Speculation on the historical site of a Civil War battle in which the painted scene depicted in Watching the Shot suggests is based on Homer’s historical record of his visits to the war and his relationship with one man. A friend of Homer’s older brother Charles, Colonel Francis Channing Barlow (Fig. 5-1), had been Homer’s host when he traveled with the army in the spring of 1862 (5.1).
Homers recorded history shows that he was with Barlow on at least one other occasion to observe the war first hand. Although there is substantial scholarly speculation that he traveled a total of three times to the war with Barlow as his escort. Barlow shows up in two of Homer’s Civil War paintings, Prisoners From the Front 1866, and Skirmish in the Wilderness 1864 (5.2). This is more than any other known person in Homer’s circle. It is this relationship with Barlow that may account for the bridge battle scene.
There were many battles for bridges in the Civil War. In fact, the Battle of Antietam in September 1862 featured a concrete bridge as part of the battle. Barlow was wounded at Antietam and was unable to return to duty until April 1863, at which time he was promoted to Brigadier General. As Homer spent several months with Barlow on subsequent trips to the front, it is quite likely that Homer would have heard the story of Antietam Bridge, perhaps first hand, from his good friend the Brigadier General. Watching the Shot has characteristics of the Battle for High Bridge, one of the final battles in the Civil War. Barlow was at the High Bridge Battle and his actions there significantly hastened the surrender of the South.
The army of General Robert E. Lee had been flushed from Petersburg, Virginia on April 2, 1865, and was daily being engaged in battles and skirmishes by the endless pursuit of U.S. Grant’s Union army. Unable to stop and rest, Lee’s Confederate army was in desperate need of both food and ammunition within days. By the time they got to the High Bridge, a tall railroad bridge that crossed the Appomattox River, they were quite determined to cross over (Fig. 5-2). They had word that a train full of supplies waited for them 3½ miles across the river at a town called Farmville. Just below the 125 foot tall railroad bridge was a wagon bridge used by locals to cross the river. It was near this smaller wooden wagon bridge where two battles were fought in two consecutive days, April 6 and 7, 1865. Although called the Battle for High Bridge, a good deal of the fighting occurred on or near the much smaller wooden wagon bridge. The battling there was the tipping point which led to Lee’s surrender just two days later (5.3).
As Lee’s army got nearer to the south side of High Bridge on April 6th, 1200 Confederate troops were sent ahead to secure the two bridges. Anticipating the Confederate armies move, a Union Cavalry unit was sent to the High Bridge area to take control and burn the railroad bridge and wooden wagon bridge in an effort to prevent Lee’s army from crossing the river. The Union cavalry under Colonel Francis Washburn reached the bridge before the main Confederate force, chased away some rebel guards, and secured the south end of the bridge. As Washburn’s troop set about firing the bridges they heard fighting not far away and abandoned their fire setting to mount and charge toward the sound of battle. Within one-half mile they found the beginnings of a battle and hastily charged the front line of Confederates and successfully ended on the backside of the rebel line. Unfortunately for Washburn and his men they were unaware that another Confederate division of cavalry was just behind the line they had just broken through and were quickly sandwiched between the two enemy forces. All of Washburn’s men were captured, wounded, or like Washburn killed within minutes. The remaining cavalry forces at the bridges fought to keep the bridges for the Union. They were ultimately killed, captured or surrendered. The Confederate army now had access to the north side of the Appomattox River via the two bridges and a clear path to supplies in Farmville.
The rebel army crossed the river using both the wooden wagon bridge and the High Bridge. President Grant in his memoirs records the results of the first day’s battle for the wagon bridge. Lee himself pushed on and crossed the wagon road bridge near the High Bridge, and attempted to destroy it (5.4). The Confederates left a rear guard behind at the bridges to do the same thing the Union had planned to do earlier that day; burn the bridges. This time it was to slow the pursuit of Grant’s army.
Early morning on April 7th, while the Confederate rear guard was attempting to fire the High Bridge and wooden wagon bridge, the Union army arrived on the scene. The division of Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow charged the rebel rear guard and burning structures and saved a large section of the railroad bridge, preventing major damage. The lower wooden wagon bridge was also saved sustaining only minor surface damage. General Barlow’s quick thinking and bravery allowed Union troops to cross over the Appomattox River to the north side and thereby continue close pursuit of their enemy (5.5).
The relentless Union pursuit of Lee's weary Confederates forced them to resume their retreat before re-provisioning themselves at Farmville. Not being able to stop for food, rest and munitions, General Lee had no alternative other than surrendering his tired and hungry CSA army to the Union and Lt. General Grant two days later at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9th, 1865. Barlow’s notable historic action of saving a small wooden wagon bridge had suddenly become a major factor in bringing a rapid end to the Civil War.
An onsite inspection of the High Bridge area in January 2008 is not conclusive but does show possible signs of being the location for the battle scene depicted in Watching the Shot (Figs. 5-3 and 5-4). (5.6)
Local lore tells us that the wooden wagon bridge was washed out by a flood around 1930 and never rebuilt (5.7). During the Civil War most of the area was stripped of trees and used as farmland. Today the area has been taken over by trees and a thick tangle of brush, not having been farmed in over 75 years. Reconstruction of the railroad bridge with heavy equipment in both 1914 and 1941, have erased all evidence of the original wooden wagon bridge.
As well the topography of the river embankments, have also been leveled. Still there remain elements of the Appomattox River at this location that suggest the scene in Watching the Shot.
The onsite inspection seems to verify the suggested distance in the painting across the river being from 75 to 100 feet across, and capable of being waded from side to side at the depth’s suggested by the painting. Although it should be noted that historical battle records show that the river was flooded to its banks when General Barlow saved the bridge, the river most likely would have receded to wading depths by the time Homer would have visited the site. Homer would have captured his scene from the north side of the river where he would have been positioned under the railroad bridge looking south. On April 6th, 1865 the CSA army was on the south side of the wagon bridge trying to get across the bridge to the north side, which is how it is depicted in the painting. The flow of the water is from west to east in the Appomattox, and this also matches the painting with the indications of water movement, around the horses and infantry men’s legs in the river. Embankments are roughly 8 to 12 feet high which generally meet the illustrated heights in the painting. Photographic imagery of the burned wooden wagon bridge as it looked immediately after the battle does not exist. However, shortly after the war the bridge was stripped of its lumber and new lumber was put down.
For Homer the significance of Barlow’s heroics at the two bridges, the High Bridge and the wooden wagon bridge, would mean first hand information from Barlow himself about the happenings. As it would happen, Homer was possibly just 60 miles away on those two days of battle, having come to City Point, Virginia (just outside Petersburg) on March 28, 1865 (5.8). On March 28th, Homer sketched Grant & Lincoln at City Point, Va., and Two of Sheridan’s Scouts/Sketched near Hatchers Run/in front of Petersburg. It is believed that Homer had come to Petersburg because he was a true patriot and wanted to be near by at the end of the war. There is no evidence to suggest how he knew the war was coming to an end, but Gerdts in the official Homer raisonne also agrees that his motive was most likely his strong sense of patriotism; … or that his motive for the trip was other than an impulse to be present at a significant moment in national history (5.9). It is also possible that he was preparing for his fourth tour of the war with Barlow as his escort.
According to the official Homer historical record Homer’s whereabouts were unknown after March 28th up until April 27 when he showed at the National Academy of Design annual exhibition in New York City. It is quite probable that he was still nearby Petersburg and/or the battle area at the end of the war on April 9th. Clearly he would have had ample time to visit the wooden wagon bridge battle site and his good friend General Barlow before finding his way back to New York on April 27—18 days later! A train ride combined with horse and buggy, or even a steam ship part of the way, from New York to Petersburg, Virginia, in those days was approximately a two to four day adventure. It is not difficult to imagine that Watching the Shot could be based on Homer’s onsite observation of the wooden wagon bridge at the High Bridge battle area. Knowing Homer’s strong sense of nationalism, the pure joy of the war’s end, and a first hand account from Barlow, it seems very Homer-like to take full advantage of the opportunity to create a historical battle scene such as, Watching the Shot.
Watching the Shot has a General in the water leading the soldiers and two mounted cavalry across the river, with sword held high. The General’s image was added later to the scene as previously noted. The General’s image was painted thinly and appears to have faded over time and so any possible distinctions that may have existed in the image are no longer available to positively identify the General in the water as Barlow. Nicolai Cikovsky suggests in the Homer Raisonne that Barlow is the small figure leading the group of soldiers to battle in the painting, Skirmish in the Wilderness, 1864 (5.10). It is difficult to imagine Homer not adding Barlow to his only other battle scene, especially given the abrupt end to the Civil War, thanks in good measure, to his good friend Brigadier General F.C. Barlow.
A photograph of the newly recovered bridge is shown from atop the High Bridge and gives one the perspective of how it looked in April 1865, just days after the battle. The new planking has not yet been trimmed, construction bracing is still in place and no railing has yet been put up (Fig. 5-4). But still it bears a distinct resemblance to the bridge illustrated in Watching the Shot. If Homer did choose this location for Watching the Shot he would have been positioned just underneath the railroad bridge on the north side of the river and looking south. From this position clearly the perspective in the painting does not include the High Bridge, which is directly over the artists and our (the viewers) head. This unusual angle allowed Homer to capture the all important wagon bridge battle to the left while leaving the center stage of the canvas for the principals of the title – the watcher, the shooter and the one being shot. The painting mirrors the historical record of the Confederate soldier’s ferocious fight for the wagon bridge to gain access to the north side of the river.
It is interesting to note the apparent connections between history and painting. Triangulating Homer’s whereabouts with those of Barlow on April 6 and 7, 1865 certainly raises an intriguing question about the wooden wagon bridge below the High Bridge. If Homer was planning another battle scene, as art historians suggest, could this be the wooden wagon bridge in Watching the Shot? At this moment in time further documentation would need to come forward to clearly answer this question. Without additional information the location of the bridge depicted in Watching the Shot cannot be verified absolutely. Whether Watching the Shot is a depiction of the battle for High Bridge, or perhaps some other bridge battle, the painting nonetheless remains a masterful work of art.
Watching the Shot was found at an antique store in Santa Monica, California in 2003. The dealer told the buyer that he had gotten the work at the Pasadena Rose Bowl flea market a year earlier. He was told by the flea market booth where he purchased the painting from that it was a local estate that the painting had come from. No other information is known. The distance from New York to Pasadena, California was a very great distance to travel in 1866, the year Watching the Shot was sold at auction. Especially when one considers that travel was by train, ship and/or horse drawn carriage, it seems difficult to connect the two cities, let alone determine how a lost Homer painting traveled so far from New York. However, there is one documented connection that Homer had, albeit indirectly, with Pasadena.
When Homer first moved to New York in the autumn of 1859 he moved into Mrs. Alexander Cushman’s boarding house on the recommendation of the Howland brothers who also lived in the Cushman boarding house. Homer had known the brothers in Boston (5.11). Alfred Cornelius Howland was the younger of the two brothers and an artist himself. It was Alfred who introduced Homer to the Antique School of the National Academy of Design, and subsequently went to art school with Homer. Homer drew and painted several watercolors of his friend. According to the official Homer raisonne; In his later years Howland wintered in Pasadena, California, and it was there he died (5.12). It is entirely possible that Howland either purchased Watching the Shot at the 1866 auction, or it was given to him as a gift from Homer. It is also possible that Alfred’s older brother Henry, may have bought the painting and sent it to Alfred in Pasadena. Henry became very wealthy later in life and at one point commissioned Homer to paint a portrait of his elder son (book 3: No. 642 in the Homer raisonne) (5.13). There remains a clearly documented connection from Homer in New York City to Pasadena, California in the 19th century. There are other possibilities of course, and so we may never know how the work got from a New York auction house to California. And yet clearly it did!
The image at right (Fig. 5-6) shows a detail of the photograph from Fig. 5-4. The enlarged area focuses on the man standing on the High Bridge as the photograph of the span was taken by Timothy H. O'Sullivan in April 1865, just after the Battle of High Bridge. At this time, repairs were being made to both the railroad bridge and the wagon bridge. It is interesting to note the resemblance of the man on the bridge and Homer, pictured in various portraits in Fig. 5-7. Considering that Homer may have been near the site around the time of the battle, as described in the section "Homer's Whereabouts," is it possible that the man in the photograph of the bridge is Homer? Although pure speculation, but it is an interesting curiosity discovered during research of Watching the Shot.