Did the British ransack Germantown during the American Revolution?


Most historical accounts say that Chancellor Livingston’s home, Clermont, was the northern-most penetration by British troops during the October 1777 advance up the Hudson River.

But local lore, backed up by some primary documents, suggests otherwise.

Here’s the context of the possible ransacking or near-ransacking of Germantown:

In order to rein in the two-year-old American rebellion in 1777, British generals mapped out the Hudson River and its valley and declared it a major strategic tool that, if captured and controlled, would cut the united colonies in two—which they saw as integral to defeating the uprising.

A two-pronged assault plan was formed. General John Burgoyne, with 8,000 soldiers, would march southward from Canada. Another set of thousands of soldiers would march and sail northward, under the commands of Captain James Wallace and General John Vaughn.

Burgoyne’s march down the Hudson was stopped at the two battles of Saratoga, at the end of which he was forced to surrender. That turn of events is considered by most to be the biggest turning point in the American Revolution and one of world history’s most important battles.

The two British armies would never meet up as planned and the British would never take control of the Hudson River Valley.

According to Walter V. Miller, a former town of Germantown and Columbia County historian, the naval portion of the force, containing some 120 vessels, was “not as formidable as Burgoyne’s force, but was a menace nevertheless.”

Miller, in his 1976 book, History of 18th Century Germantown, detailed that the naval force with General Vaughn was set up offshore of Hyde Park when news came down regarding Burgoyne’s shocking defeat at Saratoga. 

Vaughn, in a bitter frame of mind, Miller writes, “landed a force of some eight hundred or more men the following morning and advanced on Kingston, then the state capital. The British met with little resistance and soon had sacked and burned the town. Rhinecliff, Barrytown and Red Hook Landing also suffered. The English then turned their attention to the Livingston houses just a bit upstream at Clermont.”

That’s where the thrust upriver concludes according to most accounts.

But, though the Clermont mansion was burned either October 18 or 19, 1777, the official military account of the incident states that the British remained in the Clermont area until October 23, before dropping back downriver, according to Miller.

That report prompted Miller to revisit a local tale “that had almost faded into the limbo of forgotten things, before information tending to corroborate it came to light some twenty or more years ago.

“This old tale had it that, instead of halting at Clermont, some of the British force had come on up into the Camp, or as it is now known, Germantown. These troops camped there for a brief interval, and then dropped back toward Clermont. According to this old tale, the English robbed smokehouses, confiscated a number of horses, and made a nuisance of themselves generally.

“The old narrative had it that residents of the western section of Germantown moved over into the eastern portion for a time, after burying their silver and other valuables and driving what cattle and horses they could off into the woods.”

As recently as the 1920s, Miller wrote, “there was at least one old family that used to exhibit some silver pieces that, according to their claim, had been buried at the time of the British visitation; and another tale related how a goodly amount of silver had been buried near the site of the old Queensbury-Kingsbury Village (believed to be the Palatine village near present-day Maple Avenue and 9G) at the time and had never been recovered.”

In the 1950s, the memoirs of a man named William Smith, Jr., resurfaced and were published. Smith, partial to the colonists but technically a loyalist during the Revolution, lived in the Livingston family’s “Hermitage” near present-day Blue Stores and kept a journal of the goings-on during the rebellion.

In an entry on October 19, 1777, Smith told of the arrival of American General Putnam and his stationing of troops along the river shore as far northward as the original Livingston manor house, which was perched at the mouth of the Roeliff Jansen Kill. Smith wrote that another American regiment had been placed at a Germantown church with “two pieces of artillery.”

Miller analyzed that this show of force by the Americans would have protected both the Livingston houses that hadn't yet been burned and the surrounding villages from unchecked plunder by the redcoats.

“Further confirmation,” Miller writes, “of the old tale regarding British movement further northward than Clermont was found (in the 1970s) in an old diary kept by a man who had worked on the river boats back in the 1830s and 1840s. This entry had it that, according to the oldtimers, the British boats, in the autumn of 1777, had come upriver to a point well above Clermont, in fact far enough upstream to enable those aboard to obtain a good look at the Manor House at the mouth of the Roeliff Jansen. If troops were stationed there, the men on those boats must certainly have seen them.”

Miller concludes: “If these old tales are true, they would seem to indicate most strongly that the Linlithgo area, the western part of Germantown, and also of Clermont, were all linked together in one phase of the action of a campaign the result of which contributed largely toward the turning of the tide of the Revolution and the changing of the course of history.”