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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). New York. 1906.


The Revolutionary War. 1775–1783

THE YEAR 1775 was for New York City one of great doubt and anxiety. All classes had united in sending delegates to the first Continental Congress. The most ardent supporters of the Crown and Parliament were opposed to the Stamp Act and Tea Act, and were anxious to protest against them, and to try to bring about a more satisfactory understanding between the mother country and her colonies. On the other hand the popular party as yet shrank from independence. The men who thus early thought of separation from Britain were in a small and powerless minority; indeed, they were but a little knot of republican enthusiasts, who for several years had been accustomed at their drinking-bouts to toast the memory of the famous English regicides.

With the summoning of the second Continental Congress this unity disappeared, as the Whigs and Tories began to drift in opposite ways,—the one party toward violent measures with separation in the background, the other toward reconciliation even at the cost of submission. A Tory mob tried to break up the meeting at which delegates to the second Congress were chosen, and were only driven off after a number of heads had been broken.

New York still remained doubtful. In fact, all of the colonies outside of Virginia and New England—although containing strong patriot parties, animated by the most fiery zeal—were as a whole somewhat lukewarm in the Revolution, for they contained also large Tory, and still larger neutral elements in their midst. If left to themselves it is even doubtful if at this precise time they would have revolted; they were pushed into independence by the Virginians and New Englanders. Not only was the Tory element in New York very large, but there was also a powerful body of Whigs—typified by Schuyler and Gouverneur Morris—who furnished very able soldiers and statesmen when the actual fighting broke out, but who were thoroughly disgusted by the antics of the city mob; and though the major portion of this mob was rabidly anti-British as far as noise went, it was far more anxious to maltreat unhappy individual Tories than to provoke a life and death struggle with the troops and war-ships of the British king. Nor must it be forgotten that there were plenty of Tories in the mob itself, and these among the most abandoned and violent of the city’s population.

The provincial legislature was as a body actively loyal to the king. But, in spite of the presence of the large Tory and neutral elements, the revolutionary party was unquestionably in the lead among the people, and contained the most daring spirits and the loftiest minds of the colony. There is much to admire in the resolute devotion which many tens of thousands of Loyalists showed to the king, whose cause they made their own; and there is much to condemn in the excesses committed by a portion of the popular party. Nevertheless, as in the great English civil war of the preceding century, the party of liberty was the party of right. The purest and ablest New Yorkers were to be found in the ranks of the revolutionists; for keen-eyed and right-thinking men saw that on the main issue justice was with the colonists. The young men of ardent, generous temper, such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and Gouverneur Morris, found it impossible to side with the foreign party. They were Americans, freemen, conscious that they deserved to stand on a level with the best of any land; and they could not cast in their lot with the party which held as a cardinal point of its creed the doctrine of their inferiority.

The mass of quiet, good, respectable people, of conservative instincts and rather dull feelings, might rest content with being treated as inferiors, if on the whole they were treated well; might submit to being always patronized and often bullied, if only they were protected; might feel they owed an honest debt of gratitude to their champions in former wars; and might shrink from enduring the hundred actual evils of civil conflict merely for the sake of protesting against the violation of certain abstract rights and principles; but the high-spirited young men, the leaders in thought and action, fixed with unerring certainty upon the central and vital truth of the situation. They saw that the struggle, when resolved into its ultimate elements, was to allow Americans the chance for full and free development, uncramped by the galling sense of admitted inferiority. The material benefits conferred by the continuance of British rule might or might not offset the material disadvantages it involved; but they could not weigh against the evils of a system which dwarfed the character and intellect,—a system which condemned all colonists to remain forever in the second rank, which forbade their striving for the world’s great prizes, unless they renounced their American birthright, and which deprived them of those hopes that especially render life worth living in the eyes of the daring and ambitious. To their free, bold spirits, the mere assumption of their inferiority was an intolerable grievance, as indeed it has ever been esteemed by the master races of the world. Sooner than submit, in ignoble peace and safety, to an order of things which would have stunted the moral and mental growth of the country, they were willing to risk not only the dangers of war with the British king, but the far worse dangers of disorder, violence, anarchy, and a general loosening of the social bonds among Americans themselves. The event proved their wisdom.

Yet the dangers were very real and great. The country was still in the gristle; the thews had not hardened. There had been much lawlessness, in one quarter and another, already; and the long struggle of the Revolution produced hideous disorganization. It is impossible to paint in too dark colors the ferocity of the struggle between the Whigs and Tories; and the patriot mobs, either of their own accord or instigated by the Sons of Liberty and kindred bodies, often took part in proceedings which were thoroughly disgraceful. New York had her full share of these mob-outbreaks during the summer of 1775. The lawyers, pamphleteers, and newspaper writers, who contributed so largely to arouse the people, also too often joined to hound the populace on to the committal of outrages. The mob broke into and plundered the houses of wealthy Loyalists, rode Tories on rails, or tarred, feathered, and otherwise brutally maltreated them, and utterly refused to allow to others the liberty of speech and thought they so vociferously demanded for themselves. They hated and threatened the Episcopalian, or Church of England, clergy, because of that part of the liturgy in which the king was prayed for; and finally the Episcopalian churches had to be closed for fear of them. They drove off the Tory president of King’s (now Columbia) College and joined with a Connecticut mob to wreck the office of the Loyalist newspaper. It is to their credit, however, that there was little interference with the courts of justice. They did not come into collision with the soldiers of the garrison, and the latter were permitted to embark for Massachusetts Bay, where hostilities had fairly begun; but they refused to allow any stores or munitions of war to be shipped to the beleaguered garrison at Boston. There were frequent rows with the boats’ crews of the frigates in the bay; once with the result of a broadside being fired into the town by an affronted man-of-war.

In spite of these disturbances, New York still remained reluctant to burn her boats, and throw in her lot once for all with the patriots. Both Washington, on his way to take command of the American army at Boston, and Tryon, the royal governor, were received with the same formal tokens of respect. Meanwhile business was at a standstill, and a third of the inhabitants had left the town.

By the beginning of the year 1776 the real leaders of the city and province the men of mark, and of proved courage and capacity, saw that all hope of compromise was over. They had been disgusted with the turbulence of the mob, and the noisy bragging and threatening of its leaders,—for the most part frothy men, like Isaac Sears, who sank out of ken when the days of rioting passed, and the grim, weary, bloody years of fighting were ushered in; but they were infinitely more disgusted with the spirit of tyrannous folly shown by the King and Parliament. The only possible outcome was independence.

The citizens had become thoroughly hostile to the Tory Colonial Assembly, and had formally set it aside and replaced it, first by a succession of committees, and then by a series of provincial congresses, corresponding to the central Continental Congress. The mob never controlled these congresses, whose leaders were men like Schuyler, Van Zandt, Van Cortlandt, Jay, the Livingstons, the Morrises, the Van Rensselaers, the Ludlows,—representatives of the foremost families of the New York gentry. When the Provincial Congress, with unanimity and the heartiest enthusiasm, ratified the Declaration of Independence, it was evident that the best men in New York were on the Revolutionary side.

In January, 1776, Washington sent one of his generals to take command in New York, and in April he himself made it his headquarters, having at last driven the enemy from Boston. Soon the motly levies of the patriot army were thronging the streets,—some in homespun or buckskin, a few in the dingy scarlet they had worn in the last French war, Marylanders in green hunting-shirts, Virginians in white smocks, militia in divers uniforms from the other colonies, and Washington’s guards, the nucleus of the famous Continental troops of the line, in their blue and buff. All New York was in a ferment; and the ardent young patriots were busy from morning till night in arming, equipping, and drilling the regiments that made up her quota.

The city was in no state to resist a siege, or an attack by a superior force. Her forts, such as they were, would not have availed against any foe more formidable than a light frigate or heavy privateer. The truth was that the United States—for such the revolted colonies had become—were extremely vulnerable to assault. Their settled territory lay in a narrow belt, stretching for a thousand miles along the coast. Its breadth was but a hundred miles or so, in most places; then it faded off, the inland frontier lying vaguely in the vast, melancholy, Indian-haunted forests. The ferocious and unending warfare with the red woodland tribes kept the thinly scattered pioneers busy defending their own hearthstones, and gave them but scant breathing spells in which to come to the help of their brethren in the old settled regions. The eastern frontier was the coast-line itself, which was indented by countless sounds, bays, and harbors, and here and there broken by great estuaries or tide-water rivers, which could carry hostile fleets into the heart of the land. The bulk of the population, and all the chief towns, lay in easy striking distance from the sea. Almost all the intercolonial trade went along the water-ways, either up and down the rivers, or skirting the coast. There was no important fortress or fortified city; no stronghold of note. A war power having command of the seas possessed the most enormous advantage. It menaced the home trade almost as much as the foreign, threatened the whole exposed coast-line,—and therefore the settled country which lay alongside it,—could concentrate its forces wherever it wished, and could penetrate the country at will. The revolted colonists had no navy, while the mother country possessed the most powerful in the world. She was fourfold their superior in population, and a hundredfold in wealth; she had a powerful standing army, while they had none. Moreover, the colonists’ worst foes were those of their own household. The active Tories and half-hearted neutrals formed the majority of the population in many districts,—including Long Island and Staten Island. The Americans were then a race of yeomen, or small farmers, who were both warlike in temper and unmilitary in habits. They were shrewd, brave, patriotic, stout of heart and body, and proudly self-reliant, but impatient of discipline, and most unwilling to learn the necessity of obedience. Their notion of war was to enlist for a short campaign, usually after the hay was in, and to return home by winter, or sooner, if their commanding officers displeased them. They seemed unable to appreciate the need of sustained effort. The jealousies of the different States and their poverty and short-sighted parsimony, the looseness of the Federal tie, the consequent impotence of the central government, and the radical unfitness of the Continental Congress as a body to conduct war, all combined to render the prospects of the patriots gloomy. Only the heroic grandeur of Washington could have built up victory from these jarring elements. It was therefore natural for the patriot party of New York to look before it leaped; but the leap once taken, it never faltered. No other State north of South Carolina was so harried by the forces of the king; and against no other State did they direct such efforts or send such armies,—armies which held portions of it to the close of the war. Yet the patriot party remained firm throughout, never flinching through the long years, cheering the faint-hearted, crushing out the Tories, and facing the enemy with unshaken front.

Early in the summer a great armament began to gather in the lower bay; a force more numerous and more formidable than the famous Armada which nearly two centuries before had sailed from Spain against England. Scores of war-ships of every kind, from the heavy liner, with her tiers of massive cannon, to the cutter armed with a couple of light cannon, and hundreds of transports and provision-ships began to arrive, squadron by squadron. Aboard them was an army of nearly forty thousand fighting-men. A considerable number were Hessians, and other German troops, hired out by the greedy and murderous baseness of the princelets of Germany. The Americans grew to feel a peculiar hatred for these Hessians, because of the ravages they committed, and because of the merely mercenary nature of their-services; but the wrong lay not with the poor, dull-witted, hard-fighting boors, but with their sordid and contemptible masters.

With the near approach of this great army the Tories began plotting; and most rigorous measures were taken to stamp out these plots. For some reason the lower class of liquor sellers were mostly Tories, and many of the plots were found to have their origin among them or their customers. The Loyalist gentry had for the most part fled to the British lines. Those who remained behind—including both the mayor and ex-mayor of the city—were forced to take a stringent oath of allegiance to the Continental Congress and the new nation. The Tory plots were not mythical; one was unearthed which aimed at nothing less than the abducting or killing of Washington,—the ringleader, Thomas Hickey, an Irish soldier who had deserted from the royal army, being hanged for his villainy.

Washington saw the hopelessness of trying to defend New York with the materials he had, against such a force as was coming against it; and it was proposed to burn the town and retire so that the king’s troops might gain nothing by the capture. This was undoubtedly the proper course to follow, from a purely military standpoint; but the political objections to its adoption were insuperable. Washington labored unceasingly at the almost hopeless task of perfecting the discipline of his raw, ill-armed, ill-provided, jealousy-riven army; and he put down outrages, where he could, with a heavy hand. Nevertheless, many of the soldiers plundered right and left, treating the property of all Loyalists as rightfully to be confiscated, and often showing small scruple in robbing wealthy Whigs under pretense of mistaking them for Tories.

At last, in mid-August, the British general, Lord Howe, made up his mind to strike at the doomed city. He landed on Long Island a body of fifteen or twenty thousand soldiers,—English, Irish, and German. The American forces on the island were not over half as numerous, and were stationed in the neighborhood of Brooklyn. Some of the British frigates had already ascended the Hudson to the Tappan Sea, and had cannonaded the town as they dropped down stream again, producing a great panic, but doing little damage. The royal army was landed on the twenty-second; but Lord Howe, a very slow, easy-going man, did not deliver his blow until five days later. The attack was made in three divisions, early in the morning, and was completely successful. The Americans permitted themselves to be surprised, and were outgeneraled in every way. Not half the force on either side was engaged. Some of the American troops made but a short stand; others showed a desperate but disorderly valor. About two thousand of them were killed, wounded, or captured, principally the latter; while the British loss was less than four hundred, the battle being won without difficulty. Howe seemingly had the remainder of the American army completely at his mercy, for it was cooped up on a point of land which projected into the water. But he felt so sure of his prey that he did not strike at once; and while he lingered and made ready, Washington, who had crossed over to the scene of disaster, perfected his plans, and by a masterly stroke ferried the beaten army across to New York during the night of the twenty-ninth. The following morning the king’s generals woke to find that their quarry had slipped away from them.

The discouragement and despondency of the Americans were very great, Washington almost alone keeping up heart. It was resolved to evacuate New York; the chief opponent of the evacuation being General George Clinton, a hard-fighting soldier from Ulster county, where his people of Anglo-Irish origin stood well, having intermarried with the Tappans and De Witts of the old Dutch stock. Clinton did not belong to the old colonial families of weight, being almost the only New York Revolutionary leader of note who did not; and in consequence they rather looked down on him, while he in turn repaid their dislike with interest. He was a harsh, narrow-minded man, of obstinate courage and considerable executive capacity, very ambitious, and a fanatical leader of the popular party in the contest with the Crown.

On September 15, Howe, having as usual lost a valuable fortnight by delay, moved against Manhattan Island. His troops landed at Kip’s Bay, where the Americans opposed to them, mostly militia, broke in disgraceful panic and fled before them. Washington spurred to the scene in a frenzy of rage, and did his best to stop the rout, striking the fugitives with his sword, and hurling at them words of bitter scorn; but it was all in vain, the flight could not be stayed, and Washington himself was only saved from death or capture by his aides-de-camp, who seized his bridle-reins and forced him from the field.

However, Washington’s acts and words had their effect, and as the Americans recovered from their panic they became heartily ashamed of themselves. The king’s troops acted with such slowness that the American divisions south of Kip’s Bay were able to march past them unmolested. These divisions, on their retreat, were guided by a brilliant young officer, Aaron Burr, then an aide-de-camp to the rough, simple-hearted old wolf-killer General Putnam; and the rear was protected by Alexander Hamilton and his company of New York artillerymen, who in one or two slight skirmishes beat off the advance guard of the pursuers.

Washington drew up his army on Haarlem Heights, and the next day inflicted a smart check on the enemy. An American outpost was attacked and driven in by the English light troops, who were then themselves attacked and roughly handled by the Connecticut men and Virginians. They were saved from destruction by some regiments of Hessians and Highlanders; but further reinforcements for the Americans arrived, and the royal troops were finally driven from the field. About a hundred Americans and nearly three times as many of their foes were killed or wounded. It was nothing more than a severe skirmish; but it was a victory, and it did much to put the Americans in heart.

Besides, it was a lesson to the king’s troops, and made Howe even more cautious than usual. For an entire month he remained fronting Washington’s lines, which, he asserted, were too strong to be carried by assault. Then the rough sea-dogs of the fleet came to his rescue, with the usual daring and success of British seamen. His frigates burst through the obstructions which the Americans had fondly hoped would bar the Hudson, and sailed up past the flanks of the patriot army; while the passage to the Sound was also forced. Washington had no alternative but to retreat, which he did slowly, skirmishing heavily. At White Plains, Howe drove in the American outposts, suffering more loss than he inflicted. But a fortnight later, in mid-November, a heavy disaster befell the Americans. In deference to the wishes of Congress, Washington had kept garrisons in the two forts which had been built to guard the Hudson, and Howe attacked them with sudden energy. One was evacuated at the last moment; the other was carried by assault, and its garrison of nearly three thousand men captured, after a resistance which could not be called more than respectable. Washington retreated into New Jersey with his dwindling army of but little more than three thousand men. The militia had all left him long before; and his short-term “regular” troops also went off by companies and regiments as their periods of enlistment drew to a close; and the stoutest friends of America despaired. Then, in the icy winter, Washington suddenly turned on his foes, crossed the Delaware, and by the victory of Trenton, won at the darkest moment of the war, re-established the patriot cause.

For the next seven years, New York suffered all the humiliations that fall to the lot of a conquered city. The king’s troops held it as a garrison town, under military rule, and made it the headquarters of their power in America. Their foraging parties and small expeditionary columns ravaged the neighboring counties, not only of New York, but of New Jersey and Connecticut. The country in the immediate vicinity of the city was overawed by the formidable garrison and remained Loyalist; beyond this came a wide zone or neutral belt where the light troops and irregular forces of both sides fought one another and harried the wretched inhabitants. Privateers were fitted out to cruise against the shipping of the other States, precisely as the privateers of the patriots had sailed from the harbor against the shipping of Britain in the earlier days of the war.

Most of the active patriots among the townsfolk had left the city; only the poor and the faint-hearted remained behind, together with the large Tory element, and the still larger portion of the population which strove to remain neutral in the conflict. This last division contained the only persons whose conduct must be regarded as thoroughly despicable. Emphatically the highest meed of praise belongs to the resolute, high-minded, far-seeing men of the patriot party,—as distinguished from the mere demagogues and mob leaders who, of course, are to be found associated with every great popular movement. We can also heartily respect the honest and gallant Loyalists who sacrificed all by their devotion to the king’s cause. But the selfish time-servers, the timid men, and those who halt between two burdens, and can never make up their minds which side to support in any great political crisis, are only worthy of contempt.

The king’s troops were not cruel conquerors; but they were insolent and overbearing, and sometimes brutal. The Loyalists were in a thoroughly false position. They had drawn the sword against their countrymen; and yet they could not hope to be treated as equals by those for whom they were fighting. They soon found to their bitter chagrin that their haughty allies regarded them as inferiors, and despised an American Tory almost as much as they hated an American Whig. The native army had not behaved well in the half-Tory city of New York; but the invading army which drove it out behaved much worse. The soldiers broke into and looted the corporation, the college, and the small public libraries, hawking the books about the streets, or exchanging them for liquor in the low saloons. They also sacked the Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and Huguenot churches, which were later turned into prisons for the captured Americans; while on the other hand, the Episcopalian churches, which had been closed owing to the riotous conduct of the patriot mob, were reopened. The hangers-on of the army,—the camp-followers, loose women, and the like,—formed a regular banditti, who infested the streets after dark, and made all outgoings dangerous. There was a completely organized system of gigantic jobbery and swindling, by which the contractors and commissaries, and not a few of the king’s officers as well, were enriched at the expense of the British government; and when they plundered the government wholesale, it was not to be supposed that they would spare Tories. The rich Royalists, besides of course all the Whigs, had their portable property, their horses, provisions, and silver taken from them right and left,—sometimes by bands of marauding soldiers, sometimes by the commissaries, but always without redress or compensation, their representations to the officers in command being scornfully disregarded. They complained in their bitter anger that the troops sent to reconquer America seemed bent on campaigning less against the rebels than against the king’s own friends and the king’s own army-chest. Many of the troops lived at free quarters in the private houses, behaving well or ill according to their individual characters.

A few days after New York was captured it took fire, and a large portion of it was burnt up before the flames were checked. The British soldiers were infuriated by the belief that the fire was the work of rebel incendiaries, and in the disorganization of the day they cut loose from the control of their officers and committed gross outrages, bayoneting a number of men, both Whigs and Tories, whom on the spur of the moment they accused of being privy to the plot for burning the city. Two or three years afterward there was another great fire, which consumed much of what the first had spared.

On the day of this first fire an American spy, Nathan Hale, was captured. His fate attracted much attention on account of his high personal character. He was a captain in the patriot army, a graduate of Yale, and betrothed to a beautiful girl; and he had volunteered for the dangerous task from the highest sense of duty. He was hanged the following morning, and met his death with quiet, unflinching firmness, his last words expressing his regret that he had but one life to lose for his country. He was mourned by his American comrades as deeply and sincerely and with to the full as much reason as a few years later André was mourned by the officers of the king.

Four or five thousand American soldiers were captured in the battles attending the taking of New York; and thenceforward the city was made the prison-house of all the captured patriots. The old City Hall, the old sugar-house of the Livingstons (a gloomy stone building, five stories high, with deep narrow windows), and most of the non-Episcopal churches were turned into jails, and packed full of prisoners. It was a much rougher age than the present; the prisons of the most civilized countries were scandalous even in peace, and of course prisoners of war fared horribly. The king’s officers as a whole doubtless meant to behave humanely; but the provost-marshal of New York was a very brutal man, and the cheating commissaries who undertook to feed the prisoners made large fortunes by furnishing them with spoiled provisions, curtailing their rations, and the like. The captives were huddled together in ragged, emaciated, vermin-covered and fever-stricken masses; while disease, bad food, bad water, the cold of winter, and the stifling heat of summer ravaged their squalid ranks. Every morning the death-carts drew up at the doors to receive the bodies of those who during the night had died on the filthy straw of which they made their beds. The prison-ships were even worse. They were evil, pestilent hulks of merchantmen or men-of-war, moored mostly in Wallabout Bay; and in their noisome rotten holds men died by hundreds, and were buried in shallow pits at the water’s edge, the graves being soon uncovered by the tide. In after years many hogsheads of human bones were taken from the foul ooze to receive Christian burial.

So for seven dreary years New York lay in thraldom, while Washington and his Continentals battled for the freedom of America. Nor did Washington battle only with the actual foe in the field. He had to strive also with the short-sighted and sour jealousies of the different States, the mixed impotence and intrigue of Congress, the poverty of the people, the bankruptcy of the government, the lukewarm timidity of many, the open disaffection of not a few, and the jobbery of speculators who were sometimes to be found high in the ranks of the army itself. Moreover, he had to contend with the general dislike of discipline and sustained exertion natural to the race of shrewd, brave, hardy farmers whom he led,—unused as they were to all restraint, and unable to fully appreciate the necessity of making sacrifices in the present for the sake of the future. But his soul rose above disaster, misfortune, and suffering; he had the heart of the people really with him, he was backed by a group of great statesmen, and he had won the unfaltering and devoted trust of the band of veteran soldiers with whom he had achieved victory, suffered defeat, and wrested victory from defeat for so many years; and he triumphed in the end.

On November 25, 1783, the armies of the king left the city they had held so long, carrying with them some twelve thousand Loyalists; while on the same day Washington marched in with his troops and with the civil authorities of the State.