In nineteenth century America, the study and scholarship of history was often seen as an avocation; a subject reserved for the wealthy or members of the political and cultural elite. The United States was a young and growing nation, with not much history of its own. The great historians of the age studied the Greeks, the Romans, and the old kingdoms of France and Britain. Historians did not attempt to write long and comprehensive histories about the United States until the 1840’s, more than 75 years after the nation’s founding.
Benson Lossing was one of America’s first great historians. He was born in 1813 to a poor farmer in Beekman, New York. After losing his parents and attaining a limited public education, Lossing began an apprenticeship with a watchmaker in Poughkeepsie. There he would pick up the hobby that would direct his future and fame: a passion for history. After years of self-educating and immersing himself in history books, he took up a job as a joint editor and proprietor of the Poughkeepsie Telegraph and then became editor of the Poughkeepsie Casket. While at the Casket he began to learn another skill that would greatly influence his career: wood engraving.
In 1840 he published his first work, History of the Fine Arts. In this first endeavor, Lossing’s goal was to present the facts, figures, and descriptions of the fine arts in a convenient manner, a pattern that he would follow in all of his future works. Fine Arts is dotted with Lossing’s own illustrations, but unlike some of his greatest works, it is ‘only’ 329 pages long.
Lossing’s most famous work is his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, first serialized in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine beginning in 1850. Over the next three years, Lossing continued to write and travel, conducting research and drawing scenes from across the United States to illustrate this book. By the time it was published as a two-volume 1,500-page epic in 1852, Lossing had traversed some 8,000 miles across the nation. The work tells the story of the United States from the founding of the colonies through the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783.
What makes this work unique are its illustrations and stories. Lossing drew most of the illustrations in the book, either from descriptions, or from visiting the scenes and monuments in person during his years of travel. He also included scores of personal accounts from survivors and veterans of the Revolutionary War.
Lossing would produce two more war epics, a Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812 (1869), and a Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War (1866–1869). For these works he traveled over 10,000 miles to find monuments and scenes of the wars, and collect local stories from small towns and big cities. The War of 1812 volume was penned as a sequel to his earlier Revolution, while the Civil War was one of the earliest comprehensive accounts of that conflict. Like its predecessors, it incorporates new accounts never before published.
Lossing was the author and editor of more than forty works, some published posthumously. Some of his notable works include, Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence (1848), A History of England, Political, Military, And Social from the Earliest Times to the Present (1871), and Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History from 458 A.D to 1909, Based Upon the Plan of Benson John Lossing (1909). Lossing also served as the editor of American Historical Record and Repertory of Notes and Queries from 1872-1874, and an illustrator for Harper’s Magazine for twenty years.
From about 1870 and up to the start of the First World War, Lossing was one of America’s leading historians. His books on the Revolution and the War of 1812 were described by the New York Times as “two of the most popular historical works published in this country.” Benson Lossing used his talents as an author, illustrator, editor and publisher to bring the history of the United States to a very broad and popular readership, which helped influence the way American history was written and depicted. -AV
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Selected works of Benson Lossing available in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library:
History of the Fine Arts… http://bit.ly/187AYHO
Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence… http://bit.ly/1DB7QWC
Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution…http://bit.ly/1vP1VoR
Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812… http://bit.ly/1CTdNc7