- 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
Nobody would list Benson J. Lossing among the important American historians. But he has an unassailable place among the most useful servants of our historical studies. When he set out on the laborious travels that resulted in the publication of the two large volumes of the Pictorial Field-Book of the American Revolution , he had two motives, one patriotic and the other historical. He had noted with regret how little Americans knew about the struggles and sacrifices that had given them place as an independent nation. Citizens of Boston knew nothing of Kings Mountain in South Carolina, where the Tory forces met defeat; citizens of North Carolina and Georgia knew little about the battlefields of Massachusetts and New York. Lossing roamed for more than 8,000 miles through the thirteen original states, traversing rough mountains, deep pine forests, plantation country, and prairies, seeking out every patriot shrine, evading no labor, spending without stint from his slender savings. He made a record of unmatchable scope and variety. He made the most veracious sketch we possess of Fort Herkimer, at Herkimer, New York, and of the mansion of Governor John Hancock on Beacon Hill in Boston. He talked with veterans everywhere, gathering many a personal reminiscence of value. His volumes, with 1,100 wood engravings of his own drawings of scenes, personages, and relics of the Revolution, admirably supplemented his careful narrative. Without extreme hyperbole, the editor of this magazine remarked recently: “He was a one-man A MERICAN H ERITAGE .” Lossing lived to issue a useful Field-Book of the War of 1812 and three volumes on the history of the Civil War. He was one of the first men to grasp the benefits of marrying fresh and authentic historical illustrations to a scholarly text. It is with good reason that the Huntington Library and other great repositories have collected and preserved them for research. The Huntington has by tar the largest body of Lossing materials. Among them are 1,000 of his original drawings and water colors on which the engravings in his books were based; some of the best of these are reproduced—for the first time, so far as is known—with this article. In sum, the Lossing papers constitute an enduring memorial to one of the most laborious and self-sacrificing writers upon our past. But his career is too little known today—an oversight that this essay should do much to remedy.
IN JUNE, 1848, Benson J. Lossing of Poughkeepsie, New York, stopped his horse near Greenwich, Connecticut, to look at curious bramble-entwined steps cut into a hillside at a place known locally as Horse Neck. Nearby, a white-haired man leaned on a garden gate. Lossing asked him about the steps. “Short cut to the church up there,” the old man replied, pointing to a steeple atop the hill. And then, abruptly, he began to relate a famous incident of the American Revolution, when General Israel Putnam had ridden madly down that hill to escape the British.
Advancing redcoats had surprised Putnam on the morning of March 26, 1779, while he was shaving in the nearby home of Ebenerer Mead of the local militia. Putnam dropped his razor, and with lather foaming on his cheeks, dashed outside to rally a defense. His soldiers held briefly near the church before fleeing, every man for himself. Putnam desperately spurred his horse down the steep slope, past the steps where a militiaman crouched.
“I heard Old Put cursing the British between his teeth!” the old man exclaimed.
“Tell me, please, who I am talking to,” Lossing asked with growing excitement.
“They call me General Mead,” the old man replied. A shiver went through Lossing: General Ebenezer Mead of the Connecticut militia, Putnam’s host and admirer, alive and on the spot where he had seen history pass!
As he drove rapidly home to Poughkeepsie, Lossing reasoned that if there was a clearheaded General Mead still alive in Horse Neck, Connecticut, there had to be his counterparts elsewhere—in Saratoga, in Boston, in the Carolinas and Virginia. He would find them, sketch them, write their tales!
Lossing already had modest writing and illustrating credits. In Poughkeepsie he had been active as a journalist, and his pedantic Outline History of the Fine Arts , published in 1840, plus a series of thin illustrated paperbacks, Seventeen Hundred and Seventy-Six , had earned some literary attention. His major talent was as an artist, and he was well known in New York as the senior partner of the firm of Lossing and Barritt, one of the city’s pioneer wood-engraving companies when it was founded in 1843.
He took pride in his knowledge of history, all of it learned in spare hours between his daily work as a wood engraver and his nighttime writing efforts. But in contrast to his own intense interest, he felt that most leaders found history dull.
The chance meeting with General Mead kept Lossing awake that night, drawing rough sketches and laying out a different kind of history book. He planned a series of trips to the principal areas of the Revolution, seeking the “animate and inanimate relics of the war, both of which were fading away.” Interspersed with a narrative describing Revolutionary War events, he would mix eyewitness tales of survivors and an account of his own travels. Lossing hoped that “a record of the pilgrimage, interwoven with that of the facts of past history” would appeal to many “who could not be otherwise decoyed into the apparently arid and flowerless domains of mere history.”
The very next day he took the idea and the sketches to Harper and Brothers in New York. Harper’s agreed to underwrite his expenses and to publish his book. Thus, within twenty-four hours, if Lossing did not romanticize in his later memory, his notable Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution was conceived.
Leaving his partner in charge of their engraving business, Lossing left New York for Albany on July 24, 1848, for his first field trip—to Saratoga and Ticonderoga, into Canada as far as Quebec, and thence southwestward into upper New York state. With him went “a young lady, my traveling companion”—very probably his wife, Alice, since there is no evidence that he was given to philandering. At any rate, he allowed little time for romance. He set a gruelling pace, early to bed and early to rise, with no time for casual sight-seeing or rest. He believed in concentrated effort, and at the age of thirty-five he had the stamina to make fourteen- to sixteen-hour workdays possible.
Aboard the steamboat to Albany with Lossing was a “remnant of a regiment of Volunteers returning home, weary and spirit-broken, from the battlefields of Mexico.” Busy Albany welcomed the heroes with booming cannon and blaring bands, but Lossing was eager to get on with another, older war.
At the Waterford ferry, north of Albany, “a funny little water-man, full of wine and wit, or something stronger and coarser, offered to row us across in his rickety skiff. I demanded the price for ferriage. ‘Five thousand dollars,’ hiccoughed the Charon. I did not object to the price, but, valuing safety at a higher figure, sought the owner of a pretty craft nearby.” Lossing gave the ferryman a “brief temperance lecture,” and in return was consigned “to the safekeeping of him whom the old painters limned with a hoof and a horn, a beak and a scorpion tail.”
Near Saratoga, the historian met his first eyewitness of that famous Revolutionary War encounter. She was “Mrs. J——n,” ninety-two years old, with “soft blue eye” and a “memory remarkably tenacious.” When General John Burgoyne’s army rampaged down their valley in October, 1777, Mrs. J——n and her parents hid in a nearby swamp, fearful that Indians or Tories might murder them. Her young fiancé was off with the Americans preparing to intercept Burgoyne.
When the family returned home, Mrs. J——n told Lossing, all was desolation. “Our crops and our cattle, our sheep, hogs, and horses, were all gone … yet we … thanked God sincerely that our house and barns were not destroyed.” She eventually married her young soldier, but now had long been widowed and living on a pension. With quivering lip, she told her visitor that “the government has been very kind to me in my poverty and old age.”
A few days later, Lossing encountered Isaac Rice, a ragged veteran who had no cause for joy over his treatment by his country. Rice appeared unexpectedly amid the rubble of Fort Ticonderoga, just as Lossing was about to hire a professional guide to take him through “the gray old ruins.” The aged soldier said that as a lad he had done garrison duty in Ticonderoga under Major General Arthur St. Clair and “was in the field at Saratoga” in June, 1777. Now he was eighty-five years old, with his pension cut off by bureaucratic red tape. Lossing sketched the old man braced against a crumbling wall. Later the artist returned to sketch the fort at sunset. A soft footstep startled him; it was Rice, back to sit in the fort as he always did on pleasant nights. The old soldier showed Lossing a room in the ruins where he hoped to clear away the rubbish so that next year he could sell cakes, beer, and fruit to visitors. He spoke “with a low voice, as if afraid some rival might hear his business plans.” All he needed, Rice said, was eight dollars.
Saratoga and Ticonderoga solidified the pattern for the entire Field-Book . Lossing conscientiously tramped across the battlefield and through the fort, measuring distances and calculating the effect of terrain on troop movements. Few historians have related geography to history better than he. Although lie was only an amateur cartographer, his meticulous maps were a major contribution to the historical annals of the day.
Lossing sketched constantly, paying close attention to details of architecture and location of buildings. He jotted marginal notes on shadings, foliage, and other factors that would help him make woodcuts for the book. His drawings were handsome, accurate renderings of just what he saw—rain pelting down on a scene; even a bull that chased him from the battlefield at Bennington.
Lossing went overland through lower Canada to sketch the fort at Chambly, where General Richard Montgomery had subdued the British garrison in October, 1775, before the subsequent successful siege of St. Johns. Someone directed Lossing to a remarkable man named François Yest, who lived nearby.
Yest, born in Quebec in 1752, claimed to have witnessed two wars: he had, he said, seen both Wolfe’s storming of Quebec in 1759 and Montgomery’s capture of Fort Chambly in 1775. He had farmed the same ground near Chambly since 1777. Lossing sketched him. “When I presented him with a silver coin, he laughed like a pleased childࢭ; but when someone offered Yest a glass of brandy, the old man became angry. He had signed a temperance pledge a year before and planned to keep it the rest of his life, after ninety-five years of nonabstinence. “For that,” wrote Lossing, “I pressed the hard hand of François Yest with a firmer grasp when I bade him adieu.”
Lossing visited Quebec to sketch scenes of the desperate and unsuccessful siege of the city by Montgomery and Benedict Arnold in the late months of 1775. He then headed west on the St. Lawrence River to Niagara Falls. Niagara had few Revolutionary associations, but Lossing sketched the Suspension Bridge, still unfinished in 1848, and rode the bobbing little tourist craft Maid of the Mist in the turbulence directly below the falls. A week before, a young couple had been married on the boat. “What an altar before which to make nuptial vows!” Lossing noted.
Near Canajoharie in New York’s Mohawk Valley, Lossing met seventy-nine-year-old Jacob Dievendorff, who had been eleven years old when nearly five hundred Indians and a few Tories sacked his village on July 9, 1781. An Indian felled Jacob with a tomahawk, sliced the scalp off the back of his head, and taking the grisly trophy, left the boy for dead.
Dievendorff had survived to become a wealthy landholder. He sat on a half-bushel basket in his barn while Lossing sketched him from the front to show what appeared to be a full head of hair. Dievendorff then turned to reveal horrible scars where the scalp had been cut sixty-eight years before. The visitor sketched that view, too.
Lossing was back in New York City by September 1. Already he had hundreds of sketches and enough data to fill three hundred book pages with maps, illustrations, travel stories, historical narrative, and a blend of folklore and curious factual detail. His work was by no means merely a matter of finding survivors; at every stop he had consulted or borrowed materials, particularly letters, original documents, and diaries.
A brief September interlude took Lossing to Morristown and Springfield in New Jersey, then as far as Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. At Morristown, he passed an evening with lively, eighty-three-year-old Gabriel Ford, son of the widow who had owned the mansion where Washington and his staff passed the dreadfully cold winter of 1779–80. Mrs. Ford and her four young children had retained two rooms for themselves. Gabriel was fourteen at the time.
Ford entertained Lossing “until a late hour.” He told of Washington’s constant solicitude for Mrs. Ford and her family; if alarms sounded in Morristown, “he always went to her room, drew the curtains close, and soothed her by assurances of safety.” When the General left the mansion in the spring, he asked Mrs. Ford whether everything had been returned to her. “All but one silver table-spoon,” she replied. Soon after, a messenger brought a silver spoon with the initials G. W.
Washington told young Ford the countersign each evening, so that he could play in the village after the guards were posted. One night as he returned at about nine o’clock, the boy saw Colonel Alexander Hamilton stopped by the guard. The Colonel had been visiting Miss Betsy Schuyler, who spent that winter in Morristown and later became Mrs. Hamilton. “Thoughts of her undoubtedly expelled the countersign from his head,” said Ford. The guard knew Hamilton well, but refused to admit him without the proper word. The Colonel stood in embarrassment, then spotted young Gabriel and said in a whisper: “Master Ford, is that you? … Give me the countersign.” The boy complied and Hamilton passed it on to the guard, who reluctantly let the Colonel pass.
After Morristown, Lossing stopped at Springfield, site of spirited military action in June, 1780. The oldest inhabitant was Gilbert Edwards, a “half grown boy” when American troops fought the British there on June 23. Edwards did not purport to be a hero. Rather, he had shown good Yankee shrewdness: he sold apples to the militiamen headed east to fight the invaders.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.