- 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 Hudson is one of Lossing’s most charming books. He and his wife had followed Indian guides over rocky, unmarked trails to reach the spot where the river rises, then traced the Hudson’s course to New York City. Lossing worked strictly as a journalist, interviewing natives, collecting facts, and weaving the whole into a readable text illustrated with his art.
Lossing had ended his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution by promising that “should time deal gently with us, we may again go out with staff and scrip together upon the great highway of our country’s progress, to note the march of events there.” His hope to do for the War of 1812 what he had done for the Revolution was delayed by an intensive schedule that did not permit much travel until 1860. Then he was off, his expenses again underwritten by Harper’s.
He wrote about this war chronologically rather than as a series of trips to important sites. This technique probably made the work more acceptable to scholars, but although well written the book lacked the vigor and flavor of the Field-Book of the Revolution. No personal experiences were related until page 195; there the Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812 picked up pace, for Lossing was a lively reporter.
He was in Indianapolis on September 28, 1860, a day when “Judge Douglas, one of the candidates for the Presidency” was to speak at a county fair. Before noon, more than twenty thousand people were jammed into that growing frontier city. Lossing saw Douglas, but, once more marching to the beat of an earlier drum, passed up a chance to hear him speak and took the midday train to Terre Haute. (Safely aboard, he found that his pocket had been picked by an Indianapolis sharpster.)
In the course of ten thousand miles of travel, Lossing met veterans who had served under William Henry Harrison at Tippecanoe and old sailors who had trod the decks of ships under Oliver Hazard Perry. He had dinner with three hundred War of 1812 veterans in Cleveland on September 10, 1860, when a statue of Perry was dedicated. Lossing figured that the aggregate age of the veterans was “about 20,000 years.” The oldest was Abraham Chase, a ninety-year-old Negro. Two of the veterans were “only fifty-seven”; they had been “boys in the service.”
Lossing crisscrossed the region near the Great Lakes and travelled up and down the East Coast. In Bangor, Maine, he talked with Henry Van Meter, “a remarkable black man, then ninety-five years of age.” Van Meter had been a slave of Virginia’s Governor Nelson during the Revolution and said he had seen George Washington many times. After the Revolution the slave escaped to freedom and served as a sailor aboard the privateer Lawrence in 1814.
Lossing had one last trip to make: the book could not be complete without a visit to New Orleans. Despite a warning letter from “a distinguished South Carolina author to defer my visit,” Lossing travelled west in the first week of April, 1861, through burntout Harpers Ferry and thence south through Kentucky to the lower Mississippi.
General H. W. Palfrey, who had been a participant in the Battle of New Orleans in 1814, promised to lead him over the battleground on April 12. That day the telegraph carried news of the attack on Fort Sumter, and Palfrey pleaded that he was “too busy with public matters.” Lossing went on his own, aware that as his research on one war was ending, another war was beginning. As he toured the grounds he heard the firing of victory cannon in New Orleans and remarked to his driver, “Fort Sumter is doubtless gone.” He returned to a joyous city “alive with excitement” and pleased to be at war.
Out on the streets, troops drilled in their distinctive corps garb, many of them in the Zouave uniforms that were also popular with Northern units. Citizens wore “secession rosettes,” and small Confederate flags fluttered from most windows. Enthusiasm diminished, however, on April 15, when bulletin boards carried the news that President Lincoln had called for seventy-five thousand soldiers. In the face of that, people “turned thoughtful.” Lossing commented: “… war would ruin the business of New Orleans.” As he left the city on April 17, he saw Negroes “quietly at work in the fields, planting cotton, little dreaming of their redemption from Slavery being so nigh.” He was deluding himself that this would be a short struggle.
Passing through one Confederate stronghold after another, Lossing heard dire rumors: that Massachusetts troops had been attacked and routed in Baltimore, that Harpers Ferry had been occupied by Secessionists, that General Winfield Scott had “resigned his commission and offered his services to Virginia—and that President Lincoln was about to follow his example.” Cut off from the Union side of the news, the historian was alarmed.
He felt immense relief when he crossed the Ohio River to Cincinnati. There were American flags flying everywhere, and young men crowded the railroad cars on their way to camp. From the car windows he could see soldiers drilling in the moonlight. Pittsburgh was “more noisy with the drum than with the tilt-hammer.” Philadelphia was “gay and brilliant with the ensigns of war.” New York was “a vast military camp.” Lossing’s fears were far behind him.
The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812 had to be set aside when interest at Harper’s lessened because of the Civil War. Eventually Lossing finished the 400,000 words of text and prepared 882 illustrations; Harper’s published it in 1868.