“The greatest motive I had or have for engaging in or for continuing my pursuit of painting has been the wish of commemorating the great events of our country’s Revolution.”
Thus wrote John Trumbull, the Connecticut-born painter, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in June, 1789. The foremost member of a group of artists who painted important American historical events, Trumbull had an insider’s view of the War, serving as a colonel in the Continental Army and aide to Gen. Washington in the American Revolution.
Today, four of his paintings hang in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. “The Surrender of Cornwallis,” painted in 1820, is among his most famous.
In this painting we see the British column of troops making their way along Hampton Road, flanked on the left by the French Army and on the right by the American forces. Cornwallis, in a display of bad grace, pleaded illness, sending his aide Gen. Charles O’Hara to surrender in his place.
Approaching the Allied Commanders, O’Hara offered Cornwallis’ sword to Count Rochambeau, leader of the French forces. Rochambeau refused, directing him to Gen. Washington who in turn directed him to General Benjamin Lincoln who accepted the sword.
Two things here: first, military protocol dictated that neither Rochambeau nor Washington should accept the sword from someone who was beneath their position. Second, the supreme irony of Gen. Lincoln’s acceptance of Cornwallis’ sword was not lost on the British in that Lincoln had been humiliated by the British forces at the Battle of Charleston a year earlier.
As the surrender ceremony began, the scarlet-coated British and their Hessian allies in blue and green moved forward, followed by the German mercenaries. As they marched into the field throwing down their arms— amid the weeping and cursing of defeated soldiers— the Redcoat bands played “The World Turned Upside Down.”
As the Marquis de Lafayette wrote, “The play is over, the fifth act has come to an end.”