Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Calamities of War: Part 3

The Clermont Livingstons as Revolutionaries
The Clermont branch of the Livingston family began an active participation in the Revolutionary War almost from the beginning. Robert the Judge was a member of the Stamp Act Congress, and is said to have been the man who penned the letter of protest to King George. Robert the Judge also became involved with the Sons of Liberty movement in New York State. The intricacies of New York Colonial Politics are far beyond the scope of this work, but several good books on the subject do exist. Family tradition tells us that Robert the Judge’s father, Robert the Builder of Clermont, was a revolutionary:

It is intolerable that a continent like America should be governed by a little island, three thousand miles away. America must and will be independent. My son, you will not live to see it; Montgomery you may; Robert, you will.


Quote attributed to Robert the Builder of Clermont in Hunt’s Life of Edward Livingston, pg. 20.

Robert the Builder is speaking to Robert the Judge (his son), Richard Montgomery (married to his granddaughter) and Chancellor Robert R. Livingston (his grandson).

The quote is mentioned in several nineteenth century sources, although they vary slightly. While the quote is essentially the same in all sources, it did turn out to be a little too accurate. The builder himself died July 27, 1775.

The judge died December 9, 1775. Richard Montgomery died December 31, 1775. The Chancellor of course survived the war and did see an independent America. A rebel to end, Robert the Builder’s dying words, according to family sources, were: “Peggy, what news from Boston?” Peggy referred to his daughter-in-law Margaret Beekman Livingston, and Boston referred to the outbreak of hostilities at Bunker Hill in June, 1775. In addition to losing her Father-in-law, her husband and her son-in-law, Margaret Beekman Livingston’s father also died in December, 1775. In the span of 5 months, four family members were lost, three within 1 month. Even before she is forced to flee from her home and it is destroyed, for Margaret Beekman Livingston the war had many personal consequences. It is a tribute to her that she was able to supervise the evacuation of Clermont and had the strength of character to have it rebuilt. In addition to the losses before and during the War, the children of Margaret Beekman Livingston must have been a source of great worry to her.

Margaret Beekman Livingston had two sons directly involved in the patriot cause:
Henry Beekman-an enlisted officer in the Colonial Militia Chancellor Robert R. Livingston-had a commission in the militia, he also served in the Continental Congress.

Besides her two sons, two of Margaret Beekman Livingston’s daughters married military officers during the Revolution, and one married shortly after the war. Considering the fate of daughter Janet’s military husband, Richard Montgomery, this was an uncertain prospect at best:

Margaret Livingston married Thomas Tillotson February 22, 1779. Dr. Tillotson was a surgeon with the Northern army and was present at the Battle of Saratoga.

Gertrude Livingston married Morgan Lewis May 11, 1779. Morgan Lewis was an aide to General Gates at the Battle of Saratoga, and later a Chief Justice and Governor of New York. His father (Gertrude’s Father-in-law) was Francis Lewis, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Alida Livingston married John Armstrong January 19, 1789. John Armstrong was an aide and adjunct-general to General Gates during the Revolution.

Of Margaret Beekman Livingston’s ten surviving children, six were personally and directly involved in the fighting effort. Another son, John Livingston, was a merchant in Boston, and although he did not fight, he did help advance the rebel cause through his business dealings. Edward Livingston was only thirteen years old when Clermont is burned, so he was unable to contribute directly to the war effort.


Chancellor Robert R. Livingston was the family member most active in the Revolution. Due his prominence in New York, he occupied several important government positions throughout and after the war. In April of 1775, he was elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. A year later, he was given the honor of being one of the five men chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence. Although Thomas Jefferson wrote most of the document, Robert Livingston’s inclusion on the committee would help insure New York support of the document. In 1777, he was elected Chancellor of the state, the highest judicial position. It was in his capacity as Chancellor that Robert Livingston would administer the oath of office to George Washington as the first President of the United States. Before there was a President Washington, however, America first had to win a war of independence. One of Chancellor Robert Livingston’s most important duties was to serve on a select committee of three men who were responsible for the defense of the Hudson Valley Highlands. This aptly named Council of Safety consisted of Robert Livingston Jr, Gouverneur Morris and John Jay. Many letters written to the Chancellor survive and offer first-hand accounts of the British moving up the Hudson River.

Gouverneur Morris to Robert R. Livingston. Written from Kingston 8th October, 1777:

Dear Livingston

Tis but too true that Fort Montgomery hath been attacked and taken. The Fort was lost for want of Men to defend it. If there had been 1500 instead of 700 of them and at Fort Clinton, we should have certainly repulsed the enemy. The attack began early in the Day upon our advanced ___ which consisted of thirty Men they retreated to where a small Field Piece with 100 men were forced to cover a gap in the Road here there was a very obstinate Conflict till the enemy drove us at the point of the Bayonet. The gun hounere? Was picked up before we quitted it after that a Twelve Pounder brought them up us before. About an Hour before Sunset after a demand of the Fort the Enemy made a general ____ and carried it until after dark. The matter was contested with the Bayonet for a full Hour. Numbers finally prevailed. The same scene was acted out at Fort Clinton at the same time. The Enemy had about five thousand men. Gen. James Clinton was wounded in the groin and Col. DuBois in the neck with the Bayonet. Under cover of the Darkness many officers and men escaped. The Governor is safe and writes that the Enemy have indeed got the Fort but he can assure us they have paid for it. I am told the Conflict was obstinately maintained in some of the Redoubts after the Enemy were formed upon the Parade. The ships Congress and Montgomery are burnt and Fort Constitution destroyed. Thus you see fortune changes sides but it is a common adage that Fortitude and ___ can fix the wavering Fair? Their campaign will be I believe very bloody. I have been told that Gen. Washington is on his way to fight Howe and Gates must now immediately attack Burgoyne or he may chance to get in the same ridiculous Situation with his opponent. I am certain that if gain a complete Victory to the Northward our affairs will wear a smiling Aspect Their ___ otherwise be very somber. I would have written by Edward but I must again assure you that I had no time today such a ___ may appear. The last I wrote was in the ___ Chamber during a Debate of some Importance in which I took considerable ____. The two ___ have resolved themselves into a convention which ___ hath chosen a Committee of Safety. The ___ adjourned for twenty Days. We are hellishly frightened but don’t say a word of that for we shall get our Spirits again and then perhaps be so full of Valor as to smite the air for blowing in our Faces. We fought gloriously below. The Militia behaved as well as they could do. We shall beat them. We should soon do so if we had as good officers as our Governor.
My Sincere _____Gouv Morris
The ladies should not be frightened if they can help it pray in my Name give them that Advice. I Can’t __ you to come over for I know how many Tears it would Occasion but you know what is proper on such Occasion. Again Adieu.
Although Morris’ troop estimates were significantly off (the British attacked both forts with approximately 2200 men combined), he did personalize the attack of the Forts for the modern reader. The quote on the terror being felt by Hudson Valley residents in the Fall of 1777 truly brings the war home. Modern Americans often look back on the Revolutionary War a golden time when all stood up to British oppression and won our freedom. Reading primary source documents from the period show it to be much more terrible conflict than taught in school. It is hard to imagine a hand to hand one hour long bayonet fight after dark, but the Militia defending the forts and British foot soldiers endured this struggle. In 2011 we live in fear of a terror attack, but in 1777 the threat was in their own backyard. Once the highland forts fell, there was little to stop Clinton’s army from advancing towards Albany. Every resident and family of the Valley who had committed themselves to the cause of Independence was now facing loss of life or property. Their sacrifice and struggle is what we honor, and it helps to remind people in these troubled times that the first Americans fought to establish the freedoms we enjoy today.

Letter from Gouverneur Morris to Robert R. Livingston written from Kingston 12th October 1777.

Dear Livingston

Yesterday we received an account from the Governor that a certain Daniel Taylor was taken on his Way from Clinton to Burgoyne who gave the Gov. Intelligence that he was to tell Burgoyne that Gen. Clinton had made himself Master of the Key to America and would soon assist him. That he removed the obstructions in the River and that Howe had beat Washington and that he hoped soon to meet him and the like. The Governor writes us this Morning that having Reason to believe this Taylor had a Letter about him when taken administered to him a very strong emetic calculated to operate as a Cathartic. That the Prisoner notwithstanding he was closely watched had Addoess (?) enough to conceal the most important Contents of his Intestines. Wherefore the Governor sent for him and threatened to have him instantly hanged and ripped open to divulge his Dispatches. He then delivered a Small Ball of Silver which he had before swallowed it was hollow and oval being unscrewed in the Middle the following Billet was found to wit

‘Nous y voici-and nothing now between us but Gates. I sincerely hope this little success of ours may facilitate your operations. In answer to your letter of the 28th of September by C.C. I shall only say, I cannot presume to order, or even advise, for reasons obvious. I heartily wish you success. Faithfully Yours H. Clinton.’

I send you a letter directed to you or rather than a Packet Whether from North or South I know not. Pray commend me to all friends and believe that
I am yours
Gouv Morris.

Here Gouverneur Morris was relating a famous spy story from the American Revolution. Daniel Taylor was later hanged by Governor Clinton, and his famous undelivered message was reportedly read to the victorious American Army at Saratoga after the battles. The silver bullet can be seen today at Fort Ticonderoga in New York State. The passage illustrates the difficulty of communication during the War. A spy or intelligence officer had to move through many miles of enemy territory just to deliver a message, and death was certain if caught. One must remember Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga on October 17th, but Vaughn’s army did not have true word of the surrender until October 23rd.

Letter from Gouverneur Morris to Robert R. Livingston written from Kingston October 13th, 1777.

We have no News from the North or South of any Kind of Importance. Yesterday Evening the Great City of Esopus was alarmed by 2 Gallies (sic), one Schooner & one little Brig under the Command of Capt. Wallace, who hath graced the British Arms by firing two or three Mills. This alarm exhibited more of the Drolierie than the Pathos of Destruction. The good Dominie and his yefrow by the help of the pale and Astonished Antoine and the Gallant Mr. Bresh blowing between Resolution and valid Fear laded about half a ton upon my wagon and the eight of Them Children included were dragged dragged along slowly-before they Went Willy squealed, Sally bawled Adam played tricks and the Yefrow like Hecuba at the taking of Troy. Mon mon mon. The eldest daughter of Low at all times sufficiently affecting to the Sight but now bedewed with pearly drops stood a second Medusa. But why do I dwell on these things. It was by and all description. Adieu. I believe the Enemy will destroy Fort Montgomery & make an alarm along the River with their Gun Boats & attempt to march a little way into Dutchess and then retire to New York. I hope they may endeavor to make a solid impression. Again Adieu. Compliments to all from your friend. Sincerely
Gouv Morris.

Although somewhat difficult for twentieth century readers to understand, this letter contains several details. Three days before Kingston was burned, a small flotilla of British ships arrived and foreshadowed the city’s upcoming fate by burning some mills. The scene was so disturbing, that the Dominie (a Dutch religious teacher) decided to evacuate his school and family. With the help of his wife, the Yefrow (a German term for a woman), a person named Antoine and a Good Samaritan named Mr. Bresh they loaded up a wagon full of goods and children and prepared to leave the city. Little Willy squealed and little Sally bawled, little Adam played tricks and the eldest daughter of Low (the priest’s name is Low) was bedewed with pearly drops (i.e. she was crying). The reference to Hecuba at the taking of Troy was a reference to the scene in the Iliad where Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, screamed, wailed and pulled out her hair in extreme distress. Gouverneur Morris seemed to find the entire situation quite comical. His sarcasm was evident in the letter, and the term “drolerie” was a misspelling of drollery- a humorous situation. The scene was somewhat similar to the scene which will be repeated at Clermont a few days later. Adam still found time to have a little fun during the somber moment (he played tricks), just like Gertrude Livingston would find time to laugh at an obese slave woman when Clermont was evacuated. It should be noted, that Morris was a wealthy elite gentleman, and he may have been being facetious because he considered the overreaction beneath him. One should also note, at the time of the letter, Robert Livingston’s younger brother Edward attended the school of the Dominie in Kingston.





This time Morris was quite accurate about the future movements of British troops. The troops indeed did make an alarm along the river, marched into Dutchess county (Red Hook, Rhinebeck Flats and the Chancellor’s house Belvedere are all in Dutchess County) and returned to New York.

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