Reply To: The Area Around the Van Cortlandt House in the 18th Century

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That is definitely a cool and interesting story, Tom.  It just goes to show the powerful psychological impression that the Hessians left on the early Americans.  After all, the headless horseman was also supposed to be a Hessian ghost.  They should have a ghost story reading at the Van Cortlandt House on Halloween!  Imagine how spooky that place would be in the dark with only candlelight.

Another thing that your reply makes me think of is all of the people that are credited for staying at the Van Cortlandt House  during the revolution, such as the Hessians that you mentioned, and the frustrating lack of primary source documentary evidence to prove it.  I have heard that Washington stayed there up to 3 times as well as Banastre Tarleton and the Hessians.  But credible evidence that all of these visits actually occurred is pretty hard to come by.

Take Washington, for example.  There are a few dates floating around that he stayed at the VCH.  You were kind enough to share this very interesting document with me relating to a time that Washington’s forces were camped in the Kingsbridge area:

It states:

If you go to footnote 324, it reads:

Lloyd Ultan certainly knows his stuff but even the author seems to insinuate that this isn’t exactly ironclad evidence.  It seems that Lloyd perhaps got the information from the <span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>Itinerary of General Washington</span>, which you also shared with me:

The last statement, that Washington and Rochambeau dined at the Van Cortlandt house on 7/23/1781, is not a quote nor an excerpt from Washington’s diary but rather an unattributed editor’s note.  So the question is, where did the editor get that information?  Washington’s diary from that day reads:

23d. Went upon Frogs Neck, to see what communication could be had with Long Isld. The Engineers attending with Instrumts. to measure the distance across found it to be [ ] Yards.1

Having finished the reconnoitre without damage—a few harmless shot only being fired at us—we Marched back about Six o’clock by the same routs we went down & a reversed order of March and arrived in Camp about Midnight.

If the editor’s note in the itinerary is correct, it means that Washington and Rochambeau dined at the VCH after midnight, which seems a little odd.  I am not saying Washington did not spend the night there.  I just think that there really isn’t any slam dunk evidence that he did–at least not on that day.

He visited the house earlier during the July 1781 reconnaissance.  The following is an excerpt of a British report written by Captain Ludwig August Marquard, aide-de-camp to Knyphuasen, who was operating an intelligence operation at the Morris House:

The report is dated 7/4/1781 and refers to one part of a large patriot force that clashed with the British/Hessians at King’s Bridge on the third.  I found it in the Clinton papers at the William Clements Library at the University of Michigan.  “Mr. Courtland” would have been Frederick Van Cortlandt.  James Van Cortlandt, who was living at the mansion house in today’s VC Park had already died and the other brother, Augustus, was living in the city.  This raises the question: Did Washington visit the the Van Cortlandt House in today’s park that day or did he visit Frederick’s house at “Upper Cortlandts” near today’s 238th Street and Waldo Ave?   The report states that Generals Washington and Parsons came to “his house,” but I tend to think that Washington came to the mansion in the park on the morning of the third for two reasons.  First, as we see in the diary of Katharine Farnham Hay, Frederick Van Cortlandt did live at the mansion in today’s park when his brother, James, was away.  Second, Washington and Parsons were marching from Mile Square that morning and ended up skirmishing with the Hessian jaegers at Fort Independence.  This suggests that Washington came to the Van Cortlandt house in today’s park as it is located at the end of the road from Mile Square and was closer to Fort Independence than Upper Cortlandts.

The only primary source evidence I have ever seen that Washington may have spent the night at the Van Cortlandt House in the park comes courtesy of Pierre Van Cortlandt.  This is from the <span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>Magazine of American History</span> and it relates to the days leading up to Evacuation Day:

Again, it doesn’t indicate if Washington stayed at Frederick Van Cortlandt’s “elegant” house at Upper Cortlandts or the mansion house in today’s park.  I think Pierre Van Cortlandt’s note probably refers to the latter for the same reasons expressed earlier.

Despite the sketchiness of the evidence, I bet Washington spent the night in the mansion house more than once as did other prominent figures from the revolution.  I couldn’t find any evidence that Banastre Tarleton ever stayed at the house but it would make sense if he did as well.

The other question raised by the above documents is: Whose side were the Van Cortlandt brothers on during the war?  These documents show Frederick Van Cortlandt as willing to provide intelligence to the British.  The Farnham Hay diary indicates that James and Frederick Van Cortlandt seemed to hold sway with (and have the respect of) the British officers in the area.  I will probably start a new post to delve into the Van Cortlandt brothers’ roles during the revolution.