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Rare Photo of NH Revolutionary War Vet Featured in New Books

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.

 

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