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American Revolution: Major General Benjamin Lincoln

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American Revolution: Major General Benjamin Lincoln

Major General Benjamin Lincoln

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Benjamin Lincoln - Early Life:

Born at Hingham, MA on January 24, 1733, Benjamin Lincoln was the son of Colonel Benjamin Lincoln and Elizabeth Thaxter Lincoln. The sixth child and first son of the family, the younger Benjamin benefited from his father's prominent role in the colony. Working on the family's farm, he attended school locally. In 1754, Lincoln entered public service when he assumed the post of Hingham town constable. A year later, he joined the 3rd Regiment of the Suffolk County militia. His father's regiment, Lincoln served as adjutant during the French & Indian War. Though he did not see action in the conflict, he attained the rank of major by 1763. Elected a town selectman in 1765, Lincoln became increasingly critical of British policy towards the colonies.

Condemning the Boston Massacre in 1770, Lincoln also encouraged Hingham residents to boycott British goods. Two years later, he earned a promotion to lieutenant colonel in the regiment and won election to the Massachusetts legislature. In 1774, following the Boston Tea Party and passage of the Intolerable Acts, the situation in Massachusetts rapidly changed. That fall, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, who had been appointed governor by London, dissolved the colonial legislature. Not to be deterred, Lincoln and his fellow legislators reformed the body as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and continued meeting. In short order this body became the government for the entire colony except British-held Boston. Due to his militia experience, Lincoln oversaw committees on military organization and supply.

Benjamin Lincoln - The American Revolution Begins:

In April 1775, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the start of the American Revolution, Lincoln's role with the congress expanded as he assumed a position on its executive committee as well as its committee of safety. As the Siege of Boston commenced, he worked to direct supplies and food to the American lines outside the city. With the siege continuing, Lincoln received a promotion in January 1776 to major general in the Massachusetts militia. Following the British evacuation of Boston in March, he focused his attention on improving the colony's coastal defenses and later directed attacks against the remaining enemy warships in the harbor. Having achieved a degree of success in Massachusetts, Lincoln began pressing the colony's delegates to the Continental Congress for a suitable commission in the Continental Army. As he waited, he received a request to bring a brigade of militia south to assist General George Washington's army at New York.

Marching south in September, Lincoln's men reached southwest Connecticut when they received orders from Washington to mount a raid across Long Island Sound. As the American position in New York collapsed, new orders arrived directing Lincoln to join Washington's army as it retreated north. Helping to cover the American withdrawal, he was present at the Battle of White Plains on October 28. With the enlistments of his men expiring, Lincoln returned to Massachusetts later in the fall to aid in raising new units. Later marching south, he took part in operations in the Hudson Valley in January before finally receiving a commission in the Continental Army. Appointed a major general on February 14, 1777, Lincoln reported to Washington's winter quarters at Morristown, NJ.

Benjamin Lincoln - To the North:

Placed in command of the American outpost at Bound Brook, NJ, Lincoln came under attack by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis on April 13. Badly outnumbered and nearly surrounded, he successfully extricated the bulk of his command before retreating. In July, Washington dispatched Lincoln north to aid Major General Philip Schuyler in blocking an offensive south over Lake Champlain by Major General John Burgoyne. Tasked with organizing militia from New England, Lincoln operated from a base in southern in southern Vermont and began planning raids on the British supply lines around Fort Ticonderoga. As he worked to grow his forces, Lincoln clashed with Brigadier General John Stark who refused to subjugate his New Hampshire militia to Continental authority. Operating independently, Stark won a decisive victory over Hessian forces at the Battle of Bennington on August 16.

Benjamin Lincoln - Saratoga:

Having built a force of around 2,000 men, Lincoln began moving against Fort Ticonderoga in early September. Sending three 500-man detachments forward, his men attacked on September 19 and captured everything in the area except the fort itself. Lacking siege equipment, Lincoln's men withdrew after four days of harassing the garrison. As his men regrouped, orders arrived from Major General Horatio Gates, who had replaced Schuyler in mid-August, requesting that Lincoln bring his men to Bemis Heights. Arriving on September 29, Lincoln found that the first part of the Battle of Saratoga, the Battle of Freeman's Farm, had already been fought. In the wake of the engagement, Gates and his chief subordinate, Major General Benedict Arnold, fell out leading to the latter's dismissal. In reorganizing his command, Gates ultimately placed Lincoln in command of the army's right.

When the second phase of the battle, the Battle of Bemis Heights, began on October 7, Lincoln remained in command of the American defenses while other elements of the army advanced to meet the British. As the fighting intensified, he directed reinforcements forward. The following day, Lincoln led a reconnaissance force forward and was wounded when a musket ball shattered his right ankle. Taken south to Albany for treatment, he then returned to Hingham to recover. Out of action for ten months, Lincoln rejoined Washington's army in August 1778. During his convalescence, he had contemplated resigning over seniority issues but had been convinced to remain in the service. In September 1778, Congress appointed Lincoln to command the Southern Department replacing Major General Robert Howe.

Benjamin Lincoln - In the South:

Delayed in Philadelphia by Congress, Lincoln did not arrive at his new headquarters until December 4. As a result, he was unable to prevent the loss of Savannah later that month. Building his forces, Lincoln mounted a counter-offensive in Georgia in the spring of 1779 until a threat to Charleston, SC by Brigadier General Augustine Prevost forced him to fall back to defend the city. That fall, he utilized the new alliance with France to launch an attack against Savannah, GA. Partnering with French ships and troops under Vice Admiral Comte d'Estaing, the two men laid siege to the city on September 16. As the siege dragged on, d'Estaing became increasingly concerned about the threat posed to his ships by hurricane season and requested that the allied forces assault the British lines. Reliant on French support for continuing the siege, Lincoln had no choice but to agree.

Moving forward, American and French forces attacked on October 8 but were unable to break through the British defenses. Though Lincoln pressed to continue the siege, d'Estaing was unwilling to further risk his fleet. On October 18, the siege was abandoned and d'Estaing departed the area. With the French departure, Lincoln retreated back to Charleston with his army. Working to strengthen his position at Charleston, he came under attack in March 1780 when a British invasion force led by Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton landed. Forced into the city's defenses, Lincoln's men were soon besieged. With his situation rapidly worsening, Lincoln attempted to negotiate with Clinton in late April to evacuate the city. These efforts were rebuffed as were later attempts to negotiate a surrender. On March 12, with part of city burning and under pressure from civic leaders, Lincoln capitulated. Surrendering unconditionally, the Americans were not granted the traditional honors of war by Clinton. The defeat proved one of the worst of the conflict for the Continental Army and remains the US Army's third-largest surrender.

Benjamin Lincoln - Yorktown:

Paroled, Lincoln returned to his farm in Hingham to await his formal exchange. Though he requested a court of inquiry for his actions at Charleston, none was ever formed and no charges were brought against him for his conduct. In November 1780, Lincoln was exchanged for Major General William Phillips and Baron Friedrich von Riedesel who had been captured at Saratoga. Returning to duty, he spent the winter of 1780-1781 recruiting in New England before moving south to rejoin Washington's army outside New York. In August 1781, Lincoln marched south as Washington sought to trap Cornwallis' army at Yorktown, VA. Supported by French forces under Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau, the American army arrived at Yorktown on September 28.

Leading the army's 2nd Division, Lincoln's men took part in the resulting Battle of Yorktown. Besieging the British, the Franco-American army compelled Cornwallis to surrender on October 17. Meeting with Cornwallis at the nearby Moore House, Washington demanded the same harsh conditions that the British had required of Lincoln the year before at Charleston. At noon on October 19 the French and American armies lined up to await the British surrender. Two hours later the British marched out with flags furled and their bands playing "The World Turned Upside Down." Claiming he was ill, Cornwallis sent Brigadier General Charles O'Hara in his stead. Approaching the allied leadership, O'Hara attempted to surrender to Rochambeau but was told by the Frenchman to approach the Americans. As Cornwallis was not present, Washington directed O'Hara to surrender to Lincoln, who was now serving as his second-in-command.

Benjamin Lincoln - Later Life

At the end of October 1781, Lincoln was appointed Secretary of War by Congress. He remained in this post until the formal end of hostilities two years later. Resuming his life in Massachusetts, he began speculating on land in Maine as well as negotiated treaties with the area's Native Americans. In January 1787, Governor James Bowdoin asked Lincoln to lead a privately-funded army to put down Shay's Rebellion in the central and western parts of the state. Accepting, he marched through the rebelling areas and put and end to large-scale organized resistance. Later that year, Lincoln ran and won the post of lieutenant governor. Serving one term under Governor John Hancock, he remained active in politics and participated in the Massachusetts convention that ratified the US Constitution. Lincoln later accepted the position of collector for the Port of Boston. Retiring in 1809, he died at Hingham on May 9, 1810 and was buried in the town's cemetery.

Selected Sources

  • History of War: Benjamin Lincoln
  • Patriot Resource: Benjamin Lincoln
  • Massachusetts Historical Society: Benjamin Lincoln

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