- 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 set out late in September for New England, “the nursery of the Revolutionary spirit.” He stopped in Danbury, Connecticut, and there found a genuine eyewitness jackpot: three men who had been in the village on April 26, 1777, when British troops put the torch to every house except those occupied by Tories. Levi Osborn, eighty-six, and Ezra Foote, eighty-four, both victims of the 1777 holocaust, offered little more than conversation. Far more interesting was the old Tory Joseph Dibble, who was approaching his hundredth birthday when Lossing called.
Loyal to King George, Dibble had joyously welcomed the invaders, who naturally spared his house and barn. Lossing sketched Dibble, perhaps unconsciously giving him a sly “Tory” look that is preserved in the book. The old man admitted that he had been “greatly despised” by his neighbors, and told of being taken to a river and ducked until dawn. He was a bachelor—and told Lossing that he “intended to remain one all the days of his life.”
Boston, “classic ground of the Revolution,” provided rich material for Lossing’s narrative, but he found no survivors there. He learned, however, that David Kinnison, a participant in the Tea Party of December, 1773, was alive in Chicago at the astonishing age of 111 years, nine months. Lossing corresponded with Kinnison and received his picture and signature, plus a long record of Revolutionary War activity at Bunker Hill, Long island, Germantown, and elsewhere. Kinnison had been married four times, had fathered twenty-two children, and had learned to read at the age of sixty. One of Kinnison’s friends reported that the flame of liberty still burned in the old man. He had just urged a Chicago abolition meeting to seek freedom for “the black boys.”
Lexington, Massachusetts, boasted two cousins who had’ seen the fighting on the green on the nineteenth of April, 1775. Jonathan Harrington, seventeen years old at the time, played the fife that summoned the volunteers. That was his first and last deed in the war. His cousin Abijah Harrington, too young to fight, was ordered by his mother “to go near enough, and be safe,” to bring back information on two older brothers in the battle. He watched the battle with boyish delight and reported to his mother that both brothers survived.
Visiting Cambridge to sketch Washington’s headquarters, Lossing met Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who, not incidentally, lived in the house. Longfellow came out to express “warm approval” of the visitor’s task. (Later the poet sent a tart note of correction on a proof of the drawing and the accompanying text, noting that Lossing had left out a chimney and had erroneously called him a “professor of Oriental languages” at Harvard, whereas he actually taught modern European languages. Lossing made both corrections before publication.)
Although he had accomplished much, Lossing realized that his greatest task still lay ahead. He had to tour the battlefields of the South, with winter coming on and with travel conditions that were uncertain even in the best of seasons. Except for Williamsburg, Richmond, and Yorktown, little had been published for national audiences about the war in that portion of the country: Lossing must be credited with writing the first major account of the Revolution in the South.
He bought a horse named Charley, hitched him to a light dearborn wagon, and drove him aboard a South Amboy ferry on November 22, 1848. They plodded across New Jersey, through Princeton and Trenton, and on to Philadelphia. There Lossing rose early and made an eagerly anticipated visit to Carpenters’ Hall. He was stunned by a sign on the door that read “C. J. WOLPERT & CO., AUCTIONEERS.” He wrote indignantly: “What a desecration! Covering the facade of the very Temple of Freedom with the placards of groveling mammon!”
Independence Hall, however, satisfied the patriot in Lossing. He climbed the steeple and leaned against the cracked Liberty Bell while he thought about the Declaration of Independence. He came down to earth and walked Philadelphia’s streets, sorry that so few people seemed to remember anything about the city’s days of glory.
The historian rode on. Between Annapolis and Washington he followed a curious public highway. In the first thirteen miles he opened fifteen gates, placed across the road not for tolls but to foil wandering cattle. A boy by the roadside advised him that gates were “pretty tick” ahead—and they were. The annoyed traveller encountered, in all, fifty-three gates in the thirty-six miles between the two cities.
In Washington, Lossing had the privilege of an hour with President James Polk; it was a visit prompted not by “the foolish desire to sec the exalted,” but rather by the hope that the President would give him a letter of introduction to people in his native North Carolina. Polk complied.
A stop in Charles City, Virginia, near Richmond, turned up a treasure. Lossing spent the evening in the courthouse, hoping to find Revolutionary War documents. He found instead the long-lost 1771 marriage license bond of Thomas Jefferson and Martha Skelton of Charles City County. It had been wrapped in a bundle of papers and overlooked for decades.