This spring, former Phillips curator Beth Turner taught an undergraduate practicum at the University of Virginia focusing on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. In this multi-part blog series, responses from Turner’s students in reference to individual works from the series will be posted each week.
…again the rebels rushed furiously on our men. –a Hessian soldier
This image depicts a violent and chaotic moment during the Battle of Bennington, a Revolutionary War battle that occurred in August 1777.
Jacob Lawrence’s depiction of the battle takes place in a moment of collision between Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum’s troop and American soldiers at Bennington. The composition’s chaotic vision is realized through the sharp angular lines and a dark palette with bursts of red, white, and blue. Powerful lines created by the crossing bayonets create a sense of movement, yet the panel is also divided by the “rebels,” or American troops, on the left and British on the right, as indicated by their red coats. Despite Lawrence’s visual divisions, it is unclear from this panel who is winning at this particular moment; instead, all we see is the violence and blood that accompany war. The frenzied movement at the center of the panel is juxtaposed by the limp hand and bloody bayonet that extend from the bottom right corner. The hand thus provides a haunting stillness to an otherwise visually captivating panel.
The titular quote for this panel is extrapolated from an unidentified Hessian contracted soldier, one of the mercenaries who often felt no national loyalty to the cause they were fighting for. Although they certainly do not share the same long and brutal history, Lawrence might have seen a parallel between Hessian soldiers and African slaves: both were physically uprooted from their homes and found themselves participating and subsequently living (often involuntarily) in America. By giving a voice to a nameless Hessian solider, Lawrence is giving exposure to a voice that took part in creating the nation, but whose history is often ignored. The depiction of the Battle of Bennington, then, is not simply a war scene between the Americans and British, but a powerful reminder of the diverse groups of people who participated in the American Revolution.