LINCOLN, BENJAMIN. (1733–1810). Continental Army general. Massachusetts. Born at Hingham, Massachusetts, on 24 January 1733, Benjamin Lincoln came from a long-established (since 1632) and locally distinguished family. His father was a maltster, farmer, representative to the General Court, and militia colonel. Although he had only a common school education, he learned to write well; his wartime dispatches showed a good command of the written word. He was chosen town clerk in 1757, justice of the peace in 1762, and became a moderately prosperous farmer. He was appointed adjutant of his father's Suffolk county militia regiment in July 1755, major in 1763, and lieutenant colonel in January 1772. Believing that British policies threatened the "peace, liberty, and safety" of the colonies, he became a strong supporter of "the present struggle against Great Britain" (as quoted by Paul D. Nelson in his article on Lincoln in American National Biography, 1999). He served in the General Court (1772–1774), on the Hingham committee of correspondence, and in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress (1774–1775), where he made an important contribution in helping to reorganize the militia and purge Loyalist officers. He marched with his regiment of minutemen on 19 April 1775 but arrived after the fighting had ended.
Lincoln's career during the first year and a half of the war differed from that of other Continental Army general officers in that he devoted his service to his province, not the continent. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress appointed him muster master of its forces on 4 May 1775 and elected him its acting president for the last week of its session in July 1775. But when he met Washington at Cambridge on 3 July 1775, Lincoln's military rank was only that of lieutenant colonel of militia. For the next eighteen months he remained a state militia officer, rising to brigadier general on 8 February 1776 and to major general on 8 May 1776. On 2 August 1776 he was given command of Massachusetts troops around Boston, and in September he commanded the militia regiments detached to reinforce the defenses of New York City. He fought ably in command of the American right wing in the battle of White Plains on 28 October, which did much to secure Washington's friendship and good opinion of his abilities. In a letter to Congress on 22 January 1777, Washington recommended him as "an excellent officer, and worthy of your notice in the Continental Line." Congress reacted promptly and appointed Lincoln one of five major generals on 19 February 1777, leapfrogging this late-blooming militia general, whose main assignment had been training state troops, over several Continental Army brigadier generals; one of them was Benedict Arnold, who complained until Congress eventually restored his seniority over Lincoln.
As a militia general Lincoln had commanded troops in William Heath's mismanaged diversion against Fort Independence, New York, 17-18 January 1777. Soon thereafter he joined Washington at Morristown with militia reinforcements. At Bound Brook, New Jersey, on 13 April 1777 his advance detachment was surprised by the enemy; he barely escaped capture but managed to extricate his command without serious loss. When Washington saw that the British were probably moving from New York by water to attack Philadelphia, he ordered Lincoln's and Adam Stephen's division to march south toward the Delaware (24 April). But Washington also had to watch the progress of Burgoyne's invasion, and on 24 July he ordered Lincoln to join Philip Schuyler's Northern army and assume command of the New England militia forming east of the Hudson. This mission presented Lincoln with a real test when he arrived to find the militia being commanded by John Stark, who refused to recognize the authority of Congress. Lincoln handled the situation with great tact and helped to get Stark into a position where he could effectively oppose the Bennington raid of August 1777. After directing the fruitful raid on Fort Ticonderoga, which disrupted Burgoyne's supply lines, Lincoln moved his militia to reinforce Gates in the defensive position on Bemis Heights. All his troops arrived by 29 September, although too late for the first Battle of Saratoga (19 September). During the second Battle of Saratoga, 7 October, Lincoln commanded the right wing of the American defenses and saw no action. Leading a small force forward the next day, he received a severe wound in his right ankle from which he never completely recovered. He spent the next ten months convalescing at Hingham.
Rejoining Washington in August 1778, he offered to resign during the controversy Arnold had created over promotions but was prevailed on to remain in the service. On 25 September Congress appointed him commander of the Southern Department, a decision on which Washington was not consulted but of which he approved. Detained ten days in Philadelphia by Congress, he reached Charleston on 4 December 1778, too late to play any part in preventing the British capture of Savannah on 29 December. (His subsequent actions in Georgia and South Carolina are covered in the entry on the Southern Theater.)
He was paroled after surrendering Charleston on 12 May 1780, but his arrival in Philadelphia was delayed for various reasons until July. He asked for a court of inquiry, but none was appointed and no charges were brought against him. Back on the farm at Hingham, Lincoln waited until November to be exchanged for British major general William Phillips, captured at Saratoga in October 1777. That winter Lincoln raised recruits and gathered supplies in his home state, and received an honorary master of arts degree from Harvard College. He spent the next summer in command of troops in the vicinity of New York City. Because of Lincoln's seniority Washington picked him to lead the American element of the allied army that marched south for the Yorktown campaign. Lincoln commanded the American right wing at the siege of Yorktown and presided over the surrender of Charles Cornwallis on 20 October 1781; Washington accorded him that honor as his senior major general, not to compensate for his surrender at Charleston.
Hoping to take advantage of his administrative abilities, Congress appointed him secretary of war on 30 October 1781, a post he held for two years until the peace treaty was signed. In a resolution of 29 October 1783, Congress told him that it entertained "a high sense of his perseverance, fortitude, activity, fidelity, and capacity in the execution of the office of secretary of war, which important trust he has discharged to their entire satisfaction." Historians have echoed that judgment. He was also elected the first president of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, a post he held until his death.
He returned to Hingham and almost ruined himself by speculating in land in Maine. In January 1787 he was appointed to lead militia troops against Shays's Rebellion. He defeated the insurgents in battle at Springfield on 27 January, and after a famous night march (2-3 February) captured at Petersham the 150 survivors of Shays's band, whom he then treated with moderation and compassion. He subsequently headed a commission that traveled through western Massachusetts listening to citizen complaints, a demonstration of conciliation that did much to tamp the fires of insurgency. In 1788 he served in the convention to ratify the federal Constitution and worked effectively to achieve that end. That same year he was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, but he lost a reelection bid in 1789. His appointment as collector of the port of Boston in 1789 helped him out of straitened circumstances; he held the post until his political foes forced him to resign on 1 March 1809. He was a federal commissioner to negotiate boundary treaties with the Creek Indians in 1789 and with Indians in the Ohio Valley in 1793. As a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Massachusetts Historical Society, he wrote papers on such diverse topics as the migration of fish, the soil and climate of Maine, and "The Religious State of the Eastern Counties." He died at Hingham, in the house in which he had been born, on 9 May 1810. Lincoln's papers are held by the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.
SEE ALSO Arnold, Benedict; Bennington Raid; Bound Brook, New Jersey; Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1780; Fort Independence Fiasco, New York; Saratoga, Second Battle of; Southern Theater, Military Operations in; Ticonderoga Raid; White Plains, New York.
Abbot, W. W., ed. The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series. Vol. 8: June 1767–December 1771. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983–1995.
Shipton, Clifford K. "Benjamin Lincoln: Old Reliable." In George Washington's Generals. Edited by George A. Billias. New York: Morrow, 1964.
Szatmary, David P. Shays's Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Taylor, Robert J. Western Massachusetts in the Revolution. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1954.
Ward, Harry M. The Department of War, 1781–1795. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962.
revised by Harold E. Selesky
Benjamin Lincoln (1733-1810), American soldier, was a loyal but undistinguished general who participated in many of the great battles of the Revolution.
Benjamin Lincoln was born on Jan. 24, 1733, in Hingham, Mass., where, after "a good common education," he became a farmer, as his father was. He also eventually succeeded his father as town clerk and commander of the local militia regiment. As the Revolutionary crisis deepened, Lincoln joined the town's committee of safety, served in the Massachusetts provincial congresses, and, after Lexington and Concord, saw extensive militia duty alongside George Washington's Continentals. The commander in chief informed the Continental Congress that Lincoln was "well worthy of Notice in the Military Line."
In February 1777 Congress appointed Lincoln a major general in the regular service. He was a popular man, loved by his troops for his thoughtfulness and integrity, but his talents as a tactician and strategist were minimal.
Because of Lincoln's appeal among his fellow New Englanders, Washington sent him to rally the militia of the region against British general John Burgoyne, who, in 1777, was driving down from Canada in hopes of splitting the American states in two. Lincoln dispatched columns that cut the enemy's supply line to Canada and then joined Gen. Horatio Gates's Northern Army in time to participate in the defeat of Burgoyne near Saratoga, N.Y.
Lincoln's only major independent command was in the South, where between 1778 and 1780 he sought to check British efforts to regain the area. With a limited war chest and inadequate support from the states, Lincoln did reasonably well. However, he bowed to pressures from local politicians and decided to withstand a siege of Charleston by Sir Henry Clinton's formidable royal army. Soon surrounded and low on supplies, he surrendered the city on May 12, 1780, and over 5,000 men—the largest single American loss of the war.
Lincoln was to gain his revenge; Washington gave him the honor of receiving the British capitulation at Yorktown in 1781. For the next 2 years Lincoln held the post of secretary of war in the government formed under the Articles of Confederation. Lincoln donned his uniform once more to put down Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts. Following the adoption of the Constitution, President Washington appointed him collector of the Port of Boston and twice called upon him to carry on negotiations with the Indian tribes. Lincoln died in the house of his birth on May 9, 1810.
A biography of Lincoln, now da ted and based on little research, is Francis Bowen, The Life of Benjamin Lincoln (1847). The best scholarly analysis of Lincoln's contribution to the Revolution is Clifford K. Shipton's "Benjamin Lincoln: Old Reliable" in George A. Billias, ed., George Washington's Generals (1964).