In his book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw describes the Americans who came of age during World War II. Each profile illustrates the shared set of values and patriotism that held that generation together. Another generation affected by similarly life-changing events experienced the transformation of the 13 original Colonies into the United States. Those individuals, too, united for a common cause, and became our country’s first great generation.
Through photographs and documents, my colleague David Lambert (of the New England Historic Genealogical Society) and I are trying to bring to life those great Americans who lived during the Revolutionary War and into the age of photography. Locating their portraits entails searching photo collections for pictures of elderly men and women and verifying the subjects’ connections to the war.
In the 1860s, the Rev. Elias Hillard interviewed the last seven surviving Revolutionary War soldiers for his book The Last Men of the Revolution. In the introduction, he describes his goal to preserve the past: “Our own are the last eyes that will look on men who looked on Washington; our ears the last that will hear the living voices of those who heard his words. Henceforth the American Revolution will be known among men by the silent record of history alone.” But those seven men were not the only members of their generation to be photographed. Photography began in America in 1840, more than 20 years before Hillard’s book was published. That means uncounted men and women who participated in the American Revolution also sat for portraits.
If an image in your photo collection fits the following criteria, it might depict a member of the Revolutionary War generation.
Type of photograph
Look for these types of images:
- Daguerreotypes (1839 to 1860s): The first photographs, daguerreotypes have reflective surfaces; you must hold the photos at an angle to see their images. Daguerreotypes are often found in cases.
Ambrotypes (invented in 1854): Often placed in cases because of their fragility, these glass images are backed with dark material.
Tintypes or ferrotypes (invented in 1856): This third type of cased image is produced on thin sheets of iron.
Cartes de visite (introduced in 1854): Inspired by 19th-century visiting cards, these small paper prints usually measured 2×4 inches.
The subjects’ ages
Are the people in your pictures old enough to be part of the Revolutionary War generation?
- Patriots, soldiers and loyalist adults: Anyone who was an adult during the American Revolution would have been at least 80 years old by the advent of photography.
Children: Anyone who was a child during the American Revolution would have been in his late 50s or older when he had his picture taken.
Wives and widows: The last surviving widow of a Revolutionary soldier died in 1906! Esther Sumner married Noah Damon when she was 21 and he was 75. Finding pictures of wives and widows means looking at pictures taken anywhere from 1840 to the early 1900s.
In a Wall Street Journal interview, Bruce Butgereit of the Sons of Union Veterans reflected on meeting a son of a Confederate soldier: “I can shake the hand of a man who held the hand of a man who fought in the Civil War.” Although it’s not possible to meet someone connected to the Revolutionary War, looking at these revolutionaries’ faces and learning about their lives can connect us to our revolutionary past.