An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Benjamin Lincoln—Washington’s Second in Command?

Aug 2, 2020 by

Benjamin Lincoln Oil on canvas

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Professor Elder, the name Abraham Lincoln certainly stands out in American History. But Abraham Lincoln had an unrelated predecessor: Benjamin Lincoln, who had a major part in the American Revolution. Where was he born, and where did he go to school?

Although Abraham Lincoln appears to have not known much of his family’s history, genealogists proved able to trace his ancestry back to Samuel Lincoln, who arrived in Massachusetts in 1637. Interestingly, at the same time that Samuel Lincoln arrived in the Massachusetts community of Hingham, another family with that same last name also settled there. Thorough investigations have determined that this second family of Lincolns bore no relation to Samuel Lincoln. The latter set of Lincolns proved remarkably successful in Hingham, becoming one of the most financially prominent families in that community.

Indeed, because of the family’s stature, Benjamin Lincoln’s father (also named Benjamin) served on the Massachusetts Governor’ Council and held the rank of colonel in the colonial militia. Thus, when Benjamin Lincoln was born on January 24, 1733, he entered into a life of wealth and privilege. His family’s wealth allowed him to attend the local school, but although his family could obviously have afforded it, Lincoln chose not to attend college.

  1. What were some of his early military experiences like?

When hostilities between the French and the British escalated in the Ohio Territory in 1755, Benjamin Lincoln chose to become a part of the Massachusetts militia. Since his father commanded the 3rd Regiment, Benjamin Lincoln joined that unit, becoming his father’s adjutant. Although he personally did not participate in any military engagements during the French and Indian War, he obviously performed his other duties well, as he received promotions to the rank of captain and then major.

After hostilities ceased in 1763, Benjamin Lincoln remained active in the militia, and in 1772 he became the lieutenant colonel of his regiment. His military service seemed to have placed him in a position where he could participate as a combatant when Patriot resistance began in Massachusetts with the battles of Lexington and Concord, but as it turned out Lincoln’s aid to that cause came first in the political realm. Starting with his election as a selectman in Hingham in 1765, Lincoln had embarked on a career of holding successively higher offices in his community. This process culminated with his election to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1774.

Placed on committees that oversaw the militia in general and their supplies in particular, Lincoln proved able to help fill the needs of the force besieging the British in Boston after Lexington and Concord. Based on this service, Massachusetts gave him an appointment as a major general of militia in January of 1776. Given the responsibility of defending the coast of Massachusetts, Lincoln helped drive away the last British ships from Boston Harbor in May of that year. Having accomplished that task, Lincoln sought a commission in the Continental Army. While he waited for the appointment, Lincoln took a brigade of Massachusetts militiamen to aid George Washington in his defense of New York City.

Arriving after Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Long Island in August, Lincoln’s men joined the American force as it began its retreat from New York to Pennsylvania. Even though he had seen no combat while serving under Washington, he had made a favorable impression on the commanding general, who recommended that Congress give him a commission.

In February of 1777, Congress did so, appointing him as a major general. Washington then gave Lincoln command of a detachment guarding Bound Brook, New Jersey. His isolated position at Bound Brook proved a tempting target for the British, who attacked Lincoln there in April. Caught completely by surprise, Lincoln and his men beat a hasty retreat, with Lincoln leaving his personal papers and his baggage. Despite this defeat, Washington seems to have assigned no blame to Lincoln for the mishap, as he soon gave Lincoln an assignment of vital importance in New York.

  1. Benjamin Lincoln played an important role in campaigns that resulted in the capitulation of armies at Saratoga, Charleston, and Yorktown. Why were these events important?

When British General John Burgoyne led an army out of Canada with the goal of gaining control of the entire Hudson River valley, George Washington had responded by sending what troops he could spare to join the American force already in New York. Upon his arrival there, Lincoln received orders to use volunteer militia units from New England to prey upon Burgoyne’s lengthening supply line.

Lincoln did so, until receiving orders from General Horatio Gates to join him north of Saratoga. While he saw no action at the battles of Freeman’s Farm or Bemis Heights, Lincoln did deploy his troops under his command in a manner that effectively supported the portions of the army that did engage the British. When it became apparent that Burgoyne would undoubtedly attempt to retreat to Canada, Lincoln proposed that the force under his command should block a ford across the Hudson River. This prevented Burgoyne from effecting an escape, and forced him to surrender his army to Gates in October of 1777.

In 1778, Washington gave Lincoln command of American forces in the South. When French forces arrived to assist him in 1779, Lincoln moved south to try to recapture Savannah, Georgia. A lack of coordination between the French and Americans resulted in a repulse by the British defenders, and Lincoln then returned to Charleston, South Carolina. The following year, a British force launched a campaign to capture that city.

In 1776, American forces had successfully defended Charleston, but in 1780 the British proved able to besiege the city. Seeing no other viable course of action, Lincoln surrendered the city and all its defenders in May.

A court of inquiry found that Lincoln had done all that he could to defend the city, and therefore recommended that his face no disciplinary action for the loss. Held by the British as a prisoner of war until exchanged for an officer of equal rank captured at Saratoga, Lincoln rejoined the American Army in November of that year. Washington welcomed Lincoln back, and made him his second-in-command.

When Washington moved south in the fall of 1781 to trap the British at Yorktown, Virginia, Lincoln ably kept his soldiers disciplined on the line of march. Commanding a force augmented by thousands of French soldiers and aided by the timely arrival of a French fleet, Washington proved able to besiege a British army under the command of General Charles Cornwallis. Recognizing the futility of further resistance, the British surrendered on October 19. Mortified by this humiliating defeat, Cornwallis refused to participate in the formal surrender ceremony, sending his second-in-command instead.

When he realized this, Washington refused to accept the surrender, telling the British officer to surrender to his second-in command—Benjamin Lincoln. Lincoln thus found himself present at the surrender of three armies during the American Revolution. The British surrenders had momentous consequences.

Indeed, Burgoyne’s capitulation had convinced the French to aid the American cause, while the surrender at Yorktown ultimately proved decisive, as it eroded British civil support for the military campaign to subdue the Americans.

  1. Certainly many soldiers, including a number of Washington’s generals, were wounded during the American Revolution. But Benjamin Lincoln seemed to have suffered a particularly grievous wound. What happened?

As we have seen, Benjamin Lincoln did not see combat until the Battle of Bound Brook in April of 1777, but he fled the battlefield before British soldiers could close on him. His next encounter with the British came after the Battle of Bemis Heights, when he moved his force to block the ford across the Hudson. In the darkness, he and his men ran into a British force, and both sides opened fire.

One British bullet hit his right ankle, shattering the bone. By the time his wound healed, Lincoln’s right leg had shrunk two inches—exactly what had happened to Benedict Arnold after his leg wound suffered a few days before at the Battle of Bemis Heights.

  1. Did Benjamin Lincoln play any important roles in post-war America?

Even before the end of the American Revolution, Benjamin Lincoln had started a transition back into public life. After the Second Continental Congress had adopted the Declaration of Independence, it had begun deliberations on a blueprint for the government that would represent the United States.

This process resulted in the creation of The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. One provision of this document established a Department of War, and after The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union went into effect in 1781 Congress appointed Benjamin Lincoln as the first Secretary of War. In 1783, Lincoln left that position and returned to Massachusetts. Four years later, Lincoln found himself once again tasked with a military responsibility, but on this occasion he led troops against his fellow countrymen instead of commanding them.

This came about because of an incident known in American History as Shay’s Rebellion. Due to demands for payment of debts in hard cash by creditors in Massachusetts after the American Revolution instead of the paper money that circulated during the conflict, a number of farmers in the western part of that state refused to pay their creditors. This so alarmed wealthy residents of that state that they raised the money to field an armed force to suppress the rebellion. These financiers then prevailed upon Lincoln to lead the force. Lincoln proved successful in this endeavor.

For many individuals, involvement in an action against American citizens may have cost them political capital, but apparently not in Lincoln’s case. Proof of this lies in the fact that he ran after Shay’s Rebellion for the office of lieutenant governor, and won. After leaving office, he became the Collector for the Port of Boston. He would serve in that capacity until 1809, when he decided to return to private life.

  1. Where is he buried, and how is he currently acknowledged?

Unlike most of Washington’s generals, Benjamin Lincoln lived to a very old age by the standards of the times, finally passing away in May of 1810 at the age of 77. He was buried in the cemetery located at the Old Shipyard Church in Hingham. At the time an unremarkable structure, the Old Shipyard Church today has the distinction of serving as the oldest Puritan meetinghouse still standing. Incredibly, Lincoln’s house in Hingham still remains as well.

After his death, a number of communities, primarily in the South, named themselves after him. Finally, befitting the role that he played in the battle there, the US Coast Guard Training Center at Yorktown has a Lincoln Hall.

  1. What have I neglected to ask about this famous general?

A popular movie of the late 1990s was titled “Almost Famous.” This seems a fitting term to apply to Benjamin Lincoln. On paper, he seems to have played a significant role in the two surrenders of British armies during the American Revolution, as he served as the second-in-command on both occasions. He also had the unfortunate distinction of having to surrender the largest number of US soldiers in our nation’s history until the mass capitulation on the Bataan Peninsula in 1942. But perhaps because he played supervisory roles throughout the war, and largely failed when given command of forces in action, Lincoln has come down through history as merely one who was useful, rather than crucial to the eventual American triumph.

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