Civil War History and the Dallas Museum of Art: Warriors Fight, The Homefront Mourns

“And his good wife will tear her cheeks in grief, his sons are orphans and he, soaking the soil red with his own blood, he rots away himself—more birds than women flocking round his body!” Homer, The Iliad

It’s an vase from Ancient Greece, what’s the Civil War connection?

It was actual part of the description of the art piece that started my spiraling thought:

“The chief scene probably shows the Greek hero Achilles fighting over the dead body of Antilochus with the Trojan hero Prince Memnon. To either side stand the warriors’ mothers, as mourning figures.”

“Glorious” and “heroic” battle scenes are often the subject of art. Less frequently is war’s destruction and emotional cost depicted. But here from the hands of a pottery crafter in Ancient Greece stands a universal lesson from military history. The warriors die on the battlefield and their loved ones will mourn that loss.

While the truth holds universally, by the time the time of the Civil War, most soldiers did not battle within sight of their mothers or other female relatives. Instead, distance usually veiled the violence and left the death-knell to letters, telegrams, or horrid, haunting imagination.

Union nurse Clara Barton wrote poignantly about battle death and distance relatives on the night before the river crossing at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862:

The camp fires blaze with unwanted brightness, the sentry’s tread is still but quick – the acres of little shelter tents are dark and still as death, no wonder for us as I gazed sorrowfully upon them. I thought I could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger’s wings, as one by one he sought and selected his victims for the morning. Sleep weary one, sleep and rest for tomorrow toil. Oh! Sleep and visit in dreams once more the loved ones nestling at home. They may yet live to dream of you, cold lifeless and bloody, but this dream soldier is thy last, paint it brightly, dream it well. Oh northern mothers wives and sisters, all unconscious of the hour, would to Heaven that I could bear for you the concentrated woe which is so soon to follow….

If war’s death, mourning, and loss is a universal curse, perhaps also is every era’s wish for peace. Reaching back to Homer’s The Iliad, this section could be applied to almost any martial conflict, ancient, medieval, modern—including the American Civil War years.

“I wish that strife would vanish away from among gods and mortals, and gall, which makes a man grow angry for all his great mind, that gall of anger that swarms like smoke inside of a man’s heart and becomes a thing sweeter to him by far than the dripping of honey.”

(End of the Dallas Museum of Art blog miniseries)

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