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 Lahsing, who had been among the earliest settlers of the Hudson Valley. His mother 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, watchmaker and silversmith. By 1833, Lossing and Henderson 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, which Lossing helped illustrate with wood engravings.
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 1839-1841 and launched his literary career with the publication of his Outline of the History of Fine Arts. 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. 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. He was awarded an LL.D. by the University of Michigan in 1873.
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 Plains, 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).
Among the over 40 books Benson Lossing authored:
- Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence (1848)
- Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution (1850–52)
- The Two Spies: Nathan Hale & John Andre (1856)
- Life of Washington: A Biography Personal, Military, Political (1860)
- The Life and Times of Philip Schuyler (1860; revised, 1880)
- The Hudson from the Wilderness to the Sea (1866)
- Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War (1866–69)
- Vassar College and Its Founder (1867)
- Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812 (1868)
- Mount Vernon & Its Associations (1859) and other editions titled Mount Vernon, or the Home of Washington
- Washington and the American Republic (1870)
- Memoir of Lieut.Col.John T.Greble( Private Printing) (1870)
- A History of England, Political, Military, And Social from the Earliest Times (1871)
- Our Country: A Household History of the United States for all Readers, From the Discovery of America to the Present Time (1873)
- The American Centenary (1876)
- A Primary History of the United States for Schools and Families (ca 1877)
- History of American Industries & Arts (1878)
- Story of the United States Navy for Boys (1880)
- Cyclopœdia of United States History (1881)
- New history of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent to ... Inauguration of... Chester A. Arthur: For all Readers (1881)
- Biography of James Garfield (1882)
- Lossing's School History of the United States (1883)
- History of New York City (1884)
- Mary and Martha: The Mother and Wife of George Washington (1886)
- The Empire State, a Compendious History of the Commonwealth of New York (1888)
- Illustrated History of the United States
- Lives of the Signers
He co-authored, edited or collaborated in the following works:
- The Diary of George Washington, from 1789 to 1791 (1860)
- The Life and Times of George Washington
- The Achievements of Four Centuries... Our Great Continent... The Hemisphere of Republics (1890)
Published posthumously were:
- THE PROGRESS OF FOUR HUNDRED YEARS or The Great Republic of the West. Book of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 (1892).
- Harper's Encyclopedia of United States History from 458 A.D to 1909. Based Upon the Plan of Benson John Lossing (1909). This 10 volume set included contributions from Woodrow Wilson and Alfred Thayer Mahan.