American artist Howard Pyle did a series of paintings on the American Revolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Pyle had a striking style, combining both romanticism and realism in his paintings. My favorite of the series is the above painting that depicts an American line of infantry advancing at the battle of Brandywine. Led by their officer, the common soldiers are dressed in rags, but clearly determined and ready to fight. A ragged American flag gives a splash of color as it towers over the men below it. The light of the sun seems to be breaking through a cloudy sky. The painting is brilliantly entitled The Nation Makers, reminding us that this nation came into being largely through the courage of private soldiers. Most of them, if they survived and did not die of illness or in battle, would end the War poorer financially then they began it, being paid in worthless currency. They fought their War usually wearing the ragged remnants of uniforms, often barefoot and living off wretched rations. Many of them were teenagers, no doubt homesick and frequently worried that no one outside of their fellow soldiers really cared about the sacrifices they were making for the nation they were desperately attempting to bring about. If they were lucky they left the Army without their health being broken by wounds, illness, or the endless privations they endured daily through the long years of the War.
Washington has been called the indispensable man of the Revolution and so he was; but there was another: the common soldier of the Revolution. In the movie Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) when a wagon with elderly veterans of the Revolution passes by in a Fourth of July parade circa 1840 in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln, portrayed by Henry Fonda, removes his hat in tribute, the other men he is standing with swiftly following his lead. It was a moving film moment and a salutary reminder of the unpayable debt owed to those men who prevailed in their lopsided fight against the mightiest empire in their world.