- 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 next morning Lossing drove into Sherwood Forest, former President Tyler’s estate. Tyler greeted him warmly and urged him to stay for an extended visit. But time was precious; what Lossing really wanted was directions to Jamestown. The former Chief Executive drew a rough map. Unfortunately, it did not show the wretched state of the roads through the surrounding swamps and failed to note that the ferry across the nearby Chickahominy River had been abandoned. Two men cleaned out a decrepit scow, loaded Lossing, Charley, and the dearborn aboard, and took them across the Chickahominy, bailing as they went.
Williamsburg’s creeping ruin saddened Lossing. Old Bruton Parish Church and the octagonal powder magazine on the green remained intact, but most of the village was deteriorating. Lord Dunmore’s palace, home of Virginia’s royal governors, was blackened by fire. It happened that carpenters were just then remodelling the Raleigh Tavern, scene of anti-British gatherings before the Revolution. “Up to the day of my visit it had remained unaltered,” Lossing wrote. His notes and sketches were to help in the twentieth-century restoration.
He reached Yorktown at twilight on December 20 and put up at the town’s only inn, the Swan Tavern, run by William Nelson, grandson of Governor Thomas Nelson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The next day Nelson took him across what Lossing called Lord Cornwallis’ “field of humiliation.” The visitor went into “Cornwallis’ Cave,” allegedly the spot where the British general had held councils of war. Lossing reluctantly paid twelve and a half cents admission, “knowing that I was submitting to imposition.” He sketched the battlefield within sight of Governor Nelson’s home. In his drawing the British works appeared surprisingly well preserved after nearly seventy years.
Yorktown may have been a disappointment, for Lossing found no one closer to the scenes of October, 1781, than Nelson. He left and spent Christmas Day in Norfolk to the sound of “guns, pistols and squibs heralding the holiday.” Later he stopped to see Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and found it “deprived of its former beauty by neglect.” Now he swung southwestward into North Carolina, to Guilford Courthouse near Greensboro; southwest again to Charlotte and west to Cowpens, South Carolina. Roads were bad or non-existent through the swamps and the slashes. Rivers had to be forded, often at full flood. Lossing feared that he might lose his hundreds of sketches and his stack of notebooks. He slept where he could: one night in a mansion, the next in a forest hut, another in a post office or run-down tavern. He ate whatever the area offered, as pleased with a sandwich as with a sumptuous meal at a good inn along the way.
He was reliving the days of 1780 and 1781 when Marion, Sumter, and Greene stalked this wild country, fending off the British and Tories led by Ferguson, Arnold, and Cornwallis. He climbed mountains, rode saddle horses, drove Charley over nearly impassable roads, ever following the quest. The Poughkeepsie pilgrim entered Camden, South Carolina, on January 18, 1849, after driving Charley fourteen hundred miles in sixty-two days. He then sold the faithful horse and took a train for Savannah to catch a ship north. He reached New York on February 4, 1849, and “sat by my own fireside,” pleased that he had suffered neither sickness nor accident.
Lossing rapidly transformed his notes into a huge manuscript of more than seven hundred thousand words, including a wealth of fascinating footnotes that ranged from obscure little poems to explanations of his drawings. He turned his rough field sketches into finished renderings, each the size it would be in the book. He prepared the index, laid out the pages, read the proofs, wrote letters seeking more information or submitting proofs (as he did to Longfellow), and drew handsome initial letters for each chapter. Moreover, he personally transformed most of his renderings into wood engravings. On the basis of sheer volume of work, it was a magnificent achievement.
The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution began appearing in July, 1850, in monthly “parts” (small paperback books) and continued until thirty were issued. Simultaneously, a large two-volume edition was prepared. Volume I appeared in 1851, carrying readers through the Boston trip. Volume II was ready a year later. The two totalled more than 1,450 pages and contained about 1,100 woodcuts.
The Field-Book sold well, and ultimately three editions appeared. Lossing was acclaimed wherever history buffs met, even though some of the nation’s small band of professional historians protested that his journalistic approach sacrificed academic standards on the altar of popularity. Lossing savored the accolades, welcomed the mass of correspondence coming into his Poughkeepsie parlors, and enjoyed a mounting interchange of ideas with historians all over the nation.
Requests for his services flowed in. Harper’s Magazine used his self-illustrated articles, covering a wide range of topics, nearly every month during the 1850’s and also employed him to illustrate contributions by others. The second Mrs. Lossing—his first wife died in 1855—accompanied her husband into the Adirondack wilds to do research for a series of articles that appeared in 1860 and 1861 in the London Art-Journal . These were later pulled together into one volume, The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea , published in 1866.