- 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
The chance meeting with General Mead kept Lossing awake that night, drawing rough sketches and laying out a different kind of history book. He planned a series of trips to the principal areas of the Revolution, seeking the “animate and inanimate relics of the war, both of which were fading away.” Interspersed with a narrative describing Revolutionary War events, he would mix eyewitness tales of survivors and an account of his own travels. Lossing hoped that “a record of the pilgrimage, interwoven with that of the facts of past history” would appeal to many “who could not be otherwise decoyed into the apparently arid and flowerless domains of mere history.”
The very next day he took the idea and the sketches to Harper and Brothers in New York. Harper’s agreed to underwrite his expenses and to publish his book. Thus, within twenty-four hours, if Lossing did not romanticize in his later memory, his notable Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution was conceived.
Leaving his partner in charge of their engraving business, Lossing left New York for Albany on July 24, 1848, for his first field trip—to Saratoga and Ticonderoga, into Canada as far as Quebec, and thence southwestward into upper New York state. With him went “a young lady, my traveling companion”—very probably his wife, Alice, since there is no evidence that he was given to philandering. At any rate, he allowed little time for romance. He set a gruelling pace, early to bed and early to rise, with no time for casual sight-seeing or rest. He believed in concentrated effort, and at the age of thirty-five he had the stamina to make fourteen- to sixteen-hour workdays possible.
Aboard the steamboat to Albany with Lossing was a “remnant of a regiment of Volunteers returning home, weary and spirit-broken, from the battlefields of Mexico.” Busy Albany welcomed the heroes with booming cannon and blaring bands, but Lossing was eager to get on with another, older war.
At the Waterford ferry, north of Albany, “a funny little water-man, full of wine and wit, or something stronger and coarser, offered to row us across in his rickety skiff. I demanded the price for ferriage. ‘Five thousand dollars,’ hiccoughed the Charon. I did not object to the price, but, valuing safety at a higher figure, sought the owner of a pretty craft nearby.” Lossing gave the ferryman a “brief temperance lecture,” and in return was consigned “to the safekeeping of him whom the old painters limned with a hoof and a horn, a beak and a scorpion tail.”
Near Saratoga, the historian met his first eyewitness of that famous Revolutionary War encounter. She was “Mrs. J——n,” ninety-two years old, with “soft blue eye” and a “memory remarkably tenacious.” When General John Burgoyne’s army rampaged down their valley in October, 1777, Mrs. J——n and her parents hid in a nearby swamp, fearful that Indians or Tories might murder them. Her young fiancé was off with the Americans preparing to intercept Burgoyne.
When the family returned home, Mrs. J——n told Lossing, all was desolation. “Our crops and our cattle, our sheep, hogs, and horses, were all gone … yet we … thanked God sincerely that our house and barns were not destroyed.” She eventually married her young soldier, but now had long been widowed and living on a pension. With quivering lip, she told her visitor that “the government has been very kind to me in my poverty and old age.”
A few days later, Lossing encountered Isaac Rice, a ragged veteran who had no cause for joy over his treatment by his country. Rice appeared unexpectedly amid the rubble of Fort Ticonderoga, just as Lossing was about to hire a professional guide to take him through “the gray old ruins.” The aged soldier said that as a lad he had done garrison duty in Ticonderoga under Major General Arthur St. Clair and “was in the field at Saratoga” in June, 1777. Now he was eighty-five years old, with his pension cut off by bureaucratic red tape. Lossing sketched the old man braced against a crumbling wall. Later the artist returned to sketch the fort at sunset. A soft footstep startled him; it was Rice, back to sit in the fort as he always did on pleasant nights. The old soldier showed Lossing a room in the ruins where he hoped to clear away the rubbish so that next year he could sell cakes, beer, and fruit to visitors. He spoke “with a low voice, as if afraid some rival might hear his business plans.” All he needed, Rice said, was eight dollars.
Saratoga and Ticonderoga solidified the pattern for the entire Field-Book . Lossing conscientiously tramped across the battlefield and through the fort, measuring distances and calculating the effect of terrain on troop movements. Few historians have related geography to history better than he. Although lie was only an amateur cartographer, his meticulous maps were a major contribution to the historical annals of the day.