Maureen Taylor makes her living giving presentations on photo identification, preservation, and genealogy. She puts these skills on display in The Last Muster, a collection of photographs of seventy-one individuals from the Revolutionary War era, accompanied by a "vignette" biography of each person. The book reproduces photographs of members of the founding generation, which Taylor claims will allow anyone who sees them to "be awed by gazing at a face that knew the patriots as well as the Founding Fathers and Mothers of this country" (p. x). Not all readers will be transported into patriotic contemplation by the images, but seeing a collection of eighteenth-century Americans, most of whom were photographed as elderly people in the 1850s, does have a jarring effect.
Taylor spent six years finding photos—mostly daguerreotypes, but also ambrotypes, paper photographs, and other forms—and they are reproduced in color plates in this volume. The book itself is a lovely object, and it offers readers that chance to examine closely the appearance of aging members of the Revolutionary generation as they were frozen in time during their last years. The photos themselves offer a wealth of primary-source material, especially since so many of them are in private collections.
The diversity of the men and women in the photos enables the viewer to make comparisons between them. Taylor was able to locate portraits of rich and poor, men and women from a variety of religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. African American and Indian subjects pose in some of the most striking portraits of the volume. [End Page 396]
Taylor's collection does not represent an even regional distribution, however, nor can it really claim to represent the cross-section of the Revolutionary generation that she wants it to be. The portraits derive mostly from New England, and only a few Southerners are represented at all. The images include few loyalists, and Taylor's text almost makes it seem that everyone in the 1770s supported the patriots. Taylor never discusses the issue of whether groups are underrepresented because of patterns of early photography, family collecting, or habits of preservation, so the reader cannot judge why such portraits were left out.
Taylor announces in her acknowledgements that she sees "no single audience for the photographs and the biographies in this book" and that she expects a broad range of historians, genealogists, and curious laypeople to use it (p. x). All of these groups will be interested—especially in the photos themselves—but Taylor's biographies would have succeeded better if she had targeted any one of these audiences more directly.
The book could use a broad introduction to early photographic types and techniques, since the reader has to hunt for such information among the vignettes. Taylor's commentary on clothing and props help the viewer interpret the photos, but sometimes she takes her visual analysis too far, for example, by suggesting that sitters were "perhaps a little nervous" or "uncertain" about being photographed (pp. 39, 60).
Taylor did amazing detective work to authenticate the photos and to clarify basic biographical facts about each subject. She needed, however, to adopt a more critical stance towards the sensationalistic treatment her subjects often received in nineteenth-century newspapers. Many of the photos tell us far more about the nineteenth century than about the Revolutionary era itself. Taylor did not delve into the copious scholarship on Revolutionary memory and commemoration, and her bibliography relies overly on websites and popular-magazine articles. Taylor often gets caught up in details and never presents a larger interpretive picture. Perhaps a book of this [End Page 397] type does not demand scholarly rigor, but Taylor tantalizes without being able to fulfill the reader's curiosity about the context of many photos.
Overall, the photos in Taylor's book are unforgettable, and they are likely to push both general readers and scholars to look at the Revolutionary generation anew.
Sarah Purcell teaches history at grinnell College in grinnell, Iowa, where she also directs...