The American Revolution – A World War
Exhibit at The National Museum of American History
On Display June 23, 2018 to July 9, 2019
Upon entering the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, I asked a docent at the information desk, “Where is The American Revolution – A World War exhibit located?” She responded, “Oh, you mean the French Alliance exhibit? It’s on the second floor.” She could not have been more right. What was advertised as a global view of the American Revolution turned out to be a focus on the Franco-American partnership culminating in the joint 1781 victory at Yorktown.
Obscuring a broader view, the exhibition barely mentioned critical contributions by the Spanish, Mysorians, Dutch and Native Americans and does not depict significant battles fought outside the original thirteen colonies. The exhibit is an opportunity lost to convey to visitors that the American Revolution was a global war fought in Asia, Africa. Europe and South America; places that most American don’t think of when learning about the War for Independence.
However, the Smithsonian exhibit contains several unique paintings and artifacts which will interest both casual attendees and revolutionary historians. For example, the Smithsonian touts three paintings as the exhibition highlights, demonstrating the exhibition’s focus on French military assistance leading up to Yorktown.
“The exhibition features the paintings The Siege of Yorktown and The Surrender of Yorktown, created by Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe in 1786 as copies of those presented to King Louis XVI, and George Washington’s early 1780s portrait by Charles Willson Peale, united for the first time in a national museum since their display together in the 1700s. They appeared in the Comte de Rochambeau’s chamber as a reminder of the French general’s partnership with the American general.”
While these paintings are captivating due to a not-oft seen French perspective, there are three “must see” exhibition highlights – a French Soldiers’ Almanac, a description of the Battle of the Chesapeake and a pistol carried by George Washington during the Revolution.
French Soldiers Almanac
French General Rochambeau ordered the printing of an almanac to better prepare his troops for campaigning in America. The short pamphlet contains sections normally found in almanacs including religious holidays, feast days and daily sun rise and sunsets. To aid individuals in the military capabilities and force structure of his command, there are listings Naval listings of ships, captains and other officers and guns as well as Army officers and units. To better acquaint his forces with America, the last sections provide a description of Rhode Island, a curious Enigma poem, a detailed timeline of the war in the colonies, and listings of distances and towns between major cities.
Visitors see a unique and special Revolutionary artifact as this is the only complete copy of the almanac in existence today. A digital copy is available for viewing through the Society of Cincinnati website.
The Battle of the Chesapeake
While most Americans focus on Yorktown as the seminal battle, the naval clash between the French and British navies sealed the trap and led to the eventual surrender by Lord Cornwallis. No Americans fought in this naval battle. While the British were not soundly defeated, they sailed away to New York, leaving the French in control of the Chesapeake, thereby isolating British forces at Yorktown from re-supply or retreat. Without this victory, the Lord Cornwallis’s surrender would not have occurred and the military stalemate outside of New York City would have continued.
For an informative account of this pivotal battle, see an interview with Nathaniel Philbrick in the Journal of the American Revolution on his new book, In the Eye of the Hurricane.
Pistol Carried by George Washington
Without much context setting, the Smithsonian exhibition starts with exhibits depicting the French and Indian War (or in Europe, The Seven Years War). Critical to the American War for Independence, French leaders sought revenge for their losses in the 1763 Treaty of Paris which ended this prior conflict. This motivation led to France providing financial aid and military forces assist the North American Rebels.
With this context, museum visitors can view a pistol carried by British General Edward Braddock during the French and Indian War. Braddock led a British Army to attack the French garrison at Fort Duquesne. Not waiting for the assault, the French and their Native American allies ambushed the British force. Wounded a disastrous defeat, a mortally wounded Braddock gave George Washington his pistols, one of which is pictured below.
Washington carried these pistols (artifact record) with him for the duration of the American Revolution.
While there is an opportunity lost by the Smithsonian to educate visitors on the global aspects of the Revolution, the exhibit contains several fascinating objects and is well worth a visit. For those unable to tour the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, I highly recommend the well designed Exhibition Web Site.
For those seeking more information on the Franco-American alliance and the Revolutionary War, see the notes for the Society of Cincinnati France in the American Revolution 2012 exhibit which describes many interesting artifacts and original documents.
Finally, the American War of Independence was a complex global war with military conflict contested on all continents except Antarctica. For a view of this wider conflict and a view that the outcome was not so black and white, see How the British Won the American Revolution.
Note: All photographs are by the author.