Henry Beekman Livingston, Black Sheep of the Livingston Clan

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February 2, 2015
by Geoff Benton Also by this Author

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Henry Livingston, or Harry as he was more commonly known, was born on November 9, 1750. He was a son of Judge Robert Livingston and his wife Margaret Beekman Livingston. Harry was the namesake of Margaret’s father Colonel Henry Beekman. As a child Henry was prone to uncontrolled fits of rage. As he matured to adulthood he also gained a less than healthy dislike for anyone he considered his social inferior, which being a Livingston, consisted of almost everyone in the region.[1]

Clermont Manor, Clermont, New York. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Author: Dmadeo)
Clermont Manor, Clermont, New York. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Author: Dmadeo)

With his quarrelsome nature, it is not surprising that Harry became a patriot. Prior to the Revolution, Harry was seen at Clermont, the family manor house on the banks of the Hudson River, wearing his court uniform while plowing a field. This was to show his disdain for King George III. When fighting broke out in Massachusetts, Harry raised a company of his own which he drilled on the lawn of what is now the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, New York. He was appointed to the rank of captain and his company was placed into the 4th New York Regiment. He complained bitterly about being appointed a captain, as he had held the rank of major in the colonial militia.[2]

Harry’s first campaign would be the invasion of Canada in 1775. When General Philip Schuyler, the campaign’s commander, was taken ill, command fell to General Richard Montgomery. Montgomery was married to Harry’s sister Janet. Before the army departed Albany for the north a group of Livingstons which included Judge Robert and some of his children came to the city to say their goodbyes. Montgomery promised the Judge he would try to keep Harry safe.

The 4th New York was trailing behind the rest of the army and by the time they arrived at Fort Ticonderoga Harry had become very frustrated. Leaving a junior officer in charge, he marched North without his company to join the main army on his own. He volunteered to serve as the aide de camp for Colonel Ritzema of the 1st New York, in order to be a part of the first assault on the city of St. John’s. [3]

Montgomery realized early on in the campaign that Harry was brave to the point of recklessness in battle but chafed under military discipline, especially if an officer perceived as socially inferior was involved. Montgomery wrote to his wife that she should not worry about Harry, “he has by no means given any offense though some uneasiness by some little inprudence.”[4] He also felt that Harry would do better to leave the 4th New York and join a more genteel regiment.[5]

When the city of Montreal fell to Montgomery he took the opportunity to send Harry away. Harry was charged with delivering reports of the victory to Schuyler in Albany and then to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Congress awarded him a sword worth one hundred dollars and promised to promote him at the first opportunity.[6]

Harry returned to Albany and briefly served as aid de camp to General Schuyler before he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the 2nd New York Regiment. On May 8, 1776 General George Washington ordered Harry to take command of and finish the fortifications at Fort Montgomery and Fort Constitution in the Hudson Highlands. Fort Montgomery was manned by three companies of the 2nd New York Regiment. Fort Constitution had two companies of the 2nd New York and a company of militia under the command of a Captain Wisner. The colonel of Wisner’s regiment, Colonel Nicoll, was still present despite having been relieved when the bulk of his regiment was replaced by the 2nd New York. Nicoll refused to give up command of the forts but, rather than react violently as one would expect, Harry simply got on with building the fortifications. He essentially ignored Nicoll until he finally departed on June 8. Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling wrote to Washington that Harry had “very prudently avoided any dispute with Col. Nicoll about command.”[7]

In late June of 1776, Colonel James Clinton was ordered to take command of the Highland forts and Harry was sent to take command of the remaining companies of the 2nd New York on Long Island. Washington sent him money to buy entrenching tools and a supply of gun powder. Harry was to make himself a strong position on the eastern end of the Island.[8]

Battle of Long Island. Source: U.S. National Guard
Battle of Long Island. Source: U.S. National Guard

When the British army landed west of Harry’s position and drove Washington off of Long Island in the battles of Long Island and Brooklyn Heights, Harry found himself trapped behind enemy lines with only his small group of men. He wrote to Washington seeking advice. Washington responded that he could offer no specific advice but suggested that Harry do what he could to “annoy and harass and prevent foraging.”[9] According to a letter that Harry wrote to his brother Robert, he and the 2nd New York excelled at that. Writing on September 24, 1776 he stated that his men had carried off 3,129 sheep, 400 cattle and made themselves such a nuisance that Oliver DeLancey, a political foe of the Livingstons and loyalist general, placed a £500 reward on Harry’s head.[10]

Harry and his men escaped across Long Island Sound to Connecticut by the end of September. There, Harry was ordered by Washington to begin planning a counter invasion of Long Island, along with Generals George Clinton and Benjamin Lincoln. Harry wrote that he was prepared to cross the Sound again, with four hundred men, but the day before the force was scheduled to depart Washington cancelled the whole plan. Harry and his men were sent to Peekskill where Harry’s career almost came to a premature end.[11]

Promoted to Colonel of the 4th New York Harry was placed under the command of General Alexander McDougall. McDougall was everything that Harry hated in his fellow Continental Army officers, low born, of higher rank and with little respect for the Livingston name. Harry hoped that one day McDougall would be demoted so that he could “cain” him[12]. Needless to say relations between the men were never good, but following a scouting mission by the British during which McDougall retreated rather than face the enemy things came to a head. Harry was very vocal in the army camp in his criticism of McDougall, to the point where McDougall had him court martialed. The court martial reprimanded Harry saying that his language was indiscreet but not unbecoming of an officer.[13]

Shortly thereafter Washington ordered Harry to take the 4th New York and join the Northern army in northern New York facing the British invasion under General John Burgoyne. At the Battles of Saratoga, Harry once again excelled. On October 7, 1777 Harry and the 4th fought under General Enoch Poor in the wheat field. Harry then disobeyed orders when Poor and his forces stalled, by joining Benedict Arnold on his attack on Breymann’s redoubt. In a letter to Chancellor Livingston written a week after the battle, Harry wrote that his regiment was the first in the enemy line and that he could “safely affirm that I was the first man in there next to Gen’l Arnold who was on horseback.”[14]

That winter Harry lead the 4th New York into their winter quarters at Valley Forge. He was very concerned for his men; writing to his brother; “How can we hang men for desertion when we starve them with cold?”[15] On Christmas Eve 1777 he wrote again; “the soldiers and officers are lousy.”[16] There was no liquor, tea, sugar, or vegetables. On Christmas Day he wrote to Governor George Clinton of New York; wholly destitute of clothing his men and officers were perishing in the fields. Before the army broke camp the 4th New York would be moved out of their small wooden huts and into open fields due to illness.[17]

The training that the Continental Army received at Valley Forge under Baron Frederick Von Steuben, who Harry called “an agreeable man”, was put to the test on June 28, 1778 at the Battle of Monmouth.[18] Harry and the 4th New York were in the vanguard of the American army under General Charles Lee who were chasing the British Army back to New York City. When the Americans caught up to the British rear Lee, who had no faith in the American soldiers, tried to retreat rather than fight. Washington rode up, very loudly and profanely removed Lee from command and began to rally the soldiers himself. The 4th New York and another regiment were placed in front of the army with two canons to cover the reorganization. Harry and the 4th performed “with great spirit and considerable loss.”[19] Washington had the time he needed to reform the troops and the American Army won the field. A report of the battle reached Harry’s sister Janet Montgomery at the family manor, in which she was told that a third of Harry’s regiment had been killed.[20]

Following Monmouth, Harry took a furlough from the army but couldn’t stay out of the fight. While traveling in Rhode Island he volunteered to command a body of light infantry during the Battle of Rhode Island. He was seen fighting bravely during the Battle of Quaker Hill and was mentioned by General Nathaniel Greene in his report on the action.[21]

Harry resigned his commission shortly thereafter. He was angry about not being promoted while his inferiors had been. His resignation was accepted by Congress in January of 1779.   Harry returned briefly to the army in 1780 to command a levee on a march to Fort Herkimer in western New York, but his military career was essentially over.[22]

Harry returned to Livingston Manor with a solid reputation as a soldier. He had inherited his grandfather’s house in Rhinebeck when Col. Beekman had died in 1775. Harry’s dislike of social inferiors seems to have pertained mainly to the male of the species, as very shortly there were many children in the Hudson Valley who came from many classes and races but who all bore a striking similarity to Harry. In 1781 that was all put on hold while he wed the woman he would be married to the rest of his life in Philadelphia.[23]

Anne Hume Shippen, known as Nancy, was just eighteen when she married Harry. On her father’s side she was a cousin to Peggy Shippen, Benedict Arnold’s treacherous wife. Her mother was a Lee of Virginia. Her uncles included Arthur Lee, Richard Henry Lee, and Francis Lightfoot Lee. Before meeting Harry she was courted and proposed to by a member of the French diplomatic mission to the Continental Congress, Louis Otto. Once she had caught Harry’s eye, though, her father quickly arranged a marriage, seeing more advantage in marriage to a Livingston than to a minor French diplomat.[24]

The couple returned to Rhinebeck shortly after the marriage and Nancy was soon with child. Harry went back to his various indiscretions. He soon became paranoid and frequently accused Nancy of infidelity. Nancy became desperate to return to Philadelphia before the baby was born. Harry initially refused, flying into one of the blind rages that he was prone to. Eventually he relented and in October of 1781 they returned to Philadelphia. Margaret Livingston was born on December 26, 1781. She would be called Peggy.[25]

The family soon returned to the Manor. Nancy’s journal for the next year is blank and no letters of hers survive from that period. Perhaps it had something to do with finding out about Harry’s plan to take her and Peggy and move them to Georgia with all of his illegitimate children and raise them under one roof. Unable to cope, Nancy fled back to Philadelphia.[26]

In May of 1783 Margaret Beekman Livingston requested to see her granddaughter. Nancy agreed in June to travel north with the child. She hoped that Harry would be a different man when he saw his daughter again. He was not.

Staying overnight in Poughkeepsie on her way to the Manor, Nancy learned that Harry had recently beat a slave nearly to death in one of his rages. When she arrived at Clermont Harry would neither see the child nor acknowledge any letters from her.

In August Nancy returned to Philadelphia without Peggy who stayed with her grandmother. In September Nancy wrote hoping to hear that Harry was acting as a father to his daughter. He was not. In fact Margaret Beekman Livingston replied that Peggy was calling the Chancellor “papa” and his wife Mary Stevens Livingston “mama.”

In November Harry was seen in disguise lurking around Nancy’s house in Philadelphia. He was later seen wearing a similar disguise in New York City. Nancy wrote; “I really think my life will be in danger from his jealousy & unmanaged passions.”[27]

In January 1785 Harry asked for a meeting with Nancy in Philadelphia. No record of the meeting exists but on February 24, 1785 she wrote “Thank God I am reconciled with him.”[28] She began to prepare to return to New York with him. The day before they were to depart in March though, she received a note from Harry saying that he was leaving the next day without her by ship and that he hoped the vessel would sink.[29]

Harry was soon back at the Manor blowing money and selling land to pay his debts. He approached his brother for an order to get custody of Peggy. Robert refused, but also warned his mother and Nancy that he had no legal standing in New York to deny Harry full custody of the child. Harry was also heard to threaten Nancy with the publication of her affair with the French diplomat Otto and to call her “hard names”[30]

One day while everyone was away from Clermont and Robert was off the Manor, Harry strode into Clermont where his daughter was guarded only by servants and snatched the child. Two of his sisters tried to negotiate with Harry for her release but were rebuffed. Finally his brother-in-law, Colonel Morgan Lewis, was able to free the child with a promise that she would never be returned to her mother.

Margaret Beekman Livingston quickly made plans to get the child back to Philadelphia. Bundling her up she put her in a guarded coach at night and sent her south. The next day she let information leak that the child was at Col. Lewis’s house. Harry stormed in demanding to know where Peggy was. No one would respond. He rode off to the Chancellor’s house where he was again met with silence. Finally he stormed into Clermont where not even the servants would talk to him, even with the offer of money and threats. He retired to his house where he wrote a threatening letter to both his mother and the Chancellor. Robert seems to have ignored the threat while Margaret was heard to reply “I fear God, I have no other fears.”[31]

Meanwhile Nancy’s friends in Philadelphia rallied around her to protect her and Peggy should Harry become violent. These friends included Otto, who Nancy planned to marry when she could obtain a divorce from Harry. When Harry found this out he offered to divorce Nancy unless she give up all rights to Peggy. Unable to do this, Nancy and Harry would stay married for the rest of their lives, though it seems that they never spoke again. Otto married an unattached woman and moved back to France. He also never spoke to Nancy again.[32]

Peggy continued to spend time at Clermont until she was sixteen at which point she moved back to Philadelphia with her mother. They became increasingly reclusive until Nancy died in 1841. Peggy remained a recluse. When she died, unmarried, in 1864 she was buried in the same grave as her mother. [33]

Harry was effectively cut off from the rest of the tight knit Livingston Clan. Margaret Beekman Livingston was even heard to talk about her three sons, meaning Robert, John, and Edward, and six daughters. Harry was of course her fourth son but she could not even bear to mention him. Harry died on November 5, 1831, alone and unmourned.

There is one coda to this story that shows how completely Harry’s extreme behavior had cut him off from the rest of the Livingstons. In 1824 the Marquis de Lafayette was steaming up the Hudson River during his return tour of America. As the ship approached Esopus an old man in a small boat was rowed out into the river. The captain of the ship stopped and brought the old man aboard. The captain presented the old man to Lafayette’ the two old men stared at each other for over a minute before Lafayette recognized his old comrade, Harry Livingston. The two chatted briefly about the old days, hardships endured and battles survived. Then Harry was rowed back to shore and Lafayette continued on to his next stop; Clermont. Harry was not invited.[34]

 


[1] Edwin Brockholst Livingston, The Livingstons of Livingston Manor (Knickerbocker Press, 1910), 515; Ethel Armes, Nancy Shippen Her Journal Book (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1935), 116; Clare Brandt, An American Aristocracy: The Livingstons (New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1986), 118.

[2] Brandt, American Aristocracy, 118; Nancy Kelly, A Brief History of Rhinebeck (New York: The Wise Family Trust, 2001), 25; Livingston, The Livingstons, 233.

[3] Livingston, The Livingstons, 235.

[4] Armes, Nancy Shippen, 117.

[5] Cynthia A. Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 214; George Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813 (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1960), 64-65.

[6] Livingston, The Livingstons, 239; Worthington Chauncey Ford, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 Volume III (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1905), 424-425.

[7] George Clinton, The Public Papers of George Clinton (Albany: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1899), 1:137; Letter from General Schuyler to the President of Congress, American Archives Series 4, 4:990; Livingston, The Livingstons, 241-242.

[8] Henry Beekman Livingston’s Account Book, Collection of the Columbia County Historical Society; John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1932), 5:138-139, 181.

[9] Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 6:14.

[10] Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, 111, 469.

[11] Henry Beekman Livingston’s account Book; Frederic Gregory Mather, The Refugees of 1776 from Long Island to Connecticut (Albany: JB Lyon Company Printers, 1932), 173-174, 220; Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 6:142, 148, 210, 219-220, 7:120.

[12] Brandt, American Aristocracy, 119.

[13] Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 7:292; Livingston, The Livingstons, 24; Clinton, The Public Papers of George Clinton, 2:37-38.

[14] Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, 467.

[15] Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, 469.

[16] Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, 469.

[17] Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 11:387.

[18] Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, 470.

[19] Frank Moore, The Diary of the Revolution: A Centennial Volume (Hartford: The J.B. Burr Publishing Company, 1875), 593.

[20] William Sabine, Historical Memoirs from 16 March 1763 to 35 July 1778 of William Smith (New York: The New York Times and Arno Press, 1956), 1:415.

[21] Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, 111, Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 12:397.

[22] Clinton, The Public Papers of George Clinton, 6:317-322.

[23] Brandt, American Aristocracy, 139.

[24] Armes, Nancy Shippen, 21-25, 102

[25] Armes, Nancy Shippen, 125.

[26] Armes, Nancy Shippen, 125-129, Brandt, American Aristocracy, 140.

[27] Armes, Nancy Shippen, 165-168.

[28] Armes, Nancy Shippen, 226.

[29] Armes, Nancy Shippen, 227.

[30] Armes, Nancy Shippen, 271.

[31] Armes, Nancy Shippen, 286-288, Brandt, American Aristocracy, 141.

[32] Brandt, American Aristocracy, 142, Armes, Nancy Shippen, 291-292.

[33] Brandt, American Aristocracy, 142, Armes, Nancy Shippen, 295-300.

[34] Brandt, American Aristocracy, 167-168.

4 Comments

  • Many thanks for a wonderfully informative and well-written essay on a lesser known member of the Livingston clan.

    On 27 Nov. 1775, Robert R. Livingston Jr. wrote to John Jay about his brother’s bravery during the Canadian expedition. Robert praised Harry’s performance noting, “I have great satisfaction in the commendation he receive from all who have served with him. . .I hope he will receive the rank to which he was before entitled, & has now earned–”

    From _The Selected Papers of John Jay_ (Vol. 1: 1760-1779) p. 161.

  • Goeff: Thanks for the terrific article. I wonder if Harry had a mental disability, such as bipolar disorder. Of course, they could not diagnose or properly treat such a disability at that time. Your article also brings to mind my article titled Presentation Swords for 10 Revolutionary War Heroes. You were kind enough to bring to my attention that Livingston’s sword awarded to him by Congress is on display at the Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville, NJ, and that an image of it can be viewed at the Swan Historical Foundation’s National Museum of the American Revolution online website at http://www.nationalmuseumoftheamericanrevolution.org (go to the Virtual Museum and write “Livingston” as a search term). Having looked into the matter further, I believe this likely is the sword awarded by Congress. For 100 pounds, Congress probably had it purchased second-hand in Philadelphia. If so, it is the only one of the fifteen swords awarded by Congress known to exist today, other than the 10 brought back from France by David Humphreys in 1786, which were the subject of my article. Thanks, Christian

  • Christian, I hesitate to diagnose because I’m not a psychiatrist but the rage issues he had through out his life would certainly seem to indicate some kind of illness. If I were to speculate I would think he had PTSD as well based on his increasingly erratic behavior after he resigned from the army. I’m glad that his sword survives.

  • I came across this article while searching for information on Livingston, who commanded the company in which a distant uncle — Robert Kenyon (1734/35-1805) — served during the Revolution.

    I can only imagine what Uncle Robert and the rest of the grunts thought of this little shit abandoning the regiment as it slogged toward Canada, and only so he could grab a little personal glory. What a tool.

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