Ever since the invention of the camera, we have seen the face of war.
But what about the American Revolution?
That epic conflict came nearly a century before Mathew Brady’s stark Civil War photographs opened the nation’s eyes. Battles that forged our country were left to the imaginations of illustrators such as John Trumbull, Alonzo Chappel and Howard Pyle.
Their interpretations continue to captivate Kurt Zwikl, who has been collecting wood, steel and stone engravings of the Revolutionary War since 1975. Forty-two of them are on display at the Washington’s Headquarters Museum in Morristown through August.
“I carved out a niche. My father was a professional photographer, and I went to art shows and galleries with him. Maybe some of this rubbed off,” Kurt said at the exhibition’s opening on Thursday.
The show has traveled from the Schuylkill River National & State Heritage Area, where Kurt serves as executive director. His spare time is spent prowling galleries and old book stores for illustrations of the War of Independence.
As collectibles go, these are eminently affordable. Kurt said he paid a few hundred dollars for an 1847 Nathaniel Currier depiction of Washington crossing the Delaware. He found another illustration for about $9 online.
Sixteen artists are in the exhibit, which re-imagines the battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Princeton, Trenton and Monmouth, among others. Some illustrations first appeared on the pages of Harper’s, the mass medium of the 19th century.
“Today we take for granted TV and all types of media coming at us. They didn’t have that. These prints represented a story. It was sort of an ‘aha’ moment for me,” said Thomas Ross, who nine months ago became superintendent of the Morristown National Historical Park, which includes Washington’s Headquarters.
“This is the Crossroads of the American Revolution, and it came at great sacrifice,” Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) told an audience of history buffs.
“I think sometimes we forget what misery there was during that Revolutionary War, and what New Jersey did to bring us over the top.”
Most of the prints portray the war in heroic fashion, without much blood and gore. An exception is John Warner Barber’s wood engraving of the Battle of Princeton.
“They were able to show the horror of the war, and the bayoneting of General Mercer,” said Rich Rosenthal of the North Jersey Revolutionary War Round Table.
Part of the fun for Kurt–and the challenge for Tom Ross’ park rangers–is sifting fact from fiction in these illustrations. Seeing is not always believing … especially when some of the events depicted occurred before the artists depicting them were born.
An an illustration of the Battle of Monmouth by Felix O.C. Darley, engraving by C.B. Hall and published by G.P. Putnam in 1858, appears to accurately reflect Washington at the Battle of Monmouth.
But a wood engraving of Washington at Morristown, by John Warner Barber, is more fanciful.
The general stands sentinel, rifle on his shoulder, while his soldiers warm themselves by a campfire.
“That didn’t happen,” Kurt said.
In reality, Washington enjoyed the relative comfort of the Ford Mansion, a few short steps from this exhibition–and several long miles from the winter misery of Jockey Hollow.