History Podcasts

George Washington's Westchester Gamble, Richard Borkow

George Washington's Westchester Gamble, Richard Borkow

George Washington's Westchester Gamble, Richard Borkow

George Washington's Westchester Gamble, Richard Borkow

This book looks at the events of the American War of Independence in Westchester County, in the area due north of New York. During the War of Independence it was a largely rural area. The southern part of the county is now part of New York's suburbia, but there are still large rural areas, and the area is one of the wealthiest in the USA.

The county came to prominence when the British regains control of New York from the American rebels in 1776. The city stayed in British hands for the rest of the war, and for much of that time Westchester was either the front line or no-man's land. In 1781 Washington and the main Franco-American army camped in the county before marching off to victory at Yorktown.

The area thus saw two very different types of activity. For long periods it was subjected to the small scale raiding and lawlessness that blighted many areas during the war, while at other times large armies operated in the area. The area was also a hotbed of spying, and part of Benedict Arnold's story was played out in the county.

The author has done a good job of coping with these changes of scale – when required he traces events well beyond the borders of Westchester County, not something that is always done in books of local history. The county's part in wider events makes the book more interesting than purely local studies, giving a variety that is sometimes lacking. This is an interesting approach to the topic and well worth a read.

Chapters
1 - The American Revolution and Its Early French Connections
2 - Turning Point on the Hudson: Victory at Saratoga Leads to the French Alliance
3 - Rochambeau's Arrival and Arnold's Treason
4 - Episodes from the War in Westchester
5 - Now or Never Our Deliverance Must Come
6 - To New York or to Virginia?
7 - The Encampment by the Hudson
8 - George Washington's Westchester Gamble

Author: Richard Borkow
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 189
Publisher: History Press
Year: 2011



Local History Buff Sheds Light on Dobbs Ferry's Involvement in Revolutionary War

Dobbs Ferry Village Historian Dr. Richard Borkow has been a history buff for as long as he can remember. After years of devouring facts and military strategy, he came across one sentence in a book about the Revolutionary War that inspired him to start crafting his own work.

"It said that Washington's decision to march to Yorktown to trap Cornwallis was made in Dobbs Ferry," Borkow said, his eyes lighting up just at the memory of his epiphany. "Not only didn't the general public know about Dobbs Ferry's crucial role in the war, even history buffs like me didn't know."

Borkow, a pediatric rehabilitation specialist at Blythedale Children's Hospital by day—set out to put the pieces together. Recently, The History Press published his book George Washington's Westchester Gamble: The Encampment on the Hudson & the Trapping of Cornwallis, which describes Washington's tough choice to march south toward Yorktown in 1781.


A look at Westchester County’s place in the American Revolution and Washington’s plan to trick Cornwallis and march to Yorktown.

During the summer of 1781, the armies of Generals Washington and Rochambeau were encamped in lower Westchester County at Dobbs Ferry, Ardsley, Hartsdale, Edgemont, and White Plains. It was a time of military deadlock and grim prospects for the allied Americans and French. Washington recognized that a decisive victory was needed, or America would never achieve independence. In August, he marched these soldiers to Virginia to face General Cornwallis and his redcoats. Washington risked all on this march. Its success required secrecy, and he prepared an elaborate deception to convince the British that Manhattan, not Virginia, was the target of the allied armies. Local historian Richard Borkow presents this exciting story of the Westchester encampment and Washington’s great gamble that saved the United States.

Praise for George Washington’s Westchester Gamble

“Borkow has done a first-rate job of telling the story of the American Revolution in Westchester County and putting dramatic events there in the context of the larger war--especially the decision to march to Yorktown.” —Thomas Fleming, author of The Perils of Peace

“Just when it seemed that the subject of the American Revolution had been thoroughly explored, Richard Borkow has given us a fresh look at the war's culminating event—the 1781 march of French and American troops to Virginia.” —Joseph Wheelan, author of Jefferson’s War and Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade


George Washington’s Westchester Gamble: The Encampment on the Hudson & the Trapping of Cornwallis George Washington’s Westchester Gamble: The Encampment on the Hudson & the Trapping of Cornwallis

For six weeks in July and August 1781, the center of gravity in America’s bid for independence from Great Britain was in Philipsburg (present-day Greenburgh) in Westchester County, New York. Here General George Washington and the Main Continental Army and General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, and his French Expeditionary Corps—the Expédition Particulière—encamped while contemplating besieging General Sir Henry Clinton’s British army in New York City and awaiting news of the strategic intentions of French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, and his Caribbean fleet. In his book, George Washington’s Westchester Gamble: The Encampment on the Hudson & the Trapping of Cornwallis , Dr. Richard Borkow has demonstrated the significance of this part of the Hudson River Valley in the decisions by these generals and admirals (including Admiral Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Comte de Barras, who delivered the critical siege guns from Rhode Island) to meet in Virginia.

For Dr. Borkow, the true center is his beloved Dobbs Ferry, for which he is village historian. His account demonstrates the tug he felt between the Dobbs family’s ferry and its few associated buildings and the present-day village of Dobbs Ferry. To give the village added weight within the Philipse patent, he even coined a new name, the “Lower Hudson Encampment.” It is unfortunate that Borkow chose to abandon the use of the historical Philipsburg for his own ahistorical label, since Frederick Philipse’s patent extended from Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx to the Croton River, and encompassed the camps of both armies up to the Bronx River. While the focus of Borkow’s interest is Dobbs Ferry and its vicinity, the bulk of his book is the military history of the American Revolution through the lens of America’s longest ally, France. Interspersed in this macro-narrative of events from 1776to 1783are vignettes relating to happenings and personalities in Westchester from the submarine Turtle to Westchester Guide John Odell’s miraculous escape from DeLancey’s Refugees on the ice of the Hudson.

Since Borkow’s study is for the general reader, he chose to rely on secondary sources for his building blocks. His narrative flow unfortunately is disrupted by the sub-chapter headings and the Westchester vignettes. Only Chapters 7 and 8 focus on the “Encampment by the Hudson.” Since Borkow poses no overarching historical question nor argues a thesis, in a sense the majority of the book is the context for these penultimate chapters. The reader is led to wonder if this survey of the entire war in so much detail is necessary to the Westchester story, since even it slights the details of the French presence. Borkow’s failure to flesh out the French march may simply be because Rochambeau’s four regiments neither camped in nor crossed at Dobbs Ferry. Borkow also missed some nuances of the military campaigns. For example, Lieutenant General John Burgoyne was the architect of the Saratoga campaign of 1777, and two battles were fought near Stillwater—Freeman’s Farm on 19 September and Bemis Heights on 7 October. General Washington did not lose the battle of White Plains but checked Lieutenant General William Howe, forcing him to abandon an aggressive strategy that might have destroyed Washington’s army and led him into New England and the upper reaches of New York. Stony Point was in Orange County at the time of the battle there in 1779 and the crossing of both armies in August 1781.

For Dr. Borkow, the parading and routes of march of the American regiments encamped at or near Ardsley are critical to Dobbs Ferry’s role in the American Revolution. While it is clear that Brigadier General Moses Hazen’s Canadians and the New Jersey Line crossed the Hudson at Dobbs Ferry, the author chose to portray the entire Main Army as marching down Dobbs Ferry’s Broadway. Until someone discovers Washington’s detailed order of march for the American army comparable to that for Rochambeau’s army given on 17August, scholars are forced to piece it together from the commander in chief’s diary—“Passed Singsing with the American column”—and the actual commanders who executed the movements. The maps of the period offer their own insights, as the road networks would have dictated which regiments marched where. In fact, the map opposite page 126 in Dr. Robert Selig’s

The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route in the State of New York, 1781-1782, shows the axes of advance for elements of Washington’s army. French Colonel Louis-Alexander Berthier’s map of the encampments indicates that a number of the regiments would have moved in formation (paraded) right onto the Tarrytown Road. This would have jibed with Washington’s desire for operational security and lessened the exposure of his force of some 2,500soldiers to observation and a possible attack by British naval forces. It also would have made the forces from Dobbs Ferry sent across the Hudson early on 19August a flank guard. Major General William Heath, the commander of the Hudson Highlands for the operation, would have been a more reliable source upon which to anchor his account than Surgeon James Thacher, whose description of the route he traveled is a bit ambiguous. In his journal, Heath reported that on 21August, “a little after noon, our General ordered off the baggage to the strong ground near Young’s, which at about 6 o’clock was followed by the army, marching by the left in one column, which took a strong position during the night.” On the 21st, according to Heath, “Col. [Rufus] Putnam, with 320infantry, Col. Sheldon’s horse, and two companies of the New York levies, were ordered to form an advance for the army. About 12o’clock at noon, the army took up its line of march, and halted at night on the lower parts of North Castle. Two regiments had been detached on the march to Sing-Sing church, to cover a quantity of baggage belonging to the French army. ” On the 22nd, “the army marched from North Castle, and encamped at Crom Pond. ” Because of his deception plan and the roads available, Washington sent his units on multiple routes to cross at Kings Ferry.

Dr. Richard Borkow has given readers interested in the American Revolution another short survey of its major events and the French role in them. Westchester County rightfully deserves the central role that he gives it because Generals Washington and Rochambeau made a decision at Philipsburg that ultimately led to the capture of the main Southern army under General Charles Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. The allies’ successful siege there was the last decisive battle of the war, which changed the political and military landscape forever. The new Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail will benefit from the attention this study will bring to it. As is the case with history, readers will have to wait for a more balanced and detailed published work of the experiences of the two armies that met in Philipsburg that summer 230 years ago. I applaud Dr. Borkow for continuing the historical debate with his Westchester gamble.

-- COL (Ret.) James M. Johnson, Military Historian, Hudson River Valley Institute


Thank you for visiting the VillageHistorian website.

The front cover of my 2011 book,
George Washington's Westchester Gamble,
appears below. Visitors to this website may recognize the image on the front cover, Jasper Cropsey’s, Redoubt, Dobbs Ferry (1892). The publisher of George Washington's Westchester Gamble is The History Press, Charleston, S.C.

Among the 25-30 images that appear in the book, 5 are black and white reproductions of stunning paintings from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts , and 7 are historical maps. Here is a brief description of the book, in Q and A format:

FAQ: Why did you write George Washington's Westchester Gamble?

ANSW: To explain how Westchester localities, including Dobbs Ferry, Ardsley, Hartsdale, Edgemont and White Plains, played highly significant roles in the summer of 1781 when the strategy was adopted which won the Revolutionary War, and to highlight the indispensable assistance that was given to the United States by France.
Washington ’s great gamble of mid-August 1781 determined the fate of our republic. It is a dramatic story which has many twists and turns, and I hope to bring these remarkable events to the attention of the general public.

“Richard Borkow has done a first-rate job of telling the story of the American Revolution in Westchester County and putting dramatic events there in the context of the larger war—especially the decision to march to Yorktown.”

— Thomas Fleming, author of The Perils of Peace , America ’s Struggle for Survival after Yorktown

“Just when it seemed that the subject of the American Revolution had been thoroughly explored, Richard Borkow has given us a fresh look at the war’s culminating event—the 1781 march of French and American troops to Virginia.”

—Joseph Wheelan, author of Jefferson ’s War: America ’s First War on Terror, 1801–1805 , and Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams ’s Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress

From the publisher's press release:

Richard Borkow is the village historian of Dobbs Ferry , New York , a trustee of the Dobbs Ferry Historical Society and editor of the website www.VillageHistorian.org. In 2009 and 2010, he was project director for Noted Historians Reveal Dobbs Ferry's Historic River Connections, a series of video interviews on YouTube with distinguished historians, including Pulitzer Prize recipient, David Hackett Fischer. In the interview entitled, American Revolution: The Decision Which Won the War, Dr. Fischer speaks about the dramatic “moment of choice” in Westchester County which led, two months later, to the decisive Franco-American victory over Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown , Virginia. That same "moment of choice," and the great risks that were associated with it, are explored in detail in George Washington's Westchester Gamble.

To learn more about Dobbs Ferry's exceptional history, please consider the following options:

Persons who wish to conduct in-depth scholarly research regarding Dobbs Ferry's history are invited to schedule a visit to the archives of the Dobbs Ferry Historical Society, which is located at the Mead House, 12 Elm Street-- telephone: (914-) 674-1007. These archives contain an extensive collection of historic documents, correspondence, artifacts and maps, historical publications, books, paintings, films and oral history recordings relating to Dobbs Ferry. The historical society also publishes The Ferryman, a lively and attractive historical newsletter, which appears quarterly. Please see the website of the Dobbs Ferry Historical Society for additional guidance on ways to search for historical information about our village.

Historic Treasures of Westchester County is an initiative of "Virtual Archives," a collaborative effort of the Westchester County Archives and The Westchester County Historical Society. Access their web page, Historic Treasures of Westchester County, for a beautiful display of historical material from many of Westchester's towns and villages. On the web page relating to Dobbs Ferry, you will find antique picture postcards and other pictorial artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Dobbs Ferry and neighboring localities played a vital role during the Revolutionary War and are important sites on the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route (W3R). Early in 2009, Congress passed legislation to establish the W-R Revolutionary Route as the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail, and the legislation was signed by the president on March 30, 2009. Information about the role of Dobbs Ferry during the Revolutionary War is posted on the web site of the National W3R Association.

The website which you are currently visiting includes a pictorial account of the 1781 encampment of the allied American and French armies in Dobbs Ferry, Ardsley, Hartsdale and Edgemont. The strategic decisions made at the encampment in mid-August, 1781, led to a dramatic turnaround in the military fortunes of the United States at the Battle of Yorktown, in Virginia, two months later, to the end of the Revolutionary War and to remarkably favorable peace terms for our country.

Additional sections on this website include:
The historic maps web page
and
The notable quotations web page, which contains passages from articles and books which describe Dobbs Ferry of yesteryear.

Please feel free to contact me. I welcome your observations and feedback.

Village Historian of Dobbs Ferry
Trustee, Dobbs Ferry Historical Society

We are very appreciative for your assistance in June, 2007, a critical time for the W-R legislation in the Senate

Faxes from the citizens of Dobbs Ferry, including all of those who responded to the mayor’s newsletter, and all of those who responded to e-mails from the leaders of both political parties, and from the citizens and supervisor of the Town of Greenburgh, were extremely helpful at the time of the Congressional alert in June, 2007. Your intervention changed the course of events! Thank you!


Thomas Fleming: Review of Richard Borkow's "George Washington’s Westchester Gamble, The Encampment on the Hudson and the Trapping of Cornwallis" (The History Press, 2011)

Thomas Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians and is on the advisory board of HNN.

New Yorkers—and many other people—are likely to find this brief briskly written book a fascinating read. It combines the story of Westchester County in the Revolution and its climax—General Washington’s decision to march south from his encampment at Dobbs Ferry and nearby towns to trap Charles, Lord Cornwallis, at Yorktown.

The author does an excellent job of describing the war in Westchester, including the crucial Battle of Stony Point. But he naturally focuses most of the book on the fighting that accompanied the creation of an encampment for the French and American armies in 1781 as they debated whether to attack British occupied New York.

Not a few people will be surprised by how much gunfire echoed around Dobbs Ferry when the British sent a fleet of warships up the Hudson to destroy American boats that were ferrying supplies to both armies. The allies had set up a redoubt at Dobbs Ferry, equipped with numerous cannon, and they blasted the British ships coming and going. One, HMS Savage, took a direct hit on a powder box that exploded, terrifying twenty sailors into jumping overboard.

Next come some graphic pages on the “Grand Reconnaissance,” the probe of the British northern defenses around New York along the Hudson and Harlem Rivers and the realization that the allies lacked the manpower to win a victory. That led to the decision to march south. It took four days to get both armies across the Hudson. One French officer expressed amazement that the British warships had not made another foray up the river. They could have inflicted horrendous damage. But not a shot was fired at the allied army and soon they were marching south. The rest was history in capital letters.

In a final chapter, the author narrates one of the last encounters with the British in Westchester County—a 1783 winter foray by fifty Westchester militia on horseback. The horsemen penetrated deep inside the British lines in an attempt to capture one of their most courageous enemies, loyalist Colonel James Delancey. A battle exploded around Delancey’s house in West Farms, in the present-day Bronx. It rapidly became apparent that Delancey had more than enough men to make capture impossible.

Soon the patriots were in headlong retreat, with the loyalists pursuing them. On the banks of the Croton River, they were about to be surrounded. It was every man for himself, and the rebels rode in all directions. One of them, John Odell, galloped onto the ice-covered river, pursued by two saber swinging loyalists. In a wild encounter, with the horses slipping and sliding beneath them, Odell managed to knock one man off his horse with a blow to the head, and the other man abandoned the pursuit. It was a symbolic final clash, dramatizing the bitterness and determination on both loyalist and rebel sides which persisted until the British evacuation of New York several months later.


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George Washington's Westchester Gamble - Richard Borkow

Introduction

CHANGING SCENES OF WAR

THE NORTH RIVER

SEPTEMBER AND OCTOBER 1776: A CONNECTICUT YANKEE BENEATH KING GEORGE’S SHIPS

On a day in late summer 1776, David Bushnell’s American Turtle, the world’s first submarine, was placed on a sloop at Dobbs Ferry and conveyed down the Hudson River—it was usually called the North River then—toward New York Harbor.² The date was September 6, and the United States was only two months old. The war in Westchester County had begun in earnest in July when two British warships, the Phoenix and the Rose, sailed north from New York Harbor, mocked the ineffectual fire from American posts on the river and penetrated into the Tappan Zee. There they remained for more than a month, flaunting British naval power and asserting British domination of the waters around New York. The American Turtle’s objective was a bold one: to challenge British naval effrontery by destroying King George’s warships in New York Harbor.

Bushnell, the inventor and builder of the submarine, was a Connecticut Yankee, a farmer’s son and a mechanical genius. When the war broke out at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, he decided to apply his engineering talents to the defense of New England liberties. The British fleet that controlled the waters of Boston Harbor gave the enemy an enormous advantage. Bushnell reasoned that a submergible vessel, armed with an explosive charge, might reduce that advantage, and he set to work. In the construction of the Turtle, the only assistance he received was from his brother, Ezra.

As an initial step, he demonstrated for the first time that a charge of powder could explode underwater. He called the charge a torpedo, adapting the term from the name of the stinging fish torpedinidae.³ The brothers then proceeded to build the submarine, which would have room for a single operator.

The workmanship was masterful. The brothers joined the wooden planks that constituted the walls of the vessel, making watertight seals they conceived of the many appurtenances that would be needed, including the brass cover, which provided space for the operator’s head, and the glass eyes that enabled the operator to see underwater. They designed the steerage mechanism, a kind of corkscrew that allowed both forward and backward movement of the submarine, and they invented mechanisms that would allow fresh air to enter and consumed air to be flushed out. Much like a modern submarine, the entry of water caused it to submerge, and the expulsion of water, to resurface. But it took quite a while to build. By the time the brothers were finished, Washington had been able to oust the British army from Boston and the British fleet from Boston Harbor.

King George’s warships did not stay away from American waters for very long. In July 1776, a huge number appeared in the lower harbor of New York and disembarked tens of thousands of troops, unopposed, onto Staten Island. It was the largest expeditionary force that Great Britain had ever assembled to send to war.

Accordingly, David Bushnell now turned his attention to New York Harbor. He landed the American Turtle at New Rochelle and took it cross county in a wagon to the Hudson River at Dobbs Ferry. Bushnell had received permission from General Washington to put his submarine into action. Nevertheless, the commander in chief was skeptical he agreed to give the American Turtle a trial, but only at the importuning of Governor Trumbull of Connecticut.

The operator for the mission on September 6 was Eli Lee, a strong, young Connecticut man. Strength would be important because the vessel was propelled underwater exclusively by muscle power. The sloop from Dobbs Ferry entered New York Harbor and, as closely as it dared, approached some of the larger ships. Then the Turtle, with Eli inside, plunged into the water. Submerged and out of sight, he came up to the HMS Eagle. The plan was to attach the torpedo to the hull of the ship. Eli’s attempt probably would have succeeded if the attachment site had been wood. But copper plating foiled his efforts, and he did not have enough muscular endurance to stay submerged and try again. Coming to the surface, he was spotted by more than one hundred British troops standing on a parapet. Puzzled by what they saw, not knowing what to make of it, they didn’t interfere. Several minutes later, Eli released the torpedo into the river: it caused a massive explosion, but no damage, and he was able to get himself to Manhattan (still in American hands on September 6) and safety.

In October 1776, near the shoreline of Dobbs Ferry, the British took their revenge on the American Turtle. This was the month when the war became intense in Westchester County, culminating in the Battle of White Plains on October 28. As a preliminary thrust (or perhaps a feint) in the Westchester County campaign, British warships on October 9 threatened to land at Dobbs Ferry, and Washington, at his headquarters on Harlem Heights, became alarmed. An American force was immediately dispatched to Dobbs Ferry to repel the invaders. According to the memoirs of General William Heath:

[Oct] 9: Early in the morning, three [British] ships…[came] up the…River…two [American] galleys [were forced to shore] near Dobbs’ Ferry. The enemy…landed a number of men, who plundered a store…The General ordered Col. Sargeant, with 500 infantry, 40 light horse…[and] artillery…to march immediately, with all possible expedition, to Dobbs’ Ferry. The enemy…sunk a sloop which had onboard the machine invented by Mr. Bushnell…its fate was truly a contrast to its design.

Accounts differ on what happened next. Apparently, David Bushnell claimed that he was able to recover the American Turtle from the bottom of the Hudson.⁵ Yet no one saw him dredge it up to shore, and after it was sunk, the Turtle was never seen again. Washington Irving, who describes the Turtle’s career in some detail, writes only that the submarine sank to the bottom of the river and says nothing about its recovery—by Bushnell or by anyone else.

There is reason to question whether the American Turtle was dredged up from the bottom of the river. True, Bushnell was an extraordinarily talented engineer. But to recover the submarine from the bottom of the river during wartime with enemy ships dominating the waters, and to accomplish this feat unobserved, seems to be beyond even David Bushnell’s capabilities. This was an era before patent protection, and Bushnell was very secretive about his submarine. He was determined to prevent others from stealing the design. Bushnell was also rather reclusive by nature and in his later years, for reasons that are not entirely clear, decided to make his past obscure. He no longer answered to the name of David Bushnell, referring to himself, instead, as Dr. Bush.

Did David Bushnell claim that he had recovered the American Turtle because he feared that someone else would, in the future, try to do exactly that, succeed in bringing it to shore and copy his engineering design? If he did not truly recover it, the world’s first submarine may still be at the bottom of the Hudson, near the shores of Dobbs Ferry.

View of the Hudson River from Dobbs Ferry. Author’s photo.

DOBBS FERRY: NOVEMBER 1777

A BRUTAL AND CRUEL ATTACK

When the career of the American Turtle came to an end, Westchester County was about to enter a new and terrible stage of war. In the months prior to the Turtle, the main weapons of conflict in the county had been pamphlets, filled either with anti-Whig or anti-Tory invective. While comity had suffered, lives and property had been spared. The new stage would spare neither. It began with the battles of Pell’s Point in mid-October 1776 and of White Plains on October 28.

Following the Battle of White Plains, the contending armies withdrew to more secure lines, the Americans north to Peekskill and the British south to Kingsbridge. Most of the residents of Westchester County had the misfortune to reside in the area that lay between, the neutral ground. It was so named because the main armies, for the most part, did not attempt to occupy it. The area’s neutrality did not protect the population, however, who suffered from repeated raids.

In the autumn of 1777, one year after the sinking of the American Turtle, the British seized major forts in the lower Hudson valley and became the dominant military presence in the region, emboldening Loyalist raiders.⁸ It was a time for Patriots residing in the neutral ground to proceed cautiously. Prudent Whigs understood that it was wise to avoid provocations and lie low. Ignoring those considerations, three young men on the Dobbs Ferry Road (now Ashford Avenue), a short distance west of the Saw Mill River, summoned the nerve to confront a small number of mounted Loyalist militiamen and to rebuke them in some fashion. Exactly what form the rebuke took, we do not know. The descriptions that have come down to us indicate that the young men, whose names were Barton, Lawrence Smith and Vincent, taunted the Tories. The accounts agree that what followed was an exceedingly brutal affair.

The Loyalists in this instance were identified as members of Kipp’s mounted regiment, one of several marauding bands that plagued Westchester County during the war. Enraged by the taunting, Kipp’s horsemen fell upon the three young men, beating them mercilessly. The beatings had a degree of severity and cruelty that seemed to exceed the ordinary brutality and depredations of war: Barton and Lawrence Smith died from the beating within a few days. The third young man, Vincent, survived but suffered with a lifelong disability, for one eyewitness recalled that his skull was split by one of Kipp’s men. The community was outraged by this vicious act, and word of the assault spread far, eventually reaching the ears of the Congress, which saw fit to compensate young Vincent with a pension—the first, we are told, ever awarded by the United States.

STORM’S BRIDGE: NOVEMBER 1777

That same month in a separate attack, three miles to the north, a much larger band of Loyalists raided and destroyed the homes of three prominent Patriot citizens, Abraham Storm, Cornelius Van Tassel and his cousin Peter Van Tassel. The native-born Tory raiders, reinforced by Hessian troops, departed on horseback from the Loyalist base camp of Morrisania on the icy cold night of November 16 and arrived at Storm’s Bridge (present-day Elmsford) around midnight. The unit was led by Colonel Andreas Emmerich, a redoubtable Loyalist commander, whose name was greatly feared in Westchester County. The militia and dragoons that he headed, known as Emmerich’s (or Emmerick’s) Chasseurs, were skilled at capturing Patriot leaders.

On this occasion, the raiders were looking primarily for the Van Tassels and for as many Van Tassel confederates as they could find. The day before, Emmerich had sought permission for the raid from his superior, William Tryon: Sir, I am intending to make a march to Morrow Night at the Hour of Six, so that with Your Excellency’s approbation, I with my Company may be at VAN TASSEL’s House by Two oClock the following Morning, where there is a pretty Large Nest of Rebels…I beg Your Excelly. woud. be pleased to Grant me this request, that my People may have a little Work. ¹⁰

While the Van Tassels were the principal targets, the seizure of Abraham Storm would be a bonus. He was the proprietor of a tavern and popular meeting place for Patriot militia at the corner of Sawmill River Road and Tarrytown Road, the main intersection of Storm’s Bridge then and the main intersection of Elmsford today. Abraham resided with his family at the tavern. But on that particular night he was not at home. His absence was upsetting, but there was nevertheless work to be done: Emmerich’s men looted the tavern and burned most of the building to the ground.

Their work at the tavern completed, the raiders went after the two Van Tassel cousins, who resided a short distance to the south. Unluckily, both were in their houses that night, and both were captured by the raiders. After seizing them, the Loyalists and Hessians were, of course, not finished, for according to standard practice, they were entitled to all the plunder that they could find. They scoured the two homes for valuables, while the terrified wives and children of Peter and Cornelius hid themselves in the old root cellar or in outdoor sheds. After collecting their loot, the raiders set fire to the houses.

The raiders were not without humanity: a Hessian soldier found Cornelius’s infant daughter, Leah, still in the house and, at some risk to himself, ignoring the smoke and flames, was able to rescue Leah and give the infant to her distraught mother.

Cornelius’s teenage son, Cornelius Jr., who was also still inside the house when it was set afire, managed to escape by jumping from the roof into the yard, which was crowded with Emmerich’s men. Cornelius Jr. held a musket and swung it at the raiders, who were taken by surprise by his sudden appearance. Before they could grab him, he sprinted to Saw Mill River and jumped into the ice-cold water.¹¹ He evaded capture, but he later succumbed to the exposure that he suffered during his escape. In 1845, Captain John Romer, who married Leah, explained: The only son, Cornelius, Jr., fled for safety half naked to the roof of the house and held on by the chimney, from which when the fire began to reach him he jumped to the ground. He escaped that night, but caught cold from which he never recovered. ¹²

Romer–Van Tassel House on Saw Mill River Road in Elmsford. Author’s photo.

These incidents are a small sampling of the appalling hardships suffered in Westchester during the war. Roger Jewell, in his Sawmill River Valley War, states that in November 1777, the people of the county witnessed the onset of a Reign of Terror. ¹³ November 1777 was bad enough. Worse would come in the summer months of 1779, when General Henry Clinton, British commander in New York, unleashed a series of furious attacks against communities in Westchester and against nearby towns on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound.

NOVEMBER 1780 AND MARCH 1781: A COUNTRY IN RUINS

By 1780, Westchester County was described as a country in ruins by Dr. James Thacher, a surgeon in the Continental army and one of the chief chroniclers of the war. He visited the county in November 1780 as part of a foraging party and made these observations:

This country…is called the neutral ground, but the miserable inhabitants who remain are not much favored with the privileges which their neutrality ought to secure them…

The country is rich and fertile…but it now has the marks of a country in ruins. A large proportion of the proprietors having abandoned their farms, the few that remain find it impossible to harvest their produce…Banditti, consisting of lawless villains…devote themselves to the most cruel pillage and robbery among the defenseless inhabitants between the lines…These shameless marauders have received the names of Cow-boys and Skinners. By their atrocious deeds they have become a scourge and terror to the people.¹⁴

Dr. Thacher added these comments when he visited Westchester once more in March


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At the time of European contact in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Native American inhabitants of present Westchester County were part of the Algonquian peoples, whose name for themselves was Lenape, meaning the people. They called the region Lenapehoking, which consisted of the area around and between the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. Two related languages, collectively known as the Delaware languages, were spoken throughout the region: Unami and Munsee. They were part of the larger Algonquian language family and related to Mahican. Munsee was spoken by the inhabitants of present-day Westchester County as well as on Manhattan Island. Some ethnographers, lacking valid contemporary sources, simply referred to the various tribes of the area as Munsee speakers, or, even more generally, as Lenni Lenape.

Title deeds given to European settlers supply considerable information on the sub-tribes in the region and their locations. The Manhattans occupied the island known by that name today, as well as the part of southern Westchester now covered by Yonkers. The Wecquaesgeek band of the Wappinger lived along the Hudson River and near the modern settlements of Dobbs Ferry, Tarrytown and White Plains. The Siwanoy lived along the coast of the Long Island Sound near present-day Pelham, New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck and Rye. The northern portions of the county were occupied by smaller bands of Wappinger such as the Tankiteke, Kitchawank and Sintsink.

The first European explorers to visit the Westchester area were Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524 and Henry Hudson in 1609. European settlers were initially sponsored by the Dutch West India Company in the 1620s and 1630s, while English settlers arrived from New England in the 1640s. By 1664, the Dutch lost control of the area to the English and large tracts of Westchester were established as manors (held by a single owner) or patents (held by partners). The manor and patent owners leased land to tenant farmers and provided them with many essential services.

Westchester County was one of the original twelve counties of the Province of New York, created by an act of the New York General Assembly in 1683. At the time it also included present day Bronx County, which included the original Town of Westchester and portions of Yonkers, Eastchester, and Pelham.

During the colonial period, life in Westchester was quite primitive. Roads were few and in poor condition, and transportation was heavily dependent on water. Nearly everything settlers consumed was raised or made on their farms. Wood, cattle and food were bartered for the items the settlers couldn't grow or make themselves. Over time cottage industries, such as shoe and furniture making, sprang up. This led to heavier use of local roads, which encouraged improvements, which in turn spurred increased travel. Taverns catering to travelers were established and ferries were launched. By 1775, Westchester was the richest and most populous county in the colony of New York.

The county experienced a variety of effects, caused by the American Revolutionary War, as families were often divided between Patriot and Loyalist sympathies. After the battles of Pell's Point and White Plains in 1776, the primary American headquarters was located at Continental Village, north of Peekskill, while the British were headquartered in New York City. The region between Morrisania and the Croton River, which was considered neutral ground between the two camps, was pillaged by both sides. [1] [2]

The Philipsburg Manor House played an important role: British General Sir Henry Clinton used the manor house during the war. There in 1779 he wrote the Philipsburg Proclamation, which declared all Patriot-owned slaves to be free, and that blacks taken prisoner while serving in Patriot forces would be sold into slavery. [3]

Although the Revolutionary War devastated the county, recovery after the war was rapid. The large landowners in Westchester were mostly Loyalists, and after the war their lands were confiscated by the state and sold. Many local farmers were able to buy the lands they had previously farmed as tenants. In 1788, five years after the end of the war, the county was divided into 20 towns. In 1798, the first federal census recorded a population of 24,000 for the county.

In 1800, the first commercial toll road, the Westchester Turnpike, which ran through Pelham and New Rochelle, was chartered. Other toll roads, including the Croton (Somerstown) Turnpike, were later established. During this same period, steamboats began to be used on the Hudson River. The expansion of transportation options encouraged economic growth. Larger industries were established, such as iron foundries in Peekskill and Port Chester, brickyards in Verplank and Croton, and marble quarries in Ossining and Tuckahoe.

Two developments in the first half of the 19th century – the construction of the first Croton Dam and Aqueduct, and the coming of the railroad – had enormous impact on the growth of both Westchester and New York City. The Croton Dam and Aqueduct was begun in 1837 and completed in 1842. The aqueduct carried water 41 miles (66 km) from Croton to two reservoirs in Manhattan to be distributed to the city. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Croton Aqueduct is considered one of the great engineering achievements of the 19th century.

In the 1840s, the first railroads were built in Westchester. In 1844, the New York and Harlem Railroad reached White Plains. The Hudson River Railroad [nb 1] was completed to Peekskill in 1849, as was the New York and New Haven Railroad's route through eastern Westchester. The railroads often determined whether a town grew or declined, and they contributed to a population shift from Northern to Southern Westchester. By 1860, the total county population was 99,000, with the largest city being Yonkers. Many small downtowns, centered on railroad stations, flourished.

The period following the American Civil War enabled entrepreneurs in the New York area to create fortunes, and many built large estates in Westchester. Several mansions of this era are preserved and open to the public, including: Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, Kykuit in Pocantico Hills, the Jay Heritage Center in Rye, Caramoor in Katonah and Glenview in Yonkers.

Expansion of the New York City water supply system also impacted local development, as new dams, bridges and roads were built. The flooding of thousands of acres for reservoirs created considerable dislocations in many towns north of White Plains. The building of the New Croton Dam and its reservoir, for instance, resulted in the relocation of the hamlet of Katonah to higher ground. In North Salem, the hamlet of Purdys was moved when five percent of the town was inundated.

During the latter half of the 19th century, Westchester's transportation system and labor force attracted a manufacturing base, particularly along the Hudson River and Nepperhan Creek. Pills and patent medicines were manufactured in Ossining greenhouses in Irvington beer in Dobbs Ferry sugar, paving materials and conduit in Hastings and in Yonkers, elevators and carpets.

In 1874, the western portion of the present Bronx County, consisting of the towns of Kingsbridge, West Farms, and Morrisania, was transferred to the City & County of New York and in 1895 the remainder of present-day Bronx County, consisting of the Town of Westchester (centered on the present-day Westchester Square) and portions of the towns of Eastchester and Pelham, was also transferred to the City & County of New York. Prior to that, a portion of the town of Eastchester had seceded, to become the city of Mount Vernon. In 1898, these annexed portions were formed into the Borough of the Bronx. In January 1914, The Bronx was split off from New York County and Bronx County was created, thus making the Borough of Manhattan & the County of New York coterminous with each other. [4]

During the 20th century, the rural character of Westchester would transform into the suburban county known today. Between the county's railroad network and the proliferation of the automobile in the early 20th century, working in New York City and living in the country became possible for the middle class. In 1907 the Bronx River Commission, a joint venture between New York City and Westchester County, was established to improve the river's water quality. The commission's efforts led to the creation of the Bronx River Parkway Reservation, completed in 1925, and the first modern, multi-lane limited-access roadway in North America. The success of the parkway encouraged the County government to develop its parks system, preserving great tracts of open space.

Playland in Rye, a National Historic Landmark, opened to the public in 1928, the first planned amusement park in the country, and is operated by Westchester County to this day. The development of Westchester's parks and parkway systems supported existing communities and encouraged the establishment of new ones, transforming the development pattern for Westchester. Homes were constructed on former estates and farms. New businesses appeared in response to expanded markets White Plains, with branches of many New York City stores, became the county's central shopping district. With the need for homes expanding after World War II, multistory apartment houses appeared in the urbanized areas of the county, while the market for single-family houses continued to expand. By 1950, the total County population was 625,816.

Major interstate highways were constructed in Westchester during the 1950s and 1960s. The establishment of these roadways, along with the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge, encouraged many major corporations, such as PepsiCo, General Foods, Ciba-Geigy and IBM to establish headquarters in Westchester.


The Crossroads of the Revolution: The Myth That Built Dobbs Ferry

June 14 is recognized for the adoption of the United States flag from the Second Continental Congress in 1777. But on national Flag Day in Dobbs Ferry in 1894, an even greater celebration was in the cards.

One thousand Civil War veterans, two naval warships, countless school children, and even the 23rd Vice President of the United States, Adlai Stevenson I (grandfather to Adlai Stevenson II, who would lose the presidential election twice in the 1950s) were all in attendance for what was the greatest party in the history of the Hudson River.

“The monument whose cornerstone we lay at this hour will mark the spot where one of the greatest events of our colonial struggle occurred,” stated Stevenson.

But what led to this comment? What could’ve been so important that it would draw the second-highest-ranking official in all the country to make a visit?

Well, sort of. It’s complicated. Welcome to history.

Dr. Richard Borkow is the Dobbs Ferry Village Historian. He is also the author of George Washington’s Westchester Gamble: The Encampment on the Hudson and the Trapping of Cornwallis, which takes a dive into the topics that led to some of the greatest misconceptions in the history of Dobbs Ferry.

“In 1894, people wanted to pay special attention to the history of the American Revolution. It was in Dobbs Ferry that Washington formulated the plan to capture Cornwallis and win the war. The Union League Club of New York City, which formed during the Civil War to support Lincoln, raised the funds to build the Hyatt-Livingston pedestal,” explain Dobbs Ferry Village Historian Richard Borkow.

The claim, and the part where the “misconception” comes into the fray, lies with the location of the monument itself (or rather, where it laid in front of): the Hyatt-Livingston House.

It’s the summer of 1781. The American Revolution is nearing its climax, and the French and American armies are encamped within lower Westchester. For six weeks, from July 6 to Aug. 19, Dobbs Ferry would serve as the “crossroads of the revolution,” as described by American Revolution historian, David Hackett Fischer.

By offering an extensive strategic advantage through the number of locations it offered soldiers to march to, plus its valuable defensive position on high ground, Dobbs Ferry played a key role in the war.

George Washington, then just General- and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur de Rochambeau, a French nobleman and general, while still stationed in Westchester, saw that the American effort was slowly beginning to diminish. A lack of food, clothing, and pay had left the army vulnerable. The events in 1781 were the last chance America had at gaining independence.

Despite the military stalemate between the British and Americans, that wouldn’t be enough for independence. Washington knew that only one thing could turn the tide of the war was a decisive military victory.

Washington initially looked to reclaim Manhattan from British control. After finding no potential holes in their defensive lines, he had to go to his secondary plan (and the preferred choice of Rochambeau.) Both generals would march their armies south, to Virginia, to confront the famous British General Charles Cornwallis and his army.

Opposed to taking such a risk, Washington saw the plan as dangerous. But after receiving a letter from French Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse on Aug. 14 convinced Washington to go forth with the plan. Requiring both the naval and land attacks to go perfectly, he went forth with the plans.

On Aug. 19, the allied armies broke camp and began their march south out of Dobbs Ferry, leaving from the intersection of Broadway and Ashford. Two months later to the day, Cornwallis would surrender, and American independence would be proclaimed.

The lie in this, and the one that made the Hyatt-Livingston House and Monument famously incorrect, is the claim that Washington based his headquarters there in Dobbs Ferry.

Of the four claims that can be read on the monument, it has been found that three of them are insubstantial.

“We know where the headquarters is. In Hartsdale, there’s a radio station there now. In the back of that, you can still see parts of the house,” stated Borkow.

Insignificant as the small tidbit of information might seem, it is crucial to remember that this monument was such a big deal, that it brought the Vice President of the United States to Dobbs Ferry. It stood for over 100 years, incorrect in its glory.

Benson John Lossing, a popular American historian in the 1800s, went around various important sites for a book he was working on. During this time, he stopped to speak with Archer.

“He wrote what Mr. Archer told him about events at the house in the summer of 1781. Benson Lossing put the assertions into his book, and these later became the substance of a plaque.”

Despite the inaccuracy of Lossing’s book, Borkow emphasized that the fault shouldn’t rest on his shoulders, “Benson was an accurate historian. He had to believe Archer, it’s not like he had Google.”

It would take 107 years for the monument to be corrected. Due to the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR,) the group responsible for putting up the monument only they could correct it.

On July 4, 2001, in a ceremony that was slightly smaller than the one held in 1894, they dedicated a bronze plaque, which, to this day, covers the misconceptions etched in stone.

However, to say that nobody knew that the monument was incorrect for almost 100 years is wrong. In fact, 10 days following the initial 1894 celebration, a letter appears from in the June 24 edition of The Sun, a former New York City-based publication, that challenged the validity of the monument.

“None of these events [mentioned on the monument] occurred at or near Livingston ‘Manor.’ The inscription, if it is placed as planned, will be at fault in its every statement. This could have been easily proved by the people of Dobbs Ferry before the arrangements for the ceremonies had gone as far as to bring in the United States Government, its Vice-President, and its navy, to give formal recognition to the event,” stated A.M. Dyers, the writer of the letter.

“Any standard work on American history would have cleared away these Westchester traditions, and would have made the truth appear.”

This brash statement did not go unnoticed, as Edward Hall, a representative from the SAR, would give a response a week later, in the July 1 issue. Along with a mention of Lossing’s book, Hall goes through each claim to provide what he believed to be the truth.

“If the authorities here quoted are not to be believed, a great many people will have to revise their historical creeds, and will thank your former correspondent for calling attention to the unreliability of authors who have been accepted as credible for decades past.”

About a year later, in the Tarrytown Argus, one columnist took it upon himself to destroy any claim of historical accuracy that the monument possessed. “It is curious if not astonishing that in view of the unquestioned facts so disclosed that the Sons of the American Revolution should have been a party to such a stupid monumental blunder.”

Nineteenth-century conflict aside, it’s clear that at least some knew that the statements were to be inscribed were questionable, so why did it still go through? And how did it stay up for so long? According to Borkow, it may forever be unknown.

“I don’t know the answer, but I assume that the persons in 1894 who funded the monument, the leaders of the Union League Club of New York, believed that the assertions to be put on the monument were correct, even though other persons at the time did not. There was no intent by the Union League Club to misrepresent the facts. I think everybody’s intentions were good.”

So while that question may never get an answer, what one can note is that in a village that has always played second fiddle compared to its neighbors until recently, maybe a claim to fame was necessary for the then-young village.

The National Register of Historic Places seeks to document every place in the United States that can be considered significant.

Within Dobbs Ferry, there are four sites: the Wickers Creek Archeological Site, the South Presbyterian Church, the Dobbs Ferry Post Office, and the Hyatt-Livingston House. Interesting and worthy of being listed, it still lacks compared to many of its neighbors.

Despite the Hyatt-Livingston House burning down on Sep. 1, 1974, the now-corrected monument still stands. In the village that the New York Times once called, “the poor stepsister of its immediate neighbors,” the desire for a piece of glory may have been enough to make a community want to believe that they were significant.

While Dobbs Ferry has since grown and sprouted into something bigger, the Hyatt-Livingston Monument will always serve as a piece that symbolizes that desire to fit in.

From the celebration, controversy, and correction of it, perhaps the misconception itself is the genuine history. If not for it being a puzzling lie, maybe for it being an even greater story.


George Washington&rsquos Dramatic Roll of the Dice That Greatly Impacted Westchester

O n February 22, 1781, George Washington awoke to his 49 th birthday with little to celebrate. Winter winds had frozen progress for the rebelling colonies to a near standstill. The young republic wobbled through supply draughts, vicious counter-attacks, and regular mutinies. Public opinion was chilling over, too. The general lamented to South Carolina statesman John Laurens that &ldquothe people are discontented&hellipbut it is with the feeble and oppressive mode of conducting the war, not with the war itself.&rdquo

In the summer, the situation seemed to worsen as talks of a treaty echoed through Versailles, France. Washington knew the terms of a treaty could be crippling, including continued British control, sustained conflict, territory loss across the South and West, and curtailed tactical and material support from Paris. With few other options, John Adams and Ben Franklin prepared their quills.

Beginning July 4, 1781, Washington set up headquarters on the Ardsley/Hartsdale border. While the Americans held down the west around Dobbs Ferry (which Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer called &ldquothe crossroads of the Revolution&rdquo) and Ardsley, the French allies hunkered down east of the Sprain Brook near Hartsdale and White Plains. The high ground was defensible and afforded movement south to New York City, northwest to King&rsquos Ferry, or north to New England&rsquos forests.

General Washington hoped that, together, the forces could drive British General Henry Clinton from Manhattan. Two elite units&mdashthe Light Infantry (the nation&rsquos first national military organization, composed of each local militia&rsquos 100 best men) and the Dragoons&mdashsharpened their bayonets along what is now the Bronx River. Still, American spies deemed any campaign against Manhattan a long shot. The revolutionaries were outnumbered and the British expected an attack.

Then in August, Washington received a letter from French Admiral Françios Joseph Paul de Grasse that historian Robert Leckie called &ldquopossibly the most momentous message of the entire war.&rdquo De Grasse would sail his large fleet north from the West Indies to Chesapeake Bay.

For Washington, it brought a titillating opportunity, but an incredible risk. Victory meant a multi-pronged surprise assault on General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Although it could be the scale-tipping conquest Washington coveted, he preferred Westchester. The general wrote that &ldquo[m]atters having now come to a crisis and a decisive plan to be determined on, I was obliged…to give up all idea of attacking New York.&rdquo

Reaching Virginia in time would require a deadening 400-mile march. And if news of the advancing allied armies and fleets reached General Clinton, he would tip off General Cornwallis. Still, Washington rolled the dice. Plans to charge on Manhattan from the Bronx River faded. On August 19, the French and Americans decamped and headed south. To outfox the Redcoats, Washington sent a decoy along the Jersey shore to feign a raid on Staten Island. Landing craft paraded below Westchester to bolster the rumor.

Just two months later, Cornwallis surrendered his army of 7,500 men at Yorktown. The Revolution had triumphed. In the words of Dobbs Ferry Village Historian Richard Borkow, &ldquoWashington&rsquos great gamble of mid-August, 1781, determined the fate of our Republic.&rdquo Westchester was the very staging ground for this victory. The Hudson&rsquos hills were a military fault line where seismic events could have erupted, for the Battle of Yorktown was almost the Battle of Westchester.


Watch the video: The Mansion Gets Rusticated (January 2022).