Friday, November 20, 2015

Analyzing Benjamin West's painting Sir William Johnson Saving a French Officer

The French & Indian War was a significant event in pre-Revolutionary America, and some of its events were chronicled by Benjamin West.  West painted one painting entitled “General Johnson saving a wounded French officer from the tomahawk of a North American Indian.”  The General Johnson in question is Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs.  Johnson was a good friend of the Iroquois and recruited them to help the British during the French & Indian War.

The title of the painting gives little detail as to when this event happened but with the aid of history, we can put it in its proper setting.  Johnson only fought in two battles: Lake George (1755) and the Siege of Fort Niagara (1759).  But which battle does it depict?

Marechal-de-camp, licensed under GNU License
The painting is traditionally set during the Battle of Lake George, with the French officer being identified as the defeated French commander Baron Dieskau (1), who was wounded, captured, and nearly killed by the Mohawks, a part of the Iroquois Confederacy(2).  But there are several clues within the painting that disprove this theory.

First is the uniform of the French officer.  Baron Dieskau was a marechal-de-camp (3), and their uniform was decreed by Louis XV in 1755.  The picture shows how a marechal-de-camp’s uniform would appear (4).  This is clearly nothing like the uniform portrayed in West’s painting, which is white with green cuffs and lapels.  The uniform does match the French regiment Volontaires-Etrangers, and a detachment of them were sent to reinforce the Canadian Compagnies Franches de la Marine.

Volontaires-Etrangers, licensed under GNU License

Just to the right of Johnson’s arm are two soldiers in red coats.  One has blue cuffs and lapels and the other has yellowish cuffs and lapels.  The red color usually denotes regular (professional) British infantry, as most provincials (troops raised in the 13 colonies) wore blue or green.  But no provincial regiment wore red coats with blue cuffs (5), (6).  Therefore these two are British soldiers.  The soldier with blue cuffs belongs to the 60th Royal American Regiment which fought at Fort Niagara.  The other soldier wearing yellow cuffs is from either the 44th or 46th Regiments which also fought under Johnson’s command at Fort Niagara.  Unfortunately, there are no visible characteristics to pin which of these two regiments he belongs to, as he has stripped the lace off his coat and waistcoat. These two wear the “jockey caps” that were popular for light infantrymen.  They are marked with a “G R” which stands for “Georgius Rex”—Latin for “King George.”

While on the subject of British uniforms, it might be observed that Sir William Johnson is wearing a general's “undress” coat.  These were popular because of their plainness—there was no gold lace to mark one out as a general, or to be ruined by camping in the woods. (7)

But the final clue that this painting is set during the Siege of Fort Niagara is that a fort is depicted in the background of the painting (behind the soldier of the 60th Royal Americans).  There was no fort during the Battle of Lake George (8), so this painting must be set during the Siege of Fort Niagara.


(1) This is the prominent identification of the painting on Wikipedia, despite a note that details more closely correspond with Fort Niagara:

(2) pg. 31, Fort William-Henry 1755-57 by Ian Castle (Oxford: Osprey, 2013)

(3) pg. 10, Fort William-Henry 1755-57 by Ian Castle (Oxford: Osprey, 2013)


(5) At, uniform information for the provincial troops of all 13 colonies can be found.  None have red coats with blue cuffs for a uniform.

(6) There was one exception to this rule.  Some deserters from the Virginia Regiment in 1754 were recorded as wearing red coats with blue cuffs; however, others wore red coats with red cuffs and others, civilian clothing.  Besides, the Virginia provincials did not take part in the battle of Lake George.  Information from

(7) pgs. 42-43, Cumberland's Culloden Army 1745-46 by Stuart Reid (Oxford: Osprey, 2012)

(8) A good map of the battlefield is available on page 29 of Fort William-Henry 1755-57 by Ian Castle (Oxford: Osprey, 2013)

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