More than a quarter of a million Americans served in the armed forces that won our independence. Those who survived the war became America’s first veterans—the world’s first veterans of an army of free men. The American republic owed its existence to them, but its citizens found it difficult to acknowledge that debt, much less honor their service.
The generals who led them were celebrated as heroes, but ordinary soldiers were rarely honored in the first decades after the war’s end. It took fifty years for Congress to pass comprehensive legislation providing pensions and other benefits to these men—the foundation of our modern traditions of honoring and supporting our veterans.
America’s First Veterans brings together paintings, artifacts, prints, and documents to address the post-war experiences of the men who won the Revolutionary War—not the famous generals and leading officers whose names appear in histories of the war, but rather the junior officers and enlisted men whose stories are less often told. The exhibition focuses on their return to civilian life, their reception by a country torn and bankrupted by eight years of war, and the nation’s gradual realization of its vast debt to the men who won our independence. A centerpiece of the show is John Neagle’s arresting portrait of a pensioner of the Revolution, painted in 1830 during the fight for comprehensive federal pensions for the remaining Revolutionary War veterans.