- Historic Sites
Historian On The Double
The last old soldiers of the Revolution were fast fading away when Benson J. Lossing set out to catch history alive—in 1,100 pictures and 700,000 words
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
Nobody would list Benson J. Lossing among the important American historians. But he has an unassailable place among the most useful servants of our historical studies. When he set out on the laborious travels that resulted in the publication of the two large volumes of the Pictorial Field-Book of the American Revolution , he had two motives, one patriotic and the other historical. He had noted with regret how little Americans knew about the struggles and sacrifices that had given them place as an independent nation. Citizens of Boston knew nothing of Kings Mountain in South Carolina, where the Tory forces met defeat; citizens of North Carolina and Georgia knew little about the battlefields of Massachusetts and New York. Lossing roamed for more than 8,000 miles through the thirteen original states, traversing rough mountains, deep pine forests, plantation country, and prairies, seeking out every patriot shrine, evading no labor, spending without stint from his slender savings. He made a record of unmatchable scope and variety. He made the most veracious sketch we possess of Fort Herkimer, at Herkimer, New York, and of the mansion of Governor John Hancock on Beacon Hill in Boston. He talked with veterans everywhere, gathering many a personal reminiscence of value. His volumes, with 1,100 wood engravings of his own drawings of scenes, personages, and relics of the Revolution, admirably supplemented his careful narrative. Without extreme hyperbole, the editor of this magazine remarked recently: “He was a one-man A MERICAN H ERITAGE .” Lossing lived to issue a useful Field-Book of the War of 1812 and three volumes on the history of the Civil War. He was one of the first men to grasp the benefits of marrying fresh and authentic historical illustrations to a scholarly text. It is with good reason that the Huntington Library and other great repositories have collected and preserved them for research. The Huntington has by tar the largest body of Lossing materials. Among them are 1,000 of his original drawings and water colors on which the engravings in his books were based; some of the best of these are reproduced—for the first time, so far as is known—with this article. In sum, the Lossing papers constitute an enduring memorial to one of the most laborious and self-sacrificing writers upon our past. But his career is too little known today—an oversight that this essay should do much to remedy.
IN JUNE, 1848, Benson J. Lossing of Poughkeepsie, New York, stopped his horse near Greenwich, Connecticut, to look at curious bramble-entwined steps cut into a hillside at a place known locally as Horse Neck. Nearby, a white-haired man leaned on a garden gate. Lossing asked him about the steps. “Short cut to the church up there,” the old man replied, pointing to a steeple atop the hill. And then, abruptly, he began to relate a famous incident of the American Revolution, when General Israel Putnam had ridden madly down that hill to escape the British.
Advancing redcoats had surprised Putnam on the morning of March 26, 1779, while he was shaving in the nearby home of Ebenerer Mead of the local militia. Putnam dropped his razor, and with lather foaming on his cheeks, dashed outside to rally a defense. His soldiers held briefly near the church before fleeing, every man for himself. Putnam desperately spurred his horse down the steep slope, past the steps where a militiaman crouched.
“I heard Old Put cursing the British between his teeth!” the old man exclaimed.
“Tell me, please, who I am talking to,” Lossing asked with growing excitement.
“They call me General Mead,” the old man replied. A shiver went through Lossing: General Ebenezer Mead of the Connecticut militia, Putnam’s host and admirer, alive and on the spot where he had seen history pass!
As he drove rapidly home to Poughkeepsie, Lossing reasoned that if there was a clearheaded General Mead still alive in Horse Neck, Connecticut, there had to be his counterparts elsewhere—in Saratoga, in Boston, in the Carolinas and Virginia. He would find them, sketch them, write their tales!
Lossing already had modest writing and illustrating credits. In Poughkeepsie he had been active as a journalist, and his pedantic Outline History of the Fine Arts , published in 1840, plus a series of thin illustrated paperbacks, Seventeen Hundred and Seventy-Six , had earned some literary attention. His major talent was as an artist, and he was well known in New York as the senior partner of the firm of Lossing and Barritt, one of the city’s pioneer wood-engraving companies when it was founded in 1843.
He took pride in his knowledge of history, all of it learned in spare hours between his daily work as a wood engraver and his nighttime writing efforts. But in contrast to his own intense interest, he felt that most leaders found history dull.