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This ambrotype, taken on 7 July 1858, depicts Ralph Farnham, a Revolutionary War veteran and resident of Acton, Maine, on his 102nd birthday. During the final years of his life, Farnham was celebrated in Boston and across the country as the last survivor of the Battle of Bunker Hill and one of the few living veterans of the Revolutionary War.
A Reluctant Celebrity
Until the summer of 1860, Ralph Farnham lived in relative obscurity as a Maine farmer. However, in July of that year, residents of his hometown of Acton celebrated his 104th birthday and his Revolutionary War service with a town-wide fête that included a dinner, speeches, and a 104-gun salute. News of the extravagant celebration for the aged veteran quickly reached newspapers in Boston, and Massachusetts Governor Nathaniel P. Banks, Mayor Frederic W. Lincoln of Boston, Edward Everett, and other prominent Bostonians invited Farnham to visit their city in the fall. Their letter read, in part, "We desire to see you - to shake hands with you, and to pay you that respect due alike to your patriarchal age, and to the part you took in the struggle which secured our National Independence." Ralph Farnham wrote in reply, "I do not think I deserve any special credit to the part I took in the Revolution. I only felt and acted as others."
Farnham nevertheless accepted the invitation and arrived in Boston on 8 October 1860, where he was housed, courtesy of the city, at the Revere House, Boston's most elegant hotel. On 15 October, a concert was given in Farnham's honor at the Tremont Temple. His visit to Boston coincided with a tour of the city by the Prince of Wales, and the Maine veteran briefly met with the young prince on 18 October.
But did he ever get to Bunker Hill?
C.W. Clarence published a biographical sketch of Ralph Farnham's life to commemorate his visit to Boston. The booklet--intended to raise money to alleviate Farnham's precarious financial situation--inflated the rumor that Farnham was the last survivor of the Battle of Bunker Hill; the record, however, shows otherwise. Farnham enlisted in May of 1775, at the age of 18, as private in Capt. Philip Hubbard's company in Col. James Scamman's regiment. The regiment reached Cambridge on 16 June 1775 but, due to a miscommunication of orders, did not actually participate in the battle in Charlestown fought on the following day. Farnham did serve in subsequent campaigns and witnessed British general John Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga in 1777. Although he never directly claimed to have been a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the rumor increased his national fame, and when he died in the winter of 1861, news of his death was reported at home in Harper's Weekly and as far afield as the Illustrated London News.
What is an ambrotype?
James Ambrose Cutting of Boston first introduced ambrotypes to the United States in 1854. They were most popular during the mid- to late-1850s but continued to be available through the 1890s. To create an ambrotype, the photographer sensitized a polished plate of glass by the wet collodion process and exposed the plate in a camera to produce a negative image. When dry, the glass plate was then backed either with black paint, metal, cloth, or paper; this black backing made light areas of the negative appear darker, turning the negative image into a positive. Some ambrotypes were made with ruby or dark green glass to simulate the effect of a backing without using one. Ambrotypes often were hand-colored, most commonly with dabs of red paint on the cheeks of the sitter, as in this photograph of Ralph Farnham. They were housed in wood or thermoplastic cases (also called 'Union cases'), like the daguerreotype photographs with which they are often confused; an ambrotype is easily distinguished from a daguerreotype because its surface is not reflective, as daguerreotype surfaces are.
The Massachusetts Historical Society has a collection of more than 170 ambrotypes, most of which are portraits that have come to the Society individually or as part of collections of personal and family papers. For information on individual ambrotypes, please search ABIGAIL, our online catalog, for "ambrotypes."
For more information on the Battle of Bunker Hill, visit the Massachusetts Historical Society's online exhibit, 'The Decisive Day is Come': The Battle of Bunker Hill
Suggestions for further reading
Clarence, C. W. A Biographical Sketch of the Life of Ralph Farnham, of Acton, Maine;Now in the One Hundred and Fifth Year of His Age, and the Sole Survivor of the Glorious Battle of Bunker Hill. Boston, 1860
Hillard, E. B. The Last Men of the Revolution. Barre, Mass.: Barre Publishers, 1968. (Note that Ralph Farnham does not appear in this volume.)