Ah, the banner—that nifty picture strip that runs along the top of so many sites and blogs with a dash of personalized flair. Maybe you’ve been wondering where I got mine. If you guessed that it’s from Lloyd Branson’s painting Gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals, 1780, now in the fabulous Tennessee State Museum, then give yourself a pat on the back.
Branson was born in East Tennessee in 1854, studied at the National Academy of Design, and travelled in Europe before returning home to become one of his state’s most accomplished artists of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Like many of his contemporaries, Branson mostly did portraits, but occasionally he produced landscapes and historic scenes like this one.
Here’s the best digital version of the painting that I could locate, from the website of another fine (but much more recent) Tennessee artist, Bill Puryear:
Sycamore Shoals, now a state park, is a shallow stretch of the Watauga River in present-day Elizabethton and the site of several significant events in early Tennessee history. Probably the most famous of these events is the one depicted here, the muster of the militia from present-day Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia on September 25-26, 1780 that marked the beginning of the King’s Mountain expedition. Pick up any book that deals with King’s Mountain or with the first Tennessee settlements, and you’re likely to find an evocative description of the muster—the overmountain men wearing their hunting shirts and leaning on their rifles, the women gathered to see them off, and Rev. Samuel Doak delivering his famous “Sword of the Lord and Gideon” sermon before the march. (The other notable Sycamore Shoals moments were the formation of Tennessee’s first proto-government, the treaty conference at which the Cherokees sold much of present-day Kentucky and the lands on which the East Tennessee settlements stood, and an Indian attack on nearby Ft. Watauga.) When I was shopping around for an image to embellish the top of the blog, this seemed like an abvious choice. You’ve got your American Revolution, and you’ve got your East Tennessee setting.
Lately I considered finding a new picture to spruce things up a little, but I finally decided not to, partly because this painting touches on a few of my main interests. Furthermore, I think you can read into it some valuable lessons about the practice of history in general.
For example, this is a military scene, but it’s situated far from the actual battlefield. The fighting men are surrounded by their wives, children, and neighbors. It’s a reminder that wars happen within the framework of the societies that wage them, and you’ve got to understand that context to understand the war.
At the same time, however, the painting undeniably and unapologetically focuses on a military turning point. This isn’t an everyday scene from life on the Tennessee frontier, it’s an occasion in which armed men intervened decisively in a particular historical episode. Battles are important because they decide great issues.
Here’s another observation. Important figures are visible in the painting; Isaac Shelby, an architect of the King’s Mountain expedition, is in the foreground. At the same time, though, most of the people in the picture are anonymous. Their faces are barely visible; we can see that they’re present, but so much about them is unknown. They held no high rank in the battle, and they filled no major office after the war, unlike Shelby and fellow King’s Mountain officer John Sevier, both of whom went on to become governors. History is made by the actions of a few great men as well as the aggregate actions of many anonymous ones.
In a lot of ways, it’s a very traditional image, depicting as it does an event that’s glorified in so many heroic nineteenth-century narratives. But it’s also realisitc, not nearly as idealized and stylized as some of the very earliest depictions of Revolutionary War scenes.
Of course, I don’t know exactly what meanings Branson wanted to convey when he painted the muster at Sycamore Shoals. But I like the fact that his painting includes so much of what makes up the sum total of history—war and peace, leaders and followers, the traditions that have become familiar and the surprisingly complex realities underneath.