Harpers Weekly July 12, 1862
Wood engraving on paper
9 3/16 x 13 13/16 in. (image); 11 1/4 x 16 1/16 in. (sheet)
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Arthur and Hilda Wenig

Can you imagine being injured in battle? Being treated in a Civil War battlefield hospital was a mixed blessing. It was certainly better than lying hurt on the field, but medical treatment was no picnic, either! Medical techniques used at the time could be as dangerous as the wounds or illnesses they were meant to treat. In fact, many modern wartime procedures used in the field to care for wounded soldiers were invented on Civil War battlefields. Military doctors had little training, few supplies, and even less time. Amputations, a common procedure because of the size and speed of Civil War bullets, were especially gruesome.

To convey the conditions under which doctors had to work, artist Winslow Homer emphasized the chaos of the situation. A surgeon in the front left corner, his back to the audience, attends to a wounded soldier with the help of a comrade. The horse-drawn ambulance speeds more of the injured to this outdoor care station while the battle continues to rage in the background. Others are carried in by fellow soldiers, and supplies seem just to have arrived, carried in by a messenger. The article that accompanied the image called this the “most painful scene on the battle-field,” and suggested that surgeons required the “most nerve and most courage” of all army officers. Though Homer did not depict details of the bloody work, the article pointed out that in such make-shift hospitals, “Arteries are tied, ligatures and tourniquets applied, flesh wounds hastily dressed, broken limbs set, and sometimes, where haste is essential, amputations performed within sight and sound of the cannon.”

1. What is happening with the two figures in the lower right? What about the three figures just behind them or the group in the lower left? What kinds of injuries might these men have sustained? What details indicate their medical treatment?

2. Great illustrators like Homer are very good at putting in meaningful details like the man wearing glasses. Can you find him? Another detail helps us understand the rules of the battlefield. Why do you think there is a flag on top of the ambulance in the background? What other details do you see that might be meaningful?

Further reading:
Freemon, Frank R. Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care During the American Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Portland Museum of Art. “Winslow Homer Illustrations.” Accessed February 29, 2012.
(For the accompanying text from Harper’s Weekly click on “See 10 Illustrations with Magazine Pages.”)

Shotgun's Home of the American Civil War. “Medical Care, Battle Wounds and Disease.” Accessed July 25, 2011.

Simpson, Marc. Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1988.

Tatham, David. Winslow Homer and the Pictorial Press. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

Ward, Geoffrey C. “Death’s Army” Review of This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. New York Times, January 27, 2008.

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