We asked our contributors what seemed like a simple question:
What scene from the American Revolution or the Founding Era (1765–1805, approximately) do you wish had been depicted accurately by an artist?
Quite unintentionally, the wording was ambiguous. Some described scenes that they’d like to see an artist render, while others offered events that they wished an eyewitness had recorded accurately. The responses are remarkably diverse, highlighting just how little pictorial material we have of such an important era in history.
The Boston Massacre (1770). Revere’s print, based on Henry Pelham’s engraving, was a superb piece of propaganda but, from the counterfactual point of view, it might have been interesting to see how a more accurate depiction of the event might have affected colonial attitudes. One interesting note here is that Pelham became a Loyalist and ultimately fled Boston for London where he re-connected with his half-brother John Singleton Copley.
Matthew M. Montelione
The “Boston Massacre.” In the 1770s, the incident was distorted by radical colonists to fan the flames of rebellion against the Crown. Most depictions showed British soldiers ruthlessly firing on unarmed rioters, when in actuality, the rioters aggressively taunted the military and harassed them with projectiles before a shot was fired by a British soldier. It was an unfortunate mishap spurred by colonial unrest. Patriot propaganda twisted the truth and labeled the event a “massacre.” (Also recommended by Mark G. Spencer)
J. L. Bell
If the question is what moment of the Revolution would I like an accurate visual representation of, then I’d choose the instant the first puff of gunsmoke appeared over the Lexington Common at daybreak on April 19, 1775? Did it rise from the area of Buckman’s tavern where some militiamen gathered, or from a mounted officer’s pistol, or from somewhere else entirely?
The attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775. We rely on the famous painting of Montgomery’s death, by John Trumbull, but he studied under Benjamin West and the influence is so obvious it is as if West painted it himself. A painting of Arnold’s assault on the Lower Town would be useful.
The arrival of the British invasion fleet, August 1776. “I do declare that I thought all London was afloat.” So exclaimed one awestruck rebel who stood on the shores of New York harbor witnessing the largest naval fleet ever assembled to that point in history. Numbering more than 400 ships it was a potent symbol of the military power of the United Kingdom and an invasion force not seen again until D-Day two centuries later. The scene must have been both thrilling and terrifying depending on your loyalty. I have never found a contemporary illustration of the event.
David M. Griffin
The opening battles in the extensive Battle of Long Island in 1776 between General’s Grant and Stirling and Von Hester and Sullivan in Brooklyn. These significant encounters set up the budding American Army against a significant British force much like the famous Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston. The movie Revolution from 1985 gives a theatrical portrayal of these early engagements. Overall, there has been a general lack of study and accurate portrayal of the impassioned events that took place around New York early in the Revolutionary War.
On September 15, 1776, General Washington and Private Joseph Plumb Martin crossed paths in midtown Manhattan. Martin and his greenhorn cohorts, pummeled by British artillery and overwhelmed by British manpower, were running helter-skelter from Kip’s Bay, heading northward along the Boston Post Road. Alarmed, Washington mounted his horse and rode southward to intercept his fleeing men, furiously “using every means in my power” to rally his troops. One later account, likely embellished, reported that Washington drew his sword and snapped his pistols at the enemy—and “caned and whipped” his own troops. How would an artist capture the mayhem?
I’d like to see an accurate depiction of George Washington at Kip’s Bay, New York, on September 15, 1776. The only illustration of this event that I’ve seen is Washington heroically riding forward, sword in hand, to rally the fleeing militia. In reality, Washington lost his temper and rode among the militiamen, raging and cursing them while flailing at them with the flat side of his sword. Only the intervention of an aide who grabbed the bridle of Washington’s horse and led him away prevented his capture. Seeing an illustration of this scene would humanize Washington, illustrating his frustration with the difficulties of leading an untrained army. This would not detract from Washington’s achievements, but show him straining under the rigors of command.
Jett B. Conner
Washington Crossing the Delaware. Though art is not meant to be the same as factual representation, a painting of a historical event or scene has a higher bar to meet concerning accuracy. Emanuel Leutze’s huge and iconic painting of the Crossing certainly set the standard for all others. Unfortunately, it doesn’t accurately portray the event in many ways, as most anyone familiar with the piece knows by now. Subsequently, many paintings of the same scene have made similar errors. At least artist Mort Kunstler’s recent painting of the Crossing clearly depicts the event at night. Progress!
My choice would be the Crossing of the Delaware. While Leutze is certainly magnificent and inspirational, it’s also obviously totally inaccurate. During the Bicentennial, Don Troiani painted the crossing for American Heritage. Highlighting the landing more than the crossing, it’s the best and most accurate rendering of the event, but has never been widely reproduced, apparently because he wasn’t pleased with the result. It’s a wonderful painting. While there have been a few other more recent and more accurate offerings, it’s time for a new view.
I’ve always wanted to see a reliable portrait of George Washington’s valet, an enslaved man named William Lee. His presence was as ubiquitous as Washington’s during the war, whether in camp or on the battlefield. Yet, on the rare occasion he made his way into an image, it was as a generic family servant, often wearing a turban. John Trumbull painted Washington in the Hudson Valley with a turbaned African American over his shoulder while Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington at the Battle of Princeton has another man holding the horse in the background. Both artists had ample occasion to see Lee, but the horse-holders are decidedly different in appearance. Peale’s version comes closer to the few descriptions of William Lee that we have.
As morose as it may sound, an accurate painting of troops enduring the process of inoculation against smallpox would be eye-opening. It should be complete with a smallpox sufferer within the context of the frame so that we might fully understand that the victims of the disease themselves played such an on-the-scene role in bringing a medical marvel to so many thousands of soldiers.
The floating bridge, and its creative engineering, that connected Fort Ticonderoga with Mt. Independence in 1777 is something that has fascinated me for some time. I think it would be interesting to see an accurate artist’s rendering of that structure at the time of St. Clair’s withdrawal of rebel forces from the fort headed across it into the Hampshire Grants in advance of Burgoyne’s arrival.
John U. Rees
After their thirteen-day encampment at the Forks of the Neshaminy (modern-day Hartsville, Pennsylvania), Gen. George Washington, learning of the British landing at Head of Elk, Maryland, (August 25, 1777) started his army south. The commander-in-chief decided to march the troops through the capital city. Washington noted, “I am induced to do this from the opinion of Several of my Officers and many Friends in Philadelphia, that it may have some influence on the minds of the disaffected there and those who are Dupes to their artifices and opinions.” John Adams described the ensuing scene as they passed down Front Street with Washington at their head: “Four regiments of Light Horse, Four Grand Divisions of the Army—and the Artillery with the Matrosses. They Marched Twelve deep, and yet took up above two Hours in passing by. Our soldiers have not yet, quite the air of Soldiers. They don’t hold up their Heads, quite erect, nor turn out their Toes, so exactly as they ought. They don’t all of them cock their Hats—and such as do, don’t all wear them the same Way.”
Nancy K. Loane
Charles Willson Peale painted fifty or so portraits of Continental army officers and their ladies while at the 1777-78 Valley Forge encampment. If only he would have painted a scene of the May 11 theater production of Joseph Addison’s Cato staged there, too! A “very numerous and splendid audience,” including Martha Washington, attended the play. An accurate rendition—indeed, any rendition—of this gala would illustrate another dimension of the Valley Forge story.
The pseudo-medieval tournament at the Mischianza, the over-the-top Philadelphia farewell fete in honor of General William Howe on May 18, 1778. It was one of the more ridiculous and light-hearted scenes from the American Revolution. Six officers costumed in silk and carrying decorated shields as Knights of the Blended Rose and six as Knights of the Burning Mountain, with their Captains and squires, sought to uphold “by deeds of arms, according to the laws of ancient chivalry” the honor of their ladies. The knights jousted, dueled with pistols, and fought with swords until the ladies were satisfied with their feats of valor.
I would like to see an artist’s accurate depiction of the first meeting between Generals George Washington and Charles Lee at the battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. Washington said some harsh words to the second-in-command Lee (though no swearing, as some report). Lee, shocked, responded in kind. What were their facial expressions like? Was there anger in their faces? Did Washington lose his legendary composure? Also there is no known artist’s rendering of Lee (other than a caricature).
David D. Kindy
Never mind an artist— I want a videographer at he Battle of Monmouth to let us what George Washington did to rally the troops! What did he say? How did he act? What was his demeanor? Did he plead? Did he shout? How did he do it? I also want to know what the Commander-in-Chief said to General Charles Lee. What exactly were the “very singular expressions” that he used to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with Lee’s leadership? How did he say them and what was the context? That’s what I want to know!
I would like to have seen an accurate illustration of the occupation of Kaskaskia, Illinois, by George Rogers Clark’s men (July 4, 1778). The illustrations that exist don’t seem to accurately portray the participants on either side.
Don N. Hagist
On August 29, 1778, a column of British regulars was ambushed on the east road (today’s East Main Road) in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, by a large force of American troops that had hidden behind a stone wall. I wish a witness had captured the scene in accurate detail, from the formation and clothing of the troops on both sides to the exact locations and distances when the ambush occurred.
Artists often depicted the conflict along Western New York, exemplified by the Battles of Oriskany (August 6, 1777) and Cherry Valley (November 10–11, 1778), in subjective ways and used these depictions as propaganda for the cause. In battles involving Native Americans, the images lessened or misrepresented their role in the conflict. These depictions have shaped our perspective of these battles and the preservation of these sites. Increased accuracy and detail of the battlefields’ landscapes would aid archaeological research and preservation related to these battlefields. It would also provide insight into the role of Native Americans in the American Revolution.
Michael J. F. Sheehan
Stony Point (July 16, 1779) is one of the more incorrectly illustrated actions of the Revolution. Though primarily incorrect in minor, material culture details, for those familiar with the battle they jump right out. Two brief examples would be Alonzo Chappel’s famous engraving off Wayne being carried up the hill—Wayne’s aides-de-camp, not soldiers, carried him up the hill when wounded, and that likely none of the British were wearing grenadier miters. Constantine Brumidi’s painting of the battle in the U.S. Capitol shows similar scenes, but with the incorrect impression that the glacis at Stony Point was over two stories of masonry.
On June 17, 1780, William Bingham, Robert Morris, Thomas Willing, and James Wilson met at Philadelphia’s Coffee House, possibly with some other wealthy men from among the ninety-three others who along with these four pledged 315,000 pounds to found a bank solely to buy supplies for the American forces. The supplies bought by this little bank enabled the Continental Army to survive through the period leading up to Yorktown. Not only has this event not been celebrated by a memorial painting, it has since been unmentioned in most battle-oriented histories of the war.
John. L. Smith, Jr.
I know of no depiction by an artist of what I believe must have been one of the most agonizing scenes of the American Revolution. The scene: outside the Beverley Robinson house above the Hudson River in late September 1780. The real-to-life depiction would show officers Lafayette, Knox and Hamilton beholding an excruciating look on the face of their commander—Gen. George Washington as he clenched evidence papers and said “Arnold has betrayed us!”
The Siege of Fort Watson (April 1781) and the famous tower constructed by Major Hezekiah Maham and his dragoons. While the generalities of the siege and tactics deployed by the South Carolina militia under Brigadier General Francis Marion and Continental troops commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Light Horse Harry Lee are understood; details of the tower’s design and its dimensions, the position of Fort Watson and its distance from the tower, the condition of British troops confined to the fort, and other specifics are less clear. The steady construction of the tower through day and night hours must have been increasingly ominous to the British and provincial contingent, and firing by American riflemen downward into the fort quite a spectacle.
Albert Louis Zambone
I would wish for a picture showing the Southern Army on the march, after Greene decides to turn south towards Camden (April 1781). It would be a long painting, showing all the varieties of soldier in that army in all their individuality, with Greene riding in their midst, bridle looped over his elbow, his hands holding a map.
C. L. Bragg
I would like to see an accurate artist’s rendition of the hanging of Col. Isaac Hayne by the British in Charleston on August 4, 1781. The moment rendered could depict him taking leave of his friends prior to mounting a cart and having a noose placed around his neck. His British escort, various spectating patriots and loyalists, his lawyer, a clergyman, friends, and his oldest son would be present to witness his execution. Lt. Cols. Nisbet Balfour and Francis Lord Rawdon might be portrayed to one side, though they were likely not present. Artist John Blake White painted a similar scene in 1850, but the canvas was lost, probably during the Civil War.
Patrick H. Hannum
The meeting between Gen. George Washington, General Rochambeau and Admiral De Grasse on the Ville De Paris, anchored in Lynnhaven Bay, on September 18, 1781. Gen. Henry Knox reportedly slapped his knee in laughter when Admiral De Grassse welcomed General Washington aboard with the greeting, “Bonjour mon petit général.”
My choice would be the scene in which the French fleet honored George Washington. It occurred just prior to the beginning of the Siege of Yorktown when Washington, Rochambeau and several others met Admiral de Grasse on his flagship in Lynnhaven Bay (today’s Lynnhaven Roads), on September 18, 1781, to discuss plans for the siege. Jonathan Trumbull was with Washington and he described the scene following that conference, when Washington’s party left the flagship about sunset to return to Williamsburg on a smaller vessel: “Are salluted by the Admirals guns and the manning of all the ships of the Fleet. The men from tops, yards, &c. give us their several Feu de joys—or vive Le Roy.” Considering that the French fleet present in Lynnhaven Bay numbered thirty-two ships of the line with an aggregate crew of about 20,000 men, that was a scene worth capturing.
On October 9, 1781, French and American artillery opened fire on the defenders. “We could see from our redoubt the people flying into the air with outstretched arms,” wrote a private in the French army, Georg Daniel Flohr. “There was a misery and lamenting that was horrible . . . . The houses stood there like lanterns shot through by cannon balls.”
I would really like to see a picture/portrait of the loyalist refugee camp on Amelia Island, off the east coast of Florida just south of the South Carolina border.
Deborah Sampson (as “Robert Shurtleff”) in action with the 4th Massachusetts light infantry in the Tarrytown area, 1782. I was disappointed to learn that she was not involved with the storming of Redoubt 10 at Yorktown, as tradition had it (Al Young set us straight on that),but she saw action enough, having been wounded twice in combat!
Washington’s intervention at the Newburgh Conspiracy: As the Revolution wound down in early 1783, Continental officers, possibly orchestrated by General Horatio Gates, contemplated mass mutiny over future pensions. But when the group gathered in the Newburgh winter encampment’s main hall on March 15, Washington burst into the room and denounced their plans as “the blackest design.” “Gentlemen, you must pardon me,” Washington admonished them as he donned spectacles to read a sympathetic letter, “I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” Imagine how a skilled artist can capture the emotions as Washington shamed the group, and quelled this early national crisis with a few simple but effective actions.
I would have loved an accurate, fly-on-the-wall portrayal of Washington’s speech to his near-mutinous officers at Newburgh. This was perhaps the moment the Revolution—and the American experiment in republican self-government in its totality—was most in danger of going the way of virtually every other political revolution—which is to eventually cannibalize itself. After this one speech, and the production of a simple pair of spectacles from Washington’s lapel, the experiment was allowed to live on.
Washington’s two speeches at Newburgh on March 15, 1783 have all the lore and symbolism about them. It is interesting this event was never depicted by artists of the age. Recall, here was Washington once again rising to the occasion, defusing a serious plot of mutiny instigated by some of his closet friends, and having no real luck after finishing his first speech to his officers. No, it was the second one, the more theatrical of the two, with prop reading glasses to unmask his vulnerability, and pulling from his favorite play “Cato,” that sealed the fate of the Continental army and the gains of the American Revolution. Whatever authenticity was evident, its clear the Newburgh Conspiracy remains a crucial moment for the country and for George Washington. Perhaps his resignation in December, and the example that set, has forever overshadowed what exactly happened – or did nothappen – on the Ides of March in 1783.
Abigail Adams whacking John Adams over the head with a rolling pen when he laughed at her for saying women should be able to vote.