- 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
Meanwhile, Lossing knew that he could not wait until participants in the Civil War became old men. He would gather material as the war progressed and be ready as soon as peace came. President Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles gave him carte blanche through Union lines, and he bore letters of introduction to nearly every important Union officer.
Yet in the course of the war it was difficult to visit any theatre of battle. Lossing made only two major excursions during the fighting, both anticlimactic: he surveyed the Gettysburg battlefield a week after the struggle there; and, from the deck of a Union ship, he watched an abortive attack on Fort Fisher, North Carolina, in December, 1864.
In any case, George W. Childs of Philadelphia, Lossing’s new publisher, rushed Volume I of the Pictorial History of the Civil War (later renamed Pictorial Field-Book of the Civil War ) into print in 1866. Lossing tried to make up for having seen little of the action by extended postwar visits to the South, to gather enough data and illustrations for two more volumes.
Between March 27 and June 10, 1866, he went from Fort Fisher to Savannah, across Georgia to New Orleans, up the Mississippi to Vicksburg, and then back to Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Richmond, through the Virginia Peninsula, and into the Wilderness. It was a typical fast-moving Lossing dash, up at dawn and full speed all day. From the train window he saw ruined railway stations, twisted iron rails, and charred ties tracing General William T. Sherman’s march to the sea. Atlanta already showed “signs of resurrection,” although everywhere “rank vines were creeping over heaps of brick and stone.”
Steaming up the Alabama River to Selma, Lossing was assailed by “three or four young women” who “uttered many bitter words, in a high key, about the ‘Yankees’ … intended for our special hearing.” He rebuked their “ill breeding by kindness and courtesy,” and before the trip ended, the “estimate each had set upon the other” was changed for the better.
After struggling all day through the marshes near Shiloh, Lossing accepted an invitation from a widow to spend a night in one of her desolate cabins near the battlefield. She had lived on the edge of Shiloh during the battle in April, 1862. A shell went through her house but she, her consumptive husband, and their six children had all escaped injury. The traveller nailed his horse into a room in the log cabin that night, fearful that roaming bushwhackers might steal the animal.
Lossing travelled from Nashville down the Cumberland River early in May aboard a steamer loaded with two hundred discharged Negro soldiers. Frightened white passengers (“mostly Secessionists”) made plans, in case of a riot, to surrender the boat to the Negroes “on demand,” after rejecting a proposal to shower the troops with hot water from the boiler. Lossing said that the fears were ridiculous: he “never saw a more orderly and well-disposed company of men, just loosed from military discipline, than they.”
Time after time on this journey, Lossing met chaplains and soldiers assigned to bury the dead still on the fields, or to transfer bodies of fallen men who had been interred in hastily dug and poorly marked graves. This was the beginning of the national cemeteries throughout the South. He was moved by “the whitened bones” of many soldiers in shallow graves in the woods.
The historical research was prodigious. Quite aside from his travels, Lossing spent long weeks poring over both Confederate and Union records. He conscientiously interviewed participants and spectators from both sides. The completed Civil War history ran to three thick volumes, each averaging about 625 pages with about 400 illustrations. When Childs decided not to publish beyond the first book, volumes II and III were brought out in 1868 by Thomas Belknap of Hartford. For the first time, Lossing used the sketches of others to supplement the hundreds that he drew for the books. Much of his personal travel story appeared in footnotes describing his own sketches.
Lossing was now at his peak of popularity, busier and more in demand than ever. He maintained a great interest in his own Dutchess County in New York. In 1861 he had become one of the founding trustees of Vassar Female College, and he kept active in college affairs until his death. One of his more vehement correspondents was Mrs. Sarah Hale of Philadelphia, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book , who urged him to omit the word “female” from the college name. Her campaign succeeded. In 1866, Lossing asked his colleagues, “Who ever heard of a male college? . . . Why not Yale Male College or Harvard Male University?” The other trustees agreed; the offending word was dropped. A year later, the trustees wanted a history of Vassar College written, and assigned the honorary task to Lossing. He fitted the chore between hours spent on his Civil War study and produced a handsome book before the June commencement in 1867.
Lossing moved in 1869 to a 350-acre farm on a high hill near Dover Plains, about twenty miles east of Poughkeepsie. By 1872 his family of two sons and two daughters was complete. He attached a two-story library and study to the old frame farmhouse at The Ridge. There he started work long before breakfast, wrote or studied until lunch, then went back to work until late-afternoon tea.