Book review: War on the Middleline: The Founding of a Community In the Kayaderosseras Patent In the Midst of the American Revolution by James E. Richmond (Lulu Publishing, September 2016)
The schoolbook story of the American Revolution in New York State is a series of well-celebrated dramatic exclamation points: the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775; the British surrender at Saratoga and the improbable American defense of Fort Stanwix in 1777; Arnold’s heinous attempted betrayal of West Point in 1780.
In fact, across much of the state—from Westchester County, to the Mohawk Valley, to the foothills of the Adirondacks—the “Revolution” was largely a vicious, relentless, unforgiving civil war among neighbors. In War on the Middleline, James E. Richmond brings that story to his own backyard, tracing the development and then near-destruction of a just-new settlement along the “Middleline” of the Ballston District on the frontier north of Albany. He tells a vivid tale of war and woe, and also paints in the long, inter-connecting shadows cast by family histories that brought people there.
You may have caught just a snapshot of Middleline recently in JAR. In winter strategic planning in 1778-1780, both the rebels and the British struggled with how to bring the lengthening war to an end. The answer had been obvious for more than two generations of conflict: Strike your opponent fast and hard along the Champlain-Hudson waterway! In winter 1778, Congress authorized a northward attack to be led by the young Marquis de Lafayette. By March, that had been cancelled for lack of support from the adjacent states. In 1779-1780, Canadian Governor (and British General) Haldimand launched plans for raids along the northern New York frontier: into the Mohawk Valley led by Sir John Johnson, and into the Champlain Valley led by Maj. Christopher Carleton and Capt. John Munro.
If successful, this had the potential to become another coordinated three-prong attack unfolding in autumn 1780: Johnson to move into and along his family’s holdings in the Mohawk Valley; and Carleton, assisted by Munro, to raid frontier communities on the Champlain frontier. Perhaps unknown to Haldimand planning in Canada, British Gen. Sir Henry Clinton and his agent, Maj. John André, had successfully turned Benedict Arnold (appointed rebel commandant of West Point on August 3, 1780) with the goal of expanding British control of the Hudson River.
Just eight weeks later, the British messenger to Arnold, John André, was captured (September 25, 1780), suddenly ending the attempt on the Hudson. Meanwhile, the autumn “Burning of the Valleys” raids by Johnson’s men into the river valleys feeding the Mohawk destroyed forts and farms and mills, burned the best harvest in years in the rebel “breadbasket,” and marched off hundreds of prisoners—but failed to make contact with Munro. Munro’s raid on Ballston’s Middleline was also successful, although Munro’s men withdrew early after failing to make contact with Johnson’s men at the appointed rendezvous.
Here we find my former neighbor, notorious Joe Bettys, former rebel sergeant and a modest hero of the Battle of Valcour in 1776, now in 1780 a soldier of the King and frequent covert messenger between Crown command in Montreal and Loyalists in the Albany and Ballston surroundings. The tavern maintained by Bettys’ father still stands in Ballston. Bettys may well have been part of Munro’s 1780 raid.
In 1781, Bettys was surely part of a well-planned attempt to kidnap former rebel Gen. Philip Schuyler, then a New York State Senator. No spoiler here! Buy Richmond’s book to learn the outcome!
I grew up less than five miles from Richmond’s focus area. It is that ground, that community, and these stories from which my inspiration and career as an historian sprang more than sixty years ago. So I know the geography, sources, and key players that he treats well indeed. Been living with them most of my life!
Richmond’s book opened my eyes. He brings to the fore the cruelty (and neighborhood politics) that turned the latter years of the Revolution on the New York borders into a vicious civil war. The two or three wonderfully vivid primary sources recording Munro’s “Ballston Raid” have been reasonably well known by the patrons of their separate repositories, but never integrated into a coherent whole. No one before Richmond has studied the Revolutionary War pension applications of survivors of the raid. Nor has anyone attempted until now to pull into the Ballston Raid picture the British commander, military Governor General Haldimand and his vast correspondence with his officers. That accomplishment in knitting together primary sources alone makes Richmond’s work a significant contribution to Revolutionary War scholarship.
But there is MORE! I have long been a close student, practitioner, and celebrant of “local” history—working mightily for half a century to bring it out of the patronizing mire of “mere antiquarianism.” Today even academic scholars write proudly of insights gleaned from “micro-history”—the small lenses through which we can discern new worlds, new universes. In War on the Middleline, Richmond marries his local resident’s curiosity about the neighborhood in which he lives with an abiding (and highly sophisticated) skill in genealogical research. So he reconstructs—in depth—the entire new community stretched out along a couple of miles of Ballston’s Middleline, a just-new world shattered, destroyed by the raid of October 1780. We discover what a tight little world it was: a handful of around twenty families, most freshly arrived in only the past decade after the land had been surveyed and opened for sale in 1770, yet people whose lives had in fact intersected over and over again, over generations, coming largely from just seven “hearth homes” in Connecticut. With our current knowledge, we cannot know in fine detail the inter-familial stresses and strains that accumulated over the 150 years preceding the Raid, or even whether those living along Middleline in 1780 were aware of their antecedents’ potential connections. Today we can only speculate. But Richmond has accomplished every historian’s goal: not only telling an old story in a fresh way, but also setting an agenda of new questions for those who follow us.
This is a wonderfully fresh piece of historical interpretation: old sources—from both sides, Crown and Congress—at last tied together to tell a more complete story, and linked to the back-stories of generations of familial connections that raise fresh questions for the next generation of historians of the Revolutionary War and New York’s northern borders. Richmond sheds new light on hidden corners of our understanding of the American Revolutionary War.
No offense meant to the author, but we really have to get Arnold’s attempted betrayal, not only of his country but the men he commanded, right. He was a pure volunteer to Clinton. The British did nothing to “turn” him and, indeed, were only mildly interested in him until after their southern success in 1780.
Over the years many efforts have been made to picture Arnold as the victim of circumstances and/or individuals. He was a self motivated traitor who wanted a “quid pro quo” of money.
I totally agree and you can expect more revelations coming regarding Arnold’s motivations that will bolster your important point.
Another shibboleth that goads me is the repeated assertion that Ethan Allen and company were correct in fighting against New York authority because they were reportedly being harassed from their lands. From my research into NY court documents over the past couple of years, the evidence hardly supports their contention. It was propaganda pure and simple that allowed greedy speculators to justify their grip on the land. Allen and his ilk were elitists dressed in sheep clothing and it is time they were stripped of these falsehoods. NY hardly deserves the black eye that history has given it for over 200 years.
Thanks Gary, I look forward to more from you on Arnold. Born and raised east of Buffalo, I have some experience in the Mohawk River area.
Thanks, Ken. While I wish it was in fact me, the new information will be coming from another well-versed period historian. Stay tuned.