- 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
His study became hopelessly cluttered, since Lossing saved everything—notebooks, originals of his sketches, the manuscripts of books and articles, proof sheets, thousands of letters, pamphlets, pictures, and scraps of paper filled with memoranda. But production never lapsed. By 1890 he had written and published more than forty historical and biographical books, plus hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. His own published illustrations ran well upwards of ten thousand pieces. Several of his later books were illustrated by his daughter Helen.
Life was pleasant, if not exciting. Friends might come to visit, or the Lossings might go to a statue unveiling or a cemetery dedication. One firm friend from Civil War days was General Lew Wallace, who called at The Ridge while he was writing Ben Hur to discuss historical backgrounds with Lossing. Honors came his way. Nothing pleased him more than the LL.D. bestowed on him by the University of Michigan in 1872.
Lossing died suddenly at The Ridge on June 3, 1891, after a one-day illness. Even as letters of condolence poured in, some contemporaries began to question his stature as a historian. His critics said that he had not weighed both sides of the Revolution; they forgot that British papers were not available when he made his travels in 1848. A few questioned the sheer volume of his writing, as if to suggest that a high output automatically made the work’s authenticity suspect. Some downgraded the soundness of Lossing’s research, obviously not aware of his painstaking correspondence with far-flung authorities that questioned even the slightest details before publication. If he had erred, it was not through negligence.
As for the interviews with Revolutionary veterans, whose testimony many claimed to be nothing more than hearsay or folklore, Lossing never saw them as either completely accurate or important in themselves. He carefully attributed his subjects’ utterances, and sometimes questioned their memories. It was interesting material, not necessarily vital—it was meant to lure readers into history.
Left behind in the old farmhouse when he died was an amazing mass of historical and personal materials. Mrs. Lossing died in 1911 and the three surviving children asked the Anderson Galleries in New York to catalogue the holdings and offer them for sale. A representative of the firm reported in astonishment that he found trunks filled with more than thirty thousand letters, many signed by leading figures of the nineteenth century. He came upon valuable pamphlets, maps, prints, manuscripts, and documents stuffed in cupboards. The original manuscripts of all Lossing’s books, plus his field sketches and hundreds of finished drawings, were on shelves or in boxes.
The first Lossing material went on sale in May, 1912, and there were more than a dozen auctions over a period of about eight years before the amazing collection was scattered. Fortunately, a great deal of the material was acquired by the Henry E. Huntington Library, including most of Lossing’s handwritten manuscripts, hundreds of letters, and several boxes filled with original drawings.
Regardless of how Benson J. Lossing is ranked as a historian, this much is certain: if he could have known in June, 1848, where those steps in Horse Neck, Connecticut, would lead, he would still unhesitatingly have reined his horse to a halt. For Lossing, eyewitnesses to history and their tales made life worth the living. And always, around any corner, there might be another who had seen history pass.