The Revolutionary War drawing is the first of its kind (Credit: Museum of the American Revolution)

In the mid-1970s, Judith Hernstadt, an avid collector of 18th-century artifacts, bought a set of sketches from a New York antique dealer. One piece, depicting a scene from the Revolutionary War, particularly stood out to her.

The pen-and-ink drawing showed two women and a baby in a horse-drawn carriage filled with supplies. They were accompanied by six soldiers — two in the wagon, two on horseback, and two on foot. The back of the sketch featured five rough drafts of two men in different poses. This artwork became a treasured addition to her collection. But it took 40 years to realize its historical significance.

The events leading to the discovery began in August 2023 when Hernstadt invited Matthew Skic, a curator at Philadelphia's Museum of the American Revolution, to see her collection. The expert was admiring the Revolutionary War drawing when he noticed something he had never seen before. One of the soldiers was wearing a shirt typically worn by the Continental Army. This was the army that represented the Thirteen Colonies and later the United States during the American Revolutionary War that defeated the British in 1783.

"Alarm bells were just going off in my head — this is incredible," Skic told The Philadelphia Enquirer. "There were just a lot of ideas circling in my head, that this is indeed real, this is indeed, probably, an eyewitness sketch, just who was the artist?"

The back of the sketch had five rough drafts of two men (Credit: Museum of the American Revolution)

To conduct a thorough examination, Skic took the 15 by 5 inch (38 by 12.7 cm) artwork to the museum. He first confirmed that the paper and ink were from the Revolutionary era. The next task was to decipher the blurry text on the sketch. It read, "An exact representation of a waggon belonging to the North Carolina Brigade of continental troops which passed through Philadelphia in August done by . . ." The remaining words were missing.

Skic then tried to match the inscription and image to a recorded event. After scanning through hundreds of old newspaper archives, he found a match. Published on August 27, 1777, it described the North Carolina army marching through Philadelphia to join General Washington’s Continental Army. This was just before the September 11, 1777, Battle of Brandywine.

The curator says that the sketch is the first known wartime drawing of the North Carolina troops done by an eyewitness. Moreover, it is one of only two known artworks to feature the female followers of the Continental Army. These women played a vital role in supporting soldiers through various tasks such as cooking, household chores, and medical care. Yet their efforts have often been overlooked in historical accounts.

The sketch is one of only two that highlights the work of the Colonial women (Credit: Museum of the American Revolution)

The last missing piece of the puzzle was to identify the artist of the unsigned masterpiece. Skic's investigation led him to Pierre Eugene du Simitiere. The Swiss artist, who came to Philadelphia in 1774, was known for his Revolutionary War sketches.

After realizing the drawing's significance, Hernstadt generously donated it to the museum. It was put on public display in April 2024 for all to appreciate.

“This sketch is extremely important to our understanding of the daily operations of the Continental Army,” said Skic. “It helps us visualize the everyday lives of these troops – the joyous, the difficult, and the mundane.”