Rare Photo of NH Revolutionary War Vet Featured in New Books
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

rev_soldierHISTORY MATTERS

Historians are press agents for the dead. We keep our clients in the news. Some are heroes, some are villains. Some, like Captain George Fishley (1760-1850), are best known for a simple twist of fate. Fishley, as far as we know, is the only Portsmouth veteran of the American Revolution to have his photograph taken. That is his claim to fame.  (Continued below)

 

It was ten years ago that antiquarian Peter Narbonne stumbled across the rare daguerreotype of Fishley tucked against the back wall in a glass cabinet on the second floor of the Portsmouth Historical Society. It showed an 89-year old man in a large “cocked hat” like those worn in the Revolution.

Sure enough, a little research proved that Fishley fought at Valley Forge and at Monmouth with Gen. George Washington. He served under New Hampshire military heroes Enoch Poor, Henry Dearborn, Alexander Scammell, and John Sullivan. After his discharge in 1781, he signed onto a privateer and was captured and imprisoned in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He married Kezikah Nason of Kittery in 1801. Later he commanded a coaster sailing between Portsmouth and Boston. He was unable to work after 1818 due to “a debilitating rupture” that forced him to apply for a small federal pension that he received intermittently.

MORE ON CAPTAIN FISHLEY

George Fishley had his portrait taken by Francis W. Ham who set up shop in the city’s Congress Hall in 1848. The two known original portraits were likely taken during a Whig convention on the Fourth of July. Fishley died on Christmas Day in 1850.

In his elder years, Captain Fishley was a popular local figure in parades and patriotic celebrations. He was one of the few surviving veterans to attend the opening of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston in 1843.  During another ceremony, dressed in his Revolutionary War uniform, he stood aboard a miniature wooden ship that was carted inland from Portsmouth to Concord, NH as hundreds of spectators cheered.

A number of historians found my articles about George Fishley on the Internet, and he has begun to regain some of his nineteenth century notoriety.  At this writing, ten years after he was rediscovered on a shelf at the John Paul Jones House, the Captain is now featured in two new books.

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Don’t tread on me

Captain_George_Fishley“I had never heard of George until I saw your article,” says Joseph M. Bauman of Utah. His new e-book Don’t Tread on Me (2012) brings to life eight veterans of the American Revolution who lived into the era of photography. A former journalist, Bauman’s account of Fishley’s life is the most detailed ever written.

CLICK TO SEE JOE'S BOOK

Bauman first became interested in “dags” of veterans of the Revolution in 1977, but only began collecting in earnest when he came into a small inheritance a few years ago. He purchased the only other known original photo of Fishley from a dealer in 2005 for $1,500 “after a lot of dithering,” he says. He has spent from $350 to $3,000 for a single image in his very rare collection. Bauman collects only “camera-originals,” not copies.

“I've been fascinated with the Revolution almost all my life, and I'm an old fellow,” Bauman says. (He is 66.) “When I was a boy our family lived near Stanton, Delaware, and we liked to play Revolutionary soldiers.”

As a reporter for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Bauman had access to the enormous genealogical library of the Mormon Church which he calls “the greatest in the world.” This gave him access to rare family histories, county records, and microfilm of military documents. He also dug deeply into the ever-expanding Internet services like Ancestry.com with pension records and early newspapers. And he purchased microfilm copies of New Hampshire newspapers to flesh out Fishley’s story.

Bauman’s lively account of the eight veterans in his private collection is homage to the common man. These were largely ordinary but highly patriotic men who, stirred by the drums of war, served under harsh conditions for small pay. Private Fishley and his companions were often marched through impossible terrain without even shoes or shirts. Bauman’s account brings the reader onto the battlefield. The author then tracks their long lives as many descended into poverty. Don’t Tread on Me is a labor of love, seven years in the making. It is a unique intimate view of these all-but-forgotten soldiers and sailors. And it is a perspective almost never seen in traditional history books that focus, instead, on the same famous leaders.

“My research process was simply to dig out every scrap of information I could and see how they fit together,” Bauman says. “These fellows were all celebrities, at least in their home towns by the time they were old, because they were the last of what I consider the truly greatest generation.”

Bauman elected to create an e-book after contacting a number of traditional print publishers. Don’t Tread on Me is available as a download on Kindle at Amazon.com and on the Nook on BN.com for $2.99.

“I'm disgusted with the high-handedness of the literary establishment and prefer to go the independent route, regardless of whether I sell a lot of books,” Bauman says. “It's satisfying that somebody is reading it, and nobody would be if I kept pounding my head on that particular brick wall.”

“When you look at these eight men together, they give an impression of the young country going off vigorously in all sorts of directions,” he says. “They are an important part of the American story.”

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What are the odds?

The odds of a Revolutionary War veteran being photographed were minimal. First, he had to survive. As many as 300,000 men may have participated in the War for Independence that lasted from 1775 to 1783. While the number of American casualties has traditionally been estimated at over 25,000, more from disease than battle, some historians suggest today that 50,000 may be a more accurate mortality figure.

Veterans then had to live to a ripe old age. It was another 60 years after the war before the first commercial photographers began setting up shop and shooting portraits. Even a 10-year old drummer or fife player who signed up in the final hours of the conflict would have been in his seventies. Most vets were much older, enlisted earlier, and were photographed later in the 1850s or 60s.

Last_Muster

Maureen Taylor began searching for survivors after seeing her first Revolutionary War-era character in a portrait at Cape Cod in 2002. The popular “photo detective” and former librarian recently published an astonishing collection entitled The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation (2010). Our boy George Fishley is among the 70 images included in her book. Taylor spotted him on my Web site during an online search and obtained a copy of his photo from the Portsmouth Historical Society.

Taylor’s book offers surprising images of other New Hampshire and Maine veterans, including one with a seacoast connection. Dr. Ezra Green (1746-1847) of Dover served as physician aboard the Ranger with John Paul Jones in 1777. Green’s shipboard diary was published by Joseph Sawtelle who founded the Portsmouth Marine Society. Curiously, George Fishley also served aboard the Ranger as a privateer when it returned to Portsmouth after Jones’ famous raid on Britain. FIshley was captured and served as a prisoner of war in Canada.

“It’s been a fascinating pursuit of the past,” Taylor told me by email this week. “Finding these portraits is oftentimes a combination of research and serendipity. There were several thousand veterans alive as of 1850, but not all of them sat for a likeness.”

And even when they did, the photographs have been scattered into attics, sold off at flea markets, thrown out, lost, damaged, or destroyed. Many bear no identification, so we don’t know who is depicted. Or if we do, background details are difficult if not impossible to track down.

Taylor has expanded her search to include, not just veterans, but loyalists, Native Americans, African Americans, children who were eyewitnesses to war, and women who nursed the wounded or even joined the battle. She culled images of “first generation” Americans from early ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, and paper cart de visite prints that trace the development of the photographic process.

“I search online card catalogs, Web sites, and do a lot of library research as well,” she says. “I spread the word through lectures, articles, and flyers that it is possible that a person could own a picture of their Revolutionary War ancestor as long as they lived past 1840.”

The buzz is in, and the word continues to spread. George Fishley is back in the news. And responding to Taylor’s call, more and more people are turning up with as-yet-unseen portraits of “first generation” Americans. So many, in fact, that Taylor is working on a second volume of The Last Muster due in 2013.

“It’s amazing!” she says. And she’s right. We are looking into the eyes of men and women who saw the Founding Fathers, witnessed the birth of a nation, and died in the new United States of America. At long last, their stories are coming to light.

Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. Robinson is the author of America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812. His new e-book novella, Kill All the Vampire Writers, is available instantly on Amazon.com.