Among the treasures in the care of the American Revolution Institute—owned for nearly two hundred years by the New York State Society of the Cincinnati—is an enigmatic portrait painted by John Trumbull at the height of his career. The sitter, Bryan Rossiter, is a handsome man in middle age, in what appears to be a military uniform, wearing a bicorn hat.
The portrait presents a mystery. Trumbull painted and drew hundreds of portraits, but nearly all of them were either commissioned or they were executed as sources for his historical paintings. Trumbull’s portrait of Bryan Rossiter doesn’t seem to fall into either category. It appears to be an outlier, which is one of several things that makes it intriguing.
Although he had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War, Bryan Rossiter was not a participant in any of the historical scenes Trumbull painted. He wasn’t present at the British surrender at Saratoga or Yorktown or the Hessian surrender at Trenton. He didn’t fight in the battles of Bunker Hill, Quebec or Princeton, and he wasn’t a face in the crowd at the presentation of the Declaration of Independence or in Annapolis when Washington resigned his commission. Trumbull painted preparatory portraits for his historical paintings of people he ultimately left out, but there’s no reason to suspect Rossiter was one of them.
There was nothing unusual about Rossiter’s Revolutionary War service. A native of Durham, Connecticut, he joined the Connecticut State Troops in 1776, when he was just sixteen. The next year he enlisted in the Continental Army. For most of his tenure he served in the Sixth Connecticut. He was promoted to sergeant in October 1780 and furloughed in June 1783, and was awarded the army’s Badge of Merit for his faithful service. This honor is reflected in the two stripes on Rossiter’s left sleeve in the Trumbull portrait.
Rossiter was twenty-three when the war ended. Like most veterans of the Continental Army, he was owed back pay. Rossiter was also owed a bonus of eighty dollars and a warrant for one hundred acres of land, but he would wait many years for the government to make good on these promises. In the meantime, he made his start in civilian life. He married in January 1784 and he and his wife had a son, named Asher.
Unfortunately we lose sight of Rossiter for most of the next twelve years. There’s a Bryant Rosseter in the 1790 census of Westchester County, New York, that might be him. At some point he moved into New York City—one of tens of thousands drawn into the city, which grew at an astonishing rate, from 30,000 in 1790 to 60,000 in 1800 to 202,000 in 1830.
Rossiter shows up in city directories beginning in 1796, driving a delivery wagon. After 1800, the city directories identify him as a fruit seller, which probably means he operated a stall in one of the city markets, probably at the Catherine Market, which was beside the East River close to his home. In the 1810s, that market—located near what is now the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge—was one of the city’s most important purveyors of food, serving at least twenty-five thousand residents of surrounding neighborhoods, between two thousand and five thousand of whom visited the market each day. The market arcade housed between forty and fifty butchers, around twenty fishmongers, as well as vendors selling vegetables and fruits. Much of what was sold at the Catherine Market came across the East River by boat from farms, dairies and orchards on Long Island. Farmers came to the market to sell their own produce, often selling from makeshift stands and wagons on the adjacent streets.
Since Rossiter sold fruit, he probably had regular suppliers on Long Island or Westchester County. Vendors set out for the market in the middle of the night. Most of the market business was finished by ten in the morning, although stands might remain open until early afternoon to sell the last of their picked-over goods. The market was open six days a week; fishmongers and some other vendors were permitted to sell on Sunday. This went on year round. From 1801 there was a vendor in the market who sold coffee and hot chocolate by the cup. We can imagine Bryan Rossiter warming himself with a cup after setting up his fruit stand for the morning. This humble, honest occupation was sufficient for Rossiter to support his little family in a simple way, but he was never prosperous. In this respect his life was probably much like that of thousands of other Revolutionary War veterans in New York City. He lived in New York City for many years before he could afford to buy a simple home. He certainly could not have afforded to commission John Trumbull to paint his portrait.
What set Rossiter apart from other veteran enlisted men in the city is that in 1801, the New York State Society of the Cincinnati hired him to serve as its sergeant at arms. The New York State Society was one of the most active state organizations in the Society of the Cincinnati. Its members enjoyed socializing, usually at a tavern, maintaining the “cordial affection,” as the Society’s Institution called it, of their war days. As a veteran enlisted man, Rossiter was not eligible for membership, which was restricted to commissioned officers. His role involved making the practical arrangements for Society events—informing members about gatherings, ensuring a supply of food and drink was on hand, making sure bills were paid, and carrying out other administrative tasks. The New York State Society paid Rossiter $2.50 to $5 for officiating at events.
Rossiter also played a ceremonial role. The New York State Society was much given to ritual. General Steuben, one of its most active members in its first years, enjoyed the theatrics of aristocratic society and introduced pomp and ceremony into the life of the organization. The flag of the Society of the Cincinnati, still in use, was first used by the New York State Society.
To carry out his ceremonial role, the New York State Society supplied Rossiter with a military-style uniform. This is the uniform he is wearing in the Trumbull portrait. The dark blue coat with red facings bears a superficial resemblance to a Continental Army uniform, but the details, including the silver epaulettes, are particular to this costume, which seems to have been designed especially for the Cincinnati’s sergeant at arms. Those details bring us closer to unravelling the mystery posed by the portrait.
Bryan Rossiter and John Trumbull were both Connecticut men, and about the same age—Trumbull was just four years older—but there is no reason to believe they knew one another before Trumbull arrived in New York in the early summer of 1804. Trumbull had grown up in Lebanon, Connecticut. He had served briefly as adjutant of Connecticut troops in 1775 and thereafter was an aide to George Washington until 1777, when he resigned his commission. He returned to service in the winter of 1782-1783, working for his brother as a supply officer. Although Trumbull and Rossiter were both from Connecticut, their wartime service barely overlapped. There is no reason to imagine they were friends or even encountered one another during the war.
During the years after the Revolutionary War, Trumbull divided his time between Britain and America, learning the painter’s art and establishing himself as an artist in America. He arrived in New York City on June 27, 1804, after spending ten years in Europe. We can be reasonably sure that Bryan Rossiter and John Trumbull met a week later on July 4, when Trumbull attended a meeting of the New York State Society.
The meeting began by transacting a little formal business, in which Alexander Hamilton, who had been president general of the Society of the Cincinnati since George Washington’s death in 1799, made a motion about membership that was adopted. Then the group, or at least most of it, turned to its usual mirth and good cheer. Trumbull described the occasion in his autobiography:
On the 4th of July, I dined with the society of the Cincinnati, my old military comrades, and then met, Gen. Hamilton and Col. Burr. The singularity of their manner was observed by all, but few had any suspicion of the cause. Burr, contrary to his wont, was silent, gloomy, sour; while Hamilton entered with glee into all the gaiety of a convivial party, and even sung an old military song.
The song Hamilton sang was probably “How Stands the Glass Around,” an old military ballad associated with General James Wolfe. Its melancholy refrain:
Why, soldiers, why,
Should we be melancholy, boys?
Why, soldiers, why?
Whose business ‘tis to die!
The dinner was on a Wednesday night. The next Wednesday, Hamilton lay in anguish from a pistol ball fired by Burr that had passed through his liver and lodged near his spine. The day after that he was dead.
Hamilton’s funeral was held on Saturday, July 14. Hamilton’s coffin was taken from the home of his friend John Barker Church and carried in a procession that wound its way to Trinity Church. The procession was led by the Sixth Regiment of militia. Following the pallbearers came Hamilton’s children and relatives, then physicians, members of the bar, city officials, foreign consuls, military officers, bankers, merchants, the faculty and students of Columbia College, and members of the St. Andrew’s Society, the Tammany Society, the Mechanic Society and the Marine Society. Gouverneur Morris, who gave the eulogy when the procession reached the church, followed the pallbearers in his coach.
Behind the militia and immediately in front Hamilton’s coffin, in a place of conspicuous honor, marched the members of the Society of the Cincinnati. John Trumbull was probably among them, and they were led, no doubt, by their sergeant at arms, in his handsome dark blue and red uniform. On his hat Rossiter surely wore the prominent black cockade depicted in his portrait. The black cockade was an appropriate sign of mourning, but it was also the symbol of the Federalist party, of which Hamilton had been a national leader and to which all of his pallbearers and most of the members of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati adhered. The black cockade may have been a regular part of the sergeant at arms’ uniform—we cannot know for sure—but it took on special meaning for Hamilton’s friends on that day of mourning.
Hamilton’s sudden death was shocking to Trumbull, who wrote that dueling was “a senseless custom, which ought not to have outlived the dark ages in which it had its origins.” The tragedy also resulted in a steady income for Trumbull. The city commissioned him to paint a full-length portrait of Hamilton for city hall, which Trumbull based on the portrait of Hamilton he had painted a decade earlier. Between 1804 and 1808, while he remained in New York, Trumbull painted many more copies of the portrait for Hamilton’s admirers.
Trumbull painted Bryan Rossiter’s portrait during this period. It seems to have been a remembrance of Hamilton’s death and funeral—terrible events that weighed heavily on Trumbull as they did on many of Hamilton’s friends and admirers. Trumbull sold the Hamilton portraits, but he kept his portrait of Bryan Rossiter. Perhaps he imagined it as a study for larger work relating to Hamilton’s death that he never began, and of which no other evidence survives. Trumbull considered several historical paintings he never executed, and for which fragmentary evidence survives, including a sketch of Gen. Charles Lee drawn as a study for a painting of the heroic defense of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1776. Regardless of Trumbull’s intentions, the Rossiter portrait is a reminder of the tragic events of July 1804.
Trumbull left New York in 1808 and returned to England. That same year, Rossiter successfully petitioned for his land warrant and then sold it to supplement his income. The proceeds may have provided much of the price of the modest house Rossiter bought at 62 Hester Street, in what is now the Lower East Side, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Rossiter continued to serve the New York State Society of the Cincinnati until old age overtook him. In 1818 he was involved in organizing the Society’s role in the recovery of the remains of General Richard Montgomery from Quebec and their ceremonial reinternment in St. Paul’s Churchyard. That same year Rossiter applied for support under the Pension Act of 1818 and was awarded eight dollars a month, but he was struck from the rolls in 1820 because he had not demonstrated sufficient financial need. In 1822 the New York State Society conferred an annual salary of fifty dollars on him. When Lafayette dined with members of the Society in New York in 1824, Rossiter, in his uniform, led the former general and other Society members into the room.
In 1828, Rossiter petitioned to receive the eighty-dollar bonus Congress had promised in 1778. After waiting fifty years, he finally received the bonus owed to him. His pension was restored later that year after he was disabled by a “paralytic affliction”—probably a stroke—to which the extraordinarily labored signature he affixed to his petition is mute testimony. The New York State Society of the Cincinnati gave Rossiter an additional thirty dollars (about six hundred dollars in today’s money) in 1828, “to provide for the comfort & medical attendance of the said Sergeant, he now being dangerously ill.”
Shortly thereafter John Trumbull presented his portrait of Rossiter to the New York State Society of the Cincinnati, expressing hope that the painting would “serve to commemorate a very worthy and faithful veteran of the American revolution.” Bryan Rossiter died on Christmas Eve, 1834.
Portraits of men who served in the enlisted ranks in our Revolutionary War are very rare. Without Trumbull’s surprising portrait, Bryan Rossiter would be little more than a name on a roster and an entry in a city directory—the ripples that common men make in the historical record. Only occasionally do we have enough to develop a more complete picture. Bryan Rossiter’s portrait reaches across more than two centuries to introduce us to an ordinary man whose life was touched by extraordinary events, and who commands our respect as one of the thousands of brave men and women who founded our nation.