- 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
Lossing sketched constantly, paying close attention to details of architecture and location of buildings. He jotted marginal notes on shadings, foliage, and other factors that would help him make woodcuts for the book. His drawings were handsome, accurate renderings of just what he saw—rain pelting down on a scene; even a bull that chased him from the battlefield at Bennington.
Lossing went overland through lower Canada to sketch the fort at Chambly, where General Richard Montgomery had subdued the British garrison in October, 1775, before the subsequent successful siege of St. Johns. Someone directed Lossing to a remarkable man named François Yest, who lived nearby.
Yest, born in Quebec in 1752, claimed to have witnessed two wars: he had, he said, seen both Wolfe’s storming of Quebec in 1759 and Montgomery’s capture of Fort Chambly in 1775. He had farmed the same ground near Chambly since 1777. Lossing sketched him. “When I presented him with a silver coin, he laughed like a pleased childࢭ; but when someone offered Yest a glass of brandy, the old man became angry. He had signed a temperance pledge a year before and planned to keep it the rest of his life, after ninety-five years of nonabstinence. “For that,” wrote Lossing, “I pressed the hard hand of François Yest with a firmer grasp when I bade him adieu.”
Lossing visited Quebec to sketch scenes of the desperate and unsuccessful siege of the city by Montgomery and Benedict Arnold in the late months of 1775. He then headed west on the St. Lawrence River to Niagara Falls. Niagara had few Revolutionary associations, but Lossing sketched the Suspension Bridge, still unfinished in 1848, and rode the bobbing little tourist craft Maid of the Mist in the turbulence directly below the falls. A week before, a young couple had been married on the boat. “What an altar before which to make nuptial vows!” Lossing noted.
Near Canajoharie in New York’s Mohawk Valley, Lossing met seventy-nine-year-old Jacob Dievendorff, who had been eleven years old when nearly five hundred Indians and a few Tories sacked his village on July 9, 1781. An Indian felled Jacob with a tomahawk, sliced the scalp off the back of his head, and taking the grisly trophy, left the boy for dead.
Dievendorff had survived to become a wealthy landholder. He sat on a half-bushel basket in his barn while Lossing sketched him from the front to show what appeared to be a full head of hair. Dievendorff then turned to reveal horrible scars where the scalp had been cut sixty-eight years before. The visitor sketched that view, too.
Lossing was back in New York City by September 1. Already he had hundreds of sketches and enough data to fill three hundred book pages with maps, illustrations, travel stories, historical narrative, and a blend of folklore and curious factual detail. His work was by no means merely a matter of finding survivors; at every stop he had consulted or borrowed materials, particularly letters, original documents, and diaries.
A brief September interlude took Lossing to Morristown and Springfield in New Jersey, then as far as Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. At Morristown, he passed an evening with lively, eighty-three-year-old Gabriel Ford, son of the widow who had owned the mansion where Washington and his staff passed the dreadfully cold winter of 1779–80. Mrs. Ford and her four young children had retained two rooms for themselves. Gabriel was fourteen at the time.
Ford entertained Lossing “until a late hour.” He told of Washington’s constant solicitude for Mrs. Ford and her family; if alarms sounded in Morristown, “he always went to her room, drew the curtains close, and soothed her by assurances of safety.” When the General left the mansion in the spring, he asked Mrs. Ford whether everything had been returned to her. “All but one silver table-spoon,” she replied. Soon after, a messenger brought a silver spoon with the initials G. W.
Washington told young Ford the countersign each evening, so that he could play in the village after the guards were posted. One night as he returned at about nine o’clock, the boy saw Colonel Alexander Hamilton stopped by the guard. The Colonel had been visiting Miss Betsy Schuyler, who spent that winter in Morristown and later became Mrs. Hamilton. “Thoughts of her undoubtedly expelled the countersign from his head,” said Ford. The guard knew Hamilton well, but refused to admit him without the proper word. The Colonel stood in embarrassment, then spotted young Gabriel and said in a whisper: “Master Ford, is that you? … Give me the countersign.” The boy complied and Hamilton passed it on to the guard, who reluctantly let the Colonel pass.
After Morristown, Lossing stopped at Springfield, site of spirited military action in June, 1780. The oldest inhabitant was Gilbert Edwards, a “half grown boy” when American troops fought the British there on June 23. Edwards did not purport to be a hero. Rather, he had shown good Yankee shrewdness: he sold apples to the militiamen headed east to fight the invaders.