Sunday, November 13, 2011

"The Fall of New York" by John Robinson

I'm pleased to present here the first installment of my historical novel about the battle between revolutionary forces under George Washington and General William Howe's overwhelmingly superior military forces. It's June of 1776. New Yorkers will recognize street and place names. Many quotes from the actual correspondence of the principals are used.

1. A POSTURE OF DEFENSE

New York City. New Years Day. Seventeen Seventy Six. The cobblestones are wet from the rain and the sleet. Horse drawn carts loaded with trunks and furniture click to the wharves. The social observances of New Year's Day are canceled. Even the bells of Trinity Church, the Dutch Reformed, and Saint Paul's are silent. Instead, a slow but steady evacuation of women and children is underway. The British men of war are anchored a stone's throw off the East River slips: the Asia, the Phoenix, and The Duchess of Gordon, each with forty to fifty twenty pound cannon aimed at the town. Huge cakes of ice in the river slap their hulls and force them to hug the shore. The Liberty Boys, armed with muskets stolen from Fort George, eye the cannons on the battery that extends from White Hall Slip as far as Beaver Street. Captain Parker, senior naval officer of the Phoenix Man of War, has warned the rebels that if they attempt to remove the cannons from the battery, he'll order his gunners to fire on the city.

Evening. Light fall of snow. White gauze covers the shoulders of the equestrian statue of King George in the bowling green. Little dots of white fill the small gilded crowns that top the wrought iron fence posts surrounding the regal monument. The streets are deserted, except for the piles of baggage and huddled forms of women and children. They're waiting for the Long Island Ferry at the foot of Wall Street to carry them to safety. Ominous clouds close in about the very roofs and chimneys. The peoples' minds are strained and apprehensive. Should the men of war commence cannonading, there will be no defenses against them. Nothing will prevent the British troops landing and overrunning the island.

The landed, wealthy Tories fear the rebels much more than the British troops. To men like Delancy, the low class dubbing itself The Sons of Liberty has been spreading terror through the town since the Stamp Act. Demagogues like that pirate Isaac Sears whipped the leather aproned joiners, carpenters, and chimney sweeps into frenzies. Deluding the mob with promises of liberty, Sears sought only to feather his own political nest. The Tories are loyal to his majesty King George the Third and his minister Lord North. Yes, the taxation policies of the Ministry are somewhat unreasonable, but the colonies have friends in Parliament. No need to sever ties. Why exchange the most benevolent government in the world for this wildly anarchic, tyrannical Congress in Philadelphia? New York City is evenly divided between those loyal to the king and those swept up in the fever of revolution. Then, there are the moderates. The fence sitters. They just want to avoid trouble. They have the majority in the city Committee of Safety. After the Committee ousted the incendiary Isaac Sears, he journeys to Cambridge and wins the ear of Charles Lee. "New York is a hot bed of Toryism!" he confides in the Major-General. Lee concurs with Sears and promises to take the matter up with the commander of the Revolutionary forces, now based in Boston. He writes George Washington, on January fifth.

General Charles Lee with Spada
"The consequences of the enemy's possessing themselves of New York appear to me so terrible, that I have scarcely slept. If the enemy gains control of the North River, they achieve communication with the Lakes, Canada. They cut the colonies in half. They have a base from which to strike anywhere in America within days."

Lee thought the commander leaned on Congress far too much. He added;

"Do not refer every decision you make to Congress. To so is to drown in indecision. It is to you they look up to for direction. Your effectiveness depends on your striking, at certain crises, vigorous strokes without communicating your intention. New York must be protected. But it will never, I'm afraid, be secured by direct order of Congress. I know that no man can be spared from Boston at this time as General Howe's entire force directly threatens that place. But I propose you should detain me in Connecticut and lend your name for collecting a body of volunteers. I shall find no difficulty in assembling a sufficient number for the purposes wanted. This body will effect the security of New York and the suppression of that dangerous banditti of Tories."

Washington wavers. If he immediately adopts Charles Lee's plan, and directs Lee to New York, would it be within his authority? He might exceed his powers and then Congress would disapprove. He was to act only as Congress directed, not otherwise. But New York is vital. He asks top Revolutionary leader John Adam's opinion.

Adams replies, "Yes. As the city and North River are the nexus of the Northern and Southern colonies, no effort to secure it ought to be omitted."

Washington learned that Howe's army planned soon to embark from the port of Boston. They must be destined for the south. To Charles Lee he writes, "You will with the volunteers from Connecticut repair to New York and put that city in the best posture of defense which the season will admit of, disarming all such persons upon Long Island and elsewhere whose conduct and declarations have rendered them justly suspected of designs unfriendly to the views of Congress."

Major General Charles Lee, second in command. Military genius. Charles Lee had been a Major General in the British Army. Led the Russians against the dreaded Turk. Then, on his return to England, he wrote radical pamphlets and insulted King George to his face. Settled in America. Tall, emaciated, soiled clothes, messy hair, dirty fingernails. Had to swallow his pride to serve under that Virginian amateur, Washington. Lee leaves Cambridge for New Haven. By him in his horse drawn chair his dogs. His favorite, Spada, rests his head on Lee's shoulder. Spada a large Pomeranian resembles a tiny bear. The other hounds battle for a position closest to their beloved master. He arrives in Hartford in the evening and calls upon the people of the neighborhood to join his colors to suppress the Tories and secure the town against the ministerial troops. "Not to crush these serpents before their rattles are grown would be ruinous." He is received with enthusiasm. If the bad news of defeats in Canada served to inspire rather than depress, it is because Lee's zeal spurs them. He reaches Stamford, Connecticut the following day. The New Englanders crowd around him. They love Lee's cursing of all authority, his unshaven face. The slovenly fit of an old faded, threadbare scarlet coat on his stretched, thin frame. His ever present dogs join him at the dinner table.

"I must have some object to embrace. When I can be convinced that men are as worthy as dogs, I shall transfer my benevolence to them." And his angry manner earns for him cheers among the growing throng. The Committee of Safety in New York is nervous about the coming of the temperamental Charles Lee. They just finished getting rid of Isaac Sears, now they dread a worse and more dangerous influence is coming to replace him. They write:

"Sir, since our gunpowder quantity is less than three tons, we haven't got a sufficiency to enable you to act hostilely against the ships of war now in port. Since we are unprepared, we cannot provoke the ships of war until at least the month of March when we might be fortunate enough to obtain more powder. So please, sir, stay on the western confines of Connecticut until you can assure us that the entrance of a large body of troops into this city will not involve us in hostilities."

Lee scoffs. "The timid ones are against my plan, merely from the spirit of procrastination, which is the essence of timidity."

As he writes, cursing the New Yorkers, a nagging pain in his fingers nearly stops him. Gout. The gout come back. The pain spreads to his knees, ankles, toes. Wide eyed, unable to sleep, he twists and turns in agony. He could nowhere find comfort. He stays eight more days in hopes the gout attack will pass, but it doesn't. He has to go to New York, gout or not. So, finally, carried on a litter, he is carefully placed on his carriage. Spada tries to soothe his pain by sliding a long consoling tongue across his cheek. But each bump in the road sends burning jolts into his swollen joints. The following day, he crosses Kings Bridge and enters the island. The Post Road leads him by the stately mansions and lovely rolling farm lands, orchards, and graceful stone walls. South, jutting up behind the hills, the spires of the churches rise. Now, descending the hills, Bowery Road becomes Broadway, newly set with cobblestones.

Dutch Reformed Church, NY, 1776
Even in his anguish, Charles Lee can admire the bright, brick houses of the town, topped with curtained dormer windows and graceful balustrades encircling the roofs. Wrought iron fence, lush Dutch gardens, and the Dutch houses with their glazed yellow bricks and stair step gables. Tree lined sidewalks, and the river, sound, and the flight of gulls. The Major General's chair halts at the common where the upper barracks stand and the Montaigne Public House. His litter bearers bring him to his room and he immediately receives the news that the British General Clinton aboard the war ship Mercury has entered the harbor.

"Let the fireworks begin!" Roared Lee." Send word on board the men of war that if they set a single house on fire in consequence of my coming, I will chain one hundred of their friends together and make that house their funeral pile."

"A dangerous provocation!" Protests the Committee of Safety.

"Hysteria!" Returned Lee. "Bring my litter to survey lower Broadway. That fort must go!"

"Fort George? But it is the King's Fort."

"Exactly. Tear down the bastions; north, west and east and the connecting curtain too. The fort can do us no good, but if the enemy gets it, they can use it to subject the town. Tear it down. Take their stores. And take the guns from the battery and move them to the common. Leave three thirty-two pounders in lower Broadway. Those guns will prevent them from rebuilding the fort."

All available carts are pressed to the Major General's service. He barks commands from his litter. The carts squeak and the wheels buckle under the half ton weight of the old cannon.
Seeing the guns roll by, the inhabitants are struck with panic. Quickly trunks are packed and loaded on horse drawn chairs. The Boston Post Road fills with refugees bound for Kings Bridge and beyond. The ferries too. And soon the din of clopping horses and the creak of wheel ceases. Vesey Street and Dey, Cherry Street and Barclay are silent. Houses vacated and boarded up. Inside a week a town of 28,000, down to 5,000. The Committee of Safety pulls its collective hair while Lee laughs off the mass flight.

"Let them go. Their houses shall be barracks for the Continental troops. And as to the threats of ships, I consider their menaces to fire upon the town as idle gasconades."

New York. It's a desert now, is the common lament. But Charles Lee is pleased. Feeding Spada one of Mrs. Montaigne's muffins, he begins to ponder strategy.

"What to do with the city, I confess, puzzles me. It is so encircled with deep, navigable water, that whoever commands the sea must command the town. And they have the world's greatest navy, with the French a close second best. The British will have no problems landing their forces here. But it is possible to make New York a costly battleground for them. They had to pay a lot to bring troops over 3000 miles of ocean. We must entrench ourselves in the Broadway, making our position so heavily defended that for every inch of progress, they will lose expensive lives."

So the eighteen hundred Connecticut volunteers build barricades at every street leading to the Broadway. Using mahogany logs taken from West India cargoes, and the shade trees of Broad and Wall and Nassau that enclose City Hall Park. Barriers rise at the head of Vesey Street, and one at Murray. Another stretches across Beekman Street at the Brick Church. Bulwark at the entrance to Center Street, another crosses Frankfort, and near that one, yet another facing Chatham. Sweat pours, dirt flies, the sound of hammer on wood, the chunk of shovel, the slap of cobblestone on mounting piles. But mostly the dirt. Soap is in short supply. The soap makers left in the panic. So the men on fatigue are constantly grimy. Barracked in the elegant houses, their mud boots streak hard wood floors, white tiled staircases; their hands soil wainscots, walls. The men burn fine European imported furniture for their heat. Cellars reek with their filth. Oh, when the owners return, they will spend years cleaning up after these motley, ragamuffin, vagabond, poor excuse for soldiers.

Back out the next morning, littered Lee drives them on as Spada pants. Horne's Hook battery goes up, and one opposite it at Hallet's point, to keep British ships out of Hell's Gate and
access to the sound. But we are low, grumbles Lee, on entrenching tools: hoes, shovels, axes, picks.

"We need engineers, carpenters. Can't expect to hold these forts with eighteen hundred. We need more men. We need nine thousand on Long Island alone. And we need soap! The Congress neglects this place. They make proclamations from afar. The appoint a mere amateur, George Washington, to command our troops, and don't even consider me! The only experienced officer they've got! Don't they realize the loss of New York is the death of the cause? We need soap!"

But Congress, instead, sends flattery. Good job Charles Lee. They need you in Canada. Canada?? Lee writes the chief: "New York must be secured. But your Congress is miserly, sir. I have torn down Fort George and begun redoubts in the Broadway and Horne's Hook. More than that I could not do as the Congress has not furnished the force which I was told to expect from Philadelphia!"

Lee shocks the lady innkeeper at dinner by quipping:

"If the British Commander, William Howe, and his brother the admiral were caught in bed with the wives of these congressmen, they would look the other way."

As ice blocks melt, The Asia, the Phoenix, and the Duchess of Gordon move out of the harbor taking the immediate threat of cannonade away with them. Charles Lee's attention shifts to
the Long Island Tory problem. Isaac Sears is dispatched to Long Island with orders to force the Tories to take a strong oath. It should be as follows:

"I will take arms in defense of my country if called upon by the voice of the Congress."

The true Tory, he who we shall imprison, will refuse to sign the oath. To promise to take arms against their sovereign would be too impious. Sears confronts them one by one and reports the results of the oath taking to Charles Lee as follows:

"They swallowed the oath hard as if it was a four pound shot they were trying to get down. But many of them, rather than being forced to sign an oath, escaped to the woods and are hiding out there."

Tories hiding in the woods! They're simply waiting for the King's troops to arrive. Then they'll join up against us. "I must confess", Lee says, "I leave this place in its present state with no small anxiety of mind. As there are no measures taken for its security, I tremble lest the enemy should take possession of it."

Lee's original orders state he must go to Canada. But he receives another letter from Congress, a change of assignment. He is to leave for South Carolina instead. Congress had wanted him in Canada, but Charles Lee is the only general South Carolina will accept. From Congress's point of view, it doesn't really matter where Lee is sent. Just get him out of New York where his inflammatory words and actions could cause the British not just to take over the town, but cruelly punish whoever is there left defending it.

Mrs. Montaigne issues Charles Lee the bill for his lodgement. His gout is calmed and he doesn't scream as much at night, but still she isn't sorry to see him go. She won't miss his foul mouth, unwashed person, and the furniture chewing and the rug shedding of his many dogs. She forces a gracious smile, respectfully requesting payment, but he slaps the bill out of her hand. "Why should I pay you, you damned Tory?" he hisses. The animals bare their teeth at her, growl, and follow their master to his horse and chair.

A stream of men, the newly arrived Continentals line Dey Street to watch Charles Lee ride to the Powle's Hook Ferry. They are motley dressed. Some in blue coats and buckskin breeches, white stockings and half boots, others in green short coats with brass buttons and black velvet jackets and breeches, and still others with blue coats and small castor hats set off by a black band and a silver buckle. They cheer their hero, and each dreads abandonment in this dangerous place with a less competent command. Lee is the best they could have.

The British under Howe leave Boston's Port and head for Halifax, Nova Scotia. But, that's only a ruse. New York will be their next object. Washington sends Lord Stirling to take Lee's place in New York and finish the job Lee started according to Lee's plan. Washington himself slips into town on April fifth and takes residence in the mansion of Richmond Hill.

Washington remains aloof, brooding on the losses of Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill, shuddering as regards the future of this uneven contest. The men never see him except at Trinity Church. And they wonder at his excellency's emotionless expression as the Anglican minister, Charles Inglis, prays for the well being of the King and sermonizes that changes of government should be left in God's hands alone.

But the fort building picks up. All during April and May the pick and shovel, hammer and saw are busy. In addition to the barricades on the Broadway, redoubts appear on Lispenard's Hill to strike war ships trying to embark on the Hudson side. Freshwater Hill redoubt faces the town, protects the hospital. Verplank's Hill behind Trinity Church aims cannon to the south. Bayard's Hill and Jones Hill have good works and at the ship yard, a strong battery backed by a fort higher up on the hill where the Jewish burial ground sits. Works at Colear's Hook and Rutger's Hill behind it protect the East River and more cannon are placed at Peck's and Beekman's slips, Rodman's Slip, Burnett's Key, Hunter's Key, Kruger's Wharf. Murray's Slip, and Whitehall.

General William Howe, commander in chief of the British, Hessian, and Highlander forces arrives on June 26th in the Greyhound frigate, a man of war sporting forty, twenty pounders. June 29th, forty-five more ships. And by now there are eighty-two. Rumour has it there are around 10,000 professionals out there battle ready. And more on the way. The commander's brother is at sea. Admiral Richard Howe with one hundred and fifty ships and some 22,000 more soldiers. The biggest military build up the British have ever mounted. The much delayed conquest of New York is finally about to happen. Perhaps, when the rebels see they must lose their city, they will abandon their "revolution" altogether. Then the British would be done with this idiocy. They want to finish this thing fast and go back home.

Sketch of Lispenard's Meadows
From his window at Richmond Hill, Abraham Mortier's residence at Varick and Charleston Streets, his excellency is treated to the view of the trees and grasses of Lispenard's Meadow
where all seems at peace. But he's thinking now of the growing forest of ships masts off Sandy Hook.

"The situation calls for the most vigorous exertions. Nothing less will be sufficient to avert the impending blow," writes General Washington to his adjutant, Colonel Joseph
Reed.

Reed reads. "Exertions?" and thinks: "It will take more than words to whip these amateur, motley, ragamuffin soldiers into any kind of shape."

The British General has a certain respect for the rebels. He remembers the The Bunker Hill fiasco. Howe had ordered his soldiers straight at the rebel batteries. A ridiculous frontal attack. He vows he will not repeat that mistake. Fortunate for him the rebels were largely bereft of ammunition, hence searched for "the whites of their eyes" before firing rationed shots. And those eye whites were spotted usually as rebels' chests got skewered. Too few ended up that way. Alas, Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill were largely abandoned before the redcoats got there.

The British regulars are in high spirits and talk of success in New York with some confidence. When the admiral arrives, with a few swift moves New York will be ours.

Washington stands. The sun throws the shadow of his six foot two frame across the length of the room. "I trust", he says, by God's favor and our own best efforts, they will be
disappointed, like they were at Bunker Hill. It is as Charles Lee says, they'll have to wade through much blood and slaughter before they carry our works.

But we need soldiers to defend them. Many of the militia terms are up and farmers are anxious to get home, angry over having missed the spring planting. The city's defenses are built and the men have nothing to do but wait. Increased cases of small pox from bad water lower morale. Two thousand sick men crowd the new hospital on Freshwater Hill.

Marked increase in rum consumption, madeira. Consorting with the whores of "The holy ground" so named because this vicinity of the women of the night surrounds Trinity Church, New York's largest Episcopal church. One soldier, given thirty-nine lashes in punishment for drunkenness, requests another thirty-nine if he can use them as payment for a pint of rum.

Washington broods. This army has problems. Given to gloomy thoughts, always, this large man with deep set eyes and a heavy brow. His father died when he was eleven and his beloved older brother Lawrence, too, in his prime.

These early tragedies never go away. They remain, a subliminal background hum at the center of his busy life. They rise in pitch and volume under stress. But his mood lifts when he receives the news that Congress has passed the Declaration of Independence, an instrument that severs all ties with the mother country. Just the thing to restore morale and discipline to the army.

He calls the troops to parade at six. Before each battalion the famous words are recited:

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

The soldiers give the declaration their approval with loud cheers and hats thrown skyward. Loyalists are afraid and shrink into the shadows of buildings. Many try to leave the city, knowing their lives are in jeopardy.

George the Third Statue Attack
The rebels are surrounding the equestrian statue of George the Third. You can imagine the lead horse rearing up in fear. Under the Roman armor, the king modeled upon Marcus Aurelius, shivers. His laurel leafed brow sweats. Rebels mount the marble platform, circle appendages of man and horse with rough, thick rope. Toss the ends into the crowd. With cries of heave, the soldiers pull, the leaden forms hold, but crack. Then, man and horse fall. Hammers undo the thin gold leaf that coats the statue. Entrenching tools and picks attack the grounded sovereign. He's pieces now. One blow cuts his head off neck and shoulder. They chip off the laurel leaves and ax his nose off and pound a musket ball into the left temple.

"Send the lead to Litchfield Connecticut", orders his excellency. "The ladies of Litchfield will mold our former king into bullets, cannon shot, canister, and grape shot. New York is without bullet molds."

The motley rebel soldiers gleefully obey. They collect the lead in wagons. Pieces of George Rex to serve our cause. Shoot his toes into his representatives. Kill the Hessian with his greedy fingertips. Bleed Scotsmen with fragments from his spleen. But they fix the head on a spike and plant it in front of Moore's tavern just south of Kings Bridge. Gold from the veneer buys many a round. And they drink toasts to the lead head of fallen Lucifer deep into the night.

Three days later, they're still celebrating. Tearing King's coats of arms off of buildings, rioting. Only now, the enemy is stirring. The oak masts of the Phoenix and Rose are visible in the East River.

Man the batteries. Forty eight Phoenix cannons are spitting at Powle's Hook. We have no reply to their brisk cannonade. They commence investing the Hudson. Where are the defenders of Bayard's Mount? They're far from the works. They're in their cups. They're at the holy ground with the less than holy ladies. New England Puritans murmur against this devil's town, this Babylon. God's wrath will burn it down.

6 comments:

  1. Wow! I'm ready for installment 2!
    Exciting writing.

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