These Truths Blog
James Monroe and the American Revolution
James Monroe may not have been at the forefront of the fighting in the American Revolution, but he is prominently featured in its imagery. Two famous paintings from the difficult winter of 1776 in Trenton feature Lieutenant Colonel James Monroe: Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware and John Trumbull’s Capture of the Hessians at Trenton. These grand historical paintings memorialize the nation’s fifth president as an heroic soldier, making him part of the lore of the Revolution in early American memory.
Monroe joined the army in January 1776, before he had even turned eighteen, and on December 25, he crossed the Delaware with Captain William Washington. Emmanuel Leutze depicted this crossing with his famous painting of 1851, inaccurately placing Monroe holding an American flag just behind George Washington. Soon after Monroe’s actual river crossing, he was shot through the shoulder at the Battle of Trenton. John Trumbull’s 1792 painting shows a wounded James Monroe leaning on a fellow officer just behind George Washington. During his recovery from the injury and his subsequent posting on Lord Stirling’s staff, he was frustrated that most of his time was spent visiting friends rather than fighting the enemy.
The earliest surviving visual trace of Monroe also comes from the American Revolution, in the form of his signature on a pass for a soldier at Valley Forge in 1778. That pass is now on display at the James Monroe Museum and Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Monroe’s correspondence during the American Revolution and Continental Congress is available in The Papers of James Monroe, Volume 2: Selected Correspondence and Papers, 1776-1794 (Greenwood Press, 2006). Unfortunately for historians, his handwriting never much improved from his days in the army!