Richard St. George's American War: An Eyewitness Account

Richard St. George's American War: An Eyewitness Account

Eyewitness accounts of the American Revolution provide some of the most engaging views of our nation's founding era. Thanks to a young British officer and fine detective work by historical researchers, we can now recover a vivid story of the 1777 military campaign that ended with the British occupation of Philadelphia and the American encampment at Valley Forge.

The mystery began half a century ago with two paintings in the Museum of the American Revolution collection. How did an Italian artist who never traveled to America produce such lively, authentic depictions of the Battles of Paoli and Germantown?

The search for answers stretched across decades. And then a "break in the case" came when four original watercolor sketches–now part of the Harlan Crow Library–appeared in 2007. Attributed to a young Anglo-Irish officer in the British Army named Richard St. George Mansergh-St. George, these watercolors proved to be the key.

A Mysterious Pair of Paintings

In 1954, an intriguing pair of small gouache paintings appeared on the London ru.tmarket. They were immediately recognized as rare and important works depicting military engagements during the 1777 Philadelphia Campaign. The first captures the nighttime chaos of a British attack on Pennsylvania troops near Paoli Tavern, west of Philadelphia, on September 20, 1777 and is signed "Xav d Gatta" and dated 1782. The second is not signed or dated, but matches the style and composition of the first so closely that they were clearly executed as a pair. It depicts the October 4, 1777 Battle of Germantown, located on the northern outskirts of Philadelphia. Military historians recognized many details of dress, equipment and landscape that suggested the artist was either a witness, or was informed by eyewitness descriptions and/or sketches. Through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. John M. Taylor of Villanova, Pennsylvania, the works were acquired for the Valley Forge Historical Society (the predecessor of the Museum of the American Revolution) in 1957.

Unraveling the Story

Saverio della Gatta ( active 1777-1829), who often signed his work "Xavier della Gatta," was one of the best-known artists working in gouache in Naples in the late 18th century. He enjoyed royal patronage, painting for King Ferdinand IV a series of works documenting the distinctive costumes of his realm, and was popular with English and other European travelers on the Grand Tour. Given della Gatta's well-documented presence in and around Naples from 1777 (the date of the events depicted in the paintings) to 1782 (the date they were executed), it became clear that della Gatta must have worked from information obtained from an eyewitness. A British officer who had served in America seemed to be the most likely candidate.

Clues within the paintings themselves narrowed the search. The "Battle of Paoli" includes carefully rendered soldiers recognizable as members of the Second Battalion of Light Infantry ( a composite unit composed of men from a number of regiments); troopers of the 16th Light Dragoons; and a cluster of green-coated British riflemen, all participants in the battle. It includes a fallen figure identifiable as Captain William Wolfe of the 40th Regiment, the only British officer fatality in the action. To the left of Wolfe stands Lieutenant Martin Hunter of the 52nd Regiment's light infantry company, who was shot in the right hand, the only British officer wounded that night.

Like its companion, della Gatta's "Battle of Germantown" contains internal clues that suggested a likely candidate for the patron who commissioned the works. Once again, companies of the Second Battalion of Light Infantry, their regiments indicated by different colored cuffs and collars on their red jackets, are easily recognizable.

In the left foreground, the wounded officer being carried off the field on the back of an enlisted man is Lieutenant Richard St. George Mansergh-St. George, who served alongside his friend Lieutenant Martin Hunter in the 52nd Regiment's light company. Hunter, nursing his wounded hand when the attack at Germantown took place, would later recall that "poor St. George" received a "shocking wound in the head" during the battle. He was carried from the field by Corporal George Peacock, whose bravery under fire saved St. George from capture by the Americans. St. George underwent a painful operation to remove shattered pieces of his skull, after which a piece of silver was affixed to cover the hole. The wound never healed properly, and he suffered for the rest of his life.

A Dashing Young Officer

Richard St. George Mansergh-St George (1766-1798) was born into a prominent Anglo-Irish family. Educated in England, be entered the British Army at age 19, and in April 1776 purchased a commission in the 4th (King's Own) Regiment, then serving in America. Before departing England to join his regiment in the late summer campaign to capture New York City, St. George sat for the artist, Thomas Gainsborough,who produced a striking full-length portrait of the dashing young officer in his new regimental uniform.

By the end of 1776, St. George purchased a lieutenant's commission in the 52nd Regiment, where he joined fellow subaltern Martin Hunter. Hunter would later describe St. George as "a fine, high-spirited, gentleman-like young man," and the two became fast friends. Martin's memoirs also recalled that St. George was a talented amateur artist, whose caricatures amused and entertained his comrades in arms.

Could St. George have been the eyewitness who engaged the artist della Gatta to produce these works? By the 1990s, several researchers considered him a "prime suspect."

A Break in the Case

In 2007, a small collection of watercolor drawings and documents appeared at auction in New York. Now part of the Harlan Crow Library, these works have all but settled the question. 

One of the drawings shows wounded British soldiers carried in a two-wheeled cart. It is ironically titled "My Triumphant entry into Philadelphia," and includes a blue cloaked figure with a head wound. An accompanying narrative identifies the figure reaching up to offer solace as Captain John West, Commander of the grenadier company of St. George's former regiment, the 4th (King's Own), was a close friend of St. George.

A comparison of the watercolor drawings from the Harlan Crow Library with the paintings of Paoli and Germantown from the Museum of the American Revolution reveals numerous direct design connections.

St. George's sketches and the della Gatta paintings provide some of the most authentic visual documentation for the summer campaign uniforms of British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. A caricature of captured American officers, for example, captures perfectly St. George's "high spirited" character, which was often expressed through mocking cartoons and humorous observations.

St. George's sketch of a Virginia rifleman is also one of the best visual sources that has survived of these iconic American soldiers of the Revolutionary era. St. George may have inserted a joke when he inverted the slogan "Liberty or Death" to read "Death or Liberty" on the rifleman's powder horn.

Conclusion

Together, these portraits, sketches, and historical paintings bring to life the experiences and tragic effects of battle for a young British officer and his friends during the Revolutionary War.

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