Participant in the Three Major Surrenders of the Revolutionary War
Major General Benjamin Lincoln was present with Major General Gage when they accepted British General John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga – an event that historians agree tilted the scale for the Americans in their path towards independence. Lincoln was the commander of American forces at Charlestown when the largest American army of the war was surrendered to the British – a major set-back for the American cause. Lastly, at Yorktown, Lincoln accepted General Cornwallis’s surrender that sealed the Revolutionary War for the American cause.
Major General Benjamin Lincoln was not bred a soldier, and it is not likely that he would ever have attained any great distinction in arms, even if he had received a military education. His education never went beyond the public schools of a small town in Massachusetts, though he had a natural ability with words and proper grammar. His sole occupation, till he was more than forty years of age, was that of a farmer. Soon after he began his military career in the regular army, circumstances led to his appointment to one of the highest stations in the Continental army. This left him no opportunity to qualify himself for high command by long experience of the duties of a subaltern. He was made a major general before the ordinary rules of regular service would have permitted him to obtain a captaincy. He obtained this high rank before any remarkable achievement, any spectacular feat, either of valor or military skill, had shown his fitness for early promotion.
Whenever General Lincoln had the command of a separate body of troops, he was almost uniformly unfortunate, and his capitulation at Charleston was probably the severest injury suffered by the American cause throughout the war. Yet, after his lack-luster performance, of all the major generals, he was picked to lead the American element of the allied army that marched south to defeat British General Cornwallis at Yorktown. Historian Douglas Freeman, in his series on Washington, gives his summation of Lincoln’s military career: “Brilliant? No. A great strategist? No. An administrator of parts? Yes, and better than he was credited with. The word that best fitted him was solid.”
Benjamin Lincoln proved to be one of the most popular, useful, and highly trusted officers in the American Army. His good sense, firmness, discretion, indefatigable activity and perseverance, as well as devotion to the cause were beyond question. He enjoyed a firm command over the hearts and the confidence of his countrymen. These qualities which, in such a war as was fought in a land that pitted neighbor against neighbor, were worth more than the most brilliant achievements in the field. If it can be said that these are the merits of a civilian more than of a military commander, the answer is that they were the very qualities most needed for the success of an army of amateurs in a struggling new nation.
Benjamin Lincoln was born at Hingham, Massachusetts on January 24, 1733 and died on May 9, 1810. Benjamin was the eldest of six children of Colonel Benjamin Lincoln (1699-1771) and his second wife Elizabeth Thaxter Norton-Lincoln (1692-1762). Lincoln’s ancestors were among the earliest settlers in Hingham; Thomas Lincoln, a cooper (barrel maker), first appeared on the town records as early as 1636 when the region was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Benjamin’s father was among the wealthiest men in Suffolk County and served as a member of the governor’s council from 1753 until 1770, including many other civic posts until his death in 1771.
Benjamin married young, January 15, 1756, to his life long sweet-heart Mary Cushing Lincoln (1734-1816) and remained so for nearly fifty-five years until his death. They had eleven children, five sons and six daughters, two sons and two daughters did not survive childhood. All three sons went on to Harvard and three of his daughters lived long past Lincoln’s death. Benjamin followed his father’s footprints in civic duties and worked the family farm until the outbreak of war. He was chosen town clerk in 1757 and justice of the peace in 1762. Like his father, he was active in the militia, working his way up from adjunct of Suffolk County’s 3rd Regiment in July 1755, major in 1771, and a year later to Lt. Colonel in January of 1772. Lincoln was considered a man of sound principals, good discretion, and a devout patriot, therefore in 1772, as hostilities loomed, he was offered a membership in the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, of which he was secretary and served on its Committee of Correspondence. He was elected to the Second Provincial Congress which met at Cambridge on February 1775 and later that year, in May, he was made acting president of the Third Provincial Congress. He was active in organizing and training the Continental troops and was ultimately appointed Brigadier General of State Militia in February 1776.
American Revolutionary War
Lincoln was still a Lt. Colonel when he first met Washington in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 2, 1775. In May of 1776, after the British had evacuated Boston in March and most of the Continental Army had gone south to New York City, Lincoln was promoted to the rank of major general of militia. In August of 1776, Lincoln was in command of all Massachusetts troops around Boston. After the disastrous defeat on Long Island, Congress, upon Washington’s request, ordered one fifth of all Massachusetts militia to reinforce the Continental Army stationed in New York City. On September 12th, these troops marched south under the command of Lincoln. He became known to Washington at this time who saw that Lincoln was “an abler and more industrious man than his great bulk and his loose jowl would indicate.”
By mid September, the American Army was in a strong position on Harlem Heights. The British Army invaded at Kip’s Bay on the 15th and claimed New York City. In mid-October, British General Howe decided to circumvent Harlem Heights and sail a strong force up the East River and Long Island Sound to Westchester County where he hoped to hem in Washington’s army on Manhattan Island. Washington left a strong force at Fort Washington and along Harlem Heights and moved the bulk of his army towards White Plains to get in front of Howe’s advancing force. Four divisions moved north commanded by Heath, Lee, Sullivan, and Lincoln. By October 23rd, Washington was at White Plains and in front of the British forces; Lincoln was on the extreme right at Valentine Hill. On the 28th, the two armies clashed and Washington drew back to a strong defensive position. Howe decided to head south towards Fort Washington and Washington drew half his forces into New Jersey. Lincoln and General Heath remained north of Westchester, NY in the Highlands to block any British movement in that direction. Washington wrote Heath: “Whatever steps you take in this affair… I wish you would consult and cooperate with General Lincoln, of whose judgement and abilities I entertain a very high opinion.”
Lincoln remained in upper New York throughout the end of 1776. He commanded troops in Heath’s mismanaged diversion against Fort Independence, NY in January 1777. In early 1777, Washington wrote to Congress recommending a Continental Army post for Lincoln stating “[he is] an excellent officer, and worthy of your notice in the Continental Line.” Congress responded promptly and Lincoln was one of the five officers appointed Major General on the list of February 19, 1777. (The other four were Stirling, Stephen, St. Clair, and Mifflin). Lincoln moved from a late-blooming militia general, whose main assignment had been training state troops, to number sixteen on the list of Continental Major Generals. In late March of 1777, Lincoln was ordered, along with militia reinforcements, to join Washington at Morristown, New Jersey where the American army had wintered after their victories at Trenton and Princeton.
At Bound Brook, New Jersey, on April 13th, 1777, Lincoln’s advance detachment of 500 men was surprised by a force four times his number lead by Generals Cornwallis and Grant. Bound Brook was the furtherest American outpost to the British, who were stationed only three miles east at New Brunswick. Cornwallis forded the Raritan River and came within two hundred yards of Lincoln’s headquarters before Lincoln was able to escape. Lincoln extricated his command before they could be surrounded with the loss of three artillery pieces and approximately sixty men killed, wounded, or missing. The British burned some buildings and promptly left whereas Lincoln returned the next day with reinforcements. On the 24th of that month, his and Major General Stephen’s divisions were ordered south toward Delaware when Washington received word that the British were moving from New York City by water; most likely to attack Philadelphia. However, Washington was concerned about British General Burgoyne’s forces as they continued south from Canada towards the Hudson Valley. On July 24th, he ordered Lincoln to join Major General Philip Schuyler, commander of the northern army, and assume command of the New England militia forming east of the Hudson. Lincoln left camp immediately and joined the northern army five days later at Fort Miller on the 29th.
Schuyler was in retreat from fortifications along Lake George and decided to set up a defensive position around Saratoga. Lincoln was sent northeast to Manchester in the New Hampshire Grants (present Vermont) to organized and supply the militia that had been gathering there. He arrived on August 2nd and took command, except for the eight hundred men from the Grants commanded by General John Stark of New Hampshire. Stark told Lincoln that he did not recognize Congress’ authority to turn the command over to him. Lincoln fell back upon his strengths and masterly handled the situation. He humored Stark, corresponded with Governors of Councils of three nearby colonies, brought discipline to hastily levied troops, obtained supplies (esp. ammunition which was scarce), and kept an eye on the enemy’s continued advancement. As Burgoyne neared, Schuyler was about to order Lincoln’s forces to join him when he was relieved by Major General Horatio Gates. Gates thought differently and decided to keep Lincoln’s militia where they were for the time being. Burgoyne saw that many of the settlers east of him were abandoning their farms and he ordered a large detachment of Hessians under Colonel Baume and British,under Colonel Breyman, on a foraging raid. They were defeated by Lincoln’s and Stark’s combined effort in the Battle of Bennington and set the stage for Burgoyne’s ultimate defeat.
Lincoln’s forces continued to harass the British rear until Gates wrote to Lincoln on the 19th of September requesting that his forces were to march south and position themselves on the British left flank. The First Battle of Saratoga occurred the same day the order to Lincoln was penned.
The First Battle of Saratoga Springs was fought on September 19th in which neither force obtained ground and returned that evening to their camps. Three days later, 22nd, all of Lincoln’s troops arrived and took position. Lincoln commanded the American right consisting of Generals Nixon’s, Glover’s, and Patterson’s brigades. On October 7th, Burgoyne attempted to turn the rebel army’s left and was met with fierce determination from the Americans led by General Benedict Arnold. This Second Battle of Saratoga resulted in Burgoyne’s final defeat. During this attack, Lincoln had been ordered to remain on the American’s right defensive line and saw no action. However, the next day, leading a small force forward to take position in the rear of Burgoyne’s retreating army, he fell in with a party of British in thick woods and, as Lincoln later submitted in report, assumed they were Americans. He approached within a few yards before seeing his error. As he reared his horse and turned, he received a severe wound, splintering the bone in his right leg. He was able to avoid amputation and for the next ten months, he convalesced at Hingham, after which he was left permanently lame, the injured leg now two inches shorter than the other. He rejoined Washington’s army on August 6, 1778.
Soon after returning, he was embroiled in a controversy over seniority raised by General Arnold. He remained reserved throughout this affair, offering to relinquish his seniority, but was persuaded by fellow officers to allow Congress make their decision. Congress retained Lincoln’s seniority and on September 25th, appointed Lincoln commander of the Southern Department; a decision in which Washington was not consulted, but one he did not disapprove.
The situation in the south was serious and more a kin to Civil War with forces evenly divided between patriots and loyalists. It was thought by Congress that the skills needed in such a situation demanded one of great patience, fortitude, discretion, indefatigable in labor, and having administrative qualities of a governor rather than military talents of a general. Lincoln fit the bill perfectly. Congress was soon proved wrong as circumstances were already beyond administrative powers even before Lincoln arrived. Lincoln reached Charleston, South Carolina, on December 4th 1779, too late to help stop the British capture of Savannah, Georgia. The situation soon proved dire as one American army in the field was defeated with most of it’s forces captured, and one colony, Georgia, was completely lost to the British. Lincoln remained in Charlestown and immediately began increasing the size of his force and the amount of supplies he deemed necessary from local and neighboring colonies.
At first, Lincoln put a large portion of his command in the field to counter advances made by the British. It soon became apparent that he had not the men nor supplies to continue such an effort. He gave up all thought of a protracted offense and instead began to fall back on Charleston with the intent of mounting a strong defensive position. By the end of April, 1780, the American army was boxed in and all avenues leading to and from Charleston were cut off. On May 2nd, General Cornwallis began the siege of Charleston. Attempts by the Americans to disrupt the siege failed. On May 6th, Fort Moultrie surrendered and on May 8th, Cornwallis requested an immediate and unconditional surrender of all American forces within the city. Lincoln delayed, hoping to get better conditions, but failed in the attempt. On May 11th, the British fired red-hot shot into the city, burning several homes. Later that day, Lincoln petitioned for a parley to surrender. Terms for surrender remained the same and on May 12th, 1780, Lincoln led a ragged bunch of soldiers from the city. The entire American force became prisoners and Lincoln was paroled to his home in Massachusetts to wait exchange.
While returning home, Lincoln arrived in Philadelphia and requested the usual Court of inquiry. None was appointed and no charges were ever made against him for the surrender. He remained at home until November of 1780 when he was exchanged for Generals Phillips and Riedesel; the exchange had been approved on October 13th. That winter, he raised recruits and gathered supplies in his home state. The next summer, 1781, he commanded troops in the vicinity of New york City. Washington selected Lincoln to lead the American element of the allied army (France had a large army in the field lead by General Rochambeau) that marched south for the Yorktown Campaign. General McDougall had declined the first offer to lead the American contingency and Lincoln was next in seniority. The allied army left Newport, Rhode Island on August 19th and gathered additional forces as they headed south.
General Cornwallis, commander of the southern British forces, like Lincoln at Charlestown, was boxed in at Yorktown with the sea at his back. The siege by American and French forces began on September 28th, 1781. Conwallis’ only hope for escape was the arrival of the British fleet. When the British were defeated at sea by a substantial French force, it was only a matter of time before Cornwallis had no other resort but to surrender to the American and French forces. On the morning of October 17th, the British requested terms for surrender. The articles of recapitulation was signed on October 19th. Cornwallis had requested ‘Honors of War’ in which their forces would march out with shouldered arms, flags waving, and playing an American tune in honor to their captors. Washington, remembering Cornwallis’ harsh treatment that Lincoln’s troops received at Charlestown the year earlier, immediately declined. The British left their position with flags furled, their muskets turned upside down, and playing an English favorite ironically entitled, ‘The World Turned Upside Down.” During the surrender ceremonies, General Cornwallis claimed illness and sent his second, General Charles O’Hara, in his stead. Washington refused to accept the surrender from the British second and referred the surrender be made to his second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln.
That was the last action Lincoln was to command in the field. Shortly after the surrender by Cornwallis, he was made Secretary of War, a post he held for the next two years until the peace treaty was signed.
After the War
Lincoln returned to Hingham and resumed his life as a prosperous farmer. He was almost ruined by speculating in land in Maine. In January of 1787, he once more led an army in the field. Lincoln helped raise and fund a large militia force to deal with the Shay Rebellion, name for its leader Daniel Shay. These rebels were mostly war veterans who, since August of 1786, took over much of western Massachusetts in protest of their unfair treatment after the war; lack of pay, broken promises, and fraudulent speculation by wealthy investors that bought back government IOU’s for pennies, only to later cash them in at full value after Alexander Hamilton, treasurer, offered to pay full value. After what later became a famous all-night march through a fierce snow storm to surprise the rebels, February 2nd and 3rd, he captured 150 survivors of Shay’s band.
In 1788, he was a member of the convention to consider ratification of the federal Constitution and he worked effectively for its ratification. He became Lt. Governor of Massachusetts in 1788, but was defeated the following year. His appointment afterward as collector of the port of Boston helped him out of financial debt from his failed land speculations. In 1789 and 1793, he was a federal commissioner to negotiate boundary treaties with the Native Americans.
Lincoln received a Master of Arts degree from Harvard while recuperating from his wound in 1780. He later became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Massachusetts Historical Society. He became somewhat of an authority on the migration of fish and the soil and climate of Maine. On March 1, 1809, he retired from his post at Boston and died at Hingham on May 9th, 1810 leaving his wife Mary of nearly fifty-five years and six adult children.
Boatner, Mark Mayo. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. 1966: Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.
Bowen, Francis. Life of Benjamin Lincoln, Major General in the Army of the Revolution. 1847: Charles C. Little and James Brown Publishers, New York, NY.
Findagrave.com/General Benjamin Lincoln.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington, A Biography, Vol. 4. 1952: Charles Scribner & Sons, New York, NY.
Lossing, Benson. The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, Vols. 1 & 2. 1852: Harper Brothers, New York, NY
Sparks, Jared. The Library of American Biography Vol. 13, Lives of Daniel Boone and Benjamin Lincoln. 1847: Charles C. Lewis & James Brown Publishers, Boston, MA.