Citation: Currier & Ives. The Soldier’s Dream of Home. 1861-65. Hand colored Lithograph. Library of Congress, n.p.
We see in the image above a saddening and pitiable sight. A soldier, resting after a day in the midst of a camp, dreams of a home with a wife, a child, and what appears to be his land. All around the resting dreamer are camping tents and soldiers, perhaps also thinking of a life away from the war. The first initial response I could pull from this was certainly hopeful, perhaps even describable as the dream of the common soldier whisked into the forays and the brutalities of war. What better could describe a man clearly yearning for something so far away when he must fight for his country?
In terms of a historical context, this image is obviously a civil war era image. The clothes on the soldier in the foreground and those in the background were commonly seen on union soldiers. The lone cannon in the camp would suggest the depicted unit would most likely be a detachment of a larger infantry regiment. These soldiers also appear to be relaxed, so no major or minor skirmishes seem to be in the foreseeable future or have recently occurred. What all of this equates to is showing that these soldiers were usually just common men who were drafted into a war and could not pay a fee, common people meant to invoke a connectable image with a viewer.
We see several things surrounding this sleeping man, all of which seem to play a role in the symbolic meaning of the piece. The fire that the soldier sleeps by creates a smoke that the dream the soldier is having seems framed by, almost as if to say that the fire represents the life the soldier wants to have going up in flames because of the war. We also see that the soldier is sleeping near both a drum and a gun, meaning that this soldier, in particular, is likely a drummer meant to relay instructions and fight as well, a job of great importance to a soldier. We see various symbols of war lying in the background, including a cannon and fellow soldiers talking. Through these things, we see that this soldier in the foreground is important to the war, but can’t help thinking about the life he has at home and if he even will ever get to have that life.
Its also worth noting that this image is in color and is a “lithograph”, implying that this particular work is most likely a recreated image through a reprinting. This image, then, was probably meant to be reproduced numerous times and spread as propaganda. Furthermore, the fact that a union soldier is dreaming of a better life than fighting in the war makes it clear that this is anti-war propaganda. The artist had the intent of showing that soldiers did not want to be involved with this war, and would rather enjoy a different life with the dream they have in mind. Perhaps this could even be described as the “American Dream” dangling above this sleeping soldier, and the artist wants to make it clear that he will not fulfill it anytime soon because of the war.
Thus, we see the reality that this image brings. It isn’t hopeful as the initial reaction would have us believe. Despair is a much more accurate word. The soldier dreams of the life he wants, but cannot have due to the reality of the war all around them. This soldier, a man charged with ensuring that others can control their forces on the battlefield, cannot even control the events in his life, a man lacking the agency to do anything beyond his task of fighting, killing, and dying.