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April 2, 2010 / howardmestas


A Triuphant George Washington Enters New York City

Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York

When students of history learn about the American Revolution they are bombarded with accounts of bravery on the battlefields and the sufferings of winter encampments; and the political maneuvers of the Continental Congress.  Too often, however, the anguish and displacement of civilian populations are ignored.  In her book, “Generous Enemies,” historian Judith Van Buskirk describes in painstaking detail, the incredible burdens faced by the noncombatants of New York City and environs from 1776 to 1783.  As with any war, military quartermasters are primarily concerned with responsibilities of supplying troops; with little regard to the needs of the displaced populace.  In the case of the seven-year-long British occupation of New York City, Loyalist and Patriot civilians alike were forced to find relief with their generous counterparts on the other side.

When it became clear in early 1776 that the British would abandon Boston, panic and confusion reigned supreme among the divided inhabitants of New York City, along with surrounding areas in New Jersey and Connecticut.  Continental troops swarmed the islands at the mouth of the Hudson River, building redoubts and barriers in anticipation of the invasion from the north.  Almost immediately, Loyalists throughout the Hudson Valley faced the oppression of angry Patriot mobs that seemed bent on exploiting the situation to settle long held vendettas.  Property was vandalized; possessions were stolen, and tarring and feathering scenes were not uncommon.  Tories in New York City were forced to become refugees in the surrounding countryside.  But by the end of June in that year, the tides of war would change with the arrival of the British fleet.  By September thirty-two thousand redcoats would replace rebel forces in the city, clearing the way for streams of Loyalist citizens returning to reclaim their property and settle scores.  By this time the largest faction of New Yorkers who had not yet taken sides were in the position where they would have to take a stand.  As Van Buskirk writes, “In the early going, these various wings of the Revolutionary movement had not figured out who they were, what they were supposed to do, or where their responsibilities ended and the next group’s began.”

In contrast to long held beliefs, the British army showed a contemptibly small amount of kinship toward the throngs who remained loyal to the king, focusing instead on the impressments of private property and the pressured recruitment of locals for service in the military.  Two polarized camps would evolve with the Tories occupying the city as the patriot Whig factions settled on the perimeter.  Both sides suffered hardships with the demands of the military, and as the war dragged on and supplies dwindled, it became clear to civilians that their needs would be subordinate to those their respective armies.  With the goal of basic survival and a few creature comforts, opposing political factions began to seek their needs from an old and familiar source they knew they could rely on, their erstwhile friends and family on the other side.  Van Buskirk notes, “A family member within enemy lines still needed help, and an illegal shipment of flour from a relative outside those lines could be arranged.  Such basic human concerns solidified into networks that throughout the war operated actively across no-man’s-land and into the heart of enemy territory.”

Early on, commanders on each side eased “emergency” travel restrictions; only because they were aware that the citizenry were so familiar with the terrain that their movement would be impossible to contain.  Letters between family and friends on each side were common.  Women in particular were accorded more freedom of movement because they were fulfilling the traditional role as “nurturers, providers, and caregivers.”  They would be the ones who were frequently seen at the windows of the city’s prisons aiding relatives because they were not considered to be a threat.  Women could go where no man would dare, but only because they were determined to be “weak and childlike.”  This mobility would afford women the opportunity of being the greatest purveyors of information that could be beneficial to enemy camps.  Van Buskirk writes that, “The news they brought back home and disseminated far exceeded the contribution of famous spies like Nathan Hale.”

During the British occupation, African Americans (free and slave) also enjoyed a greater personal status as never before experienced in the colonies.  Any measure of skill or muscle energy they could provide would be an equal measure of loss to their masters, and to the American side.  With the promise of freedom, thousands flocked to the British side where they roamed freely within occupied lines; many would serve proudly as members of the King’s Navy.  They would become so valuable a commodity that they could negotiate with their former masters for the freedom of their wives and children and for better working conditions if they promised to return.  The British were conscientious of their promises made and availed every effort after the war to evacuate slaves who served, much to the dismay of George Washington who felt they were property that should return to their owners.

Van Buskirk’s research also shattered long propagated myths that the goals of the founders somehow included the creation of an egalitarian society.  Nothing could be farther from the truth; one needs only to examine the disparities in treatment between prisoners of rank and privilege versus the brutality reserved for enlisted men.  In a reflection of 18th Century society, wealth and birthright usually triumphed over any sense of fairness in the military codes.  Both armies were bound by an “international confraternity of gentlemen” with courtesies extended to members of their own rank.  Captured officers on both sides enjoyed privileges granted to one another that made the war seem like some type of game played among friends.  Officers were not restricted in their travel or in their pursuit of the best available delicacies in food or entertainment.  Van Buskirk notes that, “After the battle of Saratoga, the defeated British General, John Burgoyne, stayed in the mansion house of American General, Philip Schuyler.  One week after the battle, some American officers attended a dinner at General Burgoyne’s table in the Schuyler house.”  Such arrangements were not uncommon and certainly not without the full awareness of the Congress in Philadelphia.  By comparison captured prisoners of the “lower sort” suffered incredible hardships in sugarhouses and prison ships where death from

Rhinelander's Sugar House Where American Prisoners of Low Rank were Kept

 disease and neglect were common.  Class distinctions remained a part of society even as the most difficult stages of the war unfolded, and no greater example could be given than the Benedict Arnold-John Andre spy case.  In the most egregious of crimes, Arnold’s plan risked hundreds soldiers lives and could have dealt a strategic blow that may have ended the American cause.  As fate would have it Arnold escaped to safety behind British lines while Major Andre was the captive of the American Army.  The job of espionage was not without risk and spies were hanged routinely, but Andre was a ranking British officer and American officers were sympathetic to his cause.  In what should have been a swift execution, Andre’s case dragged on for ten days before overwhelming public condemnation forced him to the gallows.  By contrast an American enlisted man was hanged just two weeks earlier for plundering.  Another soldier had recently met the same fate for his crime of forging an officer’s handwriting and handing out furloughs and discharges for some of his buddies.  Surely there was no fairness when it came to rank.

Following the events at Yorktown in 1781, Loyalists in New York began to see the writings on the wall and by the start of 1783 the peace treaty in Paris was being worked out.  Once again the reversal of power was hastening its way through the city after seven long years of British authority.  The most flagrant antagonists to American independence found themselves in desperate situations and by the spring, mass evacuations to Britain, Canada or the West Indies were ongoing.  Those who could make their case petitioned for their property or for a chance to remain.  Many of the forlorn realized their best hope was to enlist the support of those on the “other side” who would still be willing to uphold their trust and their reputations.  They would seek the comfort of their old friends and relations; those who had been generous enemies.


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