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Defending New York City in the Spring of 1776
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[REVOLUTIONARY WAR]. Autograph Manuscript, List of Tools Distributed to Captains on Duty. New York, N.Y., March 19, 1776. 1 p.

Inventory #21007.51       Price: $750

Historical Background

As the British were evacuating Boston in March 1776, General Washington believed that they would next try to capture New York. From March until August 1776, New York was a beehive of activity, as Washington moved his main army in an attempt to defend the city. Soldiers, civilians, and slaves constructed entrenchments throughout Manhattan and northern Brooklyn to defend against the anticipated attack. This leaf, from the papers of New York Quartermaster General Nicholas Quackenbush, lists tools delivered and returned on March 19 for the purposes of constructing defenses around Manhattan, including “Pick Axes,” “Spades,” “Iron Shovels,” “Shod Shovels,” “Axes,” “Crow Bars,” and “Saws.

On August 22, 1775, the Provincial Congress of New York had ordered every county, city, manor, town, precinct, and district to be divided into beats, each of which would form a military company of “about eighty-three able bodied and effective men” for its defense. A week later, the New York City committee divided the city into twenty-four beats and elected officers.[1] Samuel Johnson was elected a captain from Beat No. 2, as were George Janeway (Beat No. 9), John Warner (Beat No. 24), and Peter Stoutenburgh (Beat No. 1). At the same time, Pardon Burlingham (Beat No. 14), Thomas Tucker (Beat No. 21), and James Wessels (Beat No. 5) were elected 1st lieutenants; by March 1776, they had each been promoted to captain. In October 1775, Nathaniel Tylee was the captain of a company from Beat No. 26 in the third regiment of New York City militia. By March 1776, Captain Benjamin Egbert was the captain of the company from Beat No. 22, and John Buchanan was captain of the company from Beat No. 23. Eleven slaves from Beat 22 were also at work on the fortifications in mid-March 1776.[2]

At the same time, newly appointed Captain Alexander Hamilton was drilling and training a company of artillery in the defense of New York. Appointed on March 14, Hamilton equipped the company with his own funds. The company roster grew from fifty-five men in mid-March to sixty-six by the end of March, and ninety-three by the end of June.[3]

Soon, thousands of other minutemen from throughout New York and surrounding colonies would join them in defense of the city. In the end, the defenses proved insufficient against the sheer power of a combined British land and sea force of over 35,000 men. By November 1776, Washington was in full retreat across New Jersey, and the British controlled the most valuable harbor in the colonies.

Nicholas Quackenbush (1734-1813) was a member of a powerful Dutch family in the Hudson River Valley. He sided with the Revolutionary cause, serving as Assistant Deputy Quartermaster to the Continental forces in Albany with the rank as Major. In this capacity, Quackenbush, situated roughly half way between New York City and Montreal, was one of the most important people in the region, coordinating critical supplies that would ultimately result in the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777 and help secure the Mohawk valley frontier against Loyalist and Indian raids.

[1] Berthold Fernow, ed., Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York, Volume 15: NewYork in the Revolution (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1887), 30, 86-87.

[2] Calendar of Historical Manuscripts Relating to the War of the Revolution in the Office of the Secretary of State, Albany, N.Y., 2 vols. (Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1868), 1:129, 163, 267.

[3] Michael E. Newton, Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years (Phoenix, AZ: Eleftheria Publishing, 2015), 136-38.

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