Despite receiving one-third less pay while suffering mortality rates one-third higher than their Euro-American counterparts, approximately 186,000 African Americans (both free blacks from the North and escaped slaves from the South) served as Union soldiers during the Civil War. Some served as teamsters, whose wagon lines were targeted by Confederate raiders. Captured teamsters often were enslaved or executed on the spot.
Scholars have debated the meaning of this painting, based on a scene observed by Homer. Is his depiction of teamsters resting a sympathetic portrayal of army life, or was the artist reinforcing 19th-century stereotypes of African Americans as idle? Does the title "The Bright Side" (a reference to the sunny side of the teamsters' tent) also allude to the Union "side" that promised freedom for enslaved African Americans, or is Homer making a discriminatory pun about color (the painting also was known as "Light and Shade") at the expense of his subjects?