J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Benjamin Lincoln: general, narcoleptic

Benjamin Lincoln of Hingham, Massachusetts, was another of the Continental Army's top generals from New England. He was neither as successful nor as celebrated in later years as Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, but he retained the respect of Congress throughout the war, even after such reverses as being captured at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1779. In fact, Gen. George Washington made Lincoln second-in-command for the Yorktown campaign, and he accepted the sword of surrender when neither force's commander chose to appear at the ceremony.

Lincoln's medical handicap was narcolepsy. As David B. Mattern explains in Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution:

A contemporary wrote that, "in the midst of conversation, at table, and when driving himself in a chaise, he would fall into a sound sleep." Lincoln would fall asleep while dictating dispatches, wake, and carry on as if nothing had happened.

While disconcerting to others, this condition did not seem to slow him down. It provided the substance for more than one jest and many occasions in which Lincoln was warmly defended by those who knew him well. Once a gentleman disparaged Lincoln in the presence of Major William Jackson by saying that the general was always falling asleep. Jackson, who had served as Lincoln’s aide during the war, retorted, "Sir, General Lincoln was never asleep when it was necessary for him to be awake."

Lincoln himself "considered this as an infirmity, and his friends never ventured to speak to him of it."
And that ends this week's short series on high-ranking Continental Army officers and the infirmities they had to overcome.


bacpro620 said...

Love your blog. I have bookmarked it.

Anonymous said...

How did Benjamin Lincoln die?

J. L. Bell said...

An 1847 biography says Lincoln’s death was preceded by “a short attack of illness.” That’s helpful, isn’t it? Well, he was seventy-seven, so people weren’t surprised.