The British Occupation of the New York City region during the Revolutionary War was the longest continuous occupation of any area of the entire war. After the fall of New York in 1776 and the British retreat from Philadelphia in 1778 the British and American armies surrounding the New York region were at a stalemate. Neither army was able to lure the other into a decisive battle. American brigades were quartered north of the city in camps stretching from New Jersey in the west to Connecticut in the east. The British forces housed troops within New York City and farther north on Manhattan island, eastern New Jersey, across the East River and into Long Island. New York and its adjacent areas had become a British stronghold, requiring permanent lodging for troops for several years.
Thousands of men spent warmer months in tent camps and the harsher months in barracks and in cantonments, that is, collections of huts. Barracks were available within the city, but the British forces outside of the city developed their winter establishments to both shelter the army from weather and locate troops near places where they might be required. Much has been written about the Revolutionary War camps of the American armies in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Little has been written on the British cantonments around New York City. Like many of the British Army’s field works, cantonments were created in response to the unique and severe climatic conditions of America. In most cases, military engineers established camps and cantonments taking advantage of the natural conditions of the landscape. Buildings were oriented to maximize natural light and warmth. A natural source of water was important in selecting cantonment locations.
In 1765 and 1766, ordinances regarding the building of barracks stated that, “as many soldiers as can be put without Inconvenience, or Prejudice to their health, are to be Lodg’d in a Room: no Room is to have less than twelve.” By the 1760s the twelve- to sixteen-man barrack room became the standard in America, and this size was also used for the one-room huts that sprang up around New York in the following decade.
In New York City, British cantonments were established in both Brooklyn and Queens Counties after the fall of the city in 1776. The nineteenth century historian Henry Stiles described the British cantonments in Brooklyn: “The huts or barracks were built by throwing out the earth from a trench thirty to fifty feet long and about twelve or fifteen feet wide, with a board roof resting on the bank formed by the excavated earth. A large stone fireplace or two were arranged in each one. These huts were irregularly scattered, according to the slope of the ground, so as to have the entrance at the middle of the lower side.”
Huts in nearby Newtown in Queens County were of a similar large configuration: “Their huts were fifty feet long and of a rectangular form, thus being open at the south to admit the sun’s rays, the roof thatched, and the three sides sodded up to the eaves, to keep off the north-west wind.” Another account of the constructions added, “they were no doubt very comfortable in winter, their arrangement included a large courtyard, well sheltered for parade and military drill.” The information on hut sites in Brooklyn and Queens was discerned from an analysis of ruins that were still visible in the 1860s. Henry Stiles call the arrangement in Brooklyn “irregularly scattered,” differing from Newtown where they were well organized with a courtyard. It is uncertain how valid Stiles’s observations are regarding overall organization; his early attempts at reading ground markings may have been subject to misinterpretation. Similarly, the writing that the huts in Newtown were open at the south end lacks credibility for the design of winter huts. It can only be assumed that the south side of the ruins had no berms or ground markings, allowing them to be inaccurately misinterpreted as being open on that side, when more likely they had south walls built of boards that were since scavenged, leaving no trace of them.
Capt. John Peebles, of the grenadier company of the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot, described winter huts being constructed in Jamaica in Queens County, Long Island, in 1778 for the British grenadier battalions: “The Ground for the huts being mark’d out in the morng. on the So: side of the hill north of Town, the men with the few tools they had, broke ground & fell to work to make huts for their abode in Winter, each hut 24 feet by 12 to contain 12 men the wall partly dug in the face of the hill, and the rest made up of sod, the roof to be covered with cedar branches & thin sod—they all front the South & are sheltered from the No. winds by the ridge.” Peebles added later, “getting doors and windows made—one pane of glass to each hut.” These huts were smaller in size than those described by Henry Stiles, but were similarly set into the hillsides.
These combined histories give us a clear picture of the accepted building techniques and initial attempts at constructing a winter cantonment. They do, however, lack a thorough investigation of the overall arrangement of a cantonment. It was in the archaeological research and map making of William Calver and Reginald Bolton of the early twentieth century that a large portion of a winter cantonment was uncovered and studied in northern Manhattan with accuracy. They state in their writings that the cantonment was an orderly and complete arrangement comprising roughly one hundred and twenty dugout huts providing accommodation for roughly two regiments. Their mapmaking of the site gives us a very good understanding of overall cantonment form, illuminating even the location of the parade ground, the necessaries (latrines), and the flag staff. The huts were confirmed to be of log construction with rubble stone fireplaces and built into the hillside with southern entrances. The fireplaces and chimneys were on the north sides of the huts. They were so regularly placed that the buried sites of the huts were eventually able to be archaeologically uncovered by taking measurements from one another instead of needing to do a full excavation of the site. The hut sites were similar and consistently set below ground.
Calver and Bolton’s work disclosed that there was a distinct hierarchy to the excavated hut sites. Bolton notes, “There are two distinct lines of hut sites, the smaller of which is nearly parallel to the present Prescott Avenue, and is the position which is situated on the highest part of the ground occupied. This comprises about twelve huts in a row, with four or more officer’s huts in a line behind it.” His determination was that the first line of huts, the largest and highest up the hillside, was for huts of the officers.
Lewis Lochée, who ran a London military academy, discussed the rationale for the arrangement of camps in his 1778 book An Essay on Castrametation. “The Security of our camps . . . is now supposed to consist in being able to draw out the troops with ease and expedition at the head of their respective encampments, and therefore whatever particular order of battle is regarded, as the best disposition for action, the whole camp should be formed in such a manner.” He referred to a rectangular arrangement of parallel rows of tents, one row for each of a regiment’s ten companies, but he also presented an alternative arrangement of two or three long rows of tents, with tents for the officers behind them, very much like the arrangement of huts in the New York area. It is clear that the huts were positioned so that troops could be formed quickly in the event of an alarm.
Methods of hut construction appear to have been in part experimental and subject to consequences of failure in the choice of materials used. Captain Peebles wrote, “one of our huts catched fire in the top of the Chimney, the consequence of a great mistake in the fabrication, they being top’d with Gabion work plastr’d with cut Straw and Clay, which we now find is subject to fire.” Gabions were hollow cylinders made of woven saplings or brush; normally filled with earth as part of field fortifications, soldiers familiar with making them saw them as convenient supports for clay, but failed to recognize their flammability when used in chimneys. It appears the British huts also had problems with water: “Huts dug into the earth, or built with sods, are at an advanced season of the year extremely damp, and of course unhealthy for the soldiers.” A German officer described the cantonment at Inwood. “At 3 pm I left New York and reached our camp, which was 11 miles distant, at sundown. Our camp was very poor, because many of the huts which lay around the foot of the hill, among them mine, got full of water whenever it rained. The drinking water was also very bad, and in every respect matters were in such a state, that if no change is made, diseases must unavoidably arise.”
Calver and Bolton made note that the cantonments they studied in upper Manhattan had an ample source of water that was available via a spring at present-day 204th street. The permanently occupied cantonments mentioned previously in the Dutch Kills area of Newtown, Queens, used the waters of the “Wolf Swamp,” one reason why the area was constantly used during the occupation. The writings of Skillman about the Dutch Kills area mention, “The old well first experienced the military occupation, the soldiers in their madness after water quickly broke the bucket ropes and then descended by the aid of spikes driven into the side of the well, and the water was handed up by relays of men until the supply was exhausted.” The local inhabitants noted that a water supply was an indispensable adjunct to the cantonment.
Situated away from major municipalities, bored soldiers in winter cantonments took the opportunity to supplement their diets and fuel supplies with plunder from nearby farms. A local inhabitant recalled, when he was eleven or twelve years old, several incidents of stealing in Newtown. “One night his father lost an entire litter of pigs, inquired but could find nothing of them.” Then, “The British cut down a large exceedingly fine piece of wood of his fathers, enjoining their encampment.” In the same record is noted that an encampment was in front of William Leverich’s and that, “in a plot of Woodland near this encampment, belonging to Mr. Albertis they had many Barrels and Casks sunk in the ground where they secreted stolen things.”Articles needed for the war effort it seems were accumulated by all means and stored throughout the cantonments. The writer of the accounts of Newtown also added that stealing was frequent and that those who stole were subjected to trial and were sometimes punished.
Without a doubt the scale of the housing needed for the occupied forces of the British army near New York City required a massive planning effort. Adequate shelter was needed for the forces to survive throughout the difficult winter months. This task befell the engineers and commanders of the forces to manage and required their continued leadership and direction. These cantonments sometimes required innovative methods of construction. These armies had one goal in mind—sustenance of their troops so that they could continue to fight on for another day.
Brian Leigh Dunnigan, The Neccessity of Regularity in Quartering Soldiers. The Organization, Material Culture and Quartering of the British Soldier at Michilimackinac. (Mackinac Island: Machinac State Historic Parks, 1999), 34.