John Trumbull and Bunker Hill
“These fellows say we won’t fight! By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!”
Major General Joseph Warren to his men prior to the battle of Bunker’s Hill
A lecture by John Walsh, emeritus director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, on John Trumbull’s painting on the battle of Bunker Hill and its historical accuracy, or lack thereof. The painting has always been a favorite in my household, as it depicts my ancestor Major Andrew McClary of the New Hampshire militia.
Trumbull had witnessed the battle through field glasses, he was serving with the American army, although not with the portion fighting on Breed’s hill. The painting shows the death of General Warren, and is entitled The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775, the painting having been commissioned by Warren’s family. Trumbull squeezes into the painting almost everyone famous who fought in the battle, both Americans and British. Major Andrew McClary is shown raising his musket to brain a British soldier attempting to bayonet the dying Warren, a warlike action quite in character for him, and one which warms the cockles of my heart. My wife has noted over the years how much I resemble Major Andrew and it is intriguing how his facial features have been passed down through the generations of my family.
The scene depicted is not historical, but rather a tribute to General Warren by having his death the center of the action. To us it seems a very romantic version of the grim reality, but Abigail Adams, who heard the battle from her farm and saw the aftermath of the wounded and dead American soldiers, found it so realistic when she saw it that she shivered with the memories of the fight it aroused in her. To most of us moderns war is simple butchery and unless it is shown as such, we are almost offended. To the men and women of Abigail Adams’ generation, at least the Patriots, they would have been offended by a painting that only remembered the death and carnage, they needed few reminders of that, but that ignored the heroism and sacrifice that ultimately prevailed against the odds and established a new nation.
Trumbull as a veteran of the War no doubt would have agreed with them. As to his lack of historical accuracy, Trumbull has always had his critics: