Thursday, September 1, 2011

Calamities of War: Part 6

A review of secondary source material relating to the burning of Clermont
With the end of the Civil War in 1865, and the approach of the Centennial in 1876, America began a renewed sense of nationalism and pride. As the material goods craze of the Victorian Era and Industrial Revolution began to wind down, a movement of Colonial Revival began. Americans desired to get back to an imagined “simpler time” of the “good old days.” The period of the Revolutionary War was seen as a golden happy time, and stories related to the Revolution began to be recorded. The last generations of Americans who had lived through the Revolution were long since gone, and their grandchildren were becoming old men and women themselves. Well-intentioned historians began writing down the stories they had heard from their revolutionary ancestors, so that future generations of Americans could honor them properly. Given the importance of the Livingston family, many such family histories regale the reader with the story of the burning of Clermont. A review of these sources must be taken with a degree of skepticism, but also provides a unique perspective on the event. The authors of these books actually had access to eyewitnesses, and heard the stories from people who were there.


Thomas Clarkson, author of A Biographical History of Clermont or Livingston Manor, Before and During the War for Independence, did not give footnotes for his information, but he did make reference to a book entitled the “Perfect Light” by a Julia Olin on pg. 42. The book, The Perfect Light, or Seven Hues of Christian Character (1865), is a biographical sketch of eminent Christian Women. Julia Olin was a granddaughter of Margaret Tillotson and probably got the story from the family. Upon review of The Perfect Light, Clarkson copied the text exactly from Julia Olin’s book, therefore the text is one of the earliest known description of the burning published.

Note: As Clarkson did not source his work, all footnotes are modern insertions.

The aim of the British was to obtain, if possible, the entire possession of the Hudson River, and thus isolate New England from the rest of the States. To effect this much desired object, Burgoyne, was to march from the North, and Vaughn from the south. There was intense excitement at Clermont when the news arrived of Burgoyne’s surrender. Margaret, afterwards Mrs. Tillotson, was knitting a long stocking for an old family servant, which, for a wager, she was to finish in a day. It was near midnight, the stocking was rapidly approaching its completion, when black Scipio rushed in with the joyful news of Burgoyne’s surrender.[1]
The enemy, however were steadily approaching from the South, lighting their way by burning towns and private dwellings. Clermont might have been untouched, as at that time two British officers, a wounded captain named Montgomery, and his Surgeon, had been for some time very hospitably entertained by Mrs. Livingston, at Clermont. They proposed to extend their protection to the house and family, but Mrs. Livingston and her son both refused to have their property protected by the enemies of their country, and her son, the future Chancellor, sent them to the house of a Tory neighbor. The preparations for the quick departure of the family were made. All were busy. The females of the household all giving a hand, to assist the general packing, for the removal of clothing and all moveable valuables. Silver and other articles of value were buried in the wood, books were placed in the basin of a dry fountain and covered with rubbish; wagons and carts were piled up with baggage and all necessary articles required by so large a family, both for the immediate use as well as preservation. Even at this hour, Mrs. Livingston burst into a hearty laugh, at the odd figure of an old black woman perched upon this miscellaneous assortment of trunks and bundles.[2] There was not much time to spare, for as the last load from the house had disappeared, and when the carriages containing the family had reached the top of the hill overlooking the house they beheld the smoke already rising from its walls. It had been fired as soon as entered by the British soldiers, one party of whom had arrived by land from Rhinebeck, which place they had burned, and another party landed from the British ship of war, which lay south of the point.
Large looking-glasses had been carefully hung in an out-house, by the family before their departure, and an inside frame made to conceal them from view, but the soldiers discharged their muskets at the building and reduced to splinters the valuable mirrors. With heavy hearts the family left a home, endeared to them by all the associations which make a home one of cheerfulness, happiness and contentment. They took refuge in the town of Salisbury, in Berkshire, just beyond the border of Massachusetts, where they made a temporary home, in a house which is still standing; a stone house near a picturesque lake; here they remained for a short time.
[3] The hasty retreat of Vaughn’s forces rendering Clermont a safe residence again, Mrs. Livingston and her family returned to her farm house and at once commenced to rebuild the Mansion House, and in about a year removed into it.
Julia Delafield, author of The Biographies of Francis and Morgan Lewis by their granddaughter Julia Delafield in 1877, was the granddaughter of Gertrude Livingston (Mrs. Morgan Lewis), the daughter of Margaret Beekman. Gertrude was present at the burning of Clermont, and Julia Delafield makes note of the fact that she heard the story directly from her grandmother “on several occasions.”

Pg. 149-152.

In 1777 the Assembly that declared the Colony of New York an independent State met at the little town of Esopus, on the Hudson. I have read somewhere that the independence of the Empire State was proclaimed by a clerk mounted on a barrel in front of the court-house. Governor George Clinton was the first Governor, John Jay the first Chief Justice, and Robert R. Livingston, of Clermont, the first Chancellor...The mansion of the mother of Chancellor Livingston, of Col. Henry Beekman Livingston, and the mother-in-law of Montgomery, was not to be spared. Captain Montgomery, a relation of the General’s, and an officer in the British Army, was, at that time, with his surgeon, the guest of Mrs. Livingston. He had been wounded and taken prisoner, and was within our lines. Mrs. Livingston had succeeded in having him removed to Clermont, that she might give him the attention his situation demanded. This gentleman begged permission to remain in her house; he felt certain he could protect it if she authorized him to do so. She replied at once that she preferred sharing the fate of her friends and neighbors. There was no time for consultation. Edward was the only one of her sons at home; she followed the dictates of her own noble nature. Feather beds, blankets, and straw were thrown on the bottom of carts and wagons, for the accommodation of the old slaves, some of whom knew of no other world than the Clermont estate. The mother and her daughters crowded into the family coach. Gertrude (Mrs. Lewis) looked out of the back window, and was so diverted by the ludicrous figure of an overgrown negress perched on top of a feather bed, and rolling helplessly from side to side, that for a moment she forgot her grief and laughed aloud. He mother turned to her and said, “Oh, Gertrude, can you laugh now?” I related this anecdote, which I have heard repeatedly from the culprit herself, to the biographer of Edward Livingston. He misunderstood me, and stated in his narrative that Mrs. Livingston had laughed out loud.[4] Where was the heroism of her conduct if she could then enjoy a joke? But a young and merry girl can not long remain depressed.
The helpless cavalcade had not gone many miles when a column, accompanied by tongues of flame, showed them that the work of destruction had commenced....When she returned to Clermont, a farm building was fitted up as a temporary shelter....
5]
In the 1864 book Life of Edward Livingston Hunt appears to have been one of the sources for Thomas Clarkson’s work. It contains two of the same “errors” noted by later historians[6].

Young Livingston [Edward] had, in these events, occasion for an eccentric visit to Clermont. The house of his mother, in which he had been born, and in which his father and grandfather had lately expired, as well as that of his brother Robert, was among those marked for destruction by Vaughn’s men on this expedition. At the very time, two British officers, a wounded Captain, named Montgomery, and his surgeon, had been or some time hospitably entertained by Margaret Beekman at Clermont. They Gratefully proposed to extend to the house the protection of their presence and influence. But the offer was politely yet firmly declined, on the ground that the widowed proprietor did not desire any such advantage over her neighbors and countrymen. The sturdy matron determined to evacuate Clermont, carrying off what needful articles she might. A part of her furniture was buried, the remainder loaded in wagon; and when warned that the enemy was approaching and not too many miles distant, she set forth on a weary journey eastward, accompanied by all of her family and a retinue of servants. The timeliness of this departure was proved by a column of smoke which the party, after advancing a few miles, plainly saw rising from the flames of the mansion they had left. This scene was destined to recur to the memory of Edward, the youngest of the company, and to point to an eloquent passage in a speech delivered by him twenty years later on the floor of the House of Representatives of the United States. If the reader would have further illustration of the robustness of Margaret Beekman’s nature, let him picture to himself—what actually occurred—that high-bred dame, at the very moment of starting upon this journey, enjoying a hearty laugh at the figure made by a favorite servant, a fat old negro woman, perched in solemn anxiety at the top of one of the wagon-loads.

Hunt did not mention several details listed in Clarkson’s later version. Notably the details of burying of the silver, hanging mirrors in the outhouse or knitting the wool stocking by Margaret Livingston Tillotson, which Clarkson derived from Julia Olin.


John Henry also Clermont and the Livingstons of Clermont, an unpublished manuscript in the archival collections of Clermont. He had the following to say:

Mrs. Livingston [Margaret Beekman Livingston] continued to live tranquilly at her home at Clermont after her husband’s death, until 1777 its peace was broken by the expedition under General Vaughn, which, advancing up the Hudson with the purpose of joining Burgoyne, burnt Kingston, and then proceeded to wreak vengeance upon the homes of “Rebels.” …
When the British advanced to their work of destruction, both the house at Clermont and the newer one were destroyed, the latter entirely. Of the former, however, two of the old walls remained, and still form part of the present “Clermont.” When the third story was raised by the present owner [John Henry Livingston] in 1874, they were found to be in better preservation than the newer East and West ones.
On November 19th, 1778, Mrs. Livingston writes to Governor Clinton, requesting and exemption from Military duty in favor of certain laborers, for she states that “many hands” must necessarily be engaged, “such as Masons, Carpenters, Brick Burners, Labourers [sic], Stone & Lime Breakers, and Burners.” This letter is important, as it gives exactly the date at which her house was rebuilt…..

Although by 1919, John Henry would have had all of the earlier versions of the story (i.e. Delafield, Clarkson, etc.) he chose not to entertain the reader with a full version of the story. He was probably influenced by the work of Edwin Livingston, who had already quoted Clarkson in his work (see above). As the Edwin Livingston book was dedicated to John Henry, and John Henry helped publish the book, he probably did not feel the need to repeat the story.

Janet Livingston, the eldest daughter of Margaret Beekman Livingston and Judge Robert Livingston, wrote the article “Reminisces” in a small book for her youngest brother Edward. Interestingly, she did not mention the burning of Clermont, or the family’s flight to Connecticut. She did, however, make an interesting comment about her sister Gertrude on pg. 61: “All that had passed in her youth she repeated every day and thought it a new tale.” This seems to confirm the fact that Gertrude enjoyed telling stories frequently and lends validity to Julia Delafield’s statement of hearing the story from her grandmother “several times.”

The Ralph Jacobs manuscript Louisiana Purchase – Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of 1945 is included solely to illustrate the difficulty of utilizing secondary source material. In his Chapter XIV (pages 230-237). Jacobs tells the story of the burning of Clermont, with a heavy use of artistic license. Notes included in brackets [..] are handmade corrections in the original manuscript.

On the night of October 17, a household of nervous women sat in the living room at Clermont listening tensely for a sound to indicate that news had arrived from Saratoga. All they heard for hour after hour as midnight approached, was the stately beat of the grandfather’s clock at the foot of the stairs.
All of the Chancellor’s sisters except Janet were present. Present also were Mother Livingston and the Chancellor’s wife, the latter now concerned with a new source of worry since her husband had taken up arms.
[8] There was Margaret, the oldest, twenty-eight, waiting only for the conclusion of the war or an important break to marry Dr. Thomas Tillotson, a surgeon with the Northern army at Saratoga; Catherine, twenty-three; Gertrude, twenty; Johanna, eighteen and Alida, sixteen. The man of the house was thirteen-year old Edward Livingston.
The oldest of the daughters at home had brought upon herself the tedious task of trying to complete that night a pair of long woolen stockings for one of the household servants. During the morning she had chided one of the younger sisters for clumsy fingers, and boasting of her own diligence and prowess, declared that she could turn out the pair in a day. There was a challenge and a wager. Not a sordid bet for money or thing of value, for in that household real wagers were forbidden, just a plain word-of-mouth wager, a dare. The golden sun had dropped majestically behind the Catskill mountains on the other side of the river on that autumn day, but the job was far from finished, so Margaret, the true daughter of a line of lawyers, [quick wittedly] resorted to her legal rights, a technicality, that the day was not at an end until midnight.
The women had taken the incident as their excuse to wait up for news from the north and fixed their eyes on the flying fingers as they listened for black Scipio, stationed at the road a half mile east to catch from the express rider, riding south, the words which meant war or peace. But all they heard was the click of the flying needles fitted into the rhythmic swing of the old clock’s pendulum.
It was just as well that the family had something to focus its attention upon in view of the important military crisis at hand. A few
miles south, the Chancellor who had yet to sit for the first time in a case, was possibly in danger of his life. To the north was the daredevil brother, Henry Beekman, now a Lieutenant-Colonel, serving under Benedict Arnold with Gates; with that army also was Margaret’s fiancĂ©, and the handsome youth, Morgan Lewis, who had favor in the sight of Gertrude Livingston.
Word had reached Clermont that Burgoyne had been beaten and trapped at Saratoga, a surrender likely, but the news of the actual capitulation was disappointingly slow in arriving. Perhaps something had gone wrong and there would be a renewal of the hostilities. One did not discuss such matters openly in view of might occur, so the fear hidden in each heart was not brought into light.
It was well towards midnight when Scipio burst into the room. “He done it! He shore did! Burgoyne surrendered!” The knitting was thrown aside, the wager forgotten as the girls kissed and embraced mother and one another into a jubilant minor armistice day celebration. The war was over! Safety had come to life and liberty, security and property. Independence had been achieved!
[9]
In the midst of the jollification, there came a sound of horses’ hoofs on the road outside, followed by a loud rap on the front door. Silence fell on the joy-makers. A British captain stood at the open portal. Mother Livingston invited him to enter. This was Captain Montgomery, a relative of her late son-in-law, the American general, Richard Montgomery. Wounded and on leave the Captain had been hospitably entertained at Clermont and had returned to reciprocate. He informed the gathering that General Vaughn had crossed the river after having burned Kingston and was now on his way north on the east side, putting to the torch to the homes of all patriots, sparing only friends of the Crown. The Captain tendered his influence to save Clermont, for, he said, Robert Livingston and his family had been too prominent in the rebel cause to be overlooked otherwise; the staunch Peggy Livingston refused to accept any advantage not accorded to her neighbors.
[10] The only alternative here was flight, for this was war and anything could happen.
The servants were called to begin immediate preparations to remove the household of women and to try to save from destruction the contents of the buildings. Silver and trinkets were buried in the woods, books placed in a dry fountain and covered with leaves, large mirrors removed and carefully hung in an outhouse, concealed from view.
All through the night the business-like mother of the brood assisted by daughter-in-law Polly, thirteen year old Edward and the girls, worked side by side with the household salves [sic]. It was well after dawn before the wagons and carts were loaded with sufficient linens, clothing, food and bedding to provide for an extended stay away from home for the family and its retainers.
At last all was ready, the family were bundled into two large coaches, and the parade moved off. The sparkling Gertrude looked back and caught a glimpse of a fat negro woman on one of the carts, perched on top of a miscellaneous assortment of household goods, swaying perilously from side to side. The expression of abject terror in her eyes caused Gertrude to break into a merry laugh, which brought a mild rebuke from mother, “Oh, Gertrude, can you laugh now?”
As the carriages reached the top of the hill overlooking the house the refugees casting a parting glance at the top of the homestead they loved so well, saw through the trees a wisp of telltale smoke rising from Clermont. Two companies of Vaughn’s men had entered and put to flames the large building and the Chancellor’s smaller home, wantonly discharged their muskets at the outhouses and smashed to smithereens the precious mirrors.
In Jacob’s work, the influence of both Clarkson and Delafield’s versions can be seen. He has the more “acceptable” version of Gertrude Livingston laughing at the slave woman as noted in Delafield. However, details like the mirrors in the outhouse destroyed by musket fire, or the knitted-stocking wager are clearly derived from Clarkson. Unfortunately, Jacobs endnotes for the manuscript are lost for this chapter. While Jacobs’ embellishment of the story make for an entertaining read, the danger of quoting secondary source material of previous historians is clearly evident. As the story is told and retold, it begins to lose some of its value as factual resource. Each generation of historian was putting a well-intentioned cultural spin on the story, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Notable in Jacob’s work is the mention of the Chancellor’s smaller home, Belvedere. The earlier accounts did not mention Belvedere at all, and Delafield even calls Clermont the home of Chancellor Livingston. While she may have been using the name Clermont to evoke an image of the entire estate, the fact Jacobs mentioned it means he was using other sources than just Clarkson and Delafield. A review of his extant endnotes from other chapters does show he used some primary source material, making the loss of his notes to this chapter especially more difficult.

Summary of Secondary Sources:
In all of the secondary sources consulted, the following are the common factors:
1) A wounded relative of General Richard Montgomery and his surgeon, officers in the British Army, had been entertained at Clermont while recovering from his wounds. He offered to use his influence to spare Clermont from the approaching army. New research has produced information on Captain Montgomery and his surgeon, and a biography will be seen later.
2) The family and the slaves loaded mattresses or beds onto carts for the slaves to ride upon. The family rode in some type of carriage.
3) One of the Livingston women present (probably Gertrude) is said to have laughed at the site of an obese slave woman precariously situated atop a wagon.
4) The family saw the smoke rising from Clermont as they made their retreat to Salisbury.
5) The family did not return to Clermont until after Vaughn had retreated.

These stories may be partially based on first person accounts of the destruction of Clermont. Julia Delafield (1801-1882) stated her grandmother Gertrude told her the story “several times.” Even being only two generations removed, however, Delafield still wrote her work one-hundred years after the original event. Julia wrote the book as a seventy-six year old woman, and retold a story she had not heard for at least forty-five years (Gertrude died in 1833). The situation is similar for the Julia Olin book used by Clarkson. Julia Olin (1814-1879) was only fifty-one when her book was published, but her grandmother Margaret Tillotson Livingston had died in 1823 (forty-two years before the book was published). While the stories remain very valuable resources, they must be read in context and taken with some degree of skepticism. When comparing the work of Delafield to Jacobs, one has to note the fact that one-hundred years after Delafield, Jacobs has more details than the original story. More significantly, Jacobs did not have access to an eye-witness account like Delafield or Olin did. While this does not lessen the value of the historical narratives, it does illustrate the danger of using secondary source material.
In the two-hundred and twenty-five years since the burning of Clermont, many family legends and stories have developed. These family traditions are very much a part of the history of Clermont, and the purpose of this exhibit is not to dispel them. Many of these stories stem from these nineteenth century version of events, and add to the charm of Clermont as a public museum. By retelling these stories to our visitors, we honor the last Livingston family to call Clermont home, and help bring the Revolutionary War alive.

[1] Scipio, a black slave is mentioned once in William Wilson’s Daybook as being in the household of Margaret Beekman Livingston. Daybook excerpt taken from Settlers and Residents Volume I.
The surrender of Burgoyne took place on October 17, 1777.
[2] In Julia Delafield’s The Biographies of Francis and Morgan Lewis by their Granddaughter Julia Delafield, she insisted it was Gertrude Livingston (1757-1833) not Margaret Beekman Livingston who laughed at the slave woman’s situation-to be discussed later.
[3] The destination of the family was Salisbury, Connecticut, not Massachusetts as indicated. It is unknown if the house still stands presently.
[4] Hunt, Charles Haven. The Life of Edward Livingston. D. Appleton & Co. New York, New York. 1864. Pps 37-8. Hunt’s account closely resembles Thomas Clarkson’s account published 5 years later. It is possible Clarkson simply copied the story from Hunt as was common practice among historians in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
[5] Edward Livingston served in the House of Representatives as a Congressman from New York in the 4th, 5th and 6th Congress (1795-1801). Several 19th century historians make reference to this famous retelling of the burning of Clermont on the House floor, including Hunt, Delafield, and Clarkson.
[6] The “errors” being the which Livingston female found humor in the site of the slave woman, and stating the family fled to Massachusetts, not Connecticut.
[7] Here Lossing states the British penetrated as far north as Livingston Manor. Although he does not cite the reference it may come from General Vaughn’s confusion of the Upper Manor (the manor proper) and the so-called “lower manor” (Clermont). Vaughn addresses a dispatch to Sir Henry Clinton from Livingston’s Manor, but there is no indication the soldiers made it any farther north than Clermont.
[8] Mary Stevens Livingston (1752-1814) married Chancellor Robert Livingston in 1770. As to the Chancellor taking up arms, Jacobs may be referring here to the Chancellor being given a commission as LT. Colonel of the Manor Livingston Militia-see E.B. Livingston The Livingstons of Livingston Manor pg. 284-footnote #2.
[9] Given the military situation of New York State in 1777, it is highly unlikely that the Livingston family would have viewed the Battles of Saratoga as the end of the war. Only later did historians realize Saratoga as a turning point in the war and name it one of the ten most influential battles in the history of the world.
[10] “Peggy” Livingston here is referring to Margaret Beekman Livingston.

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