As General Washington prepared for an expected British invasion of New York City in the summer of 1776, the overwhelming force of British regulars was not his only worry. New York was filled with Tories. It may have been the most pro-British of the 13 colonies.
Even before the Continental Army moved to New York, local patriots had forced the royal government out of the colony. Operating under Isaac Sears, who was an active leader in the Sons of Liberty, patriots had forced Royal Governor William Tryon to flee the city in 1775. He could only rule over the colony from a British Navy ship in the harbor. The New York Tories could not speak publicly about their views, but there were too many of them to lock up or banish from the colony. So unlike Boston, where the relatively small numbers of Tories had been bottled up in the city along with the regulars, the Continental Army in New York found itself surrounded and intermingling with thousands of people who remained loyal to the King. Most Tories had left the city itself, but Staten Island and Long Island had plenty.
Holy Ground Riots
Much of the Continental Army settled into the city. For the Continental soldiers, who were mostly small town New Englanders, New York City was a culture shock. The city had a pretty large red light district, known as the Holy Ground. The name derived from the fact that Trinity Church owned most of the real estate in the neighborhood.
Of course, it’s not like Boston didn’t have prostitutes, it did. But in puritan Boston, the prostitutes maintained a low profile. In New York, soldiers and officers were shocked by the brazenness and the prostitutes actively plying their trade. One young lieutenant commented on their “impudence and immodesty” After getting to know them a little better, he was even more shocked by their apparent brutality.
|Holy Ground Brothel (from Revolutionary War Journal)
It is not entirely clear whether the New York prostitutes were particularly pro-Tory, or whether the motive was money, or some sadistic pleasure. But in April 1776, two Continental soldiers turned up dead, one of them brutally castrated, in one of the Holy Ground brothels.
The soldiers rioted for days, destroying brothels and openly fighting in the streets with some of the locals. The men tore down the brothel where the army had found the two dead soldiers, and damaged several others. A few days later locals found the dead body of a prostitute dumped into an outhouse, presumably killed during the riots.
Washington ordered a curfew, punished drunkenness with public floggings, and did what he could to keep the army and the prostitutes separate. He did not attempt to ban soldiers from visiting Holy Ground entirely. Detachments sent to keep order there had trouble identifying soldiers since almost none of them wore uniforms.
The active rioting only lasted a few days before the fighting stopped. Business dipped a little for a short time, but soon returned to normal. Soldiers continued to risk their lives for visits to the Holy Ground.
Tory Efforts to Organize
If the muted presence of Tories in the city was bad, it was even worse in some of the outlying areas like Long Island or Staten Island. In many of the outskirts, Tories still spoke openly in favor of supporting the King and of forming militia units to support the regulars once they arrived.
There were still a few companies of regulars in New York. These units, however, remained aboard ships in New York Harbor. They did not attempt to establish permanent bases anywhere, not even on some of the islands that remained Tory strongholds. There simply were not enough of them to protect against a patriot raid to capture or kill them.
Generals Lee and Washington both attempted to cut off interactions with the ships in the harbor. Until Lee’s arrival, goods and information flowed freely between the fleet and the city. The Continental Army made commerce a little more difficult. But the fleet was able to get the food and supplies it needed from the surrounding islands. There were plenty of Tories, as well as other merchants happy to sell for hard money. The fleet also spread the word that the regulars were on their way, and that loyal colonists should prepare for their arrival as best they could.
Days after his arrival from Boston in April, Washington had written the local Committee of Safety to do what it could to disrupt communications between Governor Tryon aboard ship and the many Tory elements in the region. Two months later in June, Washington reported that little had changed and that the Royal Governor was still stirring up trouble.
|Israel Putnam (from Wikimedia)
The patriots had rounded up quite a few Tories, but numerous others escaped their grasp. Richard Hewitt was a prominent Tory living out on Long Island near Suffolk. Fans of the AMC series, Turn, which is loosely based on events on Long Island during the Revolution, may know Hewitt as a British officer. In fact, Hewitt was a native born New Yorker.
Putnam authorized the arrest of Hewitt, and deployed a group on horseback to go out to Hempstead in Suffolk County to arrest him. Hewitt, however, rounded up a group of loyalists, who armed themselves and occupied his house. When the patriots arrived, the two parties exchanged fire, in what is sometimes called the Battle of Hempstead Swamp. It was hardly a battle though, involving a few dozen men at most, with no known casualties. The patriot attackers realized they could not take the house and returned home empty handed. Once the regulars arrived a few months later, Hewitt would raise a regiment of loyalist militia and would command them as a Lt. Col.
Another prominent Tory, Oliver De Lancey, lived on Manhattan, just north of town, in the area that is today part of Central Park. De Lancey came from one of the wealthiest and politically powerful families in New York. He had sat on the Governor’s Council for decades. For many years, De Lancey tended to support colonial protests against taxes and other Parliament restrictions. But when it came time to take up arms in support of the cause, De Lancey thought that was going too far, and spoke out against rebellion. Now labelled as a prominent loyalist, he faced arrest. In June, De Lancey fled his farm and escaped to the British fleet in the harbor.
When the regulars took the city, De Lancey would be one of the top loyalist militia officers, rising to the rank of major general. What all this showed was that even before the British fleet arrived for the invasion, Washington could not control the region because of too much loyalist sympathy. New York simply was not New England.
The Plot Against Washington
Patriots redoubled their efforts to arrest Tories after the discovery of a conspiracy to target George Washington. The instigator of this conspiracy was probably Gov. Tryon. But since Tryon was bottled up in New York Harbor, he had to rely on men still in the city.
One of those men was New York City Mayor David Mathews, whom Tryon had appointed in February 1776. After the Continental Army occupied New York City, they left Mathews alone. Mathews, in turn, probably tried to keep a very low profile.
Mathews was not just sitting around though. There is good evidence, he was working with a band of men who planned either to assassinate Washington and some of the other top Continental officers, or possibly capture them and turn them over to the British.
As far as I know, David Mathews did not go by “Dave” nor was he really the leader of this band. The group is probably better known as the Hickey Conspiracy or the Tryon Plot. For some reason, I like calling it the Dave Mathews Band. That really isn’t historically accurate though.
|Gov. William Tryon
The conspiracy fell apart in June. One of Washington’s guards Sgt. Thomas Hickey ended up in prison for passing counterfeit notes. The Irish born Hickey had been a British regular who had deserted and then joined the Continental Army in Cambridge. Despite his past position with the enemy, he was selected to join Washington’s Life Guards.
While in prison Hickey bragged to a fellow prisoner, Isaac Ketchum that he was part of a conspiracy to kill Washington and then defect back to the British army. Ketchum turned prison snitch and revealed the information in exchange for his own release from prison.
Hickey faced a court martial. He admitted to taking bribes, but claimed he never intended to go through with it. He just wanted to take the money from gullible Tories. The court martial did not buy his story. It sentenced him to death. On June 28, Hickey when to the gallows, the first Continental soldier executed by a court martial. Most of the army and the city turned out to see the execution. It was supposed to be one of the most widely viewed executions up until that time in America.
According to some other accounts, Ketchum exposed only that Hickey was conspiring to desert to the enemy, not kill Washington. Hickey was convicted of conspiracy and sedition, but the trial never heard testimony about any assassination plot. Whether Hickey was part of the assassination plot or not though, there did appear to be one. A man named Samuel Fraunces testified before Congress after the war, that he had exposed the plot and was falsely accused of being part of the conspiracy and imprisoned for a time.
Whoever exposed the plot, an assassination plot did seem to exist. With the plot exposed, patriots arrested Mathews and 12 others suspected of being involved. They shipped them off to Connecticut. Mathews was placed under house arrest in the custody of his brother in law, who was a Major in the Connecticut militia. Several years later he escaped and returned to New York, by then under British control. Mathews resumed his role as Mayor of New York City as well as the leader of Tory militia. He remained in those roles until the British evacuation in 1783.
The patriots never prosecuted anyone else, even though Hickey allegedly claimed that over 700 men were part of the plot. There simply was no evidence to convict anyone. The Patriot leadership did not want the public to find out that Continental soldiers were plotting to kill their commander. Also, for civilians, there was still the problem that there were no treason laws on the books, except those laws for committing treason against the King.
As it turned out, the British were in no hurry to take New York. The first of the invasion fleet did not begin to arrive until July. Most of them would not arrive until August.
That gave the Continental Army almost all summer to improve and expand its defenses. While they did use the time to build up fortifications, in many ways, time was not on their side. Patriot forces grew to over 20,000, but most of them were militia from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The Continental Army itself had grown again, but was under 10,000. Militia were often untrained and sometimes uncooperative in following orders. The Continental army was not much better. Remember, most of Washington’s army left service at the end of their enlistments in December 1775. Washington had to replace most of them with new recruits. This meant that even the Continental soldiers often had about six months experience, and almost none in combat.
In May, Washington had to deploy General Sullivan, along with 3000 soldiers to Canada. I’ll get into the details for that deployment in a couple of weeks, but this only weakened Washington’s forces in New York. Disease also continued to wreak havoc with the army. It was not unusual for one-third of the army to be too sick for active duty at any time.
Rather than focus on training and drilling, the army spent much of its time digging ditches and building forts and other entrenchments. While defenses were important, the army needed more time training the soldiers to fight in battle. That simply did not happen.
In Boston, Washington had regular intelligence about the enemy thanks to patriots who remained in Boston during the occupation. He had no such intelligence network in New York, meaning he largely did not know what the loyalists were doing, nor could he control their communications with the British fleet. He would eventually build a spy network, but he did not have one at this time.
Washington also would have benefited greatly from cavalry, which could have scouted Long Island and completed longer distance raids. Connecticut volunteers had arrived in New York with horses. However, since Congress had not authorized payment for the care and feeding of horses, the soldiers had to send them back to Connecticut. Washington would not get a cavalry.
One of the most critical defenses for the patriots was the Gowanus Heights on Long Island. Washington delegated authority for those defenses to General Nathaniel Greene. Now I’ve mentioned Greene in several earlier episodes, but I have not really introduced him. Greene was one of the original group of brigadier generals which Congress commissioned in June 1775. He would be the only general besides Washington to serve as a general for the entire war.
Greene’s family made its money in commercial shipping. When London began increasing tariffs and cracking down on smuggling, his business suffered. Greene owned one of the ships seized by Lt. Dudingston of the Gaspee. Greene sued Dudingston personally. There is some evidence that when the patriots raided and burned the Gaspee, that a local sheriff attempted to serve papers on Dudingston, before they shot him that is (See, Episode 36)
Greene helped form a militia unit in Rhode Island and hoped to be voted its commander. The soldiers voted for someone else because Greene had a limp from a childhood accident that made him unable to march smartly. Despite the disappointment, Greene remained in the regiment as a private.
As a private, Greene still had important personal and professional connections in the government. As a result, after Lexington, the Assembly chose Greene to become a militia General and lead its regiments to Cambridge. So, overnight promotion from private to general, not bad!
General Greene stood out in Cambridge for enforcing strict order among the Rhode Islanders, requiring camps be built in straight lines, men remain properly uniformed, and maintained regular drills. This made the Rhode Islanders stand out among the chaotic camps around Cambridge, and brought Greene to Washington’s attention. Greene, however, got his commission in the Continental Army primarily because Congress was making an effort to include as many colonies as possible in the leadership, and Greene was the highest ranking officer from Rhode Island.
Greene impressed Washington in Cambridge. Now Washington was putting more responsibility in the hands of this young general who had never even seen a real battle. Greene had been back in Rhode Island during the Battle of Bunker Hill. During the Battle of Dorchester Heights, Greene deployed along with Gen. Sullivan north of Boston, prepared to invade the city should the British attack Dorchester from south Boston. Since that never happened, Greene sat miles away from the action.
Greene put great effort into the defenses on Long Island, though as we’ll see when we get to the battle, his inexperience left some serious gaps that the enemy exploited. Green was sick and not in command by the time the British invaded. He joined much of his army in the hospital with what modern historians guess was typhoid.
By the end of the war, Greene would turn out to be one of the best generals in the Continental Army, and in my opinion, one of the most underrated. But during the fighting in New York, his inexperience would show badly.
Greene’s inexperience, however, was the general rule, not the exception in the Continental Army. This young army of recent civilians prepared to receive the largest British invasion force ever sent overseas.
Since General Howe is going to take until August before he begins his fight in New York, I’ll turn to some other area for the next few weeks.
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Next Episode 94: War At Sea, Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet
Previous Episode 92: State Constitution, Part 2
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Resources to learn more about today’s topic.
Schenawold, Harry Holy Ground, 2015: http://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/holy-ground
O'Reilly, Edward “Profligate, abandoned, and dissipated”: NYC’s Last Colonial Mayor, 2015: http://blog.nyhistory.org/profligate-abandoned-and-dissipated-new-york-citys-last-colonial-mayor
Shattuck, Gary "Plotting the ‘Sacricide’ of George Washington" Journal of the American Revolution, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/07/plotting-the-sacricide-of-george-washington
Washington’s Life Guards: http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/life-guards
"Irishman Thomas Hickey executed for plotting against Washington" Irish Echo,
Moran, Donald N. The Scoundrel Who Saved the Continental Army,
(from archive.org unless noted)
Flick, Alexander C. Loyalism in New York During the American Revolution, New York, The Columbia University Press, 1901.
Force, Peter American Archives, Series 4, Vol 5, M. St. Clair & Peter Force, 1837.
Mather, Frederic The Refugees of 1776 from Long Island to Connecticut, (1913).
Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, (1878).
Tomlinson, Abraham; Dawson, Henry B. New York city during the American revolution : Being a collection of original papers (now first published) from the manuscripts in the possession of the Mercantile library association, of New York city by New York (N.Y.). Mercantile Library Association;
Privately printed for the Association, 1861.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)
Bliven, Bruce Under the Guns: New York, 1775-1776, New York: Harper & Rowe, 1972.
Daughan, George C. Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the American War of Independence, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.
Ellis, Joseph Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.
Golway, Terry Washington's General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution, Henry Hold & Co. 2004.
McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Meltzer, Brad & Mensch, Josh The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, Flatiron Books, 2018 (book recommendation of the week).
Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.