Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding Clermont in the Revolutionary War

The burning and subsequent rebuilding of Clermont is a pivotal moment in the site's history and earned Margaret Beekman Livingston the love of every successive generation. Building a house is never simple though, especially not in the middle of a war...
In October of 1777, Margaret Beekman Livingston was facing a second dismal winter at Clermont, far from the merry social scene in New York City. She had been cut off from her New York City townhouse since September of the previous year when the English army had taken control of the city (who knew what condition the place was in now!). Her unmarried daughters, (the oldest of whom was Catherine at 25) were thinking about their unused dinner dresses while they processed nuts and fruit and other winter foodstores in the large basement kitchen, and her 13-year-old son Edward was doing his best to keep up his education during the busy mess of the on-going war.

When Gouvernuer Morris's letter of October 13th arrived however, everything was halted and thrown into disarray: the English army was advancing up the river and was currently attacking Kingston. On October 15th, it is likely that Margaret could see the smoke and possibly light from the flames as General Vaughan burned the town, and she wasted no time in speeding her family out of harm's way in Connecticut.
General Vaughan arrived just two days later on October 17th and burned everything at Clermont that he could find: some two dozen outbuildings, the Chancellor's mansion, and the main mansion. The home where Margaret had shared her life with her beloved and recently-deceased husband was left in a charred pile of ash.

At the beginning of April, when the snow of one of the worst winters in years had melted and the mud had begun to dry out, Margaret was back at Clermont with the intention to rebuild. On April 11, 1778, the Chancellor wrote to his younger brother John in Boston, "Mama left us this morning to return to Clare Mont where she has put up a hut & spent the great part of last week."

It cannot have been an easy time. As she crested the hill returning home from the east, she would have been treated to the site of the chimney first, still standing but blackened after the blaze. In fact both of the chimney walls still stood, cradling a blackened mess of timbers, furniture, family portraits, silver, and fine dishes. Not only had she lost the memories and the moveable wealth once contained in the mansion, she had no home to call her own in the forseeable future. (note that the picture at right shows an 18th century structure burned in Midway, S. Carolina during the Civil War--Sadly, Peggy did not snap me a photo of Clermont in 1778)

We've always given her a lot of credit for rebuilding during the war, which she certainly deserves, but her choices were few. Margaret had several children to shelter, and she was still cut off from her house in New York City. If she hadn't rebuilt somewhere on her property, she'd have been forced to rely on friends and relatives to shelter them until the war was over or attempt to buy or rent something at a point when the market was simply a mess.

But rebuilding during the war was going to be a challenge. Materials were scarce, and cash money was still more so. The war interrupted trade, deepening the recession that had affected the northeast for several years, and many finished goods that the Americans depended on were produced outside the country. Taxes and wartime inflation were also rampant, further diminishing her resources. Margaret complained that she was being driven "almost to want" by the financial situation, and in June of 1778 the Chancellor complained that he was "now laying out as much in building a paltry farm house as would formerly have built me a palace."
Labor was one of the hardest resources to come by. Many of the skilled and unskilled men that Margaret would otherwise have hired were currently serving in the Manor militia. In the same letter quoted above, the Chancellor complained of a lack of leisure, of materials, & workmen." Margaret simply did not have the know-how or physical ability to build a house--let alone a mansion--on her own.

It was perhaps the height of entitlement that lead Margaret to her next course of action. She began to petition Governor George Clinton to release men from the Manor militia to rebuild her home. While the Continental Army was struggling to retain its members, and manpower for the Glorious Cause was getting weaker by the day, here was Margaret trying pull nearly a dozen men back to Clermont to rebuild her house.

To be fair, three of her sons were currently working to support the cause, and her eldest daughter had sacrificed her husband so maybe she thought she was owed a little support. The men she requested were also tenants from her lands, and she may have felt that they were her labor force to begin with.

In any case, Governor Clinton was unwilling. On April 16 he wrote to the Chancellor, "I have not granted any exemptions to workmen employed by the people who were burned out last fall nor do I think it would prudent until the drafts for filling up the Continental battalion are compleated. When that is done I will chearfully furnish you and Mrs. Livingston with your full Proportion." You have to give him some credit: it must have been hard to turn down a request from one of the richest families in the state.

No was not an acceptable answer. The letters continued, until Clinton broke down and gave Margaret several workers to rebuild a "Farm House." We don't know where this farm house was or what it looked like sadly, but it would have been a secure place in which to house herself and family temporarily. (The Hermance farmhouse from nearby Red Hook is pictured at right.) But a farm house was not enough, and once it was done, Margaret wanted her mansion back.

In November she wrote again:


As you were so Abligen as to indulge me with an exemption from military Duty for my workmen, who were Imployed in Building my farm house, I am incouraged to request the same favor for those to be imployed in rebuilding my late Dwelling House--Many hands must necessarily be ingaged as the House is pretty large, such as Masons Carpenters Brick Burners Labourers & Stone & Lime Breakers & Burners. I hope for an exemption for the present for my Stonebreakers & Lime Maker, who are the Conrant Lesher Junr. & Henry Timmerman, both in Capt. Tiel Rockaveller's Company of the Camp [Germantown]--also for Phil. Shultas under Capt. Phillip Smith of the Manor--as a Labourer...

Give them an inch, and they'll take a mile.
At some point Margaret got her men, and work was begun rebuilding the mansion.

They began by using dirt to build a ramp out of the large trash-filled pit that had once been Clermont's basement. Then heavy charred timbers and bits that had once been valued goods were dragged out and hurled onto the hill in front of the house (this subsequently provided a rich archeological layer that we explored when the HVAC bunker was put in some years ago).

Work continued for several years, but the Livingston family moved into the more spacious and elegant accomodations as soon as they could. In June of 1782, Margaret wrote that "I am obliged to leave finishing the house for want of seasoned plank & an hand rail to finish my stairs." Nevertheless, the previous month she had entertained Mrs. Washington at the house, though the finest bedroom to spare was yet in the basement.

Margaret is often heroicized for her role in the rebuilding of Clermont, but the decision was more complex than simply thumbing her nose at the British. Cut off from her resources in New York City, Margaret was in need of a place to shelter her family through an uncertain period of time until the war was done. This place needed to be of adequate quality for their elite station so any little farmhouse would simply not do. Image was still important. Immediately after beginning to rebuild the house, Margaret's account books show that she was back to purchasing the fine things that would adorn her family and their lives (shoes, gloves, etc), and the archeological record show that the family was also resupplying themselves with appropriate ceramics for tea and dinners (like the above 1760s Chinese export porcelain plate from the Van Cortlandt House).
Whether or not she was guided by need, the process was not an easy one. While others around here were struggling to get luxury goods like tea and more basic ones like pins, Margaret was fighting for the laborers and supplies needed to build a home (finished wood, crown glass, nails, etc). Margaret's decision required perserverence and fortitude, characteristics which it appears she had in spades.
By way of thanks, her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren passed on the stories of Margaret's deeds until the story of rebuilding has become a refrain that is inseparable from the story of Clermont. And doesn't she deserve it?

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