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The Art of War: An Illustrated '1776'

The Iraq war is chronicled constantly in photographs, newspaper stories, first-person accounts, editorials and books. That was not the case during America's first war.

"The illustration, the reporting on the Revolutionary War was practically nothing by our terms," author David McCullough tells Steve Inskeep. "There was no coverage of the war by the press."

When the Pulitzer Prize-winning author first wrote about the Revolution, he based much of his narrative on diaries and letters. Now there's a new version of the book 1776, with some of those diary entries and letters.

McCullough has also included paintings from the time that he says provide historians with as much insight as the written word.

The great painter John Trumbull, who served in the Revolutionary War as an aide to Gen. George Washington, "considered his life's cause, his great mission, to record for subsequent generations the drama and the participants of his time," McCullough says.

Trumbull's famous painting, The Declaration of Independence 4 July 1776, represents the signing of the document as "an extremely formal scene."

But McCullough says it never took place. "There was no formal signing where everybody was present. The room is not the way it was. He got an awful lot of it very wrong."

But Trumbull got one critical thing right, McCullough says. The artist made sure that the faces of the Founding Fathers were portrayed accurately.

"He spent more than 30 years tracking down almost everybody that was in that painting to either sketch them or paint them from life ..." McCullough says of the painter. "He wanted us to know who they were and to know that they were accountable, not just in their time but for all time."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The historian David McCullough spent a lot of time learning how the Revolutionary War began. What's especially challenging is to find out what the Revolutionary War looked like.

Mr. DAVID McCULLOUGH (Historian; Author, "1776"): The illustration, the reporting on the Revolutionary War was practically nothing by our terms. There was no coverage of the war by the press.

INSKEEP: There was no video and no photography. Yet, the visual record of the Revolution is richer than you might think. McCullough has published an illustrated version of his history "1776." The book includes documents and paintings. Even if they don't offer a perfect image of the war, they do provide a reflection of the age.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Virtually everything that we have in the way of some form of illustration was done after the war in the form of sort of grand tableau-like paintings most conspicuously by the great John Trumbull. And every painting is, inevitably, a portrait of two people. It's the portrait of the subject and it also tells an awful lot about the painter.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about one of those painters. You just mentioned John Trumbull, who did some of the…

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Yes.

INSKEEP: …most famous - I'm looking right now at the painting that shows the signing of the Declaration of the Independence by the Founding Fathers. Was he acting like a historian or a reporter to go find out what that room really looked like at the time when everybody was signing it?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, he was - he considered it his life's cause, his great mission, to record for subsequent generations, the drama and the participants of his time. And he served in the war. He was an aide to General Washington. Now, the painting you've chosen is the most famous painting ever done by an American artist, principally because it hangs - or a copy of it hangs in the Rotunda of our Capitol in Washington.

INSKEEP: And let me just describe it for people so that it jogs their memory. You've got this room full of men, I guess in Philadelphia. You've got a sheaf of papers on the table that people are getting ready to sign, and standing up there at the front, Ben Franklin. I see Thomas Jefferson. I see John Adams. I see a couple of other of the Founding Fathers all up there at the front, and they're going through what looks like a very formal ceremony of signing it.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Extremely formal scene, and it never took place - because there was no formal signing where everybody was present. The room is not the way it was. He got an awful a lot of it very wrong. What is accurate about that painting is - faces are all accurate. He spent more than 30 years tracking down almost everybody that was in that painting to either sketch them or paint them from life. And so he wanted us to know who they were and to know that they were accountable, not just in their time but for all time.

INSKEEP: You know, I flipped through here and I see also what I suppose you would say as propaganda from this time. Here, on page 46, you've got reproduced what must have been some kind of woodcut called "The American Rifle Man," and it's a British…

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Yes.

INSKEEP: …illustration of an American soldier. And he looks, kind of, like, in a Neanderthal and shabby and not very…

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Very low life, you'd say.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, to the British, our Army didn't look anything like an army. It looked like, as they said, rabble in arms. They look like farmers in from the field. And while this an exaggeration, to be sure, it is in some ways more realistic than much that it was painted, let's say, later on in the 19th century to portray the American Army of the day.

INSKEEP: There's also some portrayal of battles here. And here's a dramatic painting of the "Battle of Brooklyn," and you see just scores of figures racing in a chaotic way across a smoky landscape.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Very dramatic painting and I'm particularly happy you pointed it out because it gives a sense of what battles really were like. It looks like total confusion and, of course, it's in the midst of a rout. The Battle of Brooklyn was an enormous battle. It stretched over six miles and there were some 40,000 people involved. And you sensed that here - the smoke and the pell-mell panic of these people who are running for their lives because the British have just made fools out of them. It was Washington's first great battle and it was a blunder.

INSKEEP: And you see the rabble, if you want to call it that, that he had to command at that time.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Yes.

INSKEEP: The artist is Alonzo Chappel. Am I saying it correctly?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: That's right.

INSKEEP: And how did he research this painting?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, he must have talked to a great many people who were in it. And of all the art dating more or less from the time, this painting conveys more of the reality of battle than any. If you contrast this to, say, that Trumbull's painting of the "Battle of Bunker Hill" that's almost like a tableau. It's like a scene on the stage, but this is as good as we have.

INSKEEP: And you mentioned John Trumbull before, someone who had perhaps we would say a political purpose as he did dramatic paintings like this "Bunker Hill," one that I'm now looking at - and you have beautiful colors in the sky and beneath it a few heroic Americans standing against British soldiers who are - who are on the attack. What was his purpose in the paintings and the research that he did?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, the same as it was for his painting of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. To show fellow Americans, the heroism taken at that time, as the first big battle of the war - this is in 1775, not 1776 - and it's the death of General Joseph Warren, who was a noted physician in Boston, and the first real hero of the war.

Trumbull painted this when he was still in his 20s. And it moved people. They'd never seen anything like this. This is what we have to keep in mind. How did this affect those at the time? And one of the people who was most affected by it all was Abigail Adams, when she first saw it.

INSKEEP: This is John Adams' wife - President John Adams' wife.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: She said it made her hair stand on end.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: One of the aspirations that I had in proceeding with this book is that I think it's a great mistake for our people to understand history or to teach history as though it were only about politics and the military. It also includes art, music, poetry, dance, medicine, science - all of it. And the genius of the 18th century, which is written about repeatedly, wasn't just an age of political philosophy and brilliant statesmen, but it was a time of brilliant painters.

INSKEEP: David McCullough is the author of the illustrated edition of his book "1776."

Thanks very much.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And you can find illustrations of America's beginning at npr.org, where historian David McCullough also describes the beginning of his own career. It involves sports and bad debts.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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