An American Perspective on the Peekskill Raid

The War Years (1775-1783)

May 13, 2015
by Michael J. F. Sheehan Also by this Author

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Jamaican-born Scotsman Colonel Ann Hawkes Hay of the 2nd Regiment of Orange County Militia looked over his property in Haverstraw, New York towards the wide expanse of Haverstraw Bay in the Hudson River on the morning of March 23, 1777. What he saw shocked him: British sails in the river. Col. Hay wrote to General Washington that evening, after having witnessed the events of the day. Hay reported that at “Noon a frigate and four Transports came to an Anchor near peekskill and…landed a body of troops.” Soon after, Hay “discovered a large fire…till at last the Conflagration became general [which destroyed] a considerable part, if not the whole town of peekskill.” Col. Hay lamented that the fire was said to be “done by our own people” and that “There was a considerable Action but the event we know not” the outcome. Hay immediately called out his regiment but could not “procure one hundred Men to guard…the [King’s Ferry].”[1]

North of Hay in the Highlands, General George Clinton, the newly elected Governor of New York, called out the militia he was responsible for, ordering “Colos Woodhull’s, McClaghry’s, & Hasbrouck’s” to Fort Montgomery on the west side of the Highlands and to Fort Constitution (Constitution Island, opposite West Point). Clinton warned Col. Hay that until those reinforcements arrived he would not be able to send him any aid, should the British attempt a landing within his precinct (modern Rockland County, New York).[2]

Across the river in Peekskill, the commander of the 4th New York, Col. Henry Beekman Livingston, found time to write Washington on March 29, giving him a brief summary of events. He reported that “we have had a visit from the enemy at this Post abot 500 in Number;” that after they had landed, “Colo. Courtlandt’s Regiment [2nd New York] and my own…were Ordered” to fall back towards the Highlands. The British advanced, “fronting [the 2nd and 4th NY] about 400 Yards Distant when we received orders from Genl McDougall to Retreat.”

In the British camp, Lt. Col. Stephen Kemble wrote that the “Detachment Commanded by Lieut. Col. Bird…destroyed a quantity of Rebel stores at Peeks Kill, as follows: [400] Hogsheads of Rum, 20 pipes of wine, some Brandy,…Molasses, Sugar, Coffee, Chocolate and Salt,…100 barrels of Flour and Pork, 130 waggons…a few Ox carts, [200-300] boxes of candles…Entrenching tools…[2 or 3] cannon, and a great parcel of Smoked Beef and Dried Tongues.”[3]

New York politician and Continental Army general Alexander McDougall (New York Public Library).
New York politician and Continental Army general Alexander McDougall (New York Public Library).

About a week later, McDougall found the time to write a full report of the raid to Washington. McDougall opened by bemoaning that he had been made “the instrument of demonstrating to the Enemy, the weakness or supiness of this Country” but since Washington had suffered in much the same way, he found himself unhappy to report that he must “submit to my portion of [setbacks].” The letter, which at times does not honor the chronology of the events leading up to the raid, indicates that the British also destroyed “Soap [and] Thirty Tons of Iron,” in addition to what Lt. Col. Kemble recorded. McDougall had earlier sent a detachment from Livingston’s 4th New York and Phillip van Courtlandt’s 2nd New York regiments to Wright’s Mill to aid the militia there in guarding the forage, with orders to destroy it should a “superior Force” advance on them. This left McDougall with “240 Rank and File…15 of which had not Arms, exclusive of a Sergeants Command at Fort Independent.”[4]

At 9AM on March 23, a fleet of about “10 Sail…favoured by a fine Westerly Wind” and flood tide anchored in Peekskill Bay. The fleet consisted of the “Brune Frigate,…two [captured American] Gallies, a small one built by the Enemy,” four transports, “two Ships and two Brigs, with some small craft.” By the time the vessels were in the bay, McDougall had sent an express to the commander of a detachment of the 3rd New York, Lt. Col. Marinus Willet, to “leave a Subalterns Command at Fort Constitution” and another letter to “Col. Ludington of the Militia of Dutchess [County] to March as many Volunteers as he could into [Fort Constitution].”[5]

At one in the afternoon, the British landed in Lent’s Cove, a mile and a half from Peekskill. McDougall observed that the “Enemy was unquestionably far superior to ours,” but so there was no “Possibility of being mistaken in their Strength,” the General drew up on a hill behind the town as opposed to retreating forthwith. When the enemy’s superiority was confirmed, the Americans retreated in good order, McDougall having waited for his “two Iron Twelve Pounders and a Brass Three Pounder” to get on their way to Gallows Hill, a couple miles above Peekskill. The British, who had with them light artillery, fired on the Americans “but [they] suffered only the loss of one man mortally Wounded.” Previously, the stores for the twelve pounders were “blowed up,” stores of “Rum and Molasses…the Barrack [near the] Town fired.” When the troops reached Gallows Hill, the artillery was directed to cover the “Mills which contained a quantity of grain [and] Roads leading to the Town.”[6] McDougall then explained his reasons for not having directly opposed the enemy, hoping that Washington would agree with his reasoning. He was out numbered; the troops he had were insufficient to protect or remove the stores in the face of the enemy.[7]

During the night a deserter came to the Americans from the 64th Foot; he had been born in America and said that the British had 600 (most sources agree 500) troops. Among them were detachments from the “23rd, 44th, and 64th Regiments [four]… three Pounders drawn by the Sailors…and 50 [from] the 15th Regiment.” The following day, Monday the 24th, opened with the British sending their advance guard to a height one mile northeast of Peekskill.

Captain Davies of the 4th New York reconnoitered them with a company, but decided it would be inopportune to assault them. Later in the day at about 4PM, Lt. Col. Marinus Willet begged McDougall to “try his fortune” with the British advance party. With “trailed arms,” to prevent discovery, the detachment moved against the enemy’s right flank, directly at the advanced party. While this happened, McDougall sent a party down to the “Enemy’s [left] Flank,” hoping it would distract them from Willet’s movements. Willet’s “right fired rather too soon” but he ended up having his men “fix Bayonets.” The British evidently heard the order; they retreated to their main body under Col. Bird “assert[ing] the Woods were full of Rebel Soldiers.” The British fell back and “lay on their Arms ‘till the Moon arose;” they had met Willet with resistance but lost “nine killed and Wounded.” An additional four were killed closer to Peekskill, likely due to McDougall’s feint. The following day, the British, cautious of enemy reinforcements and content to have destroyed as many stores as they could, withdrew to the fleet, seemingly undisturbed. McDougall happily reported that he had “rid [Peekskill] of those disturbers of our Peace.”[8]

[1] Ann Hawkes Hay to George Washington, March 23, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-08-02-0670. Biographical info on Hay: Richard J. Koke, Accomplice in Treason: Joshua Hett Smith and the Arnold Conspiracy (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1973), 23.

[2] George Clinton to Hay in Public Papers of George Clinton, First Governor of New York, 1777-1795, 1801-1804: Military, Vol. I (New York and Albany: Wynkoop, Hallenbeck, Crawford Co., 1899), 679-680. Col. Jesse Woodhull commanded the 1st Orange County Regiment, James McClaughrety the 2nd Ulster County, and Jonathan Hasbrouck, the 4th Ulster.

[3] Henry Beekman Livingston to Washington, March 29, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-001. Extract from Kemble Papers cited as a note in Alexander McDougall to Washington, March 29, 1777. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0018. Col. Bird commanded the 15th Regiment of Foot; he fell later the same year at Germantown.

[4] McDougall to Washington, March 29, 1777, op. cit. Fort Independence lay on Roa Hook, which juts into Peekskill Bay, near the gate to the New York National Guard’s Camp Smith. Wright’s Mill was likely located on Dickey Brook, which emptied into Lent’s Cove, just south of Peekskill. The author is indebted to the knowledge of Ms. Jan Horton, whose knowledge of the 18th and 19th Century Verplanck and Peeksill area is unsurpassed.

[5] Ibid. Col. Peter Gansevoort commanded the 3rd New York Regiment. Col. Ludington is the father of Sybil, famous for the story of her ride to alert her father’s regiment when the British marched on nearby Ridgefield, CT. The HMS Brune had been taken from the French in the Seven Years War.

[6] Ibid. Gallows Hill is west of Annisville Creek. The mill referred to is likely one owned by Courtlandt. The area had multiple mills and McDougall never specifies; the reader must excuse the author for possible mistakes in mill locations.

[7] Ibid.

[8] ibid.

5 Comments

  • Great article Mike!!!! I believe Capt Davies is actually Capt. John Davis from East Hampton , Long Island.

  • Very enjoyable article as the Hudson Valley theater of operations is of great interest. In my research I came across Gaine’s Mercury, March 31, 1777, as cited in Frank Moore’s Diary of the American Revolution, Vol. I, at 411-413 which reports the raid by a “British officer.” I don’t know whether it was Kemble but the unnamed officer’s report seems to be more extensive. I believe this attack made Gen. Putnam all the more concerned about a British advance up the Hudson than Washington was. This was evident when the October advance actually came. Putnam’s reactions in protecting the east bank left Forts Clinton and Montgomery to inevitable defeat.

  • I have real photos of the troops of the peekshill battle in New York with names of the soldiers in pencil referred to the corresponding number next to their photo. I would like to send you some pictures of the photos. I have a hoard if photos

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