Artist of the American Revolution: Both Soldier and Artist, John Trumbull Saw the War for Independence Firsthand and Was Moved to Memorialize the Historic Events on Canvas. (History: Struggle for Freedom)

By Eddlem, Thomas R. | The New American, November 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

Artist of the American Revolution: Both Soldier and Artist, John Trumbull Saw the War for Independence Firsthand and Was Moved to Memorialize the Historic Events on Canvas. (History: Struggle for Freedom)


Eddlem, Thomas R., The New American


Reflecting on our nation's glorious and providential founding automatically brings to mind the images created by the brush of Connecticut's John Trumbull. Rightly viewed as the "Artist of the American Revolution," Trumbull was also a combat veteran of the conflict. His eight historical paintings of America's founding years are the most powerful depictions of those events by a contemporary eyewitness.

John Trumbull was the youngest child of Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, the only colonial governor appointed by the Crown who also won election following independence. His father vetoed John's plans to become a painter, sending him away to Harvard at age 15 to find a more respectable profession -- such as law or the ministry. En route to Harvard, John persuaded his older brother, acting as guide, to stop at the studio of John Singleton Copley, the leading painter in America at the time. Copley received the aspiring artist and his brother as formal dinner guests, impressing young John with his work, graciousness, and lavish lifestyle.

Arriving at Harvard, John--who had been reading Greek since age six--easily passed the junior class entrance exam. The Connecticut Puritan teenager was the youngest in his class, and, though he studied French with a tutor in his spare time, John did not concentrate on his studies. He sailed through the Harvard curriculum on natural talent rather than effort, graduating without distinction in 1773.

Picking Up the Sword

Returning to his hometown of Lebanon, Connecticut, John found a "growing enthusiasm" for the patriotic cause. "My father was now governor of the colony, and a patriot--of course surrounded by patriots, to whose ardent conversations I listened daily - it would have been strange if all this had failed to produce its natural effect." The young Trumbull formed a company of militia from among the local young men, and was eventually assigned as adjunct to General Joseph Spencer.

Trumbull marched with the 1st Connecticut regiment up to Boston after Lexington and Concord, and witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill from a distance at Roxbury Heights. The young lieutenant impressed General Washington the following winter by accurately mapping the British fortifications in Boston. He did so by creeping up in the tall grass close to the British line. After a British defector confirmed the accuracy of Trumbull's map, Washington promoted him to aide de camp. Trumbull was shortly thereafter assigned as brigade major, and his troops were among those who quietly took Dorchester Heights on the evening of March 4, 1776. By St. Patrick's Day, the cannons on the heights had forced the British to evacuate Boston without a shot.

Trumbull was promoted to the rank of colonel. He served as aide de camp to General Horatio Gates and accompanied Gates to upstate New York where he saw the diseased remnants of the American army's retreat down from Canada. "I did not look into a tent or a hut," Trumbull reported of his experience with the defeated army wracked with smallpox, "in which I did not find either a dead or dying man."

Trumbull drew a sketch of the defenses at Fort Ticonderoga, pointing out that nearby Mount Defiance would need to be fortified to secure the fort. Trumbull's findings were investigated, and Gates ordered a fortification of Mount Defiance. The commander at Ticonderoga, General Arthur St. Clair, failed to follow through on Gates' order, and he had to retreat from the fort without a fight the next summer.

In February 1777, Congress sent Trumbull his colonel's commission, dated three months after Gates had promoted him to colonel. This provoked the hotheaded Trumbull to resign from the Continental Army. Though Trumbull volunteered in 1778 as aide de camp to General John Sullivan in the latter's attempt to dislodge the British from Newport, Rhode Island (during which Trumbull saw more battle action at Quaker Hill than at any other point of his service), he never again served in any official capacity in the colonial army. …

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Artist of the American Revolution: Both Soldier and Artist, John Trumbull Saw the War for Independence Firsthand and Was Moved to Memorialize the Historic Events on Canvas. (History: Struggle for Freedom)
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