The Last Muster
Images of the
(Kent State University Press)Of the estimated 300,000 Americans who served during the American Revolution, a few thousand lived long enough to be photographed (the earliest cameras began to function around 1839). Ms. Taylor looked high and low for photos of those who could be associated with the war, finally coming up with seventy ... which include men, women, slaves (and ex-slaves) and Indians.
Each of these photographs (and their subjects) were rigorously vetted to who was who and where they were (and when they went to their last reward), so there is much to-do here about dating, finding facts (historical, social) and how fraught it all was.
Unfortunately, the stories behind the faces tend to be pretty dull, even though there are some nice asides, such as this for a black man, Agrippa Hull, who lived and died in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, who "joined the Colonial army as a free-born black in 1777." When it came time to claim his pension, he was reluctant to offer up his original discharge papers because they were signed personally by George Washington.
In a tribute, a writer of the time wrote, a little patronizingly, "It is not the cover of the book, but what the book contains ... many a good book has dark covers."
According to contemporaries, Hull was something of a wit, a forgiving one at that. As Dr. Taylor reports,
On one occasion Hull accompanied his white employer to hear a "distinguished mulatto preacher." Afterward the man asked Hull, "Well, how do you like nigger preaching?" to which Hull replied, "Sir, he was half black and half white. I like my half, how did you like yours?"There is a daguerreotype included here of Hull's wife, Margaret, along with a sweetly naïve eulogy delivered on her death: "Not far from 90 years had left their infirmities on her wasted frame, but had seemingly ripened her for the better land, where all souls are white in the same garments of imputed righteousness."
Few of the accompanying biographies are as pointed or as poignant. Take Uzal Knapp, who "was born in Stamford, Connecticut, and enlisted in the army in 1777 for the duration of the war ... Knapp's pension papers show that he served as a private in Capt. Stephen Bett's Company, 2nd Brigade of Connecticut Infantry." Since much of this is second-hand information, and since the sources have cacked long ago, many of these biographies suggest the-one-that-got-away stories familiar to those of us who spend many long boring hours fishing, listening to fishing lore. It seems at least half of the men that appear here testified at the end of their lives that they personally served side-by-side if not arm-in-arm with George Washington: fighting alongside him, eating with him, punting across the Potomac with him, and, no doubt, sleeping with him. Uzal Knapp claims that among other services, "he was with Washington Life Guard serving as sergeant."
These tall-tale tellers were well rewarded, since in the 1830s Congress raised soldier's benefits three times, even for outright liars.The pictures here are interesting because by the time photography came to be invented, most of these people were half-dead, or appear to be, anyway: grim, bleary-eyed, cadaverous, senescent, stentorian ... possibly DOA.
Despite all this, The Last Muster is nicely put together, and there is a certain morbid interest in thumbing through these portraits, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes and wondering, indeed, what the last muster was like in reality. If it existed at all.--- Rachael Lee, MA