Thursday, August 18, 2011

Calamities of War: Part 5

1777: A Missed Opportunity
A further blow to British arms came in the form of orders General Clinton received from General Howe to abandon the captured highland forts and send many of the troops who participated in their taking to Philadelphia. Whatever gains could have been salvaged from the campaigns of 1777 were lost by 1778. Fort Ticonderoga and its environ’s were abandoned in November, never to be reoccupied by the British or American forces. The American Army reoccupied the Hudson Highlands shortly after General Vaughn returned from his raid north. The Americans built bigger and better fortifications at West Point along with a much improved chain boom across the river. Howe’s great prize of Philadelphia was abandoned in May of 1778 as an untenable position when General Clinton became British Commander in Chief in North America. Howe made the mistake of focusing on Philadelphia as his objective and not the destruction of General Washington and his army. After Howe took Philadelphia, Washington was able to regroup and keep the American Army in the field and keep American hope alive for the rest of the war. For the rest of his life, General Clinton was sure if at least the forts had been kept, things might have turned out differently for the British. In this respect, Clinton may have been right. Letters from Commander-in-Chief George Washington show just how tactically important the Americans and the British considered the Hudson River:

Letter from George Washington to Massachusetts Militia Generals.
July 18, 1777
Head Quarters at the Clove:

Gentlemen: The evacuation of Ticonderoga has opened a door for the enemy, unless speedily and vigorously opposed, to penetrate the Northern parts of the State of New York and the Western parts of New Hampshire and Massachusetts Bay, It is also feared that they will form a junction by way of the North (Hudson) River with General Howe, and thereby cut off the communication between the Eastern and Southern States. I need not represent to you how fatal such a measure could prove to the interests and Liberties of the United States.
To paraphrase, if the British controlled New York from Canada to New York City, the colonies would be effectively cut in half. This letter was written at the suggestion of Robert R. Livingston, who believed the New England States did not realize the danger such a campaign would pose to everyone involved. As it turned out, the taking of New York from the South and North were exactly what the British attempted later that year. Once the Highland forts of Montgomery and Clinton fell into British hands, Washington realized only Burgoyne’s loss at Saratoga may have saved the American cause:

George Washington to George Clinton
Head Qurs., Philadelphia County, October 15, 1777

Dr. Sir: I was this day honored with yours of the 9th containing a full account of the Storm of Forts Montgomery and Clinton….This affair might have been attended with fatal consequences, had not there been a most favorable providential intervention in favor of General Gates arms on the 7th instant [i.e. the Battle of Saratoga], but I am fully of the opinion that Sir Henry Clinton will not advance up much further up the River upon hearing of Burgoyne’s defeat and retreat…
Here, Washington was indeed correct, Clinton’s Army remained at the Forts, while a small flying squadron of troops and small boats was sent up the river to gather information on Burgoyne. When news of the destruction of Kingston and other Hudson Valley properties reached Washington, he reacted as one would expect:

George Washington to George Clinton, October 25, 1777.

Dear Sir, Your favor of the 20th. I received Yesterday Afternoon and feel much for the Havoc and devastation committed by the Enemy employed on the North River. Their maxim seems to be, to destroy where they cannot conquer and they hesitate not, to pursue a conduct that would do dishonour to the Arms of Barbarians.
In this short excerpt, the future President of the United States of America summed up Vaughn’s campaign up the Hudson River. Vaughn was not attempting to conquer territory, and his actions had no real military value. Even Sir Henry Clinton, his own commander, seemed to have disapproved. Two-Hundred and twenty-five years later, it is hard to imagine the true loss felt by the Livingston family.

Two months after the burning of Clermont, the Livingston family gathered at the Manor House for a Christmas dinner. As the talk naturally turned to the war, William Smith recorded the family’s reaction in his journal:

December 25, 1777:

RRL said that retaliating burning for burning would ruin the Country & that the true Mode of acting was instantly hanging every Man who had been concerned in such Work. I talked with Emly who sat next to me & affected not to listed to these Speeches & they soon dropp’d [sic] upon my saying the Consequences of a War should have been considered before it was begun.
This passage illustrates part of the reason William Smith was not always a reliable source. Two months after the destruction of their estate, it seems unlikely the family would have dropped the debate so easily based on one statement by a Tory in-law. Given the skill of the Chancellor as an orator and writer, one also has to doubt whether William Smith could have bested him without difficulty. What is evident in the passage is the real conflict going on all across America at the time of the Revolution. Tories and Patriots attacked each other mercilessly, destroying property and taking lives. In the Mohawk Valley, next door to the Livingstons, bloody partisan battles continued throughout the entire war. For example, a company of Loyalist soldiers known as Butler’s Rangers terrorized the Mohawk Valley until Walter Butler’s death in October of 1781. Butler’s Rangers were responsible for the burning of Cherry Valley, Deerfield (modern Day Utica), and the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. The death of Walter Butler was reportedly celebrated as a more momentous occasion than the final surrender of the British at Yorktown. Closer to home, Loyalist and Patriot tensions ran high in the Hudson Valley as well. According to William Smith’s journal entry for May of 1777:

May 4, 1777
The Claverack Committee [i.e. Committee of Safety], as two men from there inform PRL [Peter Livingston], have discovered that the Tenants of the Manor have bound themselves by an oath to support each other as subjects of King George.
May 10, 1777
[Peter R. Livingston] told me last night that all of his father’s tenants (about 400) and Robert L. Livingston’s also (about 60), with other inhabitants, mechanics and inmates & the camp people—about 50 fighting men more—are attached to the Crown.
The Committees of Safety were responsible for rooting out Loyalist sentiments in their jurisdiction. Loyalists were often treated very badly, they were frequently jailed, their property could be confiscated, and they were sometimes victims of physical violence. William Smith, a rampant Tory, spends the war under a form of house arrest at the home of his in-laws. Even marriage to the most powerful family in the region could not keep William Smith from being called before the Committee of Safety and made to answer a charge of refusing to sign an oath of allegiance against Britain. From a loyalist point of view, the burning of Kingston, Clermont and the others was merely a payback for the type of treatment they had been receiving all along. Interestingly, while the mostly Palatine German tenants at Livingston Manor are accused of supporting the King, their relatives in the Mohawk Valley are overwhelmingly Patriots. Descendents of many of the original Palatine settlers brought to America by Robert the Builder made a brave stand against British forces at the Battle of Oriskany in western New York.


  1. This is one of the worst web sites ever constructed. What is Clermont? Where is it? Etc. You'd never know from coming to this site. Do you get any visitors besides near neighbors?


  2. Thank you for your interest in Clermont. This Blog is constructed not to serve as a general website about the museum, but rather a source of historic research and news. To find information about location, hours, etc, please visit either of the two websites that provide this information for Clermont: