New York, Mobilization in

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New York, Mobilization in

NEW YORK, MOBILIZATION IN. New York was one of the major theaters of the War of Independence, and it endured hard conflict longer than any other state. Perhaps its people suffered worst of all from war's destruction. The war struck New Yorkers like none in their past, and no New Yorker escaped it. How it came to them and how they joined in it began a redefinition of what it meant to be a New Yorker, of how New York's people dealt with each other, and even of the boundaries within which they lived.

There is no adequate account of how New Yorkers came to join the Continental Army and the revolutionary militia. We know little about how their previous lives fed into military service and have only fragmentary information about how they mustered for service, what they did on duty, and how they met their needs for food, shelter, and weapons. This entry summarizes what we do know.

Conflict had played an important role in shaping colonial New York. The Dutch founders had waged war against the Indians of the Hudson Valley. The Five Haudenosaunee Nations (the French called them the Iroquois) had fought the French and other Indians, in good part to control the trade in beaver pelts; these wars continued after the English conquered Nieuw Amsterdam and Beverwyck in 1664 and renamed them New York and Albany. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Iroquois were exhausted. In the "Grand Settlement" of 1702 they promised neutrality to the French and, to placate their English allies, deeded over a hunting ground they did not possess, sprawling across the Niagara Peninsula to Detroit and perhaps beyond. Even after the outbreak of the final Anglo-French war for empire in 1755, the Iroquois tried to play off the Europeans; but with the defeat of the French the Iroquois were no longer able to balance the European powers. Although some Senecas joined in Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763 to drive the British back, most Iroquois understood that warfare on their own against the Europeans was futile.

Although the line of settlement was pushed in, until 1761 farmers and artisans prospered—and merchants got rich—by supplying the foodstuffs and goods that fed and equipped the British soldiers and sailors who flowed through New York City to the war fronts north and west of Albany. Seventy-five New York City privateers preyed on French shipping, and some of their captains and owners also got rich. But the end of wartime procurement brought economic depression. Profits sank and jobs became scarce. City people suffered, whereas mixed-crop farmers in the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys could alter what they planted and survive.

Peace allowed settlement to spread into the territory between Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River, but new opportunities raised new issues. Although the Privy Council awarded title to the region to New York in 1764—it was also claimed by New Hampshire and Massachusetts—it could not prevent Connecticut migrants from entering the region. In the Hudson Valley, New Englanders pushing westward joined with long-term tenants to protest against economic conditions on estates in the valley, and in some cases the estates' very existence. In 1766 tenants from Westchester County north to Albany rose in protest. The royal governor had to dispatch British troops, accompanied by light artillery, from New York City to quell the insurrection.

All of these issues—Indian-white relations, postwar economic woes, uncertain land boundaries, a quasi-feudal land system, and the irritating presence of British troops—shaped the ways New Yorkers confronted the imperial crisis between 1765 and 1775. In New York City the combination of British troops and economic doldrums proved volatile. Two garrison companies had been stationed in the city since the conquest in 1664, but after 1763 the garrison rose to several regiments. Off-duty soldiers chopped down the Liberty Poles raised by radical New Yorkers and brawled with civilians in taverns. Even worse, they competed with local residents for scarce jobs. In January 1770 the rage spilled out into fights on the city's streets, but no shots were fired; a similar situation in Boston led two months later to the Boston Massacre. Like the residents of Boston, many ordinary people in New York City disliked the "lobsterbacks" and were just as ready to organize to protest their presence, although many of their leaders tagged behind.

Massachusetts was ready to resist when the imperial government punished Boston for the "destruction of the tea" at the Boston Tea Party. New Yorkers were slower, but they did follow. During 1774 and early 1775 committees of correspondence (the "Fifty-One") and inspection (the "Sixty") formed in New York City to exchange information and to enforce the Continental Association. The First Continental Congress wanted committees of inspection everywhere, but they appeared only in a few places in New York: at Rye in Westchester County in August 1774; at Albany over the winter; at Kingston in December; and at New Windsor in Ulster County not until March 1775. The committee of Palatine District, in the upper Mohawk Valley, met in secret for fear of the power of Sir William Johnson's family. These committees made no bid to overthrow colonial and royal institutions, as did their Massachusetts counterparts in the late summer and autumn of 1774.

Governor William Tryon remained popular (though New Yorkers loathed Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden, who stood in while Tryon journeyed to England). The provincial assembly made laws, the mayors and city councils in New York and Albany continued to pass ordinances, and the courts stayed open. A few zealots, such as the radical leaders Isaac Sears and Alexander McDougall, wanted to go farther, but they knew they could not. McDougall was "sure … that we shall be the last of the provinces to the northward of Georgia, that will appeal to the sword." James Duane, his reluctant fellow patriot, agreed in principle: "It seems to be agreed here that every pacific and persuasive Expedient ought to be tried before a Recourse to Arms can be justified." New Yorkers were not ready for war, and despite the hot temper of some in the city, most of the province's people had no desire for confrontation. Many Americans outside the province scorned New York's apparent timidity.

Yet observant people could see that New Yorkers were not timid. They remembered the ferocious, destructive protests that had nullified the Stamp Act in 1765–1766 and the subsequent brawls with the garrison soldiers. In New York City a "committee of mechanics" took shape and bought its own meeting place. Outside the city, branches of the Sons of Liberty sprang up. During the crisis of 1773–1774 over East India Company tea, the zealous McDougall horrified the cautious William Smith Jr. by suggesting that "we prevent the landing [of the tea] and kill the Gov[erno]r. and the council." It was dark humor, but like all joking it had a kernel of truth. While New Englanders were preparing for war, New Yorkers were donating goods and labor to support them. New Yorkers even destroyed a small tea cargo themselves in April 1774 when the ship London tried to bring some in secretly.

New Yorkers as a whole were not in a state of readiness to resist British authority in 1775. The closest they came was in New York City, but even there the likes of Duane did not want to make preparations. The likes of McDougall did not yet dare. Reluctant or bold, they understood that New York did not have and could not yet have anything like the province wide organization and the growing consciousness that Boston's leaders had fostered since well before the tea crisis. They understood that their province was far more heterogeneous, far more complex than the Yankee colonies. No amount of preparation could have mobilized New York's diverse people at the same time, at least in the same direction. But McDougall had predicted in 1774 to William Cooper of Massachusetts that "the attack of the Troops on your People" might make his fellows "fly to arms." The news from Lexington proved him right.

This was the moment that New York City radical leaders and Sons of Liberty like Isaac Sears and Alexander McDougall had been waiting for; it was the moment that cooler heads like James Duane and John Jay anticipated without relish; and it was also the moment that William Smith, who wanted desperately to remain neutral, and outright loyalists like King's College president Myles Cooper had foreseen with dread. When the news of the fighting in Massachusetts reached New York City on 23 April 1775, Sears seized the initiative. Organizing other Sons of Liberty and the "negroes, boys, sailors, and pickpockets," as well as many hard-working laborers and artisans, he led a march on the city armory, broke in, and handed out its contents. Another crowd stopped a sloop from sailing for Boston with provisions for the British troops there. Events cascaded. On 6 June, Marinus Willett, who would become a colonel in the Continental Army, led a group that seized the firearms of British soldiers who were being taken on shipboard to prevent them from deserting. As late as July it seemed to one observer that "all authority, power, and government … is in the hands of the lower class of people."

But crowd action was not enough. New York City replaced its 60-member committee of observation and inspection with a 100-member committee of safety. Albany's half-secret committee published a call for meetings in every town in Albany county, "to take the sense of the citizens." The result was the creation of a 153-member committee of "safety, protection, and correspondence," empowered to "transact all such measures … as may tend to the welfare of the American cause." Committees took shape in the other counties as well. Building on a short-lived Provincial Convention, elections for the new committees also chose delegates to the first of four Provincial Congresses. Congresses and committees alike began to drain power from the old institutions. On 3 May 1775 Albany's new committee of safety organized a "strict and strong watch, well armed and under proper discipline," and called on townsmen to form militia companies. Five days later New York City's Committee of One Hundred ordered that all known opponents of the movement be stripped of their firearms. It too was organizing militia companies, urging them to start training and secure munitions and supplies. But British troops remained in the city, and the sixty-four-gun ship Asia lay at anchor off lower Manhattan. Not wanting a confrontation, or the damage that would result if the Asia fired on the town, radical leaders agreed that the British army and the navy should continue to receive supplies. As a precaution, the Provincial Congress resolved that the militia be "in constant readiness" to repel any attempt to take over and restore the old government's full power.

New York was passing through a situation of "dual power," as two sets of institutions, one dying and the other emerging, and their incumbents vied for control. Such a situation is at the very heart of a political revolution. At the end of 1775, when Governor Tryon dissolved the assembly and called an election for its successor, the first congress also dissolved and called an election of its own. Tryon's goal was to stop the revolutionary movement. The congress's goal was to "awe a corrupt Assembly … from interfering with political subjects." The new assembly that Tryon hoped for never met. When the new provincial congress did assemble, there was no "official" institution to compete with it. In 1775 New York, like the other provinces, followed Massachusetts in preparing seriously for armed conflict, each at its own pace but in the same direction. Although the outbreak of fighting had provoked a sharp, if short-lived, burst of anger among New Yorkers, even loyalists-to-be, New Yorkers mobilized for conflict not as a united people but rather with the prospect of deep division.

Governor Tryon returned to New York from England on 25 June, the same day Washington passed through the city on his way to take command in Boston. Tryon wisely stayed on shipboard to avoid the celebrations for Washington, and both men received warm welcomes. Nonetheless, British authority was eroding. For his own safety Tryon retreated to the Asia and then to the merchant vessel Duchess of Gordon. In a nighttime operation on 22 August, with the approval of the Provincial Congress, the Sons of Liberty began removing cannon that had been stored for shipment at the Battery. The Asia did fire, including one full broadside at 3 a.m. The gunners aimed only at the storage site of the cannon and, despite the terrifying noise, the city suffered little damage. The next day the tenuous truce returned, but the balance of power had shifted a bit: the rebels now controlled twenty-one pieces of heavy artillery.

At the same time, the Provincial Congress was organizing four regiments to meet New York's quota of Continental Army troops. Each regiment was raised in a particular part of the colony, with the officers, who raised soldiers to earn their rank, reflecting the prevailing political sentiments of their region. The First Regiment was raised in New York City and County, with a strong cadre of officers with military experience in the final French and Indian war or in the city's elite militia battalions. The Second Regiment came from northern New York, from the city of Albany north through Albany and Charlotte Counties toward Canada, Tryon County (the Mohawk Valley), and Cumberland County (the Hampshire Grants, later the State of Vermont); it had a strong Dutch influence. The Third Regiment was raised mainly in the Hudson Valley between Albany and New York City, on the west side in Ulster and Orange Counties and on the east side in Dutchess County; a company from Suffolk County on Long Island completed the regiment. The Fourth Regiment came from the counties around New York City: southern Dutchess, Westchester, King's (Brooklyn), Queen's, and Richmond (Staten Island).

Enlistment records and the pension applications of elderly veterans that are preserved in the National Archives give us a glimpse of the men who joined and how they served in the war. The median age of 286 noncommissioned officers and men in the Third Regiment, for example, was 23 years (the average was 25 years). In height, they averaged over 5 feet, 8 1/2 inches tall; 70 percent had a fair complexion, sixteen were pockmarked, and one had a harelip. Three-quarters were born in the colonies (54 percent in New York itself); Irish were the majority of the foreign-born. Half described themselves as laborers, less than 10 percent were farmers, and the rest were artisans of some sort, mostly weavers and shoemakers.

We know more about New Yorkers' scramble for officer commissions. The Continental Congress recognized New York's importance by allocating it several general officer appointments. The senior appointee was Major General Philip Schuyler, a grandee landlord from Albany County, but the English-born and professionally trained Brigadier General Richard Montgomery was probably the most talented officer; he died in the assault on Quebec on 31 December 1775. In subsequent years, the former radical leader Alexander McDougall and the Ulster County brothers George and James Clinton received Continental commissions. James Clinton led one wing of the American army that ravaged Iroquois country in 1779 and opened the way for the ruthless destruction of Iroquois power after the war. Most of the generals associated with New York campaigns—including Washington; Arthur St. Clair at Ticonderoga; John Stark at Bennington; Horatio Gates, Benedict Arnold, and Benjamin Lincoln at Saratoga; John Sullivan on the 1779 Iroquois campaign; and Anthony Wayne in the Hudson Highlands—were not New York-born.

The unpretentious George Clinton, who held both militia and Continental commissions as a brigadier general, became the first commander of the state militia at the age of thirty-six. He proved more popular than Schuyler with New York's soldiers, and their votes gave him the state governorship in 1777. County and local notables scrambled for lesser rank, in both the Continental Army and the militia. After the war, scarcely a legislator or judge could not call himself general, colonel, major, or at least captain. Most militia officers provided important, if unremarkable, service. A few gained wider renown. Nicholas Herkimer was perhaps the most famous militia general. A local notable in the Mohawk Valley, he won election to the new state legislature. He won enduring military fame by helping to turn back St. Leger's expedition in 1777. Although British troops, their Loyalist allies, and pro-British Iroquois trapped his force of Tryon County militiamen in a ravine at Oriskany on 6 August and inflicted heavy casualties, including mortally wounding Herkimer himself, the expedition itself was crippled.

For militiamen, the first stage in commitment was to sign a voluntary "military association," or else face the contempt of neighbors. But not everybody joined in. Even in the heated atmosphere of the spring of 1775, the prosperous, mostly Dutch people of Richmond, King's, and Queen's Counties wanted nothing to do with the revolutionary movement. Efforts to organize committees and militia units among them came to virtually nothing. Continental general Charles Lee moved troops into Queen's County in January 1776, disarmed its open Loyalists, and arrested eighteen leaders. Still, its people would not support the patriots: 462 of them signed Lee's oath that they would not actively aid the British, and 340 more swore that they had surrendered all their firearms, but with no promises about future conduct. After the British arrived in August, more than 1,300 men signed a congratulatory address to the conquerors. Such men joined royalist militia units, raiding across Long Island Sound into Westchester County and Connecticut. But as with the patriot militia, we know far too little about them.

Serious "disaffection" appeared upstate as well. One in eight of the potential militiamen in Orange County refused the military association, more than half of them from just one town, Haverstraw. About the same proportion refused in Ulster, the next county to the north on the west bank of the Hudson. In Westchester, Dutchess, and Albany Counties, thousands refused and were stripped of their firearms. A clandestine meeting late in 1776 on the Helderberg Escarpment west of Albany shows such men, mostly tenant farmers from the Manor of Rensselaerswyck, making up their minds. Thanks to a spy from the revolutionary committee, we know that one of them, a recent Scottish immigrant named John Commons, put the question. Supporters of Congress should leave, he said; the king's friends should stay. But Commons did not "know who was right." Until the end of the war patriot militiamen and the "Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies" worked hard to keep these "disaffected" under control.

The most enduring and most fiercely fought problems erupted in the upper Mohawk Valley, where white settlement melded into Indian country. There was no simple demarcation. The Mohawks were fragmented and surrounded by whites, with whom they often worshipped, prayed, and intermarried. Farther west, white land grants and settlements pressed in on the Oneidas. The situation of the Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas seemed safer, but whites were firmly emplaced at Oswego and Niagara. At war's outbreak the Haudenosaunee "great league" still held the Iroquois together, but on religious terms that allowed them to maintain peace among themselves, not as a political unit that would let them act together in wartime. Their other pan-tribal institution was the "Covenant Chain," in which the Six Nations were the central links binding other Indians, separate British colonies, and the distant crown. But the crown's hold on the colonies was shaking. Would the chain still reach to London? Would it stop in Albany, where New York leaders were reviving their earlier primacy in Iroquois affairs? Or would it end now at Congress, in Philadelphia?

The white Mohawk Valley was fragmented too. Until his death late in 1774, Sir William Johnson was a great lord in all but formal title of nobility. He treated the largely Scottish Catholic tenant laborers on his enormous estate well, supplying needs and forgiving debts. He controlled assembly elections and decided who would be sheriff or judge. He had good relations with most of the Iroquois, particularly the Mohawks and the Senecas. These relations did not extend to many of the Oneidas, who did not think Johnson would help them protect their land. Knowing they needed a white ally, they looked to Samuel Kirkland, a pro-American, New England-born Presbyterian minister who had promised never to acquire an acre of their land. Yet the baronet did not own the whole valley. German and English settlers were moving in, resentful of his power, envious of his great landholdings, and casting covetous eyes on Indian land.

Johnson's heirs intended to keep the power and influence the baronet had acquired. Perhaps they did not learn about the secret committee that formed in 1774; but after Lexington there was no hiding. In June 1775 the committee called an open-air militia election. Sir John Johnson chanced to be passing and broke into the meeting, flailing his horsewhip at the candidate for captain. Another contretemps the next month saw five hundred of his armed tenants face down an equal number of insurgents at his own house, Johnson Hall. Leaders from Albany arranged a truce, but it did not last. Western New York and the Six Nations country were embarking on years of bitter warfare that would devastate the Indian and white communities alike. At the war's end the destruction of Iroquois power and grabbing of Iroquois property would surge, regardless of what side the Indians chose, as New York assumed its modern shape. But this was not a race war. There were Indians and whites on both sides: Mohawks and Oneidas, Scots and Germans, tenants and freeholders chose for their own reasons.

Where they could, African Americans chose sides for their own reasons too, particularly after British commander Sir Henry Clinton promised freedom to slaves of rebels who would join him. Slavery was beginning to crumble; black men enlisted, fought, and won freedom on both sides. Still, white New Yorkers were among the slowest of all northerners to wake up to the great contradiction between the Revolution's claim that all men are created equal and the harsh reality that white men imposed on black people. At the war's end Patriots would try to reclaim slaves who had rallied to Sir Henry. The British refused in as many cases as they could.

Women in New York also had choices to make. They felt the same patriotic desires and pressures for action that led women elsewhere into open politics. Some ended their marriages rather than accept their husbands' political decisions. In 1778 and 1779 Hudson Valley women joined crowds that sought to set prices on necessary goods, sometimes with soldiers' protection. Cross-dressing soldier Deborah Sampson saw combat as "Robert Shurtleff" on New York ground. Throughout revolutionary America, women learned that bearing the burden of supporting the war on the home front on their own, with their men sometimes far away, transformed them.

In the Green Mountains, Yankee migrants turned "revolutionary outlaws" nullified New York authority by the early 1770s, closing courts, breaking jails, horsewhipping officials, and driving out New York settlers. Lexington and Concord brought a brief reconciliation. Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys, joined Benedict Arnold to seize decrepit Fort Ticonderoga and its valuable artillery. Condemned to death by name in a New York statute of 1774, Allen appeared before the Provincial Congress and accepted its commission as colonel. Late in 1776 his followers realized that they could grasp their own independence, if they were bold. To New York they became "revolted subjects" living in the "pretended state" of Vermont. But New York needed them. When his army bogged down in the upper Hudson Valley north of Albany in the late summer of 1777, General John Burgoyne sent a raiding party of German troops toward Bennington. Green Mountain Boys and New Hampshire militia met the raid; some pretended to be Loyalists and led the Germans into a bloody trap. The expedition's failure helped to guarantee that Burgoyne's army would not reach Albany, where it intended to link up with other British troops coming down the Mohawk Valley and up the Hudson.

Burgoyne's southward advance from Montreal toward Albany was the second (of two) great military tests of mobilized New York. The first had been Washington's futile defense of New York City and successful retreat from it a year earlier, in 1776. Both the battle for New York and the battles around Saratoga were national efforts, with the Continental Army at the center. The American commander at Saratoga was British-born Horatio Gates, who lived in Virginia. Gates had replaced New York's Schuyler both because Schuyler had endorsed his subordinate's decision to abandon Fort Ticonderoga rather than try to block Burgoyne and because ordinary troops disliked him. Schuyler did, however, initiate a scorched-earth strategy along Burgoyne's route south from Lake Champlain, which succeeded in its goal of delaying the British, isolating them from their supplies, and weakening them to the point that Gates could defeat them.

New Yorkers by themselves could not have raised sufficient troops for either campaign. Regiments from other states made up the bulk of the American forces at both New York City in 1776 and Saratoga in 1777. Continental soldiers from the fishing ports of Massachusetts ferried much of Washington's army from Long Island to safety on Manhattan Island in August 1776. Beginning in the late summer of 1777, New Englanders were foremost among the militia who swelled Gates's army to the point that it vastly outnumbered the invaders. Despite a wave of panic as Burgoyne advanced south, New Yorkers did turn out at Saratoga in large numbers, where their presence tipped the scales even though they engaged in little fighting. When 1,800 Albany County militiamen joined the American force it helped to convince the British that their cause was hopeless. So stripped was the Hudson Valley during the Saratoga crisis that there was no resistance to a small British expedition that burned and ravaged as far north as Kingston, in a vain effort to support Burgoyne.

New Yorkers of all sorts remained mobilized for five years after Saratoga. Continentals and patriot militiamen faced down Loyalists and raiders both in the Iroquois borderlands and in Westchester County around New York City. Even after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781, the rump of the Continental Army remained camped at Newburgh, expecting a final battle for New York City itself that never came. Like the story of how New Yorkers entered the Revolutionary War, the story of how they endured the war and, eventually, left it behind remains to be explored more fully.

SEE ALSO Allen, Ethan; Arnold, Benedict; Bennington Raid; Boston Massacre; Boston Tea Party; Clinton, George; Clinton, James; Duane, James; Gates, Horatio; Herkimer, Nicholas; Iroquois League; Jay, John; Johnson, Sir John; Johnson, Sir William; Lincoln, Benjamin; McDougall, Alexander; Montgomery, Richard; Oriskany, New York; Pontiac's War; Sampson, Deborah; Saratoga, First Battle of; Saratoga, Second Battle of; Schuyler, Philip John; Sears, Isaac; Smith, William (II); Sons of Liberty; St. Clair, Arthur; St. Leger's Expedition; Stark, John; Sullivan, John; Sullivan's Expedition against the Iroquois; Ticonderoga, New York, American Capture of; Tryon, William; Wayne, Anthony; Willett, Marinus.


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Wonderley, Anthony. "1777: The Revolutionary War Comes to Oneida Country." Mohawk Valley History 1 (2004): 15-48.

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