For many Americans, the story of the American Revolution is about a ragged band of rebels who, through a combination of luck and fighting skill, somehow managed to defeat the most powerful empire on the planet. But there’s far more to it, as a new Smithsonian exhibition shows: The American victory was made possible by France’s army and navy, Dutch weapons and Spanish gold, and it was part of a larger conflict that included battles fought in the Caribbean and Gibraltar, far from Lexington and Concord.
“The American Revolution: A World War” tells this story in a gallery in the National Museum of American History’s renovated “The Nation We Build Together” wing. It’s obviously a lot for one narrow museum space, so the gallery quickly traces the history of competing European interests and conflicts in America, starting with a cannonball from Fort Necessity, the Pennsylvania fort where a small British force led by Lt. Col. George Washington suffered defeat in one of the first battles of the global conflagration called the Seven Years War. Graphs and trade merchandise, including beaver pelts and fine violins, show how America’s growing population, resources and demand for goods made it an attractive partner for rich European empires.
Jumping ahead to the Revolution, it’s worth remembering that the Colonists had tough going in the early years of the revolution. Then France signed the Treaty of Alliance in 1778, sending men, ships and leaders with valuable military expertise. Spain joined them in 1779, offering hard currency. Dutch traders supplied Americans with arms and gunpowder in the Caribbean. Britain declared war on the Netherlands in 1780.
“For the first time, England has not one opponent, but four,” explains senior curator David Allison. The exhibit shows how the French and Americans worked together, with the French doing much of the heavy lifting, including during 1781’s naval Battle of the Chesapeake, in which the French navy prevented British ships from assisting or evacuating the British army led by Gen. Charles Cornwallis when he was cornered by French and American forces at Yorktown, Va.
The centerpiece of the show are three paintings that in the 1700s hung in the home of Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau — the leader of the French forces at Yorktown — and are on display together for the first time here. One, a portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, should be familiar to many Americans. It’s the others that are the most exciting: A pair of giant paintings by Louis-Nicholas van Blarenberghe, depicting “The Siege of Yorktown” and “The Surrender of Yorktown.” Each is dotted with hundreds of highly detailed figures in action — soldiers marching and charging, officers conferring and the wounded being carried away on litters.
“When we looked at the details of the painting, we found stuff we’ve never seen before,” Allison says. “So much of it is accurate, down to the detail of the evacuated British redoubts.”
Van Blarenberghe, the court painter for French King Louis XVI, tried to make these paintings as accurate as news reports, Allison says, talking with officers and soldiers to determine the location of empty earthworks or specific units within the battle. Still, Allison adds, they’re not completely impartial; just look at the officers in the heat of the siege. “In the French interpretation, Rochambeau is up front,” gesturing and giving orders, “and Washington is off to the side, in the back, with a map. The iconic representation is as important as the historical truth,” the curator says.
To show all the action going on in these scenes, the Smithsonian made high-resolution digital versions of both paintings, which are on touch screens next to the paintings. A “guided tour” allows the viewer to zoom in on points of interest on the canvas, such as Alexander Hamilton’s charge on Redoubt 10 in “The Siege of Yorktown,” that might be missed by casual viewers.
The exhibition jumps to America’s postwar expansion and relations with Spain and France, the Marquis de Lafayette’s 1824 return to America, in which he was hailed as a hero in 24 states, and the midcentury industrial boom, when America entered the world stage. The show ends in the 20th century with the two conflicts that earned the title of World Wars. “We needed allies to win our independence,” Allison says. “Now we’re the ally that helps France and England secure their freedom.” Patriotic Americans were reminded of this debt with sheet music and recruiting posters invoking the spirit of the Revolution: “When Americans are volunteering, they’re thinking about Lafayette,” the curator adds.
Among those Americans was John Hasey, who volunteered for the Free French Foreign Legion and was gravely wounded leading a charge in Syria in 1941. Charles de Gaulle heralded him as “the first American to shed his blood for the liberation of France.” Hasey’s French Foreign Legion cap, medal and passport are on display to remind us that some bonds stretch for centuries.
National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW. americanhistory.si.edu.
Dates: Through July 9, 2019.