Visual Record of the Revolutionary War Exhibited at Valley Forge National Historical Park

Kurt Zwikl is in no hurry.

He is hanging a row of intricate artwork, depicting scenes and heroes of the Revolutionary War, in the gallery of the Visitor Center at Valley Forge National Historical Park. He carefully lifts each frame, placing it gingerly on its assigned hook. His assistant, Ron Bortz, steps forward with a tape measure, to ensure proper spacing, and Zwikl's sharp eye is vigilant for any sign of crookedness.

He finds none. So the work of hanging 42 illustrations - 19th century depictions of our 18th century war for independence - continues.

Kurt Zwikl hangs his illustration collection.

Zwikl is Executive Director of the Schuylkill River National & State Heritage Area. He is also owner of the collection, which he has been amassing since the 1970s.

"Because photography was not invented until the 1830s, a visual record of the Revolutionary War was left to the artists," Zwikl says. "Numerous artists, illustrators and engravers produced historical paintings and drawings that became woodcuts, steel engravings and lithographs. These were published in newspapers, books and magazines of the time, giving the public their only visual image of the war."

The images, then, tell two stories: The original saga of the Colonials' quest for liberty. And the tale of the Victorian-Era technology that captured it for entertainment and education purposes. In addition to illustrating formal histories of the Revolution, the works also were sold individually, framed and hung in homes and offices.

They also caught readers' attention in several periodicals of the time, enticing them to read colorful accounts of wartime for themselves. "As public demand for illustrated reading material grew," Zwikl says, "publications such as Ballou's Pictorial, Frank Leslie's Illustrated and Harper's Weekly flourished. These periodicals all ran stories accompanied by illustrations about the battles and leaders of the American Revolution."

Revolutionary War Illustration

The detail on the works, particularly those etched in steel, is impressive: the furls in the American flags are as clear as if they had been stirred by a current-day breeze. And horse manes shine with the evidence of brushed military-style attention. The woodcuts appear less distinct, but the effect is nonetheless captivating, as if battle scenes are visible through the smoke and ash of the field of combat. Several pieces have received hand-tinted accents in color, bringing additional verve to the imagery.

The oldest illustration was created for a biography of George Washington. Zwikl's closest estimate places it somewhere around 1810. The work of 16 artists is in the gallery, with six having 32 pictures among them. One of the displayed pieces is from an artist whose identity remains a mystery to this day.

Three of the 42 pictures capture the struggle at Valley Forge itself. One, showing the troop march-in of December 19, 1777, is particularly affecting, capturing not only the men bracing against a cutting wind but also a forlorn dog trying to keep pace. An 1896 example by artist Howard Pyle recreates a review of snowy troops by Washington and von Steuben.

Revolutionary War Illustrations

In gathering pieces over the past 30 years, Zwikl relies on his professional expertise in finding, authenticating, acquiring and preserving historic illustrations. But modern technology has eased the task. One of his most reliable sources currently? "EBay," he tosses.

The exhibit "Bring the War of Independence to Life:  19th Century Illustrations of the American Revolution" will be on display until April 29, 2014, at which time it moves onto Morristown National Historical Park, N.J.; it remains there until August 26.

Visitor Center at Valley Forge