So, I’m a couple days late in getting around to a post about Patriot’s Day, an observance that I and my kindly obliging family never fail to mark without a trip to Concord. Worse, I am about a year behind in learning about the installation of a fantastic new painting at the Minuteman National Historic Park at the Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. I have lately seen this painting online but had no idea that it had been commissioned by the Park Service specifically for the Minuteman National Park and I was thrilled to see it there on Patriot’s Day.
There have been, over the centuries, a lot of really bad depictions of the Concord Fight. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, misconceptions and myths about the Minutemen and the battle were rife. Mr. Troiani has finally rectified all that. For a better view of the painting, see a close-up at Mr. Troiani’s website here.
If you are not familiar with Don Troiani and his work, he is widely regarded as the most accomplished historical artist of our time. His works cover military history subjects from the colonial wars to World War II. To quote his website, “The garb and gear of each figure are painstakingly researched. Appropriate backgrounds are found and studied, sometimes sending the artist hundreds of miles from home to examine battlefields and structures firsthand. ‘If an historical painting is not reasonably accurate, then it’s worthless both as art and as a historical document,’ Troiani declares. ‘If you are going to become involved in this field then there is little excuse for a pattern of inaccuracies.'”
It is refreshing to see this philosophy applied to a depiction of the Concord Fight. Earlier paintings and etchings include some bizarre details. The one that perplexes me most is the depiction of the Minutemen, including a mortally wounded Captain Isaac Davis (in command of the Acton Minutemen), in the uniforms of the yet-to-be-established Continental Army. Some other renditions show the Minutemen mobbing the bridge as a rabble, hiding behind boulders and trees (which did not happen there…nor were there boulders or trees present).
I’m currently working on a long-term project concerning the Concord Fight. I’ve researched it a good deal and looking at Mr. Troiani’s painting feels rather like looking at the real thing. The painting depicts the moment the Minutemen and provincial militia returned fire after the British fired a ragged volley. The man in the blue coat raising his sword is Major John Buttrick of Concord, shouting (as was later documented by witnesses), “Fire, fellow soldier’s, for God’s sake fire!” I presume the man to his left, aiming his musket, is Lt. Col. John Robinson of Westford. Robinson’s battalion did not arrive in time, and so he did not have a command, but nonetheless requested the honor of marching next to Major Buttrick at the head of the column.
Unfortunately, the subject of most of my research, Captain Isaac Davis of Acton, seems to be already on the ground at this moment, I presume to Buttrick’s right, which was his documented position. Davis, a gunsmith, had made a point of outfitting his company of Acton Minutmen with bayonets and cartridge boxes so that they would be as well-equipped and would fire as quickly as the British Regulars. They were, according to a number of sources, the best equipped provincial company on the field at the time. And therefore they were placed at the right of the provincial battalion and given the honor of leading the attack on the bridge. When the British fired their first volley, Davis was shot through the chest and died within minutes.
The Acton company shown in “Concord Bridge” is marching in two’s, as was documented, advancing with what one British officer called, “the greatest regularity.” Mr. Troiani has included their bayonets and cartridge boxes. He has even included a very clever detail which shows the extent of his research. Private Thomas Thorp of Acton, on his way to form up earlier that morning at Captain Davis’s house, apparently forgot his cartridge box or had not been issued one. He later recalled that, as he passed the Rev. Swift’s house in Acton, “His son, Doctor Swift, made me a present of a cartridge box as he saw I had none. I well remember that there was on the outside a piece of red clothe in the shape of a heart.” If you look closely, the man at the head of the column aiming his musket, to Buttrick’s right, has a cartridge box with a red heart on it. Pvt. Thorp is also depicted in his proper place as he was at the front of the column and apparently (according to a 19th century source who interviewed several individuals who had lived through that day) was close enough to Davis to be spattered by his blood.
The lay of the land is just right. And in the distance can be seen the Old Manse, then the house of Rev. William Emerson, grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is now a museum owned by the Trustees of Reservations. According to a blog entry on the Old Manse’s Facebook page, the house is accurately represented as it appeared in the 18th century.
So, to be sure, there is a lot to like about this painting. I wish I had been more plugged in last year when Mr. Troiani gave a lecture on the work and his research in Lexington. I hope the presentation might be repeated at some point. And I hope the painting remains permanently on display at the Old North Bridge visitor’s center.
[Update, 10/2011: Alas, the painting was only on loan and is no longer on display in Concord. It was wonderful thing to have it there while it lasted. It gave visitors the most accurate impression of what that day looked like at the Old North Bridge.]