Faces of the American Revolution

6 minute read

The adoption of the Declaration of Independence—237 years ago today—can sometimes feel like an event not just from another time, but from another world. As depicted in John Trumbull’s now-iconic 19th-century painting of the founding fathers in Philadelphia, collectively creating the framework for the nation’s revolutionary political system, such an act of open rebellion by prominent, wealthy and established figures is literally inconceivable to most living Americans.

The Revolutionary War, raging at that time, saw men young and old answer the Colonies’ call to fight the British redcoats. In their allegiance to the ideals of liberty, these rough troops — illustrated in countless paintings and drawings known to history students everywhere — shouldered the monumental task of defending a nation that was, in many respects, not yet truly born.

But as alien as that epoch might feel, time and again we’re reminded that the past is not always as distant as it so often seems.

In fact, some veterans who survived the Revolutionary War prospered well into their eighties, nineties and sometimes even beyond 100, living long enough to not only witness, but become part of, the era of the photograph.

First daguerreotypes, and then glass-plate negatives became popular in the 1840s and 1850s; by 1853, some 70 years after the great and improbable American victory over the British, more than 3 million daguerreotypes a year were being produced in the United States alone.

As these photographic means developed, and the generation that experienced the Revolution firsthand continued to dwindle, a desire to document these men — a rapidly vanishing, living link with history — emerged.

A note by Rev. Smith pinned to the padding of his daguerreotype that reads “October 20 1854, A present to Lucy R. Fullen, by her Grandfather J. Smith, Born March 10, 1761”Courtesy of Joseph Bauman

“Possible now it will soon be impossible forever, and now neglected it would be forever regretted,” wrote Reverend E. B. Hillard, author of The Last Men of the Revolution. Published in 1864, the 64-page book stands as the only record of its kind, immortalizing Revolutionary War veterans in photographs alongside their tales from the fight for independence. In July 1864, Hillard, accompanied by two photographers, brothers N. A. and R. A. Moore, traveled across New England and New York State to interview and photograph all known surviving veterans, six in total. The images, made on glass plate negatives, were then printed on albumen paper and pasted into the book, along with colored lithographs depicting the veteran’s homes.

In 1976, Popular Photography featured the images of The Last Men of the Revolution in its issue commemorating the United States’ Bicentennial. One reader, a Utah-based journalist named Joe Bauman, was already an avid collector of antique photography when he came across the piece.

“I realized that if these fellows were still alive at the time when glass plate negatives were being made in the 1860s, surely there were plenty who were alive during the daguerreian era,” Bauman told TIME.

Using skills honed by a career of investigative reporting, Bauman sought out other portraits of Revolutionary War veterans. Given the breadth of the War, where most every man from age 15 to 45 was actively involved in one way or another, Bauman could cast a wide net, searching for daguerreotypes of men around the age of 80 or 90 at the time the images were taken.

Once he located daguerreotypes of men who fit the bill, Bauman used markings on the images and their cases to locate corresponding pension, tax, and other records in order to find what, if any, role these men played in the Revolution. In one such case, Bauman obtained an image of an elderly gentleman only marked with a note to his granddaughter, signed J. Smith with the date of the photograph, October 20, 1854, and his birthday, March 10, 1761. Bauman headed over to the Salt Lake City genealogical library, to dig through census records for all J. Smiths still alive in 1854 who would have been old enough to have served in the Revolution. After gathering a list of candidates, he began looking through pension documents until he came across one who signed his name J. Smith, in the same way as on the back of the daguerreotype. When he checked the date of birth he found exactly what he expected—March 10, 1761. He had found the match.

Thus began the historical digging—a process he repeated for all images collected.

His collection, which now includes eight daguerreotypes, took three decades of research to compile and is considered the largest known collection of Revolutionary War veteran daguerreotypes to date. Several years ago, Bauman published the images, along with histories of the men, in an e-book, Don’t Tread on Me: Photographs and Life Stories of American Revolutionaries, not only bringing to light images that had largely gone unseen, but that astonished — and still astonish — people who never imagined that such portraits even existed.

“It gives you a sort of a direct contact with a person who lived that very long time ago, and experienced these almost mythological-type days,” Bauman said.

Suddenly one critical part of America’s past, previously illustrated in our collective memory almost solely by paintings and drawings, was brought to brilliant life in the photographic present.

“A daguerreotype is a unique image — it isn’t a print, it isn’t a reproduction of any kind,” Bauman explained. “When you have a camera set up to take a daguerreotype and the sitter is in front of you, for example, one of these old men who actually looked and knew and talked to leaders of the Revolution … the light is coming from the sun, hitting his face, and bouncing off of his face through the camera and onto that very same plate.”

Light that shone on men who witnessed the birth of the United States endures, refracted and recorded via photography. Through these characters, that other world is now our own — a shared history made a little more accessible, told in a medium of our own time.

“As we look upon their faces,” wrote Hillard, “as we learn the story of their lives, [history] will live again and again before us, and we shall stand as witnesses of its great actions.”

Elizabeth D. Herman is a freelance photographer and researcher currently based in New York.

Peter Mackintosh, daguerreotype. Peter Mackintosh was a 16-year-old apprentice blacksmith in Boston working in the shop of his master, Richard Gridley, the night of December 16, 1773 when a group of young men rushed into the shop, grabbed ashes from the hearth and rubbed them on their faces. They were among those running to Griffin’s Wharf to throw tea into the harbor as part of the Boston Tea Party that started the Revolution. Mackintosh later served in the Continental Artillery as an artificer, a craftsman attached to the army who shoed horses and repaired cannons, including one mortar whose repair General George Washington oversaw personally. During his last years, Mackintosh and his lawyers fought for the pension he deserved. The government awarded it to his family only after his death, which was on November 23, 1846 at age 89. Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
Simeon Hicks, daguerreotype. Simeon Hicks was a Minuteman from Rehoboth, Massachusetts who drilled every Saturday in the year leading up to the war. When he heard the alarm the day after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the sparks that set off the Revolution, he immediately joined thousands of other New Englanders in sealing off the enemy garrison in Boston. He served several short enlistments and fought in the Battle of Bennington, August 16, 1777. After the war Hicks lived in Sunderland, Vermont as a celebrity. He was the last survivor of the Battle of Bennington. Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
Jonathan Smith, daguerreotype. Jonathan Smith fought in the Battle of Long Island on August 29, 1778. His unit was the first brigade that went out on Long Island, and was discharged in December after a violent snow storm. After the war he became a Baptist minister. He was married three times and had eleven children. The first two wives died and for some reason he left his third wife in Rhode Island to live with two of the children in Massachusetts. On October 20, 1854, he had a daguerreotype taken to give to a granddaughter. He died on January 3, 1855. Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
George Fishley, daguerreotype. George Fishley was a soldier in the Continental army. When the British army evacuated Philadelphia and raced toward New York City, his unit participated in the Battle of Monmouth. Later he was part the genocidal attack on Indians who had sided with the British, a march led by General John Sullivan through “Indian country,” parts of New York and Pennsylvania. Fishley’s regiment, the Third New Hampshire, was in the midst of the campaign’s only contested battle. After the Battle of Chemung, August 28, 1779, the Americans had devastated forty Indian towns and burned their crops. Later Fishley served on a privateer — a private ship licensed to prey on enemy shipping — and was captured by the British. Fishley was a famous character after the war in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he lived. He was known as “the last of our cocked hats” — Continental soldiers wore tall, wide, Napoleonic-looking headgear with cockades. He marched in parades wearing the hat, which his obituary said “almost vied in years with the wearer.” Fishley is wearing the hat in the daguerreotype.Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
James W. Head, daguerreotype. James W. Head, a Boston youth, joined the Continental Navy at age 13 and served as a midshipman aboard the frigate Queen of France. When Charleston, South Carolina, came under attack, five frigates, including the Queen of France, and several merchant ships were sunk in a channel to prevent the king’s troops from approaching the city from one strategic direction. Head and other sailors fought as artillerymen in forts and were captured when the Americans surrendered — the Patriots’ biggest and arguably most disastrous surrender of the war. Taken as a prisoner of war, Head was released at Providence, Rhode Island and walked home. His brother wrote that when he arrived, Head was deaf in one ear and had hearing loss in the other from the cannons’ concussion. Settling in a remote section of Massachusetts that later became Maine, he was elected a delegate to the Massachusetts convention in Boston that was called to ratify the Constitution. When he died he was the richest man in Warren, Maine and stone deaf because of his war injuries.Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
Rev. Levi Hayes, daguerreotype. Rev. Levi Hayes was a fifer in a Connecticut regiment that raced toward West Point to protect it from an impending attack. He also participated in a skirmish with enemy “Cow Boys” at the border of a lawless region called the Neutral Ground (most of Westchester County, New York, and the southwestern corner of Connecticut). In the early years of the nineteenth century, he helped organize a religiously-oriented land company that headed into the wilderness of what was then the West. They settled Granville, Ohio, where he was the township treasurer and a deacon of his church. His daguerreotype shows him holding a large book, most likely a Bible. Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
Daniel Spencer, daguerreotype. Daniel Spencer served as a member of the backup troops sent to cover the operatives in a secret mission to capture Benedict Arnold, after he had defected to the British. The maneuver failed when Arnold shifted his headquarters. A member of the elite Sheldon’s Dragoons, Spencer was in a few skirmishes. He sat up all night fanning his commanding officer, Captain George Hurlbut, who had been shot in a fight during which the British captured a supply ship. Spencer’s account of the death of the officer differed markedly from that of Gen. Washington's; Spencer said the wounds of the officer had nearly healed when he caught a disease from a prostitute and this illness killed him, whereas Washington said he died of his wounds. Spencer’s pension was revoked soon after it was granted and for years he and his family lived in severe poverty. Eventually his pension was restored. He was the guest of honor during New York City’s celebration of July 4, 1853. Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
Dr. Eneas Munson, daguerreotype. As a boy, Dr. Eneas Munson knew Nathan Hale, the heroic spy who was executed and said he regretted that he had only one life to give for his country. As a teenager, Munson helped care for the wounded of his hometown, New Haven, Connecticut, after the British invaded. He was commissioned as a surgeon’s mate when he was 16 years old, shortly before he graduated from Yale. He extracted bullets from soldiers during battle. In 1781 he was part of Gen. Washington’s great sweep to Yorktown, Virginia, which led to Gen. John Burgoyne’s surrender and American victory of the Revolution. During the fighting at Yorktown he was an eyewitness to actions of Gen. Washington, Gen. Knox, and Col. Alexander Hamilton. Dr. Munson gave up medicine after the war and became a wealthy businessman, fielding trading ships, underwriting whalers and sealers, and venturing into real estate and banking. But throughout his life, his family spoke of how he loved recalling the exciting days of the war, when he was a teenage officer. Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
Samuel Downing, CDV card photo. Samuel Downing enlisted at age 16, and served as a private from New Hampshire. At the time his picture was made, he as 102 and living in the town of Edinburgh, Saratoga Country, New York. He died on February 18, 1867. N. A. and R. A. Moore, Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
Rev. Daniel Waldo, CDV card photo. Rev. Daniel Waldo was drafted in 1778 for a month of service in New London. After that, he enlisted for an additional eight months, and in March 1779 was taken prisoner by the British at Horseneck. After he was released, he returned to his home in Windham and took up work on his farm again. N. A. and R. A. Moore, Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
Lemuel Cook, CDV card photo. Lemuel Cook witnessed the British surrender at Yorktown, the event that guaranteed American independence. Of the event, he said, “Washington ordered that there should be no laughing at the British; said it was bad enough to surrender without being insulted. The army came out with guns clubbed on their backs. They were paraded on a great smooth lot, and there they stacked their arms.” N. A. and R. A. Moore, Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
Alexander Milliner, CDV card photo. Alexander Milliner enlisted as a drummer boy who served in Gen. Washington’s Life Guard unit. He was a favorite of Washington’s, often playing at his personal request. Milliner was at the British surrender at Yorktown, about which he said, “The British soldiers looked down-hearted. When the order came to ‘ground arms,’ one of them exclaimed, with an oath, ‘You are not going to have my gun!’ and threw it violently on the ground, and smashed it.” N. A. and R. A. Moore, Courtesy of Joseph Bauman
William Hutchings, CDV card photo. William Hutchings enlisted at age 15 for the coastal defense of his home state, New York. Writes Hillard in The Last Men of the Revolution, “The only fighting which he saw was the siege of Castine, where he was taken prisoner; but the British, declaring it a shame to hold as prisoner one so young, promptly released him.” N. A. and R. A. Moore, Courtesy of Joseph Bauman

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