Benjamin Lincoln

People of the Revolution - Minuteman's General

Portrait of Benjamin Lincoln by Charles Willson Peale, circa 1784.


Of all George Washington’s Continental Army generals, few could organize or lead militia troops as well as Benjamin Lincoln. After years of serving in the Massachusetts militia, Benjamin Lincoln had become the “minuteman’s general.” He was born to Benjamin and Elizabeth Thaxter Norton Lincoln on January 24, 1733 in Hingham, a small town in Massachusetts just fourteen miles southeast of Boston. Benjamin’s father was a farmer and a brewer, and held many important public offices in Hingham. As a child, Benjamin learned to value order, tradition, and family above all other virtues. On January 15, 1756, he married Mary Cushing of Pembroke, Massachusetts. The couple had eleven children, including five daughters and six sons, the eldest named Benjamin. Three sons and a daughter died in early childhood.

Benjamin followed his father’s example, becoming a farmer, a brewer, and an active participant in public life. In 1755, Benjamin was appointed an adjutant in the county militia. He advanced up the ranks, becoming a major and then a Lieutenant Colonel in 1772. Benjamin also served as town clerk for Hingham, Justice of the Peace for Suffolk County, and as a selectman. During the later 1760s, he emerged as a leading patriot in Hingham. In March 1770, he drafted the town’s letter of support for the nonimportation agreement, and in 1772, represented Hingham in the colonial assembly. In January 1774, he became chairman of the Hingham committee of correspondence, and in September 1774, was elected again to the colonial assembly. After Governor Thomas Gage dissolved this legislature, the representatives reformed themselves as a rebel Provincial Congress. Benjamin became the new Provincial Congress’s secretary, and chairman of the committee on the militia.

Broadside from the Continental Congress referencing a letter by Benjamin Lincoln, published August 22, 1777.

In April 1775, after the fighting at Lexington and Concord, nearly 20,000 Massachusetts militia gathered on the outskirts of Boston. Benjamin realized that the Provincial Congress could not adequately control or supply the motley assortment of patriots, and suggested that the Continental Congress assume control over the army. The delegates in Philadelphia agreed, and appointed George Washington as the army’s commander-in-chief in June 1775. Benjamin labored in the Provincial Congress through 1775, raising over £8,000 worth of blankets, and outfitting ten privateers. By early 1776, the reorganization of the militia was complete, and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress appointed Benjamin a brigadier general of the Suffolk County militia. The legislature appointed James Warren, the brother of the influential Dr. Joseph Warren, as major general. When James Warren declined due to illness, Benjamin was appointed major general in his place.

The British left Boston on March 17, 1776, and Washington moved the Continental Army to New York City. Benjamin continued to command militia, but he wanted an appointment in the Continental Army. An opportunity arose when the British routed Washington’s army at Long Island in August 1776. To provide reinforcements, Massachusetts drafted a temporary force of 5,000 men to serve in the Continental Army. The Provincial Congress originally appointed James Warren to lead the force, but Warren once again declined due to illness. For the second time, the Provincial Congress turned to Benjamin. The Massachusetts force guarded Washington’s rear detachments during the army’s retreat from New York. Unfortunately, the temporary militia enlistments ended November 17, and despite Washington’s desperate situation, the Massachusetts militiamen went home when their enlistments expired. Washington was, however, impressed with Benjamin, and on February 19, 1777, gave him a command in the Continental Army as a major general. When British General John Burgoyne invaded New York from Canada in 1777, Washington placed Benjamin in command of militia under General Schuyler in New York.

Detail from “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis,” by John Trumbull, circa 1820.

Benjamin arrived in Manchester, [now in Vermont] on August 2, 1777. A few days later, New Hampshire militia under General John Stark arrived. After some initial disagreements over command, Stark and Benjamin agreed to use their troops to harass the British rear. In mid-August, Stark’s force routed a British force at Bennington, and by September 1777 the American forces under General Horatio Gates had grown to 7,000 with the addition of Benjamin’s militia. The remaining British forces amounted to only 6,000, and the situation steadily worsened for Burgoyne. Benjamin recruited more militia in the area later to become Vermont, swelling the American ranks to over 11,000 by October 1777. In the midst of his success, Benjamin had an ill-fated encounter with a British patrol. While returning from a meeting with Gates in early October, Benjamin stumbled on a British scouting party. The soldiers fired on him, and a musket ball shattered his left leg. Surgeons in Albany saved the leg, but Benjamin walked with a slight limp thereafter. He also missed the major military engagements at the Battle of Saratoga, but he had already helped to make that American victory possible through his recruitment of militia. Faced with overwhelming odds, Burgoyne surrendered to Major General Gates on October 17, 1777.

Benjamin returned to Hingham, where he spent the next ten months recuperating from his wound. After the Battle of Saratoga and the subsequent French entry into the war, the British shifted their campaign from the North to the southern theater. When Benjamin became fit for duty, Congress appointed him commander of the Southern Department. Benjamin reached Charleston, South Carolina to take command on December 4, 1778. A successful defense of Charleston became uncertain after French Admiral d’Estaing failed to clear the British from the Savannah River, and a joint French-American operation in September 1778 failed to retake Savannah, Georgia from the British. The situation became critical after the arrival of British General Clinton with 7,000 troops from New York. Benjamin wished to evacuate Charleston and contain the British on the coast by defending the backcountry. Charleston’s leaders insisted, however, that Benjamin instead make a stand. Cornered between the British fleet and British army, Benjamin was trapped in the British siege. The situation continued to deteriorate, and on May 12, 1780, Benjamin surrendered the city and more than 5,000 troops in one of the worst American defeats of the war.

After the surrender of Charleston, the British paroled Benjamin to Hingham, Massachusetts. He remained there until he was formally exchanged for British General Phillips. Benjamin spent most of 1780 recruiting troops in Massachusetts to serve in the Continental Army. In 1781 though, Washington joined with French General Rochambeau and French Admiral de Grasse to trap Lord Cornwallis’s army, now at Yorktown, Virginia. Washington chose Benjamin to lead the American forces south from New York to Yorktown. Following the Battle of Yorktown, Washington directed Lincoln to accept the sword of surrender from British General O’Hara. The moment must have filled Benjamin with a sense of revenge after suffering the humiliating defeat at Charleston.

After Yorktown, Congress appointed Benjamin as Secretary of War on December 30, 1781. He served effectively in that post for two years, but resigned in 1783 after the conclusion of the peace treaty. Benjamin returned to Hingham to live as a farmer, but was pressed into service by the Massachusetts government on January 1, 1787 to help put down. a rebellion of indebted farmers in western Massachusetts led by Daniel Shays. The legislature planned for a force of 5,000 men, but provided no funding. Benjamin himself raised $20,000 in Boston for the expedition, and marched to Worcester. He joined other Massachusetts militia at the Springfield arsenal on February 2, where he helped disperse most of the rebels. Benjamin then marched through snow to Petersham, where he captured the remains of Shays’s band. He urged the legislature to be lenient on the rebels, but his counsel was ignored.

In 1788, Benjamin attended the Massachusetts ratification convention as a pro-Constitution [Federalist] representative. He was elected Lieutenant Governor in the same year, though he lost the election in 1789. President Washington appointed Benjamin the Collector for the Port of Boston in 1789, a position he held until 1809. In 1789 he helped negotiate treaties with the Creek Indians, and in 1793, he helped negotiate treaties with the Indians of the Ohio River Valley. In his later life Benjamin was a stalwart member of the Federalist Party, although never an extremist, and on May 9, 1810, Lincoln died at the age of seventy-seven.

Primary Source Documents: Benjamin Lincoln

Letter of George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, December 18, 1776, ordering Lincoln to join Major General Heath at Peekskill, N.Y. (Taken from Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, volume 7, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 367-368.)

By a letter which I had this day the pleasure of receiving from the president of the Council of Massachusetts Bay, I find that that State had immediately upon my Application ordered a Reinforcement of about 6000 Militia to the Continental Army, and that they had appointed you to command. Give me leave Sir to assure you that this Appointment gives me the highest Satisfaction as the proofs you exhibited of your Zeal for the Service, in the preceding part of this Campaign convinces me, that the command could not have devolved upon a more deserving Officer. If the particular Circumstances of the Eastern Governments (who are threatned with an invasion themselves) should permit your proceeding on, you will join Genl Heath at peekskill [N.Y.] with all Expedition. I have given him directions how to dispose of your Men which is to endeavor if possible to cover and afford protection to the upper parts of the Jerseys, and to the province of New York below the Highlands.. But I have desired him to consult and Cooperate with you in Steps necessary to carry this or any other plan into Execution.

Letter of Benjamin Lincoln to George Washington, January 4, 1777, describing the condition of the militia at Peekskill, N.Y. (Taken from Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, volume 7, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 515-516.)

I just arrived here–Find only part of two Regiments of the militia, from Massachusetts–The badness of the roads hath much retarded the troops–I have left some of our best Officers, at different posts to forward them, and provide every necessary to facilitate their march. I flatter myself, from the provisions, that hath been made, and is now making, that the time will not be long, nor the period distant, when they shall rendezvous at your Excellencies Head Quarters “wherever they may be”; or at such other place, to which they may be ordered; nothing shall be neglected, in my power, this speedily to effect.

Soon after advice was forwarded to your Excellency by Mr Bowdoin, that the State of Massachusetts Bay had ordered out about six thousand of their militia, to reinforce the Continental Army, the General Court were informed by General Schuyler, that the time, for which the men, doing duty at Ticonderoga, engaged to serve, was near expiring; & that the forts there would, in all probability be left, in a short time, too defenceless unless they could be reinforced by the Militia; the consequence of which might be extremely injurious to the cause of America. He therefore urged Massachusetts to send to him at Albany, some of their militia, in the most pressing and energetic terms, in order that he might succour those forts. . .

Letter of George Washington to Major General Phillip Schuyler, July 24, 1777, during General Burgoyne’s campaign in upper New York. (Taken from John Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, volume 8, (Washington: United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission, 1933), 457, 459.)

. . . I am sorry to find that you have not yet been joined by a large number of Militia, and that it has been found necessary to dismiss a part even of those that have come to your Assistance, though their presence, is at this time so urgently wanted. I am in hopes, however, that your situation will soon be far more respectable . . .

I have directed General Lincoln to repair to you, as Speedily as the state of his health, which is not very perfect, will permit him. This Gentleman has always Supported the Character of a judicious, brave, active Officer, and as he is exceedingly popular and much respected in the State of Massachusetts, to which he belongs, he will have a degree of influence over the Militia, which cannot fail being very advantageous. I have destined him more particularly to the command of them, and I promise myself it will have a powerful tendency to make them turn out with more chearfulness, and to inspire them with perseverance to remain in the field, and fortitude and Spirit to do their duty while in it. The confidence they have in him will certainly go a great way towards producing these desireable ends. You intimate the propriety of having a body of men stationed somewhere about the Grants [Vermont]. The expediency of such a measure appears to me evident; for it would certainly make General Burgoyne very circumspect in his advances, if it did not totally prevent them. It would keep him in continual anxiety for his rear and oblige him to leave the posts behind him, much stronger than he would otherwise do, and wou’d answer many other valuable purposes. General Lincoln could not be more Serviceable than in the command of this body, and no person could be more proper for it than him.

Letter of Benjamin Lincoln to Major General Horatio Gates, September 14, 1777, on maneuvers during the Battle of Saratoga. (Taken from the Gates Papers, New York Historical Society; quoted in David Mattern, Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), 46.)

On being apprized of the weak state of Ft. Ticonderoga and the considerable number of prisoners there and the vessels at Lake George landing under very weak guard–plus a magazine of stores—and thinking that a movement that way is what [I] was sent here fore, (to divide and distract the enemy), [I] sent Col. Brown with 500 men to the Lake George landing to release the prisoners and destroy the stores–500 under Col. Johnson to Mt. Independence to divert the enemy, 500 under Col. Woodbridge to Skeensboro thence to Ft. Anne and then on to Ft. Edward. Hope these moves meet your Approval.

Letter of Benjamin Lincoln to Major General William Heath, March 9, 1799, describing his injury suffered at the Battle of Saratoga in 1778. (Taken from Frederick Allis, ed., The Benjamin Lincoln Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, microfilm edition, (Boston, 1968), reel 10.)

. . . I fell in with a body of the enemys troops in a thick wood detached as a cover to their right, while I was absent at head quarters. I entered an open cart path which led thro the wood and rode in it some distance and did not discover any troops untill I turned an angle in the road: when a body of men opened to my view. At first I could not distinguish them by their dress from our troops, two of them having on scarlet cloths others being dressed in blue the Hessian uniform and some being clad as our militia. A few of our men two or three in a company had British Uniforms, taken in a prize, and the other continental troops were in blue . . . In this state of uncertainty I continued my route until I was with in a few yards of that body so near as perfectly to discover my error–as soon as the enemy perceived this and that I was checking and spurring my Horse I saw the two in british uniforms present & fire. The ball from one of their pieces intered my right leg. On that the party opened a scattering fire upon me and kept it up untill I returned the angle mentioned.

Letter of Benjamin Lincoln to John Rutledge, February 14, 1780, describing Lincoln’s frustration over the siege of Charleston. (Taken from Benjamin Lincoln Letterbook, volume 2, Boston Public Library; quoted in David Mattern, Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), 92.)

I find myself in a peculiar and very critical situation from the novelty of having continental troops shut up in a besieged Town. To this no general officer, has during the war, submitted, but, under similar circumstances with ours, an attempt has been made to cover the country and leave the City to its fate. No consideration could induce me to adopt a new mode of conduct or would justify my doing it, but the hope I have of being supported by the people of the country, and this I ought to have the fullest assurance.

For Further Reading:

David Mattern, Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution (1995).

Rupert Furneaux, The Battle of Saratoga (1983).

Carl Borick, A Gallant Defense: The Siege of Charleston, 1780 (2003).

Image 01: Portrait of Benjamin Lincoln by Charles Willson Peale circa 1784.

Image 02: Broadside from the Continental Congress referencing a letter by Benjamin Lincoln, published 22 August 1777.

Image 03:  Detail from “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis” by John Trumbull circa 1820.


All images are public domain and all are available through Wikimedia Commons.