Battlefield Bystanders

With two big battle anniversaries converging–that of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 and Waterloo on June 18, 1815–I was looking at contemporary and commemorative images of both contests and noticed the preponderance of bystanders, observers, and public reaction perspectives. These two battles seem very public, but of course all battles are, and these two were particularly epic, marking the commencement of the American Revolution and the defeat, finally, of Napoleon.

Bunker Hill

Waterloo Sketch

View of the attack on Bunker’s Hill (really Breed’s Hill), with the Burning of Charles Town, June 17,1775, drawn by Mr. Millar, engraved by Lodge (1775), Library of Congress; Print of an anonymous etching of the Battle of Waterloo with the key officers (c. 1815), British Museum.

Both battles were followed pretty quickly by reports from “near observers” for audiences hungry for results, and details: the deaths of Major Pitcairn and Dr. Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill, dashing displays of bravery in both battles, the capture of Napoleon (finally) several weeks after Waterloo. With time, as both events become part of history and national memory, the people get more involved with the emphasis on observation and reception, which is particularly apparent in composed  images of the battles.  I particularly like the “watching from the rooftops” images of Bunker Hill, which began with Winslow Homer’s 1875 engraving for Harper’s, and continued through a series of popular postcards published by Raphael Tuck & Sons.

Bunker Hill Harpers


Battlefield Bystanters Raphael Tuck

Battlefield Bystanders Tuck

Battlefield Bystanders Tuck 1910

Winslow Homer, The Battle of Bunker Hill–Watching the Fight from Cobb’s Hill in Boston, Harpers Weekly, June 26, 1875; Edwin Howland Bashfield, Suspense: The Boston people watching from the house tops the firing at Bunker Hill (1882); Raphael Tuck & Sons postcards, circa 1910.

I remember reading the sections on the Battle of Waterloo in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and thinking: it seems like they’ve gone right from the ballroom to the battlefield (which they did) and what is Becky doing there? This was a strange battle, but certainly a momentous one. You can certainly ascertain the intense interest of civilians both in the vicinity of the battle and on the homefront in two striking images: the first, from William Mudford’s Historical Account of  the Campaign in the Netherlands in 1815 (1817), is of the observatory tower commissioned by the King of the Netherlands, erected so all of those people at the ball could see the battle. The second is David Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners (1822), in which a very inclusive British public receive news of the big victory at Waterloo.

Battlefield Bystanders Waterloo Mugford


James Rouse painting, from Mudford’s Historical Account (1817);  Sir David Wilkie, Chelsea Pensioners Receiving the London Gazette Extraordinary of Thursday, June 22 1815, Announcing the Battle of Waterloo (1822), Dulwich Picture Gallery.

6 responses to “Battlefield Bystanders

  • michellenmoon

    Interesting that the “from the rooftops” images of the Revolution are all post-Civil War. Are there any contemporaneous images of people watching the battles of the Revolution from their rooftops?

    • daseger

      Not that I could find, Michelle, but I have to admit I didn’t do an extensive search–I’ll have to ask one of the Americanists in my dept. I just assumed this perspective was Winslow Homer’s creation, but maybe not.

    • CathyW

      You might very well find the answer in Nathaniel Philbrick’s new non-fiction: “Bunker Hill”, and also especially the letters written by Solomon Adam’s wife, in which she describes seeing the smoke of battle from their farm-stead several miles away. Later there were also many other letters accounting for the ‘spectatorship’. I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in the history of the Revolution to read Philbrick’s new book – history that comes alive (and I’m no non-fiction history fan)! Philbrick had an interview lined up with Elaine Charles from the Book Report radio show this past Saturday, but I’m pretty certain the interview will be in the archives section of their website; bookreportradio dotcom.

  • markd60

    Drawings like this are the photos of the past.

  • Pamela Baker

    As I love History and just finished reading about the Civil War. It is so interesting to learn what really went on – instead of what was taught in History classes!
    Love the pictures – truly a different perspective of War!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: