Amos Doolittle didn’t let a little political disagreement get in the way of creating the most important images of the American Revolution.
He was a young silversmith, just 20 years old and starting out on his own in New Haven. He had a friend, Ralph Earl, an itinerant artist who went around Connecticut towns painting portraits.
As war loomed, Amos Doolittle took the patriots’ side. Ralph Earl’s sympathies lay with the British.
Together, patriot and loyalist would create the first and only accurate engravings of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
Amos Doolittle, born May 18, 1754, in Cheshire, Conn., apprenticed as a silversmith as a young man. But his real interest lay in printmaking, so he taught himself to engrave on copper.
In 1775, he enlisted in the New Haven company of the Governor’s Guards under Capt. Benedict Arnold. When news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord came to New Haven, the ever-ambitious Arnold marched his men to Cambridge, Mass.
Ralph Earl came along, too, apparently for the ride. There’s no record of him enlisting in Arnold’s company, so he may have tagged along with the militia, drawn by the excitement of war. Or maybe he wanted to see his dad, a colonel in the Revolutionary Army.
The New Haven men arrived in Cambridge 10 days after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Amos Doolittle asked for leave, and got it, to inspect the battlefields. Perhaps camp life bored him, or perhaps he’d planned it all along.
In Concord and Lexington, Amos Doolittle sought out eyewitnesses and minutemen who fought the battles. He asked them what happened, where and when, and then he told Earl what to draw. Doolittle even posed for Earl, sometimes holding a musket, to model participants like Col. Smith, Maj. Pitcairn, Earl Percy and Maj. Buttrick.
It was probably better that Earl didn’t do the talking, given his Loyalist sympathies.
From Earl’s drawings and the eyewitness accounts he gathered, Amos Doolittle engraved four copper plates of the battle.
He’d never published anything before, but he advertised the prints for sale in December 1775 in the Connecticut Journal. They circulated widely as pro-patriot propaganda, and then they disappeared into obscurity.
But they launched Doolittle on a successful career producing portraits, book illustration, Masonic certificates, maps, sheet music, diplomas, paper currency and bookplates.
Ralph Earl took up a British army captain’s invitation to stay with him in London. He disguised himself as a servant in 1778 and, abandoning his wife and child, took off for England. Earl studied under the famed artist Benjamin West, where he improved rapidly. In 1783 he won election to the Royal Academy in 1783 and later a commission to paint a portrait of King George III. Earl returned to the United States in 1786 and resumed his friendship with Amos Doolittle. In 1800, Doolittle held a show of his work in his New Haven home. Earl died a year later, probably of alcoholism.
The prints resurfaced in the late 19th century to critical acclaim. Historians studied them carefully and agreed on their overall accuracy, despite minor discrepancies.
A Concord minuteman historian described them as ‘far exceeding in rarity and of greater historical interest than the famous Boston Massacre by Paul Revere.’ They are the only pictorial record by a contemporary American of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
The first print shows the Battle of Lexington, with Maj. Pitcairn at the head of the regular grenadiers. It also shows the party who first fired on the provincials at Lexington, part of the Provincial company of Lexington and the British regular companies on the road to Concord.
The second Amos Doolittle print shows companies of the British regulars marching into town, then the regulars drawn up in order. It shows a detachment destroying the provincial stores as Col. Smith and Maj. Pitcairn view the Provincials mustering on an east hill in Concord.
The third print depicts the engagement at North Bridge, including the detachment of British regulars who fired first on the provincials at the bridge. It also shows the provincials headed by Col. Robinson and Maj. Buttrick.
Finally, the fourth print shows Col. Smith’s brigade retreating before the provincials and Earl Percy’s brigade meeting them. Included in the engraving are Earl Percy and Col. Smith, the flank guards of Percy’s brigade, the fieldpiece pointed at the Lexington meeting house and the burning of the houses in Lexington.
Amos Doolittle, who died Jan. 30, 1832, is buried in Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven with many other Connecticut notables.
This story last updated in 2022.