Lincoln, Benjamin, American Revolutionary General, 1733-1810

Road to Rebellion
Early Fighting
The South
Lincoln takes Command
Secretary at War
The Pay Crisis
Post War Service
Shays’ Rebellion
The Constitution
Indian Diplomacy
Final Years


One of the senior American commanders during the American War of Independence (1775-1782), Lincoln was born in 1733 in the puritan town of Hingham, Massachusetts. Lincoln’s great-great-grandfather Thomas had been amongst the original settlers of the town in the 1630s and the family became one of the pillars of the local community. Lincoln’s father, another Benjamin, held just about every major post in the town, including the king’s commission as colonel of the Suffolk militia. His father’s opinions were to remain important to Lincoln across his career. From his father and his local community he gained a strong sense of hierarchy and obedience as well as to give the public good priority over his own ambitions.

Lincoln spent his early life working on the family farm. He attended the local school, and in later life did feel his lack of further education. For the moment it did not hold him back. His father’s wealth allowed him to accept responsibilities at an earlier age than most of his contemporaries. At 21 he became town constable, a combination of policeman and tax-collector. The next year he gained his first military experience as adjutant in his father’s regiment. In 1756, aged only 24, Lincoln married Mary Cushing, with whom he was to have eleven children. In 1757, he succeeded his father as town clerk, an important role he was to hold for twenty years. This post helped make him one of the town’s leaders aged only twenty-five.

The outbreak of the Seven Years War saw Lincoln gain his first military experience. However, as an established farmer and family man, he did not volunteer to take part in the fighting, but was instead involved in recruitment, training and supplying his father’s regiment, the Third Suffolk. By the end of the war, he had reached the rank of Major, a clear sign of his organisational ability, which was later to come to the fore.

Road to Rebellion

The immediate aftermath of the Seven Years War saw the beginnings of the protests that would eventually lead to revolution. The Stamp Act of 1765 brought tensions already present between the American colonists and the British into the open. Lincoln’s father was still on the Governor’s Council, where he was a political moderate and disliked the new radical atmosphere. His position on the Council became increasingly difficult as Massachusetts polarised. Hingham’s politics were in step with the increasingly revolutionary tone of the state, but remained more moderate than the radical Bostonians. Lincoln remained in the background while his father was still active, but after his father retired from the Council in 1769 Lincoln was free to follow his own more radical inclinations. As town clerk he played a key role in formulating town policy, drafting the town’s letters to their representatives.

Lincoln’s father died in 1771, leaving Lincoln the head of his family and increasing his prominence in Hingham. The following year saw him elected as Hingham’s representative to the General Court, and also appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Suffolk Regiment. By this point it is clear that Lincoln, like many others, believed that the British government wanted to suppress American liberty. As the final split approached, Lincoln was elected chairman of the Hingham committee of correspondence, the group responsible for answering the many letters being issued by the various factions.

Lincoln came to a wider prominence towards the end of 1774. The new governor, General Thomas Gage, ordered the election of a new General Court. Lincoln was elected to the court in September 1774. However, Gage quickly dissolved it when it became clear that it was not going to cooperate with him. Rather than return home, the members of the General Court declared themselves a Provincial Congress. Lincoln was appointed secretary of the congress, as well as becoming a member of the permanent standing committee and the various committees dedicated to the militia. This new Congress met three times over the next nine months, dedicating itself amongst other things to gathering military supplies and finding safe places to store the arms. Amongst them was a small town called Concord.

Early Fighting

Lincoln wasn't directly involved in the fighting at Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775. In the immediate aftermath, the local militia regiments rushed towards Boston. The Provincial Congress also reacted quickly, reconvening on 22 April. Once again Lincoln was appointed to a key post as muster master of militia, and as a member of the Committees of Safety, Supply and Governmental Organization. Finally in June 1775 he served as acting President of the Provincial Congress, before in July 1775 it was replaced by a new elected House of Representatives. Lincoln was also elected to this House, and on 28 July was appointed to the twenty-eight member executive council. Lincoln had gained these high offices as a member of the local oligarchy that ruled much of Massachusetts. From now on, he would have to justify his position through his actions.

During the second half of 1775 Lincoln’s roles remained largely organisational and political. He played a part in supplying gunpowder and blankets to the army besieging Boston, as well as helping to fit out ten privateers. It was only at the start of 1776 that his military role began in earnest. On 30 January he was appointed brigadier general for Suffolk county, but the next month was promoted to major general when one of the original three appointees declined the post. He now resigned his last posts in Hingham, and moved entirely onto the state stage.

The month after Lincoln stepped on the state stage in Massachusetts, the focus of the war moved away. On 17 March 1776 the British evacuated Boston, and retreated to Halifax, Nova Scotia to decide what to do next. The focus of the war was now to move permanently away to the west and south as the British concentrated on New York, the Hudson River and the South. However, in Massachusetts many, including Lincoln, were convinced that the British would soon return to their state to take revenge. Washington disagreed, convinced that the British would instead attack New York, and moved the main Continental Army south to defend the city. The defence of Massachusetts was left in the hands the local militia, supported by a small force of Continentals under General Artemas Ward.

Despite their retreat from Boston, the British still maintained a naval presence in the outer harbour. Lincoln put together a plan to force the British out of their anchorages, and was given permission to use the militia to put his plan into action. On the night of 13 June, Lincoln and a force of militia men erected gun batteries on Long Island, Peddocks Island and Nantasket Head, all in the outer harbour. The following day the British ships still remaining in Boston harbour were forced to sail away.

Lincoln’s performance now saw him seen as a potential replacement for the unfit Artemis Ward as commander of the Continental troops left in Massachusetts. Although Ward decided to stay on, Lincoln was still interested in joining the Continental army, where the issue at stake was sure to be resolved. Once again, Lincoln was to get his wish due to the unwillingness of another. In September, Massachusetts decided to send 5000 men on temporary secondment to Washington outside New York, and after the original choice of commander refused the command, Lincoln was selected to replace him.

Lincoln reached his new command, at their muster point in Connecticut, on 28 September, expecting to march them with all possible speed to join with Washington. For two weeks, the Massachusetts force remaining in Connecticut as part of an abortive plan for a raid on Long Island. Finally, in mid-October, with the American armies around New York in disarray, Washington called for Lincoln’s troops.

Lincoln’s troop arrived in time for the White Plains campaign. His division formed part of the rear-guard as Washington withdrew into a new defensive position, before withdrawing to join the main American line. On 28 October, the British attacked this line (battle of White Plains), forcing the Americans into another retreat. After a brief period of respite, Washington was soon to be forced into his retreat across New Jersey that eventually led to Princeton and Trenton, but Lincoln was not to take part in this. In mid-November his men were due to be discharged, and despite the best efforts of Washington and Lincoln to persuade some to stay, the Massachusetts division marched home.

Lincoln returned with them, some of his faith in the militia system destroyed. Soon after his return to Massachusetts he was appointed to command the new recruits intended for the Continental army. Still a militia officer, he and his men took part in an abortive expedition against New York in January 1777. Despite the failure of this venture, during which Lincoln only had a secondary command, Washington held a high opinion of him, and recommended him to Congress as a potential Continental officer. In February 1777, Congress followed Washington’s advice and appointed Lincoln a major general in the Continental army.

His first command as a Continental officer came at the end of February, when he was appointed to command a force of over 1,000 men at Bound Brook, New Jersey, only three miles from the British lines, and guarding one mountain pass through the Wachtung Mountains. Once again, the militia left him in the lurch. Despite increasing British activity, the Massachusetts militia once again left, one week after their period of enlistment ended on 15 March. Lincoln was now left with only 500 men. Plans had to be put in place for an instant retreat if the British attacked in force. Sure enough, such an attack was soon to come. On Sunday 13 April, 4000 British troops commanded, somewhat ironically, by Lord Cornwallis, launched a raid on Bound Brook. Lincoln managed to organize a rapid repeat under fire, but still suffered 60 casualties, as well as the loss of three artillery pieces and Lincoln’s papers. The British force withdrew on the same day, and Lincoln spend the night back in his original quarters, but the message of American vulnerability was clear. While his colleagues felt Lincoln was clear of any blame, he seems to have been less happy with his conduct and determined to make good his reputation. His chance was not to come in New Jersey, but instead in the north. On 23 July, the main British army sailed from New York on the way to conquer Philadelphia. Washington immediately acted to reinforce the campaign against Burgoyne’s invasion from Canada. Amongst the moves he made was the appointment of Lincoln to command the New England militia, upon whom the entire campaign might hinge.

Command of the campaign was held by General Philip Schuyler. He has slowly retreated before the British advance, a policy that was slowly weakening Burgoyne’s army. However, after his surrender of Ticonderoga, formerly the bastion of American defence against the French in Canada, Schuyler’s actions became increasing unpopular in New England. By the time of Lincoln’s arrival, the New England militia were not longer obeying Schuyler’s orders. Desertion was rife, while new militia forces were failing to arrive. Washington’s hope was that Lincoln’s reputation as an ex-militia commander was sufficient to restore the morale of the New England militia.

Lincoln joined his new command on 2 August at Manchester (modern Vermont). His orders from Schuyler were to move north towards Skenesborough if it could be done “without risking too much". Lincoln intended to harass the British rear, and threaten his links with Canada. On his arrival, Lincoln found only five hundred men, although 2000 more were expected. While he was waiting for their arrival, the British reached the Hudson river, eight miles south of Skenesborough. Schuyler now changed his plans, ordering Lincoln to bring the militia to his aid.

This order caused Lincoln two problems. First, he was convinced that the correct use for his militiamen was to harass the British rear, now very vulnerable. Second, his reinforcements – The New Hampshire militia commanded by General John Stark – had arrived on 7 August, but Stark made it clear that he would not serve with the continental army. Lincoln rode to Stillwater, where he was able to persuade Schuyler to revert to their original plan. The wisdom of this plan was made clear even before the new orders reached Stark. On 16 August Stark’s men had defeated a British force at Bennington, substantially weakening Burgoyne’s force and denying them vital supplies.

By the time Lincoln met with Schuyler, Schuyler knew that he had been replaced. On 10 August news had reached him of his replacement by General Horatio Gates, who had long campaigned for the northern command. On 18 August Gates reached the army, and on 20 August Lincoln once again put forward his plan to strike at the British rear. Gates agreed to the plan, but Lincoln was now frustrated by the slow arrival of the militia. He was not ready to move until 12 September. On the following day, Burgoyne crossed the Hudson, cutting himself off from his own supply lines and making Lincoln’s expedition largely irrelevant. Even so, his forces gained a series of successes against the isolated British bases left behind by Burgoyne.

Despite these successes, the main battle was being fought by Gates. The first battle of Saratoga (19 September) had frustrated a British attempt to break through the American lines. Lincoln was ordered back to the main army, arriving on 22 September, just in time to replace Benedict Arnold as commander of the American right. Despite this, Lincoln did not play a major part in the second battle of Saratoga (7 October), where Arnold once again distinguished himself.

Lincoln's chance came later that day. He was ordered to make a night reconnaissance of the British camp, and reported that the British appeared to be preparing to retreat. The next day he was ordered to advance and test the British nerve. As expected, the British abandoned their position and let Lincoln’s men occupy their old line. Lincoln now suggested that the British might be about to re-cross the Hudson River, and was ordered to occupy a ford at Fort Edward. Unluckily for Lincoln, he ran into a force of British soldiers, and was shot in the leg.

Despite his wound he was able to escape back to the American lines, from where he was evacuated to Albany. At first it looked like he would lose his leg, but by 19 October he had recovered enough to be sure that he would recover fully. Despite missing the final British surrender, Lincoln’s role was fully appreciated, along with that of Gates and Arnold. His leg slowly recovered, although it was to be years before it fully recovered. Only at the end of February was he fit to travel, reaching Boston on the 23rd.

During his recovery he became involved in a brief struggle over rank. Benedict Arnold, who had earlier been passed over for promotion, was now restored to what he, with some justification, felt to be his proper seniority. He now outranked Lincoln, who felt personally snubbed and came close to threatening to resign over the issue. Washington played his part in defusing the situation, sending a gift of “Epaulets and sword knott" as a sign of his personal regard for Lincoln.

Lincoln’s wound combined with his wife suffering from Smallpox kept him away from the army for ten months. He rejoined the main army outside White Plains on 6 August 1778. For a period he was to command one division of the Continental Army pinning the British down in New York. However, his main occupation after his return to the army was to preside over the courts-martial of St. Clair and Schuyler – St. Clair for the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga, Schuyler for his actions when faced with Burgoyne. Both men were acquitted, but neither men gained another senior command. The decisions they had made were generally accepted in military circles to have been correct, but the political uproar had forced their trials. The implications of this came to haunt Lincoln a few years later at Charleston.

The South

Up until this point, the south had not been a significant theatre of war. A British attack had failed in 1776, and the experiment was not to be repeated until the end of 1778. In the meantime, the American position in the south had still managed to fall apart. The commander in the south, General Robert Howe, was in conflict with both the local civil authorities and their military counterparts. Lincoln’s appointment owed a lot to the circumstances of the moment – most of the other potential commanders were out of favour – but more to his own reputation as a tactful commander, who had managed to avoid making any enemies amongst his fellow generals.

Lincoln takes Command

Lincoln received his command on 3 October 1778. The early stages of his journey south were relatively leisurely. He reached Philadelphia in mid-October, and stayed there until the 24th learning about his new command. He finally reached Charleston, his new headquarters, on 4 December. On his arrival, he discovered that the situation in his new department was worse than he had been led to expect. The supply situation was dire, there was no money to purchase supplies, and the local authorities demanded control over the armies movements before they would supply funds. North Carolina had agreed begrudgingly to provide 1,000 militia, but no more, and they were only due to serve for four months, while Virginia, who had promised to send 3,000 men, withdrawn their promise because the Virginians did not believe that the threat to South Carolina was real.


The British threat to the south was very real. After defeat at Saratoga, it was clear that a new plan was needed, and this time the British focus was on the south. Just as Canada provided British bases in the north, Florida and the West Indies provided British bases in the south. The entry of the French into the war also helped shift the focus south, towards the remaining French possessions in the area. Lincoln arrived to news of a British raid from Florida. A small force from the British garrison at St. Augustine under General Augustine Prevost launched a raid on the port of Sunbury, returning to Florida with much booty. This raid simplified Lincoln’s options by removing the prospect of an invasion of East Florida, but it was to demonstrate the weakness and division of the southern states.

Lincoln decided to respond to Prevost by launching a counterattack using the Continental troops already in Georgia, supported by the North Carolina militia. A successful American campaign in Georgia would help protect South Carolina against attack, and so Lincoln confidently approached President Lowndes of South Carolina to ask for supplies for the expedition. Much to his shock, Lowndes refused to release the supplies on the grounds that they had been purchased to defend South Carolina, not Georgia. Lincoln now demonstrated the skills that had gained him his appointment. Privately furious with Lowndes, he hid his anger in public and gave Lowndes a chance to back down, which he soon took. The supplies were released on 25 December.

By this time the situation in Georgia had worsened. While Lowndes refused to help defend against a raid, the British had launched a full scale invasion. On 23 December a British fleet arrived at the entrance to Savannah harbour. General Robert Howe, Lincoln’s predecessor, still commanded at Savannah, but his thousand men were facing a British force of 3,000. Worse, although Howe adopted a strong position flanked by swamps, he failed to guard some of the few routes through those swamps, and on 29 December he was defeated by the British under Lt. Col Archibald Campbell. Savannah was now in British hands. Much of the blame must fall at the feet of Lowndes in South Carolina, whose appalling unwillingness to support the wider war effort had cost Lincoln precious days.

Lincoln now found himself faced by a much worse situation that he could have expected. The Savannah River was the border between South Carolina and Georgia, and it was now falling into British hands. As Lincoln moved to join with the survivors of Howe’s force, the British moved to secure control over Georgia. Augusta soon fell, and the British issued a proclamation inviting the Georgians to renew their oaths of loyalty to George III. At least initially, the response to this call was everything the British could have hoped for.

Lincoln now had to rebuild his army. He camped at Puryburg, on the Carolinian side of the Savannah River, where he was able to gather 1,400 men. Amazingly, Lowndes still refused to help, standing by the principle that militiamen could not be asked to serve outside their home state. Much of the defence of South Carolina was to fall to militia units from other, less intractable states. Even when South Carolinian militia units did join Lincoln, they refused to obey the rules of the Continental Army or indeed any army discipline and at first demanded to be judged in the civil courts for military offences. Lincoln was eventually able to get that rule changed, but only in theory.

On 30 January 1779 1,100 North Carolinian militia reached Lincoln, and he was at last able to plan offensive action. Lincoln’s first target was Augusta. He positioned the militia across the river from the town, while his Continentals were to cross over below Augusta and catch the British. The militia numbered 1,600 men against the 1,700 British troops in Augusta. With the Continentals added, the British were outnumbered. However, Lincoln’s first attack failed when the Continentals were held up while crossing the river. Despite this the British were made to realize how vulnerable their position in Augusta was, and on 14 February the garrison of Augusta pulled back to Hudson’s Ferry, over half way back to Savannah. This move demonstrated one of the main problems facing the British – the more successes they had, the more vulnerable bases they had to defend and the more exposed they were. Worse, every time they were forced to withdraw from a newly subdued area, everyone who had come out to support them was left vulnerable to their revolutionary neighbours.

Lincoln’s immediate reaction to the British retreat was to order John Ashe, the commander of the militia forces at Augusta, to harass the retreating British and prevent any attempt on their part to cross into South Carolina. Once again, he was to be disappointed by the militia. While Ashe was happy to move with his North Carolinians, the local South Carolinians were simply pleased that the British were no longer opposite them. Worse was to come. Following Lincoln’s orders, Ashe advanced to Briar Creek, just over ten miles from the British camp. His position should have been secure, and Lincoln’s plan was to reinforce the position at Briar Creek in order to protect Georgia. Unknown to Lincoln, Ashe had failed to secure his camp at Briar Creek, and on 3 March his force was surprised and almost wiped out by a British attack. Of 1,500 men with Ashe, less than 500 ever returned to active service. Ashe himself was court-martialled, and found guilty of carelessness.

Once again, Lincoln found himself forced onto the defensive. He had 1,800 men to face a British force of 3,500. He was forced to concentrate around the main based at Purysburg and wait while more troops were raised. He was sufficiently discouraged by these setbacks and by the attitude of the southern states that he went as far as requesting to be replaced. Fortunately the situation began to improve. The governors of both North and South Carolina were working hard to find reinforcements and replacements for those whose terms of service were over, and Lincoln was able to move again with two months of the defeat at Briar Creek. For once he had numerical superiority of the British, and on 23 April he marched his army up towards Augusta, with the plan of crossing into Georgia and marching down-river towards Savannah, clearing the state behind him.

His plan only survived a week. On 30 April the British crossed into South Carolina at Purysburg. Their target this time was Charleston, and with it South Carolina. Facing them were two regiments of South Carolina Continentals commanded by William Moultrie. Lincoln was convinced that the British move was a feint to distract him from his march on Savannah, but he was mistaken. Even reinforced by another 300 Continentals, Moultrie was badly outmatched, facing three to four thousand British troops intent on capturing Charleston. Lincoln still continued his march towards Savannah, on the Georgia side of the Savannah River, while Moultrie was forced further and further north. It took Lincoln until 6 May to realize that the real threat was in South Carolina, and even then he was not aware of the weakness of the American position until 10 May.

Moultrie had reached Charleston on 8 May to find the city in a state of panic. On 10 May, the same day Lincoln received news from Charleston, the British reached the Charleston area. The following day they crossed over on to the Charleston neck and were in front of the gates of Charleston. The reaction within the besieged city was very encouraging for the British. On 11 May, an emissary was sent out from Charleston to ask General Prevost what surrender terms he would accept. The civilian authorities in Charleston had overruled Moultrie, convinced that they would be overwhelmed by any British attack.

Prevost’s reply was that he would accept anyone who wished to take the oath of allegiance to George III, but that everyone else would be treated as a prisoner of war. This was a little too much even for the Charleston council. Instead, they made a counter offer – South Carolina would remain neutral for the rest of the war, with her long term future decided once the conflict was over. This offer was not enough for Prevost, who thought that he was within days of capturing South Carolina without such conditions. On 12 May Prevost demanded the surrender of the garrison, governor and council of Charleston. Now their own necks were on the line, the authorities in Charleston finally gained some backbone, and were convinced to fight.

While negotiations continued at Charleston, Lincoln was moving fast to trap Prevost. Unfortunately for him, news of his movement reached the British, and during the night of 12 May, Prevost slipped away. Lincoln still had a chance to trap the British. Prevost moved down river towards St. James Island, from where he hoped to evacuate his troops back to Savannah. For some days, Lincoln was unable to locate the British. By the time he found them, they were already partly on to St. James Island. A planned attack on 1 June was abandoned when it was found that the British had moved fully onto the Island and were fortifying their position. For the next three weeks the two sides sat six miles apart, waiting for some change.

The prospect of change came from an unexpected direction. Lincoln’s earlier request to be replaced was now granted. The news reached him on 8 June. He was to be replaced by Moultrie, who was promoted to major general. It took the combined efforts of Moultrie and Governor Rutledge to persuade Lincoln to stay on, but under their combined pressure Lincoln decided to stay in post for another year.

Encouraged by the vote of confidence, Lincoln decided on another attack. On 20 June he attempted a combined assault on the British on St. James Island, but their position was stronger than he had expected and after an hour of stiff fighting the Americans were forced to retreat. Before Lincoln could organize another attack, the British slipped away to Savannah. Neither side could be happy with the events of the last six months. The British had gained Savannah, but had failed to expand their control over the rest of Georgia. Their foray into South Carolina had gained them some booty and a base on Port Royal Island, about half way between Savannah and Georgia, but Charleston had slipped through the net.

Neither could Lincoln be pleased with his campaign. Problems with the militia had weakened him at key moments, Savannah still lay in British hands, and the loyalty of Charleston and South Carolina had been brought into question by their offer of neutrality. The heat of the southern summer had ended the campaigning season, leaving Lincoln to fight different battles.

Once again, Lincoln had to wrestle with the problems of recruitment and supply. Despite their recent scare, the inhabitants of Charleston still didn't see the urgency of preparing their own defences, even using some of the wood from the outer defences for firewood. The six regiments of Continentals that South Carolina was supposed to provide remained largely empty. An attempt to introduce conscription to fill the ranks was rejected by the state assembly. Some reinforcements did arrive – four hundred Continental infantry from Virginia – but they were woefully under equipped, lacking even ammunition. Even with these reinforcements at the end of the summer Lincoln had only 1,500 men to defend South Carolina and much of Georgia. The prospect for offensive action was not good.

The situation was temporarily transformed by the arrival of a French fleet under the Count d’Estaing. D’Estaing had abandoned a joint attack on Newport, Rhode Island in the previous year, and may have felt the need to attempt to make amends. Whatever the motivation, after a brief visit to Charleston, he decided to attack Savannah. On 1 September the French fleet arrived at Tybee Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River. Lincoln did not learn of the French move until 3 September. His reaction was rapid – orders went out to concentrate the army by 11 September, when they would cross into Georgia and march down the south bank of the Savannah River to besiege the town itself, while the French would land troops from the sea. The time-scale was tight. D’Estaing did not want to spend more than ten days on the coast where he faced a risk of storms, but was persuaded to wait for Lincoln and his army.

While Lincoln and his army were marching down river, the French had two roles – first to prevent the British escaping back to Florida and second to prevent the garrison of Port Royal Island from reinforcing Savannah. On 16 September the French had 2,400 men within a mile of the town. Inside Savannah, General Prevost only had 1,200 men, while the town’s defences were weak. Frantic efforts were made to build new defences and transfer naval guns into the walls, while the 800 men from Port Royal were close by and ready to attempt to get into the town. On the morning of 16 September, d’Estaing summoned the town to surrender to the ‘arms of the King of France’. The omission of the Americans clearly demonstrated the unequal nature of the Franco-American alliance, and infuriated the Americans. Lincoln himself finally met with d’Estaing at noon on the same day and made his views on the matter clear. Thinking his point had been made, he then returned to organize his own forces.

How large the gulf between the allies was was soon demonstrated. Prevost replied to d’Estaing by asking for the terms of surrender. Once he had received the terms, Prevost asked for a twenty-four hour truce, which d’Estaing granted that evening without even consulting Lincoln. Worse, half of the Port Royal garrison entered Savannah on 16 September, with the rest joining them on the following day. Prevost kept on working on the defences even during the truce. The French were unconcerned, but the chance of victory was slipping away.

Relations between the allies were not smooth. Lincoln’s opinion of the French is unrecorded, but the French held a low opinion of their American allies. As far as d’Estaing and his officers were concerned, all of the Americans were amateurs, lacking military experience and skill. They did not look or act like any army the French were familiar with. For a period it even looked like the French would leave without attempting a siege, but the constant efforts of Lincoln to convince him to stay, and an unwillingness to abandon a second siege persuaded d’Estaing to stay on and attempt a siege. Heavy rain intervened to delay them until 22 September, when the allies began preparations for a heavy bombardment of Savannah. Lincoln’s men were able to place thirty-three cannons and nine mortars in place to begin their bombardment by 3 October. Considering the swampy conditions in the area, this was impressive, but it still gave the British two weeks to prepare. When the bombardment began, many of the townspeople were evacuated to an island in the river.

During fives days of bombardment, over 1000 shells were fired at Savannah, but the results were not impressive. While close to forty civilians were killed, the garrison lost only one soldier. The town’s defences were largely unaffected. In frustration, the allies finally decided to risk a frontal assault. D’Estaing appears to have been the main driving force behind the plan – his officers were opposed to the idea, while Lincoln only agreed because he could see no alternative. The plan agreed on was for a four column attack on the Spring Hill redoubt, believed to be held by Loyalist militia. For the attack to have any chance of success, surprise was needed. Unfortunately for the allies, a desert carried news of their plans to the British, who moved their best troops to the redoubt in preparation.

The attack was due to go in at 4.00am on 9 October. It started late and never came close to success. One column, headed by Lincoln and d’Estaing, did manage to penetrate the outer British lines, it was then caught in a vicious crossfire and forced to retreat. D’Estaing was wounded twice in the fighting. The allies lost 250 killed and 600 wounded, while only inflicting 100 casualties on the British garrison. D’Estaing was now prepared to leave. He had made his effort to help the Americans, and with his honour satisfied, the safety of his fleet was now his prime concern. Lincoln made determined efforts to persuade the French to stay, aware that failure at Savannah would leave Charleston and South Carolina vulnerable to attack. Nevertheless, on 19 October the last allied troops slipped away from Savannah. The siege was over.

News of the failure at Savannah caused consternation as it travelled north. Perhaps fortunately for Lincoln, the French were to take much of the blame for leaving before victory could be secured, ignoring the fact that the attack would not have happened without d’Estaing’s original initiative. Now worse news reached the south. A major British force had left New York, and its destination was the South.


Charleston was the largest city in the south, and the fourth largest in the United States. Even so, in 1780 it only contained 12,000 inhabitants, of whom some 6,000 were black. The fear of a British inspired slave revolt was always present in the south. It was also the main centre of the revolt in the south. It should have been fairly easy to defend. The town itself was at the tip of a spit of land between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, with an excellent harbour. Despite this importance, and having only recently escaped capture by the British, the defences of Charleston were utterly inadequate. Part of the problem was that South Carolina was widely seen as not pulling its own weight. Other states had to provide Continentals to defend a state that had failed to fill her own regiments. Nevertheless, Congress realised the danger to Charleston was real, and posed a threat to the entire war effort. Three frigates from the small Continental Navy along with 3,000 Continental troops from Virginia and North Carolina were sent to reinforce Lincoln.

The British plan for a southern campaign was based on the belief that most southerners were loyal, and only needed a strong British presence to return to that loyalty. There must have been moments when Lincoln shared that view. Having already refused to allow black regiments, the plantation owners now refused to allow their slaves to work on the defences of Charleston. Lincoln was worried that the forces at his disposal would not be able to defend South Carolina against a thrust from a reinforced Savannah garrison.

Instead, Lincoln found himself at the centre of the new southern strategy. On 10 January 1780, a British fleet sailed past Charleston on its way to Savannah. For two weeks the size and composition of the British fleet remained a mystery, until finally a British Brig was captured. Instead of reinforcements, Lincoln now found himself facing 8,000 British troops, carried in a fleet 163 strong and led by Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief in North America. The British plan was to capture South Carolina. This would allow the full pacification of Georgia, safe from rebel interference. They would then move on to North Carolina, thus securing South Carolina. The tide of British victory would then carry then relentlessly north, state by state.

To face the cream of the British army, Lincoln could muster 1,400 Continentals and 1,000 North Carolina militia. South Carolina itself still failed to provide adequate troops. When Lincoln pressed his demands for troops from South Carolina, the reply from Governor Rutledge was astounding in its smug blindness. In a letter to Lincoln he wrote “I flatter myself that as our holding the Town and Harbour is evidently of great importance to the United States, nothing but an invincible and extreme necessity will induce a determination to withdraw the continental troops from its defence". Lincoln must defend their town, but he must not expect any help from South Carolina. Under this extreme provocation it is surprising that Lincoln chose to defend Charleston. Continental soldiers had never before been risked in such a siege – even Philadelphia, the seat of Congress, had been abandoned rather than risking a siege.

A variety of pressures combined with the result that Lincoln decided to defend Charleston. First, he believed that he had direct orders from Congress to do so. Since then, Congress had sent three frigates expressly to bolster the defences of the town. Once it was clear that the British intended to attack in the south, more reinforcements had been promised, both militia and more significantly Continentals. Lincoln also came under intense pressure to remain from the same South Carolinians who were refusing to provide troops, Rutledge amongst them. Lincoln had been raised to believe that the civil authorities outranked the military, regardless of the merit of their demands. Finally, Lincoln had himself presided over the court martial of Arthur St. Clair for abandoning Fort Ticonderoga in 1777. St. Clair had undoubtedly made the correct decision when faced by Burgoyne’s invading force, but had never been forgiven for it.

Once he had decided to attempt the defence of Charleston, Lincoln did not have long to wait for the first British move. Using their command of the seas, on 11 February 1780 the British landed on James Island, and over the next three weeks built up their forces there, concentrated at Fort Johnston, just over two miles from Charleston on the other side of the Ashley River. From there, the British advanced slowly towards Charleston, finally crossing onto Charleston Neck on 29 March. Within a couple of days, they had cut off the town by land.

The slow British advance had finally allowed Lincoln to prepare the town’s defences. Even at this critical point, many were reluctant to perform manual labour, considered to be work for slaves, while still refusing to provide an adequate supply of slaves for the work. Still, inspired by Lincoln, who went as far as joining in the digging in person, by early April Charleston had a proper line of defence to face the British siege, supported by over eighty cannons and mortars. Some reinforcements also arrived – on 3 March 600 North Carolina Continentals arrived, and Lincoln was expecting as many as 9,900 militia and Continentals from the Carolinas and Virginia. He was to be shockingly let down. Of the three thousand militia promised by North Carolina, only one thousand ever arrived. Even worse, on 24 March, with the British only days away from Charleston, their period of duty expired, and showing a total lack of the devotion to the cause that Lincoln showed and expected from others, they left. Their record was at least better than the South Carolina militia, who never even pretended to willing to help defend their own city. If Lincoln had been reinforced as promised, the British would have found Charleston a very hard nut to crack.

The siege of Charleston was soon closed by land and sea. On 20 March the British fleet managed to enter the outer harbour, effectively closing off that line of supply or retreat, and on 8 April they got into the inner harbour, from where they could bombard the town. On land, the first British siege works were begun on 2 April, and the bombardment began three days later. One last unit, 750 Virginia Continentals, managed to sail into town down the Cooper River on 7 April, but even with this last boost, Lincoln only had 5,000 men, half of the militia, to face 10,000 British regulars.

The main bombardment began after Lincoln refused a summons to surrender on 10 April. This was the first major siege of the war, and saw the biggest expenditure of ammunition so far. The British had guns on the Neck, on ships in the harbour, on James Island, and in a series of emplacements on the Ashley River facing the town. The Americans responded with a heavy counter-bombardment of their own. Conditions in the siege lines were little better than those in the town, especially as the British lines came closer and closer to the American defences.

The town was not totally cut off until almost the end of April. On 12 April, Lincoln had managed to persuade Rutledge to escape from the city. Rutledge made a determined attempt to raise enough troops to influence the siege, but his efforts were too late and South Carolina’s rebels were still not stirred to action. On 16 April a council of war met to consider evacuating the garrison while there was still a chance. Most of the American officers were convinced that some effort should be made to save the Continentals, but Lincoln was unconvinced. News soon arrived that made any such prospect much harder. On 14 April a British force under Tarleton had defeated the American cavalry guarding Monck’s Corner and the best escape route from the city.

The situation was now clearly desperate. Siege warfare was a highly regulated affair, and the British were now close to a winning position, with their lines only 70 yards from the American defences. The American commanders were all too aware of this, but their civilian colleagues had yet to realize the seriousness of their position. At a second council of war on 20 and 21 April, the consensus was that Lincoln should attempt to gain the most honourable terms of surrender while he was still in a position to bargain. However, the Lieutenant Governor, Christopher Gadsden, now intervened. Invited in by Lincoln, he insisted on consulting with the Privy Council, whose response was astounding. Gadsden claimed that the Militia would ‘Live on Rice alone rather than give up the Town’, presumably until their period of service ended that is. Lincoln, with his experience of the unreliability of the local militia, must have been astonished. Another member of the council immediately contradicted this bold statement with a threat – if the Continentals appeared to be leaving, he would let in the British and help them attack the Americans. Lincoln was forced to agree to continue the siege.

The next day, the military council had recovered its senses, and decided to ask for terms. At noon on 21 April Lincoln asked for a six hour truce to negotiate surrender terms. Clinton agreed, but the negotiations did not go well. Lincoln offered a “free evacuation" with honours of war – the garrison would be given ten days to leave, and allowed to take their arms and equipment with them. The townsmen would be allowed a year to sell up, or be free to stay unpunished. Unsurprisingly, Clinton refused and made a counter offer that was in turn unacceptable to Lincoln. The bombardment resumed at nine on the same night.

The Americans made one more attacking move during the siege. Early on 24 April a raid on the forward British positions caused a great deal of chaos and confusion amongst the Hessian troops digging there. The raid helped to raise morale within the besieged city, but the British fortifications remained untouched. No more sorties were made.

This was partly because of the news that arrived on the following day. General Louis Duportail, a French engineer, reached the city from Philadelphia with the news that no more reinforcements would be sent. With no hope of relief, the best the Americans could hope for was to prolong the siege. Lincoln was now determined to hold out and force the British to storm the defences. The idea of retreat was now firmly discarded, although the city was not totally isolated until the very end of April. Until then, food at least had been getting into the city. Now, the garrison and townsfolk would have to survive on their stores.

The final stage of the siege was soon played out. Fort Moultrie, on the northern shore of the harbour, surrendered on 7 May. The following day Clinton issued another summons to surrender, and this time Lincoln and his council drew up a more acceptable list of terms. This list of terms was modified by Clinton. In turn Lincoln made changes to Clinton’s new terms. At this point negotiations finally broke down again, and on the evening of 9 May the guns opened fire from both sides. The Americans made one last spectacular effort, but their supplies were running too low to maintain the effort. Morale within the city began to collapse. On 10 May some of the militia refused to man the line, and on the 11th Lincoln received a petition from 753 militiamen begging Lincoln to accept Clinton’s terms. Gadsden and the Privy Council now threw their weight behind the calls for surrender.

Under pressure from all sides, and aware of the futility of further resistance, Lincoln sent out two flags of truce and on 11 May accepted the terms Clinton had offered on the 8th. The siege of Charleston was over. On the following day the 1,500 remaining able bodied Continentals marched out into captivity. The militia became prisoners on parole, and much to the annoyance of Lincoln and his officers finally appeared in some numbers. As many as 2,000 militiamen may have been hidden in Charleston throughout the siege without ever revealing themselves to Lincoln. The British took over 5,000 prisoners from Charleston, of whom Lincoln could account for some 2,700. The loss of the town was itself a disaster, but the loss of 2,200 precious Continental soldiers for the rest of the war was a far more serious blow. The impact of the defeat on the war in the south could only be imagined, but it was no longer Lincoln’s problem. For the moment, he was a prisoner of war. By the terms of his parole, he was able to return to Congress to report on the siege, but once he had finished there, he was to return to New England and refrain from the fighting, at least until his parole could be exchanged for that of a British prisoner.

Of more immediate concern to Lincoln was the reception he would receive. St. Clair had suffered a court martial for abandoning Ticonderoga, Schuyler for a careful retreat. What fate awaited the commander who had lost over 2,000 Continentals and failed to hold the fourth city of the United States?

If Lincoln had been aware of his contemporaries’ opinion of the wisdom of his actions he would have been even more concerned. Most of his military colleagues considered a British occupation of Charleston to be of less significance than the loss of Continental troops. Many were convinced that Lincoln was too wise a commander to be trapped in a siege he did not expect to win. News from the south was slow to arrive. Clinton did not release Lincoln on his parole until early in June, and his official report was slow to make its way north. The Royal Gazette, a Loyalist publication in New York, reported the fall of Charleston on 2 June, but it was only on 14 June that official confirmation reached Philadelphia in the hands of Lt. Colonel Jean Ternant. Fortunately for Lincoln, Ternant laid the blame for the surrender on the townsfolk of Charleston rather than on the commander himself.

Lincoln himself reached Philadelphia on 22 June and immediately requested an inquiry into the fall of Charleston. Congress agreed, but Washington refused. An inquiry would uncover failing at all levels and could only lead to disunity in the American camp, something that Washington could not risk. Lincoln found himself subject to contradictory criticisms – that he had taken too big a risk to defend Charleston and that he had not tried hard enough to hold the city. He received support from a wide range of people, from his replacement in the South, Horatio Gates, through to a number of South Carolinians, including some who had spent time in British custody after the defeat. There was also a feeling that the defeat at Charleston had reanimated the war effort after a period of complacency brought on by Saratoga and the French alliance. American troops had made a brave effort to defend the city against superior forces. What could they do if they faced the British on equal terms?

Disappointed in his hopes of an inquiry, Lincoln was finally able to return home to Hingham and his family. There was a great deal of family business to catch up on after an absence of two years. For a brief period, Lincoln was unable to play any part in the war.


This intermission was not to last long. In early November 1780 Lincoln was part of an exchange of prisoners, and was able to return to active duty. Washington was quick to make use of him. Lincoln’s first appointment after his return to duty was to supervise the recruitment of the Massachusetts Continentals. This duty allowed Lincoln to remain close to home until the summer of 1781, although he was ordered to Newport, Rhode Island in early March to help guard against a possible British attack. Finally, on 15 June 1781 he rejoined the main army outside New York.

Washington was determined to move against the British garrison in New York. His problem was that he only had 8,000 men, while the British had a garrison of 14,500, who had had years to build up their defences. The French commander, Rochambeau, was opposed to any such idea, but Washington was able to persuade them to at least probe the British defences on Manhattan Island. Only two weeks after his return to the main army, and just over a year after the surrender of Charleston, Lincoln was appointed to command half of the operation. While the Duc de Lauzun was to attack a Loyalist cavalry unit, Lincoln was to launch an attack on Fort Knyphausen.

On the evening on 2 July, Lincoln with 800 men managed to land on Manhattan Island, but early on 3 July they were discovered, close to Harlem. Lauzun came to his aid, and the two units were able to retreat in good order. The failure of the raid, and the confirmation that the British were well entrenched on Manhattan Island confirmed the French in their opposition to an attack on New York. Washington was forced to look elsewhere for a change to inflict a blow against the British. His eyes turned south, where after an unsuccessful campaign, Lord Cornwallis had been ordered to fortify Yorktown, Virginia. It was hoped that this new base would become a major thorn in the American side. Instead, it was to be the graveyard of British hopes.

The allies came up with an ambitious plan. If the French navy could take temporary command of Chesapeake Bay, then a combined Franco-American army could trap Cornwallis at Yorktown, where the defences of the British base were still at an early stage of construction. The key to this plan was speed. Admiral de Grasse, commander of the French fleet in the West Indies had agreed to take part, but only until 15 October. The army around New York would have to move at breathtaking speed to reach Virginia in time to have any effect.

Despite the flimsy nature of the defences at Yorktown, Cornwallis was confident. Clinton had promised to send a relief force from New York which would have allowed Cornwallis to easily break the siege. He thus wasted his best chance to escape. Until August the only American troops in the area were a small force commanded by Lafayette. This unit could not have resisted a determined attempt to break out, but with relief promised, Cornwallis did not like the idea of a long march back into the Carolinas. At the end of August de Grasse arrived in Chesapeake Bay. A British fleet sent from New York found him on 5 September, but the resulting battle was at best a draw, and the British withdrew to New York. For the moment, Cornwallis was denied both an easy retreat and reinforcement.

All this would have been in vain if the Allied army had not been moving at speed towards him. At the heart of this army was a force of 2,500 Continentals that had to travel from the New York area. After the commander of the troops involved turned down the job, command of this force fell to Lincoln as the most senior General available. His job was to move his 2,500 men along the 400 mile road from New York to Yorktown in as little time as possible, with as few losses as possible. There was an ever present danger of desertion, especially on such a march, where it would be easy for someone to simply stay behind. Once the army was away from New York, there was little military danger on the march, but the march itself posed its own challenge.

Fortunately, Lincoln was a capable organiser, and well suited to commanding in these circumstances. The only nasty moment came when the army marched through Philadelphia on 2 September, where the contrast between their own rather tattered appearance and the obvious prosperity of the Philadelphians angered many of them. Many of the soldiers had not been paid for years, and for a moment it looked as if the army would refuse to move until it was paid. The situation was saved by Robert Morris, the recently appointed superintendent of finances, who borrowed against his own credit to provide a months pay, enough to smooth over the difficulty. On 6 September Lincoln’s army reached the head of Chesapeake Bay, half way to their destination. From there, the rest of the journey could be by sea, and although bad weather and news of another naval battle caused some day, the allied army arrived on the James River. When Washington arrived on 23 September, he found the army in much better condition than he had expected. Lincoln had done his job well, and the trap was about to be sprung.

Lincoln’s experience at Charleston was now invaluable. He was the only senior American commander to have direct experience of a lengthy siege, and Washington appointed him to the command of the American forces involved in the siege, on the right of the line. On 7 October Lincoln led the detachment that began work on the first parallel. The bulk of the work was completed overnight, and in some secrecy. The British in Yorktown awoke to find themselves truly besieged. Their position was not strong. Their defences were unfinished. Cornwallis had only decided to stay because he believed Clinton would send a relief force, and now found himself trapped, outnumbered and out-gunned.

The allied bombardment began on 9 October. Washington fired the first shot, marking the importance that he attached to the operation. The allied artillery could reach anywhere inside Yorktown, and life for the British quickly became unbearable. Cornwallis did not hold out for long. On 17 October, only eight days after the first shots were fired, Cornwallis requested a cease-fire. Ironically, one of the two Americans deputised to negotiate the British surrender was John Laurens, who had been besieged in Charleston. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Americans insisted on the same terms of surrender as at Charleston. This was too much for Cornwallis, and so on 19 October the British army was led by General Charles O’Hara as it marched into captivity.

The main beneficiary of this fit of pique on the part of Cornwallis was Lincoln. Washington wouldn't take the surrender unless Cornwallis led the British out, so Lincoln deputised for him. Just over a year after the humiliation of surrender at Charleston, Lincoln received the decisive British surrender of the war. The fighting was not yet over, but the last chance of British success had gone.

Secretary at War

Although some fighting continued, Lincoln was soon to be promoted away from the field. Early in 1781 Congress had reorganised the administration. Most of the posts created were quickly filled, but the post of Secretary of War proved harder to fill. All of the main candidates had managed to make enemies during the war, and the difficult appointment was postponed until October. When the debate began again, three candidates were proposed. Lincoln was one, along with Nathanael Greene, commander of the Southern Department and Henry Knox, chief of artillery. Greene and Knox were felt to be too hard to replace in their current jobs, and so on 30 October 1781 Lincoln was appointed Secretary of War.

This had the potential to be his most difficult appointment yet. The Board of War he replaced had left a chaotic situation, not helped by the near total lack of funds, and the ever present squabbles between the states. Many thought that Lincoln was simply too amiable for the post, but he had the confidence of Washington and of the army itself. At Charleston he had shown himself dedicated to obeying the civil power, something that endeared him to congress. The original definition of the job gave Lincoln very little power. His official role was to keep records of the state of the army and its supplies, as well as providing estimates of future requirements. However, from the moment of his appointment Lincoln started to put in place plans to improve the state of the army. He had effective responsibility for all military matters not part of a field command. He saw his job as the maintenance of a strong Continental field army, and on 10 April 1782 Congress officially expanded his powers to recognize the job he was already doing.

The main problem facing Lincoln was financial. Control of the limited budget was held by Robert Morris, the superintendent of finance. They had fundamentally different views of the way to finally win the war. Lincoln and Washington believed that it was essential to maintain a strong Continental Army until the British finally admitted defeat. In contrast, Morris believed that the best way to victory was to restore the public credit. If the army had to be sacrificed to achieve this, then so be it. A restoration of public credit would increase support for the war and the capacity of the economy to support a war effort.

This essential divide did not come to the fore until May. Morris had hoped that the states would respond to his new methods of financial control by finally providing the money they had agreed to, but he was to be disappointed. On 7 May 1782 he informed Lincoln that he would not be able to provide any more money for the army. Once it was clear that Morris was not to be budged, Lincoln had to inform Congress. A shocked Congress made a strenuous effort to persuade the states to provide the money they owed, but with little or no success.

The basic problem was that the states still put their own interests ahead of the national interest. Having failed to provide the money they had promised Congress, they then blocked any attempt on the part of Congress to raise money independently. Lincoln heard rumours that the states were going to use the money promised to Congress to pay off debts owed to their own citizens by the United States. This would have been a crushing blow to the authority of Congress and to the future of the Union. Fortunately, the British no longer had the will to fight on, and the moment of vulnerability passed. At the start of August 1782 news reached American that peace negotiations had begun.

Although preliminary peace terms were not to be agreed until April 1783, everybody’s thoughts began to turn to peace. In some ways this was one of the most dangerous periods for the Union. Peace negotiations were widely felt to be as good as peace itself, but Lincoln and Washington were both aware that there was still a big British garrison in New York and another one at Charleston. The ministry in London could change at any moment, and there was no guarantee that a new government would continue with peace negotiations. If fighting had broken out again, the blow to American morale could have been devastating.

The Pay Crisis

In the midst of the peace moves, the army felt itself to be vulnerable. The army hadn't been paid for a year, and even before that pay had been patchy. For the private soldiers this was not a problem – they could simple return to their previous jobs. However, the officers were particularly worried. Many of them had served for the entire war, and felt that they had made a much bigger sacrifice than most. In most cases they had used up all of their own money to maintain themselves. Their careers had been put on hold, and in many cases would be almost impossible to restart. Lincoln himself was to suffer financially after the war.

The officers had been promised payment after the war. During the Valley Forge winter of 1777-78 they had been offered a half-pay pension for seven years after retirement. This was done in an attempt to reduce the numbers of officers resigning their commissions and returning home, a trend that could have destroyed the Continental army. This was extended to a half-pay pension for life in October 1780, when another low point again saw the officer corp loosing men. These offers were unpopular in many circles. They were seen as a corrupting influence that threatened to create a class of government place men. The influence of place men had been one of the early grievances against the British. Another argument used was that the war effort was based on public virtue, not on payment, and no true support of the revolution would ask for pay. The irony of this must have struck Lincoln, who had used the same argument in a futile attempt to prod the southern states into providing the militia they had promised. To the members of an officer corp who had given years of their life to the war, it rang hollow.

There were two rival schemes for settling the issue. Morris wanted to use it to force the states to agree to grant Congress the right to raise taxes. He wanted to bring the army debt and the public creditors together as a national debt that could only be funded through central taxation.

Lincoln was opposed to this idea on two grounds. First, he did not think that the officers would enjoy their pension. It would have been unpopular with those paying it, and cast a unsavoury shadow over the reputation of very men who had fought for independence. Second, he did not belief that any central tax would gain the agreement of all thirteen states, without which it could not go into operation. His rival plan was that the half-pay pension would be replaced by a single lump payment. This money would come from the individual states, but the amount that each owed would be decided by Congress.

The situation slowly came to a boil over the winter of 1782-3. The army was still camped around New York, which retained a British garrison until November 1783. The main crisis was to unfold at a camp at Newburgh, New York. The army sent a direct petition to Congress in November 1782, asking to be paid, for their back pay, and for the half pay pension to be commuted to a lump sum. Lincoln was absent from Philadelphia (visiting Hingham) during the key months while the army commissioners were present. The commissioners made little progress during December or January, and when Lincoln visited Washington at West Point in mid-February 1783 the tension was close to its peak. At the end of the month he returned to Philadelphia to the atmosphere just as tense. The fear of an army mutiny was starting to grow as each effort to find funds for army pay failed. To make things worse, Morris had now threatened to resign if some system of taxation was not put in place. This threat remained secret until 1 March, when Congress agreed to let Morris make it public. If Morris had resigned at this moment, the already poor public finances might have sunk without trace.

For a short period, there was a real danger that the army might take independent action. The example of the aftermath of the English Civil War, where Cromwell had overthrown parliament with the support of the army, can not have been far from many minds. Fortunately for the new republic, George Washington was not minded to be a Cromwell. The army crisis came to a head in March. On 10 March a call went round the army camp at Newburgh for the officers to meet and discuss ways of solving its own problems, by force if needed. Washington managed to get the meeting postponed, and then replaced by a meeting of his own. At this new meeting, Washington was able to turn the officers back from the brink of civil war, and restore their loyalty to Congress.

The crisis was over so quickly that it had been solved before news of it reached Philadelphia. Lincoln was able to respond to news of Washington’s triumph with good news of his own. Congress had decided to convert the half pay pension into a lump sum payment of five years full pay. All that was needed now was some way of finding the money. When more regular methods failed, Morris decided to print his own money backed by his personal credit.

This somewhat desperate measure was forced on him by the announcement of a provisional peace treaty with Britain in April. With peace looming, there was not longer any need to maintain a large army in the field. After the crisis at Newburgh, Congress was aware of the need to disband the army as quickly and safely as possible. Morris agreed to provide three months pay if the army was immediately disbanded. A compromise was reached – Congress granted furloughs to all men enlisted for the duration of the war. They could go home, and would only need to return if the war broke out again.

Lincoln carried the news to the army at Newburgh. Under pressure, Washington made the furlough voluntary, and most of the eligible men took up the offer, in many cases not even waiting for their three months pay. There was only one hitch in the disbanding of the army, and that was in part provoked by Lincoln himself. The success of the furlough at Newburgh encouraged Congress to enlarge it to cover four other states, including Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, Lincoln did not include the voluntary element in his orders. Inevitably, troops from Pennsylvania met up with troops from Newburgh and compared the terms they had been offered. In Philadelphia itself the two groups met up on 12 June, one day before the furlough order was actually issued in the city. The Pennsylvania line refused the terms, and demanded a full settlement of their accounts. Their militancy could be explained by their proximity to Philadelphia, one city that had remained prosperous during the war. Lincoln appeared to have defused the situation, but then let things slip.

With tension still running high, Lincoln departed on a pre-arranged visit to Virginia to inspect a new powder magazine. While he was absent, a ground of three hundred soldiers surrounded the Philadelphia statehouse. Their target was the Pennsylvania Council, but Congress was also meeting in the same building. Although the incident ended peacefully, the threat of violence from the army around Philadelphia forced Congress to move to Princeton, where it remained until November. Despite this hitch, the army disbanded remarkably quickly.

Everybody was now turning their attentions to the post war world. Lincoln was determined to resign the moment peace was official and return to home. One last controversy marked his last months in office. Henry Knox had come up with the idea of the Society of the Cincinnati, with membership open to officers who had fought in the war, and their descendents. The official aims of this society were to maintain friendships between officers, to encourage friendship between the states and to provide a source of charity for members who fell on hard times. Lincoln was a supporter of the Society, and accepted the Presidency of the Massachusetts branch with pride. Others were not so sure. To many, it was too similar to the hereditary nobilities of European states. Others could not see why the officers should be recognised above the private solders.

All that was left now was to wait for the confirmation of peace. When that came, Lincoln tendered his resignation. His final accounts submitted, in November 1783, after eight years away, Lincoln returned home.

Post War Service

Like many others, Lincoln faced an uncertain future. He was determined to return to private life, but no longer happy to return to farming. His new status was important to him, and he planned to maintain it through a series of business ventures. At the heart of it was a three way trade – wood from Maine was sold for grain in Virginia which was milled at Hingham for sale in Boston. Unfortunately for Lincoln, as for many others, the years after the war saw the economy slow down. Ironically, the peace was partly to blame. British merchants, desperate to recapture lost markets, offered generous credit arrangements to their American counterparts. The American merchants were eager to accept these offers and for a short period the appearance of prosperity returned as the shops filled with British goods. At this point things went wrong. The goods arrived in the shops, and stayed there. The money simply wasn't there. At the British merchants had their own debts called in, they put pressure on the American merchants, many of whom went bankrupt. Although Lincoln avoided this fate, the downturn did affect his business and by 1786 it became clear that he would need other sources of income to provide the quality of life he now expected.

A second source of potential income was Maine. Lincoln purchased 20,279 acres of land in Maine, and unlike many property speculators he settled down to improve and develop the land. Many other property owners in Maine were only interested in a quick profit, subdividing and selling on as fast as possible. In contrast, Lincoln settled one of his sons in Maine, and visited the area every year between 1786 and 1805. One dark shadow is cast over all endeavours in Maine. The area was not uninhabited. At the end of the war, the Penobscot Indians were still safe on their own lands. Sadly this was not to continue. Lincoln played a part in negotiating the 1786 treaty, which saw the Penobscots restricted to a small area by the Penobscot River along with a few other wilderness areas. This area was always being squeezed and by 1818 the remaining Indians had been restricted to reservations.

Shays’ Rebellion

Lincoln’s one remaining official post was first major general of militia. He accepted this post in December 1785, and made a series of suggestions for improving the state of the militia, but if he expected them to see any action, it would only have been guarding the borders of the state against Indian incursion. To his shock, he was to find himself leading troops against his fellow citizens.

At the heart of the divisions in Massachusetts was the split between the commercial towns and cities of the east coast and the entirely rural western part of the state. Just as the British had found western Massachusetts almost impossible to rule, now the state authorities found themselves facing a violent uprising. In the summer of 1786 protests began as a protest against the increasing burden of taxes. Added to the tax burden was an attempt to force the payment of private debts. Most of this debt was owed to the wealthy merchants of the east coast. The farmers in the west of the state felt that they were being oppressed by an oligarchy and were not properly represented by the state government. Many of their complaints were similar to those of the revolutions of the 1770s, an irony that appears to have escaped Lincoln, but that many did see (especially British visitors to the state).

The initial response of the state government was to grant a eight-month debt moratorium, but at the same time habeas corpus was suspended, and a new Riot Act put in place. Protest in the west soon turned into armed revolt. Leaders began to emerge, amongst them Daniel Shays (after whom the revolt was named). They began by closing the courts in the west of the state, but by the end of 1786 their rhetoric had grown to include a direct threat to march on Boston and overthrow what they felt was an illegitimate government. The similarities to the events of 1775 worried many, including Washington. As commander of the militia, Lincoln found himself in the front line against his fellow Americans.

Lincoln’s attitude to the rebels was unambiguous. To him the problems of the western farmers owed more to their own laziness and moral turpitude than to any genuine problems. Their actions showed signs of insanity. Many accused Lincoln of hypocrisy for his attitude to the rebels, but that was based on a misunderstanding of Lincoln’s road to rebellion in the 1770s. He had fought for political and economic autonomy. If this could have been achieved under British rule, then the war need not have happened, but as the British refused to limit their claims to supremacy, they had to be removed. In 1780 Massachusetts had adopted a new constitution which enshrined Lincoln’s beliefs. To oppose this constitution through force was to oppose the whole republican experiment. If Lincoln had any concern about the Massachusetts constitution, it was that it was not conservative enough and should offer more protection for the oligarchies that had ruled pre-war America. Lincoln’s main worry was that if the government needed to resort to force to maintain the loyalty of some of its citizens, then the republican experiment could be failing. For this dire need to happen only four years after the peace was particularly worrying.

The government of Massachusetts had no clear idea of how to deal with the rebellion. An attempt to form a federal army to deal with the problem failed due to lack of money. The militia could not be relied on – in the west many members of the militia had joined the rebellion. The solution finally settled on in January 1787 was to form a volunteer army. This would be based around the eastern militias, and command of it was offered to Lincoln.

All expectation was that this would be a difficult venture. As well as the local militiamen, the rebel army contained a sizable number of ex-Continentals. Inevitably, these men would have included some that had served under Lincoln. A second problem was that the government had not declared a state of rebellion. This limited Lincoln’s ability to act. If he encountered a force of rebels, he would have to read out the Riot Act and then wait for one hour before he could act. In this time, the Shayites could have dispersed only to appear somewhere else and continue with their actions. Only if the rebels fired first could Lincoln act.

In the event, the campaign was much easier than expected. On 20 January Lincoln left Boston with a force of 4,400 men. His plan was to close with the rebels and keep close to them until they made a mistake and allowed him to fight. This would have been difficult to implement, but the rebels made his job much easier. On 20 January 2,300 rebels encircled the federal armoury at Springfield. General William Shepard had 1,000 militia to defend the armoury. If it fell, the threat posed by the rebels would greatly increase. On 25 January Shays led 1500 men against the armoury, but their only chance of victory was if the garrison lacked the will to fire on their own countrymen. They did not, and after four of the rebels were killed by grapeshot the rest of them retreated. When Lincoln arrived on 27 January the rebel force retreated before him. After quickly dispersing one group of rebels at West Springfield, he turned north to follow the main force under Shays.

Shays retreated to Pelham, where he found a strong defensive position. Lincoln paused in front of the rebel position to scout it out. On 2 February he scouted out the rebel lines, with the intention of attacking on the 3rd. The rebel’s nerve broke, and they retreated thirty miles to Petersham, where they hoped to gain reinforcements. Instead, they were taken by surprise by Lincoln. On hearing of the rebel move, Lincoln decided on a bold stroke. After a thirteen hour forced night march through the snow, his force reached Petersham at nine in the morning on 4 February, and immediately attacked. The surprise attack was completely successful. 150 rebels were taken prisoner, and the rest scattered in every direction. Shays himself fled to Canada. The main military threat of the Shays rebellion was over.

That was not to say that the fighting was over. Small bands of rebels continued to plague western Massachusetts until the summer. Lincoln’s problems would have been familiar to his British opponents in Georgia during the war. The rebels could appear, strike at a court and then disappear before he could react. Groups of rebels could retreat across the state borders beyond Lincoln’s reach. While some neighbouring states were eager to help crush the rebels, others were not. An attempt to get permission for Lincoln to pursue rebels anywhere in the United States failed.

The only way to end the fighting would be through a political settlement. The General Court and Governor Bowdoin were determined to follow a strict line against the rebels. A law was passed to disenfranchise all rebels who had not surrendered by 31 January 1787. Rebels were bared from all public office and from jury duty. In effect they were being cast out of the body politic. While Lincoln supported Bowdoin in public, privately he was concerned that this approach would make a permanent settlement impossible, and would leave the state with a large number of discontented inhabitants who would never be loyal, productive citizens.

The solution came as a result of the April elections. Lincoln was nominated for lieutenant governor, and although he publicly held back from campaigning he received the highest number of votes. The electoral system at this date was not truly democratic. If Lincoln had achieved a majority of the votes then he would have been safe, but he had not managed this. The Massachusetts House of Representatives could thus pick two candidates to propose to the Senate, and despite having won the election, Lincoln’s name was not put forward.

The election for governor was much more clear-cut. John Hancock won by a three to one margin on a ticket of clemency and compromise. This policy soon ended the last fighting, and peace was restored to Massachusetts. Lincoln was once again free to return to private life.

The Constitution

This interlude was even shorter than the last. On 25 September 1787 the draft Constitution produced by the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention reached Boston. Over the last few years Lincoln’s position on the constitution had changed. In 1780 he had been a support of a loose confederacy of states, bound together by common interest and public virtue. If the interests of the various states proved to be too far apart, then separate confederations could be formed. The slave economies of the south seemed most likely to separate. By 1787 Lincoln had changed his mind. If all thirteen states did not stand together, then it would only be a matter of time before all thirteen stood apart. The only way to preserve the union was to produce a strong central or Federal government. The Constitution that appeared in 1787 managed to satisfy both of his beliefs. The strong central authority was present, but the states remained independent bodies with some of their own laws. Lincoln was a fervent supporter of the constitution.

A personal tragedy now intervened to divert Lincoln from wider affairs. On 18 January 1788 his son, Benjamin Jr, died after a short illness. On top of the personal grief, Lincoln was now faced by an immediate financial crisis. Added to his own financial worries were the costs of supporting his son’s family. For a worrying period it looked as if Lincoln would be forced to sell up and move to Maine to farm. Instead, he was to re-enter public life. A year that began with such personal tragedy was to provide a stream of public acclaim. Lincoln was finally elected lieutenant-governor. He was elected captain of Ancient and Honourable Artillery Company, one of the most prestigious honours in Boston society. He was re-elected president of the Cincinnati society. He presided over the Harvard Commencement. His prestige in Massachusetts was at its peak. The only cloud on the public horizon was a growing feud with Governor Hancock. The first sign of the split came when Hancock refused to appoint Lincoln captain of Fort Independence, a largely honourary post that had provided the lieutenant governors with their only official income. This was a public snub to Lincoln, and also a serious blow to his finances. What can only be described as a slanging match followed between their respective supporters. Hancock won this debate after a series of appallingly hostile series of attacks on him in the press. In the 1789 elections, Lincoln was replaced as lieutenant governor. His career in Massachusetts politics was over.

Lincoln’s response was to turn to his old friend Washington, by now serving his first term as president of the United States. Lincoln was by this point desperate for some source of income, but he was not disappointed by Washington. When the President announced his first set of appointments on 3 August, almost every post was retained by the previous holder. The main exception was the post of collectorship of Boston, a very lucrative appointment. Lincoln was appointed collector, with two previous holders of the post made subordinate to him. This was the ideal post for Lincoln. It provided him with a safe and secure income. It was not a political post, so as long as Washington remained President, Lincoln was secure in his post. Best of all, it allowed him to remain at Hingham. The job came with two main duties. The first was to supervise the collection of import duties. The collector received a fraction of these duties, rising from $4000 in 1793, to $8000 in 1801. The second, and more onerous, duty was to maintain the light-houses of Maine and Massachusetts.

Indian Diplomacy

Now Lincoln was back in public life, Washington felt free to make use of his talents. One of the many issues facing the new republic was its relationship with the Native American tribes whose land bordered the states. The peace treaty with Britain had given the Americans control over large areas of wilderness, inhabited by a variety of Indian nations. There was little doubt in American minds that these Indians would have to go. Their land was wanted by American settlers, and their claim to the land was almost universally considered to be superior to that of the Indians whose land it actually was. Washington wanted to control the process by which the Indians were pushed back. He preferred a gradual process, regulated by diplomacy and structured through a series of treaties with the Indian nations. The individual states were pursuing a less controlled policy, which ran the risk of triggering a major Indian War. Settlers were thrusting deep into Indian held areas and then loudly demanding protection when the Indians fought back. The last thing Washington wanted was an expensive war.

To achieve this would require skilled diplomacy. When a mission was needed to establish a treaty with the Creek Indians in the south, he turned to Lincoln. The Creek were in dispute with the Georgians, who were making sweeping territorial claims. His reputation in the South was good, but he was not seen as tied to the area. The three man mission also included David Humphreys, one of Washington’s aides, and Cyrus Griffin, a former president of Congress. This was a high powered delegation, but the chances of success were not high. The treaty on offer was portrayed as a final and lasting peace between the Creek and the United States, but a series of earlier treaties had failed to hold back the wave of settles, and each time the Creek had been forced further back and towards the coast. This treaty was no different. In return for a guarantee of their remaining lands, the Creek were expected to surrender more land (all of the area claimed by Georgia), establish a free trading port, acknowledge themselves to be under the authority and protection of the United States, and agree not to make treaties with any other power (Especially the Spanish, who still held Florida and Louisiana).

Lincoln and his colleagues reached the conference site on 20 September after an arduous journey to what at the time was the southernmost state of the Union. The Creek spokesman was Alexander McGillivray, half Scottish half French and hostile to the United States. He had established a strong relationship with the Spanish, which allowed him to take a firm line with the Americans. The Spanish were keen to have a strong Indian buffer state between themselves and the stridently aggressive Americans and were prepared to back up the Creeks. Once negotiations got under way, it was clear that the Creeks would not agree to the terms on offer. The best that Lincoln and his colleagues were able to achieve was a truce while the territorial and sovereignty issues were addressed. In some circles the failure of the mission was blamed on the choice of ex-military men for a diplomatic mission, but there was a secondary reason for the choice of Lincoln. On his return to New York, Lincoln played a part in producing the main report on the mission, but also produced a separate report on the military capacity of the Creek, and recommending a strategy to use if war did break out.

Washington was to turn to Lincoln again in 1793. This time the problem was in the North West. In the area between the Ohio River and British held Canada the Indians had organised themselves into a strong Confederacy. This Confederacy refused to recognize the validity of a series of treaties signed by individual tribes that had granted limited rights to settle over the Ohio. A series of massacres committed by the settlers had made the situation worse. The American response had been largely ineffective. The problem was that the republic did not have a suitable professional army. Militia forces had proved unequal to the task and after a series of defeats Anthony Wayne was commissioned to form a professional legion. Washington decided on one final diplomatic effort in an attempt to avert war.

Just as the Creek had Spanish support, the Indian Confederacy benefited from British backing. However, world events intervened. The French Revolution convulsed Europe, and Britain did not want American complications to divert her from the struggle with revolutionary France. Once again, Lincoln was one of three commissioners sent on a mission that was doomed from the start. The sticking point was the Ohio River boundary. The Confederacy would only negotiation if the Ohio was agreed as their border beforehand. The United States was not willing to pull back across the river. The two main incentives being offered by the Americans were a large cash payment and the confirmation that the Indians had ‘right of soil’ in their own lands. On 16 August the official Indian response arrived. They pointed out that they had no need of money, and that the cash would be better used to pay compensation to the settlers over the Ohio. As for the offer of ‘right of soil’, the Indians did not see as a concession, but simply as an admittance of the truth.

The following year Wayne’s legion inflicted a major defeat on the Indian Confederacy. The treaty that was imposed on them was far harsher than the one on offer in 1793. It could be said that they were foolish to turn down the terms Lincoln had offered. However, even Lincoln only saw this treaty as a temporary measure. In his vision of the future, the Indians would be forced further and further into the wilderness by the gradual encroachment of civilisation. In the long run he saw no place for the Native Americans in the United States. Acceptance of the treaty on offer in 1793 would not have saved the Indian Confederacy from its predatory neighbour.

Final Years

Lincoln remained active in public service until the year before his death. He remained Collector of Boston until January 1809, when he resigned citing ill health. He had tried to resign in 1806, but had been persuaded to stay on, and had found himself enforcing the unpopular Embargo Act of 1807, which banned the export of American goods to foreign ports. Despite some political controversy, inevitable in the fractious atmosphere of the time, his reputation remained unsullied. When he died, on 9 May 1810, the bells of Boston tolled for an hour. Amongst his pallbearers was the second President, his close friend and neighbour John Adams. Lincoln had put as much effort into the winning of independence as any man. He had campaigned in every part of the United States, from the far north around Saratoga, to the deepest south. The only blemish on his military record was the siege of Charleston, and even there his reputation emerged largely unscathed. His skills as an organiser played a major role in the success of the march to Yorktown, and in the aftermath of that victory his diplomatic skills helped to keep the army together until peace was confirmed. His reputation deserves to stand much higher.


War for America Black, Jeremy, War For America: The Fight for Independence 1775-1783. Provides a clear narrative of the war, taken year by year, with good chapters on some of the later years that are often skipped over. Also contains a good selection of quotes from participents in the conflict.
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The Glorious Cause Middlekauff, Robert, The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution 1763-1789. A very well researched book that is especially strong on the events that led up to the Revolution, which take up the first third of the book. Unlike many similar books it also covers the years immediately after the war and up to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
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Mattern, David, Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution, a detailed and sympathetic biography of this undeservedly obscure American revolutionary general.
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See Also
Books on the American War of Independence
Subject Index: American War of Independence