Interpreting Homer’s “Near Andersonville”

Actress Tia James portrays the enslaved African American woman represented in a painting in the Newark Museum’s collection. “Near Andersonville” was created by famed American artist Winslow Homer in 1866. The painting depicts the young woman on the ‘threshold’ of the future as she considers her freedom and views her liberators (Union soldiers) being led off to the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Homer presented an anonymous figure, but Ms. James researched published narratives of enslaved people to create her own character named Charity. Charity tells her story and comments on the dangers of the Underground Railroad, facing fear, and the hope to reunite with her husband, Walter. The gourds presented in the picture are symbols of the North Star (the guide for runaways) and the video includes a rendition of the folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. The video is a component of the Newark Museum’s curriculum, “Civil War@150,” a teaching resource recognizing the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

If you are looking for more on the painting you will want to take a look at Peter H. Wood’s concise study, Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War (Harvard University Press).

3 comments… add one
  • Samantha Apr 3, 2011 @ 6:37

    This clip relates closely to a debate which my public history class had. On their website the NCPH, or National Council on Public History, defines public historians as including “museum professionals, government and business historians, historical consultants, archivists, teachers, cultural resource managers, curators, film and media producers, policy advisors, oral historians, professors and students with public history interests, and many others.” Most of these positions seemed to correspond to common, popular notions of historians. The film producers, and whether actors could count as historians as well, sparked a debate because some people felt that credentials and scholarly knowledge needed to be a prerequisite to being counted as a historian. This clip illustrates that actors have a huge influence on how the general public understands history and, more interestingly, even do research to understand how they should portray their roles. I can see where people who dedicate themselves to the study of history would scorn the thought of actors being historians, and it is important to think about reliability, but their interpretations in some ways are more important because that is what the mass public will understand.
    As for this video, I was impressed with her research and drive to make a story from a picture. My only problem was that she seemed extremely modern, and the flat background did not help the presentation. In the video the actress does understandably favor the interpretation that the Civil War was about slavery, but while she did address the danger of being part of the Underground Railroad, her emphasis on the hardships of slavery definitely served as a back-handed commentary on both the courage of those who were a part of the railroad and of those too terrified to help.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 3, 2011 @ 6:42

      Thanks for the comment, Samantha. You raise some very interesting issues. I don’t know much at all about the staff at the Newark Museum, but if I remember correctly this particular Homer painting has been in their possession for quite some time. I thought what they did with this video was very interesting and quite creative. I would have loved to have heard more about the specific setting of the image, which was only alluded to in the video. You will notice the Union prisoners being marched off to Andersonville in the background. Homer was clearly making a connection between that scene and the slave woman. What was she thinking as she viewed these men in the distance?

  • Craig Mar 30, 2011 @ 17:53

    An uncle of my mother’s grandfather, Abraham Steele, was among the first five hundred Union soldiers to die at Andersonville. He was one of eight soldiers from the 80th Ohio captured by Cleburne at Tunnel Hill in the Battle of Chattanooga. Five of the eight survived the camp and two of them boarded the Sultana in Vicksburg at the end of the war. One of them was killed when the boiler exploded near Cairo. The other was healthy enough to swim to shore.

    Abraham belonged to the Brethren. He was a pacifist. He fought in two battles, Corinth and Chattanooga, and was taken prisoner in both battles. He spent most of his enlistment in Confederate prisons. He had planned to study to become a doctor. His younger brother, Michael, my great great grandfather, married the daughter of the town doctor in Wabash, Indiana, shortly after the war. They moved to South Bend.

    Camp Sumter, aka Andersonville, was still under construction when Abraham Steele died there. The camp started receiving prisoners in late February. He died early in April while it was still a model of cleanliness. The eight boys from the 80th Ohio had spent the previous three months at a camp in Alabama. Six months after their arrival, Andersonville had become the fifth largest city in the Confederacy, a population the size of Mobile.

    Henry Wirz was hanged after the war on what is now the site of the United States Supreme Court. He did the best he could under extremely adverse circumstances. His hanging was a monumental miscarriage of justice.

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