In his depiction of what he considered the earliest significant event of the American Revolution, John Trumbull co-opts the grand style of history painting and applies it to a contemporary subject. Eighteenth-century European and American painters previously used the kind of dramatic, moralizing approach that Trumbull uses here to portray scenes from ancient, not recent, history. Traditionally, history paintings were designed exclusively to glorify the nation in which they were produced. Trumbull opposes this convention and instead makes a seemingly unbiased portrayal of human interaction in this painting. The American soldiers, who are eventually victorious, are shown here in defeat, at the moment when British troops broke through their lines. Trumbull also portrays British major John Small, at the left of the composition, protecting the mortally wounded American general, Joseph Warren, from being bayoneted.
In its depiction of an African American soldier at the far right, this painting also represents a historical moment of opposition to authority. Despite General George Washington’s 1776 decree that African Americans should not take up arms in the war, many blacks did participate. Rather than gloss over this historical truth for propriety’s sake, Trumbull captures the disregard of political authority.