Over a quarter of a million American men served in the armed forces that won our independence. Between eighty and ninety thousand of them served in the Continental Army, an all volunteer army of citizens. All of these men risked their lives. 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 in the first years after the Revolutionary War, Americans found it difficult to acknowledge that debt, much less honor their service. Most American soldiers returned from their service in the Revolutionary War with nothing more than the personal satisfaction of duty faithfully performed. Following British practice, Congress provided small pensions for men disabled in service. Most men discharged in good health received nothing. The generals who had led them were celebrated as heroes, but ordinary soldiers were rarely honored in the first decades after the war.
It took decades, but Americans gradually realized that the common soldiers of our Revolutionary War were heroes, too. Those who lived to be old men were finally recognized as honored veterans of a revolution that had created the first great republic of modern times. In 1818 Congress decided to award pensions to veterans in financial need, and in 1832 Congress voted to extend pensions to nearly all of the surviving soldiers and sailors of the Revolution. These were the first pensions paid to veterans without regard to rank, financial distress, or physical disability. They reflected the gratitude of a free people for the brave Americans who secured their freedom.
Our commitment to the veterans of our time is a legacy of the American Revolution and our commitment, two hundred years ago, to honor and care for America’s first 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. A centerpiece of the show is John Neagle’s arresting portrait of a destitute veteran of the Revolution, painted in 1830 in the midst of the fight for comprehensive federal pensions for the remaining Revolutionary War veterans.
This exhibition is supported in part by a generous gift from CACI International.