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.
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.
Winslow Homer, The Battle of Bunker Hill–Watching the Fight from Cobb’s Hill in Boston, Harper‘s 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.
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.