When studying the American Revolution, there are several books that provide an overview of the events and people of that epic period in American history. A reader can choose from a popular history such as Bruce Lancaster’s “From Lexington to Liberty” or a deep study that provides an abundance of facts and background information such as Christopher Ward’s “The War of the Revolution.” Unique among these great histories of the conflict is that written by a 19th Century wood engraver, Benson Lossing.
Born and raised on a farm in New York, Lossing had a limited formal education. He learned wood engraving and later the skills of a silversmith when apprenticed to a watchmaker. Choosing to change his career, he learned different publishing skills while working at newspapers and magazines, in various roles as writer, illustrator, publisher and editor.
Traveling in the early 1840s, Lossing became concerned with the relative apathy of the nation in remembrance of the Revolution and lack of conservation of the structures, land, and monuments of the conflict. In his archaic prose he lamented the loss of the original sites associated with the Revolution: “For years a strong desire was felt to embalm those precious things of our cherished household, that they might be preserved for the admiration and reverence of remote posterity.”[i] In 1848, Lossing decided to write a history of the American Revolution from the novel perspective of a traveler visiting the scenes of the various events. He traveled over 8,000 miles throughout Canada and the United States visiting nearly every site of importance, and many relatively unknown sites, associated with the Revolution.
Titled The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution, Lossing’s work is not only a recollection of the Revolution but also the history of each place he visits. He begins his epic work with a brief history of the arrival of the first Europeans and the beginnings of their colonies. After the short introduction to the colonial period, he launches into his tour, heading off into upstate New York. As he travels through each state, he gives the background of that state and its role in the Revolution.
A personable and inquisitive man, Lossing finds an individual in nearly every town or community who has recollections of the war with Britain, people ninety-five, eighty-six or even in excess of one hundred years old. He recounts their stories in context to the historical events. There is no bibliography and his footnotes are explanatory rather than a list of sources. There is a detailed tabled of contents and an interesting topical index at the top of each page, both typical of 19th century literature. Lossing’s interviews of participants from the Revolution serve as primary sources, just as his observations serve as a primary source for nineteenth century life for modern historians.
He often repeats myths and legends but labels them as such. He gives us his version of the Molly Pitcher and Jane McCrea stories. Like a novelist, he uses inflammatory, exciting language to portray events such as a raid led by Tory Governor Tryon on a Connecticut town: “Throughout the remainder of the day and night the soldiery committed many excesses and crimes, plundering deserted houses, ravishing unprotected women, and murdering several citizens…”[ii]
The experience of being a fine wood engraver enabled Lossing to make hundreds of detailed illustrations for his text, some from drawings he made while visiting various towns and cities or from life of the people he met. The various engravings of battlefields and towns he provides are of scenes long since lost as the encroachment of modern urban areas and suburbs have erased the 18th Century landscape. He also made engravings from original paintings of contemporary artists such as Trumball or Peale.
Lossing intertwines the history of the areas he visits with his search for Revolutionary War stories. While visiting Connecticut to chronicle battles such as that around Danbury, he throws in the tale of the three judges who fled from England after condemning Charles I to death and settling in New Haven. Anecdotes of French and Indian War encounters or the first colonists of Canada enrich the tales of the Revolution and provide background to the contemporary locations. He details which buildings remain from the colonial period, complaining of the changes brought by progress and the poor stewardship of those original sites.
An important part of Lossing’s tour through America is the wonderful portrait he paints of the people and places of the United States in the mid-1800s as he travels. The buildings and streets that he describes when telling about the post-Revolutionary construction give a valuable look at towns and cities of antebellum America. His use of early railroads, canal boats, coaches and other contemporary transportation allow a glimpse of a slower, less advanced time. His worries about changes in technology sound familiar to us. He complains about a train ride near Albany: “Sweeping down the valley at the rate of twenty miles an hour… the traveler has very little opportunity to estimate the character of the region through which he is passing.”[iii] Ominously, his dark portrayal of the transition as he travels from the bustling, energetic country north of the Mason-Dixon line into the slow, primitive culture of the South sheds a light on the deep sectional differences caused by the blight of slavery.
The people he meets are as diverse as any in the pages of a novel, interesting but often faceless and nameless. The young couple he meets on the canal boat, the tinker whose wagon he shares, and the “negroes” who help pull his wagon in Virginia were typical of the people he met throughout his journey. Short vignettes about local luminaries and heroes are sprinkled through the text. Among them were not only veterans of the Revolution but also the War of 1812 and even a soldier recently returned from the War with Mexico. Among the notables he meets with are Alexander Hamilton’s widow, former president John Tyler, and sitting president James Polk.
The writing is often tedious and pedantic in the flowery and descriptive style typical of the times. Like Ward, Lossing needed a large number of pages to tell the story of the Revolution. His original work was published in a series in 1850 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. First printed in book form in 1853, it encompassed about 1,500 pages in two volumes.
The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution was not Lossing’s only historical volume. He published similar guides for the War of 1812 and the Civil War, the latter one of the first works to include Matthew Brady photographs. He wrote over forty books on the Founding Era and various periods of American history, all improved by his multiple engravings. Lossing writes from a unique point of view, neither first person nor modern, throwing in a touch of Antebellum history, and it’s not a book that can be taken to the beach for the weekend. Lossing’s Field-Book of the American Revolution requires a great deal of time and patience, but it is worth it.