The historic piece of art that’s featured in the hilarious meme showcasing three marching Revolutionary War musicians has a long, long history. While it might not date as far back as the Revolutionary War, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone to learn it was inspired by and modeled after drunken American war veterans.
Ohioan Archibald Willard was a Civil War veteran who enlisted with the 86th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. During the Civil War, the 86th saw action at the Battle of the Cumberland Gap and headed off Confederate General John Hunt Morgan as he made the furthest incursion northward during the war, but it only lost 37 men total — all due to disease. Willard began to draw pictures of the things he saw as he moved with the unit. He and a business partner began to finish and sell the drawings throughout the war.
Archibald Willard, Civil War veteran and creator of “The Spirit of ’76.”
Before moving back to Cleveland, Willard studied art in New York City. He stayed for a number of years, but it was back in his native Ohio that Willard was inspired to paint a humorous picture he called, “Yankee Doodle.” It was the first incarnation of what would become his most famous and celebrated work, with three Revolutionary War musicians marching in tune to their martial music. But this first pass was less of a serious work and more of a funny comic-book painting.
The original featured three natives of Wellington, Ohio — all slightly intoxicated veterans of the War of 1812 — goofing around and creating mock battles with instruments in the town square. He also used Wellingtonians as models to paint the patriots seen in the famous painting. These models included his father, the Reverend Samuel Willard, fellow Civil War veteran Hugh Mosher as the fife player, and a local named Henry Devereaux, a military academy cadet and the son of a local railroad president, as the drummer boy.
Willard drew the original as a comic scene, but a friend who saw his sketch suggested that Willard take it a little more seriously, perhaps draw it up with a patriotic theme. The idea intrigued Willard because it was outside the realm of anything he’d ever done before. He preferred to paint landscapes and comical scenes of everyday life. Thinking back to old stories his grandfather would tell him about fighting in the American Revolution, Willard created an eight-by-ten foot masterpiece, re-titled “The Spirit of ’76.”
“The Spirit of ’76” first went on display in 1876 as part of a celebration of the American Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Willard went on to paint several different versions of the painting but there were none so iconic or reproduced in American culture than the original. In the years following the Civil War, years characterized by mixed feelings, resentment, and Reconstruction, “The Spirit of ’76” was a work of art that evoked a shared sense of national unity.
And lived on in many different iterations.
After the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the original painting was sold to General John H. Devereux, father of the drummer boy in the painting, who took it to his home in Marblehead, Mass. where it remains on display to this day. The drum used by the younger Devereux and Hugh Mosher’s fife can be seen in the Spirit of ’76 Museum in Wellington, Ohio.