The Commemoration of Heroes during the Revolutionary War

Sarah J. Purcell
Central Michigan University

Almost every American can remember sometime seeing an image of George Washington from the Revolutionary War, a proud figure in military uniform sitting boldly astride a horse, or perhaps pointing across the Delaware River on his way to catch a camp of Hessian soldiers unaware. Most of the artworks these popular images come from were painted after the war, some like Emmanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware not until much later in the 1800s. These visual images represent the lingering fact that Americans have often imagined what the Revolution was about with reference to heroic figures like Washington. George Washington, the man and military commander, actually began to be transformed into a grand hero for the nation during the war as he, and many other military officers, became enshrined in public culture as symbols of what the new nation was supposed to stand for. War heroes became the subject of commemoration and celebration almost immediately as Americans searched for ways to articulate their political and military cause.

Not just any brave military man was eligible to become a full fledged American hero, especially since Americans based many of their ideas of what heroism meant on European models. Despite the fact that the United States was struggling to free itself from Britain's political influence, European culture still exerted considerable power. Like many European military heroes who had come before, American Revolutionary War heroes were usually gentlemen of good breeding who could be portrayed as sacrificing themselves for the cause of liberty. Although most American heroes, like George Washington, were wealthy men of accomplishment, they differed from European heroes in their lack of aristocratic title and comparatively small military experience.

Military officers who gave up their lives became some of the most effective heroic symbols of the Revolution, perhaps because in death they were beyond reproach and incapable of making future errors that might hurt the national cause. Dr. Joseph Warren, a physician and prominent politician from Massachusetts who was commissioned a major-general in the Continental Army, was killed by the British at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. He immediately became the subject of public praise and tribute, and memories of Warren's sacrifice motivated those who were left to carry on the fight. Newspapers in New England and in other regions of the country carried eulogies and mournful patriotic poetry in praise of Warren, and crude illustrations of him as an heroic figure adorned the pages of cheap almanacs marketed to all classes of society. Several months after the battle, Warren's remains were buried in Boston's "Old Granery" cemetery in a public ceremony that demonstrated grief and devotion to the patriotic cause. Warren's death went on to be commemorated by John Trumbull in one of his most famous history paintings, The Death of Warren at Bunker's Hill.

Another of Trumbull's heroic subjects who was a figure of wide public, patriotic praise was Major-General Richard Montgomery, who was killed in a failed attack on Quebec on December 31, 1775. Within a month, Montgomery was memorialized in a huge procession and church service in Philadelphia, attended by the Continental Congress and other military dignitaries. Congress also immediately appropriated money to construct a public monument to Montgomery's memory and entrusted Benjamin Franklin, in France, to find an artist for the marble tribute. Similar to Warren, Montgomery became the subject of heroic imagery in poetry, pamphlets, newspaper articles, and songs that urged Americans willingly to accept the sacrifices of the Revolutionary War. Congress recognized in Montgomery that a public hero could strengthen the resolve of an entire nation and hoped that the marble monument would stand as a lasting triubute of both Montgomery's heroic status and the nation's willingness to praise him.

Many lesser figures were lionized as important regional heroes during the war as well. Like Montgomery and Warren, many had also given up their lives and become instant "martyrs to the cause of liberty," whom the patriotic public could recognize as symbols of Revolutionary sacrifice. For example, on the Fourth of July when New Yorkers toasted to Captain Cheeseman, a lesser officer who had died alongside Montgomery at Quebec, they linked their local pride to the larger cause of the Revolution as they celebrated their regional contribution of blood. The culture of celebration and commemoration that developed around these figures expressed the ideals of the political cause in a concrete military form which could be understood by those who were surviving a war that often seemed far from glorious. Heroes were absolutely necessary to get New Yorkers through the bitter partisan struggles, looting, occupation, and raging battles they faced as the war turned away from New England in 1776. Even as the war itself, and the conduct of some American troops, seemed less than admirable, the cultural icon of the local/ national hero would always remain so.

Other officers who did not give up their lives became regional symbols of patriotic pride as well. Connecticut residents praised Israel Putnam, who had originally acquired his hardy military reputation during the French and Indian War, and painters and poets adopted Putnam (a less than stunning military strategist) as a fittingly heroic subject. As the war raged on, Ethan Allen, leader of the Vermont militia's "Green Mountain Boys," published a memoir of his daring exploits in New York and Canada and subsequent suffering as a British prisoner of war. While Allen's heroic reputation was questioned in some areas of the country, especially after he began to actually collaborate with the British, Vermonters adopted him as a symbol of independence and martial pride.

During annual celebrations of Palmetto Day, June 28, residents of Charleston, South Carolina, paraded, prayed for, toasted, and watched fireworks in honor of the local heroes of the Battle of Sullivan's Island. Maj. General William Moultrie, later governor of the state of South Carolina, was lauded for defeating the first British attack on Charleston. Sergeant William Jasper, one of the only publicly praised "heroes" who was not an officer, also recieved public praise for saving the state flag at Fort Moultrie during a British bombardment. The commemoration of these local heroes was so essential to Charleston's wartime resolve, that the British strictly forbade their celebration when they occupied the city in 1780. As soon as the British evacuated in 1782, these local heroes could once again be celebrated as icons of national patriotism.

The commemoration of heroes during the Revolutionary War began a cultural process in which strong military officers were made to represent what was good and honorable about the Revolution. George Washington survives to this day as a symbol of military success translated into political leadership and national symbolism. Patriotic Americans used paintings, poetry, parades, toasts, and public celebrations to make military men into figures they could look up to (no matter what the realities of war and death might have been). In some sense, the heroes of the Revolution stood in for a united American nation in people's imaginations before any real nation existed. These heroes also left a culturally-created legacy of military reputation (not always matched by actual battle-field performance) that later generations of Americans would have to live up to. Partly because the commemoration of heroes during the Revolutionary War was so important, Americans would have to deal with the patriotic ideal of the heroic military officer for hundreds of years to come.

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