Saturday, July 30, 2011

Just a Facade: Changes to the Face of Clermont



At Clermont, we welcome our guests at the back door. This isn't just because we like to be friendly. This is because our back door is the first one you come to, and we don't want you to have to go wandering all about the place just to get a tour.

With that big porch attached to it however, many people get a little confused and think they are coming in via a lovely front porch.

The front of the house actually faces the river, and if you think about the 18th century, when most visitors would come by the Hudson River, this only makes sense. The river was the super highway of its day.

The front of the mansion was of great importance, putting the Livingston's best foot forward, so to speak. It could welcome, impress, or intimidate guests, and it comminicated Livingston status and wealth throughout the house's 220-ish years of occupancy.
So there it is, the front of the mansion, with its Georgrian symetry, its stately roofline, and its quaint shutters with their moon-shaped cutouts. But Clermont, as you know, has been the object of many, many building projects, and the facade was not spared from the updater's zeal.

Clermont began its life in the 1740s as a Georgian structure, built by Robert of Clermont. It was a symetrical home with five bays (each window and door space across the front counts as a "bay." Five was ideal in a fashionable home). Ornament was regular and simple, primarily consisting of a railing across the top, with the attractive tall chimneys thrusting upward out of the whole structure. A contemporary traveler described it as "a Large BricK House on the East Side [of the Hudson River]." At right you can see the Dey mansion in New Jersey, built around the same time. This imposing block would have conveyed not only wealth, but a scientific regularity prized by the Elightenment and reflecting Classical Roman ideals.

Don't expect to see a porch on Clermont at this time. Porches were still a rarity on American homes--especially in the North. The idea of an "outdoor room" did not become popular in Western homes for another two generations.

Was it all brick? The north and south walls were reused after the burning 1777, and those are stone. In some 18th and early 19th century homes the front was given the most attractive and wealthy-looking treatment, while the back and sides might be given less expensive treatments. Arryl House, Chancellor Livingston's 1793 mansion next door, is built partially of brick and partially of stone, but was also covered with stucco and painted white. The More House (at right) at the Farmers' Museum gives you a good idea of this; the front is cream, the back is cheaper red paint. What was the case at Clermont? Unfortunately, without some more research, I can't prove it one way or the other. Either way, the house was dressed to impress.

According to family lore, Margaret Beekman Livingston rebuilt the house during the Revolutionary War and kept it the same as it had looked in the past. You can see it at left as it looked in 1796, with its grand staircase, pediment over the door (with fanlight), Palladian window, and no shutters.


At some point, whether during the rebuilding or later, Clermont's face went from red brick to white stucco. Incised with ruler-straight lines that immitated cut stone, this would have made a big difference in the overall impression. Cut stone would have been considerably more expensive than brick, and thus the move was a clever one to improve the house's image.



Margaret's son-in-law Edward Philip Livingston made the next big changes in the early 1800s. Here was his house, now 70 years old and looking out of date next to its airier-looking Federal competitors (think Mount Vernon). Over the course of several years, Edward Philip added a two one-story wings to the north and south of Clermont, maintaining the building's symetry. These were constructed using bricks made in Red Hook and stone quarried on the property. He (or possibly his son) also added a grand entrance to the front with a projecting square porch. Note that the door in this early illustration has a fanlight above it, but lacks the side lights that we have now.

In 1844, this porch over the front door got friends when Edward's son Clermont added two matching piazzas on either side. He also had his workmen chop the first floor windows right down to the floor, providing access to the piazzas and more light. This manuever gave the building a more up-to-date Italianate look.

The next major change was the addition of the large, pointed roof in 1874, shown here when it was still brand new. Now Clermont towered above the ground (though it was still dwarfed by the massive trees planted to sheild it from the noise of the railroad that now cut along the bottom of the bluff). Dark green louvered shutters now also adorned the house, offering shade on hot summer days.

Eventually, Clermont Livingston moved out of Clermont (the house), and left John Henry Livingston to enjoy it with his family. John Henry set to work right away, adding a second floor to the south wing and redecorating mcuh of the first floor interior.

What happened next was the biggest change to Clermont's face that had yet occured. In the 1880s John Henry added a massive front porch to the house. The porch highlighted the house's roll as a place for summer relaxing. It would have captured the breeze of the Hudson River while providing a deep shade in which to sit and read or even do some informal entertaining. The windows that had been cut to the floor in the previous generation were returned to normal height, and some French doors were added to give access to the porch from other rooms inside the mansion.

John Henry's impressive decorating masterpiece (the architect was actually Michael O'Connor of Hudson) obscurred much of the orginal staid Georgian structure with late-Victorian exuberance. So it is curious that just 20 years later he tore it all back down again in an attempt to return to the house's "Colonial" appearance.

While he and the rest of the family were living in Italy and gallavanting about Europe, John Henry was sending back instructions to do new work on his beloved Clermont. In 1925 he orderd "Blue Stone, for entrance to Livingston Home" at a cost of $1,650.00, and by 1926, that big porch was gone, replaced with the stone steps and lions we know and love now.



At this time he also switched out the old green shutters with the white paneled ones that are still there today.

The post card at right was sent from John Henry's daughter Honoria to her former nursemaid to show off the changes. The house had been transformed from the one Honoria grew up with!

Most of the many changes to Clermont were updates attempting to bring it into the current fashion trend. While the age and history of the building was appreciated, a need to keep current was the driving force. But this final consturction project of John Henry's (only a year before his death) was an act nostalgia, bringing the facade back to a state that more closely honored the way his grandfather Chancellor Robert R. may have known the house during the American Revolution.


But even this "retro" Clermont was a new face entirely, its door flanked by bright Federal-looking sidelights, its roof topped with a towering Chateauesque addition. Each generation left its mark, molded Clermont a new face, and tried to hold onto their legacy while keeping it looking modern.

To the Livingstons, the house remained historic even with all of the changes to the outside. To them, the history was inside. Everything else was just a facade.

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.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Is This Soda?

This week I started a project to scan some of the many slides we've taken over the years. Along the way, I have encountered quite a few pictures I've never seen before, but none that piqued my curiosity so much as this one...


The Livingstons, particularly the last two generations, loved pets and always had a few dogs and cats around the house. As is sometimes the way with pets, a few of them met tragic ends, and the most heart-rending to me is Soda. According to a writing by John Henry, he was killed by "ruffians" in the nearby town of Tivoli.

Soda's story has long been one of the sad tales that we occassionally revisit. Once he was even part of our Legends by Candlelight Tours. His grave marker (shown at right) bears a prominent place in out pet cemetary within site of the mansion.

However, unlike many other dogs of Clermont, I have never seen a picture of this little guy. He died in 1901, five years before Alice (the family photographer) married John Henry and moved to Clermont. All I knew was that he was a Jack Russell terrier--the only one the Livingstons owned.

So when I came across this picture yesterday, I was very excited. Here is a Jack Russell Terrier, posed rather sweetly on the arm of an upholstered sofa.

Now, it could be any old photo of a dog, and not necessarily Soda, except for the fact that I am pretty sure (we'll say 90%) that that is the fireplace in Clermont's libary in the background. The ogee arch appears compressed, which could mean that it is a different fireplace entirely or could mean that this was taken a severe angle, creating that narrower appearance.

Unless I find the original photo (since this came from a pile of old slides) and hopefully find some writing on it, I can never be certain, but in the meantime, this earnest little face will represent to me that of John Henry's companion dog.


**See the update for this post here!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Last Chance: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, part 8

For Nancy, the whole of the summer of 1784 went by that way: bored in the country, worrying about her mother's health and her distant daughter.

In in July she wrote, "This day was still duller for it rain'd all day..." and in August, "This retirement begins to be very tiresome." But this boredom only floated on the surface of her emotional state. Along with everlasting concerns for her daughter (far away with her mother-in-law Livingston), her mother's long slow demise was taking its toll. Only two weeks later on September 11th, she wrote"Nothing can be a more distressing sight than to see a beloved Parent dying before ones eyes..."

In August and September, rides into town every few week became necessary to relieve the tension, and finally she moved back to Philadelphia to be in town through the winter. It took some convincing to get her mother to rejoin them in town: although she was once brought back in the carriage, she actually tricked the family and fled back to the country where she could be alone--only to be brought back into Philadelphia one last time.

Boredom or repetition or depression got the better of her. Her journal entries trickled to a halt by January of 1785. Fall dragged into winter, and in January, Nancy's husband Henry again visited Philadelphia to stir up her emotions. This time was to be different though. After three years of "Cruel absense," he offered her one last chance for reconcilliation. They met alone at his lodgings, and whatever passed between them offered Nancy hope. On her birthday, February 24th, she reopened her journal to write, "I now have a prospect of living happily with him & my darling Child."

Tired of waiting for news of little Peggy from friends and family, equally tired of living at 21 years old as her parents' ward (she had several times written about tearful arguments with her father about whether or not she could go out with her friends), she was elated. Nancy's three-year-old daughter was now walking, talking, and charming the dickens out of everyone she met--everyone but Nancy, who had seen her only a few times over the past year and a half. Perhaps this journey, which had been so long and so dark, could come to a happy end with Peggy back on her mother's lap and the Hudson River drifting lazily by outside the window.

In her merriment, Nancy came out of the seclusion she had been living in for months. Her social life picked back up, and she began again attending balls and hostessing dinners.

But Henry's manipulative cruelty brought this once more to a screaching halt. In March, he sent Nancy another letter, as usual bemoaning her cruelty towards him. There was to be no reconciliation. H was leaving Philadelphia. "I take my Paassage by Water in hopes some happy Accident may Rid you of a painful Restraint and me of My Woes," he wrote. In the letter, he references some perceived slight that Nancy dealt him, but with his track record of abuse, it is likely that Henry was using this simply as an excuse to dash her hopes for good. The blow was a hard one.

"I shew'd it to Papa & received his advice concerning it. This letter destroyed all my hopes," wrote Nancy. A few days later "..Supp'd tete a tete with Papa, who says he sees it will never do for me to return to my inflexible husband."

Nancy drifted through spring, summer, and fall. On October 15th she wrote:


Another Month is pass'd & no alteration has taken place in situation; I am however no more reconciled to it than I ever was...Now & then I hear of my Child--& some times for plans of having her with me, & as often am dissapointed. My Husband...lives in his old way trying to deprive his wife & lawful heir of their property by throwing it away on undeserving objects.

Worst of all, she was to be denied the legal separation that would have allowed her to finally marry Louis Otto, still waiting for her after all this time:

I have another new source of woe, for the authoriz'd separation that I have been so long expecting to take place, is given over entirely.

With that door shut, Louis Otto married two years later in 1787 to Nancy's best friend in New York Miss Eliza Livingston.

Was Nancy always to live as a child under her father's roof? And what was to become of Nancy's daughter? With her mother clinging to life through a deep shadow of physical illness and depression, her father doing his best to keep her from partying too much, and every plan she made to visit with little Peggy being broken again and again, the situation only got more hopeless as time went on.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Calamities of War: Part 2


General Vaughn is sent north on the journey that will result in Clermont's burning in 1777...


The Course of the Summer Campaign Season of 1777
While Burgoyne’s Army of 7,500 men marched from Montreal towards Albany and General Howe moved to take Philadelphia with 15,000 men, General Clinton had been left to defend New York City and the surrounding area with a mixture of 7,000 British Regulars and Loyalist soldiers. Howe had left no orders for Clinton to cooperate with Burgoyne. It has been suggested by some historians that Howe started for Philadelphia so late in the campaign season (July 23) because he was waiting until he had information that Burgoyne’s army was not encountering major problems on its march south. Until this point, Burgoyne’s thrust south was wildly successful. He had taken Fort Ticonderoga (July 5) with hardly a shot fired and, in consequence, almost completely destroyed the American Northern Army which was forced to retreat all the way to the vicinity of Albany. Howe meanwhile, having embarked his men in transports July 23, did not make landfall until August 28 at Head of Elk (Modern day Elkton, Maryland) and then started moving towards Philadelphia.


General Clinton in New York was not fond of General Howe’s plan for the summer of 1777. He saw the taking of Philadelphia as a pointless endeavor. Clinton felt that with Howe so far to the south, he would be unable to cooperate with either him or Burgoyne. Clinton also feared that Washington would be able to concentrate rebel forces to either recapture New York (half of its garrison of 7,000 men was made up of 3,000 newly recruited and raw loyalists) or destroy Burgoyne’s Northern Army. As things progressed over the summer, he was to be proven correct in his assumptions.

Burgoyne had been optimistic of his situation up until mid-August. His army had advanced to Fort Edward by the end of July and he spent a considerable amount of time building up a supply base to facilitate his final push to Albany. Yet over the month of August, Burgoyne became aware that his great plan was coming to naught. Colonel Barry St. Leger’s column of British Regulars, Loyalist’s and Native Americans had been checked at Fort Stanwix by a stubborn American garrison. Even after winning a lopsided victory against a large column of American militia at the bloody Battle of Oriskany. Leger was forced to retire back to Canada when he received intelligence that General Benedict Arnold was approaching with a large relief force, causing his Native American allies to abandon his army. It was also at this time that Burgoyne became aware that Howe would be unable to cooperate with him from New York. Burgoyne’s plan had fallen apart, and the American forces in the north were now able to concentrate on his single army. Burgoyne was also encountering logistical problems and he lacked sufficient transport to adequately supply his army. To add even further to his woes, a large column of German troops and Loyalists from his army were crushed by American militia at the Battle of Bennington on August 16 while attempting to capture American supplies.

Yet under these circumstances, Burgoyne still remained optimistic that he could reach Albany. Over the 13th and 14th of September, he cut his communications with Canada and crossed the Hudson to move towards Albany. Even knowing that no juncture at Albany was certain, he felt confident that he could accomplish his objective. American forces under General Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold had by this time constructed strong defensive positions at Bemis Heights just north of the town of present day Stillwater to check Burgoyne’s advance. On the 11th of September Clinton wrote Burgoyne (encoded within a message of mundane details):

…you know my goodwill, & are not ignorant of my poverty. If you think 2,000 men can assist you effectually [sic] I will make a push at Montgomery in about 10 days but ever jealous of my flanks: if they make a move in force on either of them, I must return to save this important post I expect reinforcements every day. Let me know what you would wish.
Clinton received a communication from Burgoyne on the 5th of October which had been communicated on the 20th of September, less than 24 hours after the Battle of Freeman’s Farm. The battle, while technically won by Burgoyne’s army, had come at a terrible cost of 600 British casualties. Arnold and Gates effectively stopped Burgoyne at Bemis Heights 30 miles from Albany. Burgoyne’s whole situation had changed drastically in the 6 days since he had so confidently crossed the Hudson River. Clinton received the following message via a conversation with a messenger, Captain Campbell, from Burgoyne’s army. The message surprised Clinton;

…that the General’s whole Army did not exceed five Thousand Men, that the Consequences of the battle on the 19th were the Loss of between five and six Hundred Men. That the enemy were within a Mile & a half of him, that he knew not their Numbers for certain, but believed them to be twelve or fourteen Thousand Men, that there was besides a considerable Body in his Rear. That he wished to receive my Orders whether he should attack or retreat to the Lakes…That he wished to know by a positive Answer as soon as possible, whether I could open a communication with Albany, when I should be there, and when there keep my Communication with New York.
Burgoyne replied desperately to Clinton’s coded letter on September 23rd:

I have lost the old Cypher, but being sure from the Tenor of your letter you meant it to be so read, I have made it out. An Attack, or the menace of an Attack upon Montgomery, must be of great Use, as it will draw away a Part of this Force, and I will follow them close: Do it my dear friend directly.
Around Philadelphia, General Howe, oblivious to Burgoyne’s situation and not in a position to assist Burgoyne in any fashion, defeated Washington’s army at Brandywine (Sept. 11) and Paoli (Sept. 21), and after much maneuvering moved into Philadelphia on September 26th. Washington counterattacked the British at the Battle of Germantown on October 14th. The battle was almost an American victory and caused Howe to send for reinforcements from New York which had a direct impact on General Clinton’s operations in the Hudson Highlands.




Clinton moves up the Hudson
As Clinton wrote Burgoyne on the 11th of September, he set into motion moving troops north up the Hudson to relieve some of the pressure on Burgoyne. Clinton had received reinforcements of 1,700 men direct from England and further bolstered his numbers when 1,000 men were offered to him from the British garrison in Rhode Island. In all, Clinton could spare only 3,000 men for his expedition. His troops consisted of the British 7th, 26th, 52nd, 57th, 63rd, 71st (one company) Regiments of Foot and the 17th Light Dragoons. His Loyalist forces consisted of the Loyal American Regiment, the New York Volunteers, and Emmericks Chasseurs. The German units were the Trumbach’s Regiment and a Grenadier company of the Anspach-Bayreuth Regiment. Clinton was also assisted by a Royal Navy flotilla under Admiral Hotham that consisted of a few ships of the line, galleys and smaller craft, and transports and flatboats to move the troops.


Clinton’s objective was to take the American Forts Clinton and Montgomery in the Hudson Highlands. While these forts were in an unfinished state, the terrain surrounding them was quite difficult and was conducive to a strong defense by a determined enemy. The American forces in the Highlands had been stripped bare to reinforce both Washington’s and Gates’ armies, and American General Israel Putnam had very few troops to oppose Clinton’s expedition. In the forts themselves, he was reduced to 600 militia and a small number of Continentals. The forts were in the command of Governor George Clinton and his brother James Clinton, in Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton respectively. The landward defenses had been neglected as the rough nature of the terrain seemed to negate the possibility of an attack from that direction. In the region of Peekskill he had 1,000 Continentals and 400 militia. The numbers of Putnam’s forces may seem comparable to Clinton’s, but the militia was unreliable when facing the professional soldiers in the British ranks. Putnam himself is quoted as saying of the militia “…it would be damned unsafe to trust them.” A large chain that was laid across the river below the forts to hinder shipping going north augmented the defense of the forts. Further up the river another unfinished fort was scantily manned on Constitution Island opposite of West Point and beyond that lay another chain and chevaux-de-fris in the river. A flotilla of small warships further added to the American defenses.

On October 5th, Clinton landed at Verplanks Point taking that area after a brief skirmish. To keep Putnam confused, he left 1000 at the point and shifted the rest of his army to Stoney Point on the morning of the 6th. In a remarkable forced march of 12 miles through extremely difficult terrain led by Loyalist officers knowledgeable of the area, Clinton’s men positioned themselves to attack both forts at the same time from the landward side. At approximately 5:00 in the afternoon Clinton’s men attacked both forts. At Fort Clinton, General Vaughn ‘s 1,000 troops stormed into the fort using only the bayonet as ordered by General Clinton. At Fort Montgomery, Colonel Campbell pressed home his attack with 1,200 men. Campbell’s attack succeeded, but he was killed in the initial assault. Inside the forts, the few Continentals and the raw militia resisted as best they could against the determined professional British forces. Governor Clinton stated that his men fought “…with great spirit by Continentals as well as militia.” Inevitably both forts fell to the British with little loss while the Americans suffered 263 killed, wounded or captured and the loss of 67 hard-to-replace cannon. General Clinton in a letter to General Howe said of his losses, “Our loss was not very considerable excepting in some respectable officers who were killed in the attack.” Both Governor Clinton and his wounded brother were among those who were lucky enough to escape from the forts.

As night fell over the fallen forts, the small American fleet could not escape to the North due to contrary winds and was forced to scuttle itself on the banks of the river. Clinton notes this:

About 10 o’clock at night the rebels set fire to their two ships, Montgomery and Congress, some gallies and other armed vessels with their cannon stores &ca in them.
Another British officer gives a vivid description of the burning ships:

Flames suddenly broke forth and as every sail was set, the vessels soon became magnificent pyramids of fire. The reflection on the steep face of the mountain opposite, and the long train of ruddy light that shone upon the water for a prodigious distance, had a wonderful effect…the whole was sublimely terminated by explosions, which again left all to darkness. Charles Stedman (1794)
The following morning, on October 7th, General Clinton moved against Fort Constitution after attempting a parley for the fort’s surrender that met “…with an insolent reception unknown in any war, we determined to chastize, & therefore an embarkation under Major General Tryon, and Sir James Wallace with the gallies was ordered.” The British landed on the island only to find the fort abandoned, the storehouses and barracks burnt, and the cannon left behind intact to fall into British hands. On October 8th General Clinton (unaware of Burgoyne’s disastrous defeat the day before at the Battle of Bemis Heights) wrote Burgoyne:

“Nous y voila, and nothing now between us but Gates; I sincerely hope this little success may facilitate your operations.”
This letter was never destined to reach Burgoyne as the courier was captured and hung for espionage. Clinton staged several very successful raids into the interior from the river (most notably capturing and burning a large amount of supplies at Continental village on October 9th) while waiting to hear from Burgoyne. On October 14th, 1777 Sir Henry Clinton made a fateful decision to send an expedition up the Hudson River, in attempt to gather information about Burgoyne. This decision had a profound impact on the Livingston family and the entire Hudson Valley. Anyone who was not friendly to the Crown suffered, and the Clermont Livingstons were no exception.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Who's on First?

Well Clermont's Old-Fashioned Independence Day is past, and I can breath a sigh of relief. As the most-attended event at Clermont, it is always one I am both happy and sad to be put to bed for another year. This year's event brought some new questions to my mind, and as part of my quest to de-mystify museums, I'm thinking I'd like to share them with my readers.





As has become a tradition, I helped three of my best and brightest (and most daring) guides into costumes and placed them in the mansion as historic Clermont characters: Margaret Beekman Livingston, Mary Stevens Livingston, and a servant I named Sarah Minkler who was drawn from an amalgamation of historic sources and people. The three ladies (Jane, Emily, and Jennie) were stationed in various rooms of the house to talk to visitors as though they really were women living in 1777 at Clermont. This is called First Person Interpretation.


We then set up an Open House so that guests could wander through the rooms at their own pace, exploring in any direction and encountering the characters for as long as they like.


But more than ever this year, it was hit and miss with our audience. Some people love it, some people are confused or even turned off by it. Thank goodness for my guides playing characters. Each one made their own decisions about which visitors to stay "in character" with and which ones to "break character" with to maximize their comfort.


The debate over the pluses and minuses of First Person Interpretation is one that has been raging amongst museum professionals for years. And at Clermont, gets a little more complicated.


Here's the biggest problem for us: as I have talked about time and again, Clermont is interpretted to 1930. That means we look the way we did when Calvin Coolidge was president. George Washington may have come to Clermont, but he never sat on the Duncan Phyfe sofa or read by the electric lamps. So when Sarah Minkler is talking to you in the kitchen about her father the loyalist, you might be distracted by the copper hot water tank in the corner of the room. It can be downright confusing what you are supposed to think in this situation.


Kids have no problem with it. They can pretend that a butter knife is a sword. Grownups usually want to be told how they are supposed to make the logic work in their heads. Why is the sword so short? Will it still "cut" you if I am two feet away? What are the rules and boundaries of this game?


I've seen the rules work very well. When I once visited Lindenwald's super-fun Candlelight Evening, the guide stopped on the steps to explain to us that the curators of the museum had transported everyone in the mansion into 2009 to visit with us. Unfortunately, the guide explained, their technique was imperfect, and the historic people had no idea we were there.


The rules are set, Van Buren and his friends are not going to talk to you so don't even try.


I liked this solution personally because I am a little too nervous to play act along with the characters. We both know you're getting in your Explorer and going home to watch TV tonight so let's stop the games.


This is not to say I don't like First Person. Quite the contrary--I love it! I love hearing what people might have had to say, and quite honestly, I love to see their cool clothes. I just need the rules spelled out for me, and I need a safe distance.


So here is what I gave to the guides:


Time Travel: We are all standing today in 2011, but some visitors may try to give you a hard time by getting technical about how you are here at Clermont today. Basically, for you it is Jul 4th, 1777, and you do not know what happened to you or anyone else after the war. This is not Clermont as you know it, but you are certain that you will be returned to your own time shortly. Essentially, Clermont’s curators have transported you to today in a time machine, but you’ll be going home tonight.


So why were visitors still feeling funny? I didn't give the rules to them!


Some years at Independence Day we have done these First Person encounters on a guided tour, and the guide will prepare people with a quick explanation (much as I have written above). During the Legends by Candlelight Halloween Tours, the house, the people, and the talk is all about 1921 so people know where they're at (so to speak). When the ghost of Captain Kidd is gesticulating wildly at you with a shovel, you know why he's not so worried about the electric lights in his face--he's a ghost, what does he care?!


Without these guidelines this year, people were left to figure it out for themselves, something that not everyone has the patience for.



So here is my promise to you the Clermont visitor: Never again will I put Margaret Beekman in the dining room, with furnishings she would never have seen in her lifetime, without explaining to you why and how she is there. Never again will you have to wonder if you should ask her about Andrew Jackson's portrait on the wall or why there is a velvet rope between you.


Instead, when you get to meet some of the many generations of Clermont Livingstons we are lucky enough to be able to interpret for you, you will be able to focus on their lives, their personalities, and of course their stunning clothes.



(Yes, that's me in my fabulous new 18th century costume from our Peebles Island Resource Center!)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Calamities of War: Part 1

Before one can understand why and how British soldiers burned Clermont in October of 1777, an understanding of the progress of the Revolutionary War to that point is needed.







The War To 1777
The American War of Independence started on April 19, 1775 in the small Massachusetts’ towns of Lexington and Concord. From the initial small skirmishes of that day, the war expanded in a manner that shocked the British establishment. The Rebels, initially seen as no more than a rabble using unorthodox tactics, had proven themselves by standing up to the strict discipline of the attacking British Army at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, a very costly British victory. The British for their part, had counted more on impressing the Rebels with a show of force than actually fighting them that day. In May of 1775, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold had also captured the strategic fortresses of Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. In September, the fiery General Arnold and the gallant former British Officer Richard Montgomery invaded Canada and pushed the British back to Quebec City. By January 1, 1776 the British only held Quebec City and Boston in the face of the rising Rebellion.



The Spring of 1776 dawned with the British government taking more seriously the threat posed by the Rebellion. Reinforcements were dispatched to Canada under General John Burgoyne to relieve Quebec and Lord Howe, now Commander and Chief in North America, evacuated Boston for Halifax on March 17, 1776. The Spring of 1776 was a dire period for British Arms as the initiative laid completely with the Rebels until these reinforcements could make their presence felt on the field. The subsequent campaigns in both Canada and the region surrounding New York City were very successful. The success at New York City forced the New York State Legislature to remove itself to upriver to Kingston. By the end of 1776, the Rebels had been pushed completely out of Canada by Generals Carlton and Burgoyne and into the fortifications surrounding Ticonderoga on the southern end of Lake Champlain. Lord Howe had executed amphibious operations that gained control of New York City, the lower Hudson River south of the Hudson Highlands, parts of New Jersey and Rhode Island.



Through these operations, the British had gained important base areas for their future operations in 1777. These gains, and the apparent loss of enthusiasm for the Rebellion amongst colonists due to these reverses, left the British government and the British Army in America feeling that a final victory could be achieved in the colonies during the coming year. Yet General Washington had gained a ray of hope for the Rebels by his surprise victory at Trenton on December 26th that led to the withdrawal of British troops from western New Jersey early in 1777. The British still remained optimistic in the face of these reverses and anticipated that the campaigns of 1777 would be decisive in bringing the war to an end. Historians point out that 1777 was the last year that the American Rebellion would remain an internal domestic dispute between the colonies and the Mother Country.


General ‘Gentleman Johnny’ Burgoyne and His ‘Thoughts For Conducting the War from the Side of Canada’
General John Burgoyne had served in North America since 1775. In that year, along with Lord Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, he had been sent to Boston to observe and help British forces in any manner that General Gage, then Commander and Chief, could devise. This ‘triumvirate of reputation’ had been picked by King George the Third because they were the best General Officers willing to fight the Rebellion brewing in the colonies. Many of Britain’s best officers were reluctant to fight what they saw as fellow Englishman.


The British were in a strong position to continue the war in 1777. Burgoyne had returned to England to lobby for the command of an invasion into New York of his own design from Canada. With political deftness and much scheming, Burgoyne maneuvered his way into command of the British Army that would invade Northern New York in 1777 from Canada. On February 28, 1777 Burgoyne submitted to Lord Germain, the Secretary of State for the American Colonies, his Thoughts for Conducting the War from the Side of Canada, which in essence was his own plans for invading Northern New York.


In Burgoyne’s ‘Thoughts’ he proposed a three-prong invasion of the Colony of New York. The three prongs would consist of an army moving along Lake Champlain via Lake George and the Hudson River or if necessary via Wood Creek to Fort Edward and the Hudson from Canada down to Albany; a diversionary force striking via Oswego to the Mohawk River to Albany; and, most important of all, the main British Army in North America at New York City under Lord Howe moving north along the Hudson River to affect a junction with the other prongs at Albany. Burgoyne’s main objective in his plan was to cut communications between New England and the rest of the colonies by controlling the Hudson River Valley thus cutting New England off from the rest of the Colonies. This strategy was based on a false assumption that New England was the main source and inspiration for the rebellion and that by cutting it off, the other colonies would quickly fall back into the British fold.


Burgoyne in this work anticipated and described many of the difficulties that he would encounter in his move toward Albany. He saw supply would be a great difficulty, but he was confident that Canada could supply many of his logistical needs (a confidence that would later prove unfounded). A reader of his plan has to admit that he had a very good grasp on the situation of Crown forces in Canada and what would be available for his operations as far as regular troops were concerned. Burgoyne over-anticipated Canadian support and the support that he would receive from Loyalist sections of the Colonial population in his area of operations.

This was an area of concern that would consistently be overestimated by planners in London throughout the war. Burgoyne saw his problems, but he greatly overestimated his army’s ability to overcome them. A further problem with Burgoyne’s plan is it failed before it was ever executed because Lord Germain never sent specific orders to General Howe commanding him to link up with Burgoyne at Albany. Burgoyne expected this juncture, but instead Lord Howe moved his army against Philadelphia, and left small forces in New York City. This breakdown in communication had dire consequences for Burgoyne as he moved towards a juncture that was not going to happen. Howe in the meantime had no idea that he had very specific orders to facilitate Burgoyne’s move to Albany. Howe was under the assumption that he was only to move north in the event that Burgoyne ran into trouble.