We are accustomed to seeing photographs of veterans—of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, of Vietnam, of World Wars I and II, of the Spanish-American War, and even of the Civil War—but not of the American Revolution, as the first daguerreotypes were made a half-century after its conclusion. But such images do exist, first compiled in an extraordinary book that I’ve just discovered: E.B. Hillard’s The Last Men of the Revolution (1864). The Connecticut minister clearly had a mission of remembrance in the midst of the Civil War, and he made pilgrimages to the homes of six surviving Revolutionary War veterans, accompanied by Nelson and Roswell Moore, brother photographers from Hartford. I’m sure my Americanist colleagues know of this book, but its existence is a revelation to me: how shocking to gaze upon the images of men who, in Hillard’s words, “looked on Washington…[and] heard his words”.
Hillard’s little volume contains eagle-encircled images of the old men in their best dress, along with color plates of their homes and wonderful little vignettes which cover their experiences in the war and in life, along with their views of the “present rebellion”—no confederate sympathies here! There are also prescriptions for longevity: lots of smoking, moderate drinking, “no particular attention to diet”, lifelong physical exertion. You can see the book’s plates here, and below are individual carte-de-visite images from the Library of Congress–beginning with William Hutchings, who was born in my hometown of York, Maine (then Massachusetts, of course) and ending with Newburyport-born Samuel Downing, who harvested fifteen bushels of carrots on the 90-degree day before Hillard came to call.
I wish I knew much more about the contemporary reception of Hillard’s book and the Moores’ photographs, but they are certainly inspirational now. “New” images of Revolutionary War veterans have been uncovered/discovered, most notably by Utah-based journalist and collector Joseph M. Bauman, who recently published his collection in a book entitled Don’t Tread on Me: Photographs and Life Stories of American Revolutionaries (2012) and “daguerreotype detective” Maureen Taylor, who has published two volumes entitled The Last Muster. Images of the Revolutionary War Generation. The more interest there is in something, the higher the likelihood of finding more of it, in the case of these rare daguerreotypes, uncatalogued family collections are probably the key source. You can see a lovely portfolio of Bauman’s collection here: my favorites among them are another Massachusetts/Mainer, James W. Head, and the flamboyant George Fishley, famous resident of Portsmouth, New Hampshire and “last of the Cocked Hats”.
Revolutionary War veterans James W. Head and George Fishley: images courtesy of Joseph Bauman.