Henry Cooke, owner of Historical Costume Services in Randolph, Mass., and a regular consultant for the History Channel, spoke to members of the Col. Benjamin Cleveland Chapter of the Tennessee Society of the Sons of the American Revolution about plans to create the first historically authentic painting of Col. Benjamin Cleveland.
The appearance by Cooke drew a record crowd, according to SAR officials.
Cooke said that while the heroics of Benjamin Cleveland are legendary, no historically accurate painting of the war hero exists. A recent painting of Cleveland that surfaced on the Internet was poorly researched and featured Cleveland as a general in the Continental Army, for which he did not serve, Cooke said.
While Cleveland served as a captain for three years in the 2nd North Carolina Regiment, he was never a general, Cooke noted. In 1778, he resigned his captaincy, and later led local militia in the Carolina backcountry as a militia colonel.
"Unfortunately, there are many images that have been produced of historical figures and events that were not properly researched, and present an incorrect or misleading view of the past,” he stressed. “This is something we will work hard to avoid in the painting we are working on, for the honor of those we portray deserves nothing less.”
Cleveland was an American pioneer and soldier in North Carolina who achieved legendary status for his service as a leader in the local Wilkes County militia during the Revolutionary War. Cleveland’s team of militia was comprised of volunteers who were mostly farmers — or “Overmountain Men” who did not wear uniforms but instead put on their “Sunday best” to go to war.
“The Overmountain Men dressed up prior to battle to show the opposition their importance,” Cooke explained.
Cleveland played a key role in the American victory that occurred on Oct. 7, 1780, at the Battle of Kings Mountain. It was during the Kings Mountain battle that Cleveland and four other colonels defeated Maj. Patrick Ferguson, who served under General Lord Cornwallis in the British army. The other colonels who led the Patriot militia were William Campbell, Joseph McDowell, John Sevier and Isaac Shelby.
The defeat was called the turning point of the American Revolution in the South, and was the first hope for the Patriots of defeating the English. Cooke said the victory inspired the local Patriot cause and discouraged Loyalists from joining the ranks of the invading British forces.
“Ferguson led an army into the mountains hoping to crush the rebels, but he was killed in the first 10 minutes of the battle,” Cooke said. “Col. Cleveland had his horse shot out from under him during the last 10 minutes of the battle. At the battle, Cleveland took Ferguson’s white stallion as his war prize and rode it back to his estate, called Roundabout. He also took an English drum and proudly displayed it at the entrance hall to his estate.”
Cooke said that the white stallion was Cleveland’s “prized possession” and included a very fancy English-made leather saddle and an exquisite saddle blanket made of finer materials than Cleveland would have had access to in North Carolina.
“Seeing the stallion would have been the equivalent of seeing your first Rolls Royce when the only car you had previously seen was a Chevrolet,” Cooke explained.
Cooke is teaming with experts from across the nation to work on the Cleveland painting, to be titled “Benjamin Cleveland’s War Prize.”
Dr. Philip Mead, a professional historian from Harvard University who teaches Revolutionary War Theory, is conducting research through the National Archives and has been retained to consult with the group.
The Allan Jones Foundation is funding the project that will feature Cleveland leading his troops back home to Wilkes County on Ferguson’s white stallion after the battle. Toby Pendergrass of the Jones Foundation said the research for the painting has uncovered some surprising results.
“While today we would think it was odd for someone to go a month without taking a bath but still shave every three days, shaving was very important to them in the same way that wearing their ‘Sunday Best’ was,” Pendergrass said. “The research indicates that the soldiers would have shaved before battle. Beards did not become popular until the Civil War some 80 years later.”
Cooke is hand-stitching the clothes and hat that will be featured in the painting, while Tim Wilson, a shoe and boot maker for Colonial Williamsburg, is making a pair of boots identical to the ones Cleveland would have worn, right down to ordering specially made leather from England that is identical to that used in gentleman's riding boots in the late 18th century.
Williamsburg's arms expert, Erik Goldstein, is working with Wilson to recreate a scabbard for an original Revolutionary War militia officer's sword located by Dr. Mead that will be used in the painting, as well as an officer’s sword belt based on an original belt in the Williamsburg collection.
Cooke said a period sword was recently located by Dr. Mead from Harvard to go along with Cleveland’s uniform. The sword was on display during the meeting.
Cooke also brought period clothing to the meeting, including shoes, a hat, a pair of Revolutionary era breeches worn by a Massachusetts man, and an elegantly embroidered waistcoat (or vest) worn by a North Carolina militia officer during the Revolution, that is being reproduced for the painting.
“The waistcoat in the painting will feature hand-embroidered silk that is identical to an authentic North Carolina waistcoat from 1770 that we are replicating,” Cooke said. “Every detail, down to the buttons, will be embroidered by hand.”
Don Troiani, who is regarded as the most respected Revolutionary War artist in the world, has been commissioned to paint the Cleveland piece. Troiani is based in Southbury, Conn., and is revered for only agreeing to do works that are historically accurate.
“Don is the foremost authority on the Revolutionary War and he has one of the largest private collections of artifacts in the country, many of which appear in books on the arms and equipment of the Revolutionary era, the largest collection in the world of any private individual,” Cooke said.
Troiani’s artwork has appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor,” as well as in “The Washington Post,” “The New York Times” and “National Geographic.” Troiani also has one of the largest displays at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Ga. He is also recognized for his artwork on the American Civil War.
“When the government created the Museum at Kings Mountain to honor the battle, Troiani’s artwork and pictures of soldiers were a significant part of the exhibit used as a basis for the re-enactment displays,” Cooke said.
Pendergrass said the experts working on the painting — not the Foundation — will decide how the final painting looks.
“The experts have total control, down to the smallest detail and Troiani has the final say,” Pendergrass explained.
Cooke said that through the research that has been conducted for the painting to date, the team working on the painting has yet to find a firsthand account from the Revolutionary era that describes the appearance of Benjamin Cleveland in the war years.
It is known that Cleveland was 6 feet tall and weighed 300 pounds, Cooke said. His nickname was “Old Roundabout,” yet he was reportedly very athletic.
“The team that is working to create the painting of Benjamin Cleveland is determined to get it right,” Cooke explained. “We are going to bring history to life and do justice to a man who was one of history’s greatest patriots."
Cooke pointed out Cleveland was a larger-than-life character.
“He was a man of action and certainly someone who knew how to get things done,” Cooke said. “He was the richest man in the county and it has been written that he controlled the county, even though he lived 15 miles out of town. Whether he was noteworthy or notorious depends on if you were on his good or bad side.”
Cooke said Cleveland served as a judge in Wilkes County and was known for hanging large numbers of Tories, or those who were loyal to the king. He hung so many Tories from an oak tree near the Wilkes County Courthouse that the tree became known as the Tory Oak, while Cleveland was called “The Terror of the Tories.”
“He was regarded as a mean son of a gun … and was very tough,” Cooke said. “Some said he was obsessed with hanging Tories and that he likely hung more of them than anyone else during the savage civil war between patriots and loyalists in this part of the South during the Revolution.”
Benjamin Cleveland was born on May 28, 1738, and died in October 1806, at the age of 68, reportedly while eating breakfast, Cooke said. The exact date of his death is unknown.
Troiani’s Cleveland painting funded by the Allan Jones Foundation is one of two separate projects under way involving the war hero. The local SAR chapter is also commissioning a statue of Cleveland for which they are currently seeking donations. The statue will be located in First Street Park.
The Col. Benjamin Cleveland painting is scheduled to be finished in December.