Jul 4, 2013

The face of one man who fought in the American Revolution

Jonathan Smith was 93 when a chemically treated copper plate was exposed to light, recording his image for posterity. He gave the image to his granddaughter along with a personal note in 1854, the year before his death.

That image is now one of the very few existing daguerreotypes of Revolutionary War veterans.

Smith was 14 when he first joined the revolution in 1776. It was for a two-month stretch with a Massachusetts militia. He joined another regiment in May of that year, and was enlisted, on and off, in the irregular manner of the time, until 1779. Early in the war, he helped seize a supply ship on its way to Boston loaded with pork and butter. Towards the end, he was at the Battle of Rhode Island when the Americans were attacked while retreating from their failed siege of Newport.

The year after the war he joined the Baptist church, and spent 19 years as a self-taught lay preacher,  before getting ordained in 1899 and taking a pulpit in Rhode Island.

By the time he sat for his daguerreotype, the old reverend was a thrice-married industrialist, who was a lauded local symbol of the revolutionary generation, propped up and paraded out for political speeches. He was often misidentified as a military chaplain.

Smith's story and image, as well as eight other images of aging veterans of the Revolution can be found in Joseph M. Bauman's e-book, Don't Tread on Me: Photographs and Life Stories of American Revolutionaries. Buaman is a former reporter and a collector of antique photographs. He spent three decades tracking down, documenting and verifying these few existing daguerreotypes of Revolutionary War veterans.

According to Time Magazine:
Bauman used markings on the images and their cases to locate corresponding pension, tax, and other records in order to find what, if any, role these men played in the Revolution. In one such case, Bauman obtained an image of an elderly gentleman only marked with a note to his granddaughter, signed J. Smith with the date of the photograph, October 20, 1854, and his birthday, March 10, 1761. Bauman headed over to the Salt Lake City genealogical library, to dig through census records for all J. Smiths still alive in 1854 who would have been old enough to have served in the Revolution. After gathering a list of candidates, he began looking through pension documents until he came across one who signed his name J. Smith, in the same way as on the back of the daguerreotype. When he checked the date of birth he found exactly what he expected -- March 10, 1761. He had found the match.  
Thus began the historical digging.
Given how far away and mythic the men who fought for American independence often seem, the results of the digging are well worth checking out. The peculiarities and concrete details -- both biographical facts and the lines on aging faces -- are good reminders of the human complexity of the patriots. These aren't the men who signed their names to the words Americans annually intone, "We hold these truths...." But these are old men who, in their youth, dug the ditches, carried the guns, suffered the cold and hunger, and fought the actual war that those words were about.