Veterans Day, an occasion to honor the nation’s servicemen and women, has roots stretching back to the First World War. Yet the desire to commemorate wartime sacrifice has a much longer history. In 1864, as the Civil War continued to rage, Connecticut minister Elias Brewster Hillard travelled through New York, Ohio, and Maine on an errand of remembrance. The subjects of Rev. Hillard’s interest, centenarians all, had each “looked at Washington.” These six men were the last living veterans of the American Revolution.
Hillard’s slim volume, The Last Men of the Revolution, linked the war that created the nation with the ongoing sectional conflict that threatened to undo it. The book included original photographs of the ancient soldiers pasted onto its pages.
Samuel Downing, Daniel Waldo, Lemuel Cook, Alexander Milliner, William Hutchings, and Adam Link had already lived three score and ten years at photography’s birth in the late 1830s. When they sat before an unknown photographer a generation later—each for the first time—they ranged in age from 101 to 105.
The dainty portraits, bordered by an eagle inscribed in gold, reveal the rheumy eyes, white hair, and gnarled hands of men who had lived “so far beyond the ordinary limit of human existence.” Providence had ordained their longevity, insisted Rev. Hillard, as a potent reminder of the nobility of the American experiment. These “living representatives” of patriotic devotion cautioned the present generation to remember and to mark the country’s fragile founding.
Related content on Verso:
Your Most Loving Son and Sailor Boy (Nov. 11, 2011)
Jennifer A. Watts is curator of photographs at The Huntington.