Benson John Lossing

Benson J. Lossing.

Benson John Lossing (February 12, 1813 – June 3, 1891) was a prolific and popular American historian, known best for his illustrated books on the American Revolution and American Civil War and features in Harper's Magazine. He was a charter trustee of Vassar College.


Lossing was born February 12, 1813 in Beekman, New York. His father was descended of old Dutch stock, originally surnamed Lassing or Lassingh, who had been among the earliest settlers of the Hudson Valley. His mother, Miriam Dorland Lossing was a Quaker. His formal education was curtailed when he was orphaned in 1824. Soon thereafter, he moved to Poughkeepsie to serve as apprentice to Adam Henderson, clock and watchmaker and silversmith. During his apprenticeship he read a number of history books, and over a period of several years pursued an independent study.[1] By 1833, Lossing and Henderson had formed a partnership.

Lossing married his first wife, Alice Barrit, in that year. In 1835, Lossing became part owner and editor of the Poughkeepsie Telegraph. Out of that publication grew a semi-monthly literary paper, the Poughkeepsie Casket. Lossing began to learn the art of wood engraving from J. A. Adams, illustrator for the paper.[1]

In 1838, Lossing moved to New York City seeking greater opportunity as a journalist and illustrator. He edited and illustrated J.S. Rothchild's weekly Family Magazine from 1839 to1841 and launched his literary career with the publication of his Outline of the History of Fine Arts.[1] In 1846, he joined William Barritt in a wood engraving business that became one of the largest of such firms in New York. His illustrations appeared in the New York Mirror and several other periodicals. During this time, Lossing sat for a portrait by Thomas Seir Cummings (1804–1894), now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Around 1848, Lossing conceived the idea of writing a narrative sketchbook on the American Revolution. The first installment was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1850; the completed Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution was published in 1853. To gather material for the work, Lossing traveled some 8,000 miles throughout the United States and Canada. As with his subsequent books, his pen and ink drawings served as the primary illustrations when turned into wood cuts. The book won him critical acclaim and general reputation. During and after the Civil War, Lossing toured the United States and the once Confederacy. On the basis of that research, he published a three-volume pictorial field book/history of the war, which is also presumed to be Mathew Brady's first collaboration in the use of his Civil War photographs as book illustrations. In 1860-1861, the London Art Journal featured a series of Lossing's articles describing the history and scenery of the Hudson Valley; the illustrated articles were published in 1866 under the title The Hudson: From the Wilderness to the Sea. Lossing was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1872.[2] He was awarded an LL.D. by the University of Michigan in 1873 adding to lesser degrees previously awarded him by Hamilton College and Columbia University. He also worked with engraver and book publisher George Edward Perine, most notably on his "History of New York City" (1884).

Lossing's first wife died in 1855 and on November 18, 1856, he married Helen Sweet. In 1868, the Lossings moved to a manor in Dover, New York, that Helen had inherited from her family; they called this The Ridge, but by later custom it has come to be known as Lossing Manor. There Benson had built a fireproof library to house his collection of over five thousand books and documents associated with the American Revolution and the framing of the Constitution. Lossing was actively involved in charitable, civic, literary, and historical societies, most notably serving as a charter trustee of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. He died at home on June 3, 1891. A written reminiscence of the Lossing family and life in 19th century New York was assembled by his son, Thomas Sweet Lossing; edited by his great-nephew, Peter Hannaford, it was published as My Heart Goes Home in 1997 (Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmanns, New York).


Lossing's significance as a historian derives from his diligence in seeking out primary records, his interviews with participants of events and intimates of his biographical subjects, and his care to weigh and contrast details of his various sources. Although such efforts are today a standard among historians, in Lossing's time they were not. Historiography was not yet a discipline. Washington Irving, with whom he corresponded, wrote, "I have been gratified at finding how scrupulously attentive you have been to accuracy to facts, which is so essential in writings of an historical nature." This made him an essential secondary source for contemporary and succeeding historians and enough of an institution for Theodore Roosevelt in his Naval War of 1812 to adduce simply "Lossing" in stating a fact, much in the same manner as historians use "Gibbon" or "Toynbee."


Portrait of Tecumseh by Benson John Lossing, after a pencil sketch by French trader Pierre Le Dru at Vincennes, published in Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812

Among the over 40 books Benson Lossing authored:

He co-authored, edited or collaborated in the following works:

Published posthumously were:



External links

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