Van Cortlandtville memorial was dedicated 5 years ago
This is the second in an occasional series of articles about local history that will be posted on this Web site.
By: Jeff Canning
The sixth in a series of anvil-shaped monuments honoring Revolutionary War hero Gen. Seth Pomeroy and his family was dedicated in Van Cortlandtville on April 12, 2008. The day included a talk at Cortlandt Town Hall about the general and a procession to the Old Cemetery at Van Cortlandtville, where the seven-ton black stone stands 5 feet 8 inches high just inside the Locust Avenue entrance in the vicinity of the general’s unmarked grave. The program was a joint effort of the Van Cortlandtville Historical Society, St. Peter’s Church in Peekskill and the Old Van Cortlandtville Cemetery Association.
“There is an immense amount of history here,” Frank Goderre, president of the historical society, told an audience of 55 as he introduced the program at Town Hall. He noted the military importance of the Cortlandt/Peekskill area to both American and British forces throughout the Revolutionary War. Equally significant, he said, were the religious, economic and social divisions in the community that made the fight for independence a civil war as well. Old St. Peter’s Church, which stands in the Old Cemetery not far from the anvil, was often in the eye of the storm, with Loyalist landowners and founders such as Beverly Robinson and Charles Moore infuriated that local rebels, including their own tenant farmers, drove away the Anglican rector.
Peekskill City Historian John Curran summarized the colorful career of Pomeroy. The general, who died in Peekskill 236 years ago, was born in Northampton, Mass., on May 20, 1706, to a family of ironworkers, blacksmiths and gunsmiths. His knowledge of these family skills was highly prized by the British armed forces, with whom he served for more than a quarter-century. By the start of hostilities between Great Britain and the American Colonies in 1775 he was a major general in the armed forces of Massachusetts. A few days after the June 17, 1775, battle at Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill in Massachusetts he learned that he was the first of eight newly minted brigadier generals in the budding Continental Army.
In late 1776, when the British were threatening the main army of Gen. George Washington in New Jersey, Pomeroy gathered 6,000 Massachusetts militia and headed south, arriving in Peekskill on Jan. 21, 1777. He died of pleurisy, an inflammation of the lungs, on Feb. 19 and was buried with the honors of war in the Old Cemetery in an unmarked grave near the Baptist church (now the site of the Little Red Schoolhouse).
The community that became Pomeroy’s final resting place has repeatedly honored the general. A 30-foot-tall column in nearby Hillside Cemetery on Oregon Road was dedicated on June 17, 1898, the 123rd anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the culmination of two years of efforts by the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York. The day-long event attracted national attention and drew 1,000 people to Van Cortlandtville. A huge procession, accompanied by several bands, formed at the Peekskill train station and headed to Hillside. Closer to the gravesite, a plaque on a stone was dedicated on July 4, 1962, near the Locust Avenue entrance to the Old Cemetery – not far from the anvil monument.
Mr. Curran’s talk was followed by a procession of almost half a mile from Town Hall along Oregon Road – retracing part of the 1898 route – to Locust Avenue and the cemetery, led by re-enactors from the Fifth New York Regiment of the Brigade of the American Revolution and a color guard from Boy Scout Troop 45. At Donnelly Place, a giant American Flag was suspended from ladder trucks of the Mohegan and Peekskill fire departments. Westchester County and New York State Police escorted the procession.
At the cemetery Nancy Maliwesky, representing the Pomeroy family, thanked the community for celebrating the general. Maliwesky, director of the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association in upstate Syracuse, was a last-minute stand-in for ailing William Pomeroy, a descendant of the general’s brother Daniel and the driving force behind the Pomeroy Anvil Trail.
“The Pomeroy Anvil Trail idea came about when Bill told me he wanted to erect a few monuments to his ancestors,” she told the 75 people gathered at the monument, “and as we started researching people and places … we realized that a few monuments would not be enough. We also realized that what we had embarked upon had become much more than just one man celebrating his rich ancestral heritage. The Pomeroy Anvil Trail commemorates the progression of the American people and their ideals of freedom, personal responsibility, independence, economic stability, and entrepreneurship. In celebrating the events of one family, we celebrate all Americans.”
Cortlandt Supervisor Linda Puglisi placed a wreath at the anvil. Mother Carlye Hughes, rector of St. Peter’s Church, blessed the monument. The re-enactors fired three volleys in honor of the general, and trumpeter Daniel Rivera from the Peekskill High School Band played taps.
William Pomeroy, founder of CXtec in upstate Syracuse (a sales company that offers new and pre-owned networking, voice equipment, and cabling globally) has made it his personal mission to commemorate and preserve the memory and history of the Pomeroy family in America. The Van Cortlandtville monument is the sixth on a trail that eventually will include at least 18. The others erected to date are in Pompey, N.Y. (the first, erected in February 2006), Sandusky, Ohio, Northampton, Westhampton and Southampton, Mass., Syracuse, Lyons and Auburn, N.Y., and Pembroke, Maine. For more information please visit www.americanpomeroys.org
Jeff Canning is a retired newspaper editor and past president of the Van Cortlandtville Historical Society.
The Van Cortlandtville Skirmish of March 1777
British marched to attack Continental Village supply depot after raiding Peekskill Landing but a daring American counterattack thwarted their plans
This is the first in an occasional series of articles about local history that will be posted on this Web site.
By Jeff Canning
The rebellious American colonies and the British Empire realized early in the Revolutionary War (1775-83) that control of the Hudson River Valley was the key to the success or failure of the fight for independence. In those years before superhighways, railroads and airplanes, waterways such as the Hudson were the great arteries of transportation for people and goods. New York was the linchpin between New England and the more southerly colonies, and the Hudson was the main street of New York.
Despite its meager population the Peekskill-Van Cortlandtville area became a focal point during the fight for freedom. General George Washington established headquarters for the American Highland Command there for two years and maintained his own headquarters in Peekskill off and on for extended periods.
Washington considered this locale so important that it became a major assembly area for troops and militia as well as arms and supplies. The area was centrally located for movement of men and material up and down the river, east into New England or west and south via the King’s Ferry between nearby Verplanck and Stony Point.
One of Washington’s greatest fears was that the British would move troops up the river, seize control of the Hudson Valley and split the new nation in two. His fears were well founded; since August 1776 British forces under the command of General Sir William Howe had been pushing the Americans north from the New York City area – first from Long Island, then from Manhattan and into Westchester County, where the armies clashed at Pell’s Point and White Plains in October.
When winter released its icy grip on the Hudson in early 1777 the British drive for mastery of New York and the Hudson Valley resumed when a fleet of more than a dozen ships and smaller craft under the command of Colonel Bird sailed north from New York City on March 21. The British goal was Peekskill, which had been established by Washington the previous November as the command post and headquarters for the Hudson Valley. Fort Hill, rising north of present-day Main Street, and the surrounding area presented an inviting target with barracks, storehouses and mills. A short distance north lay the Continental Village supply depot.
Bird’s fleet appeared in Peekskill Bay around noon on Sunday, March 23. Within an hour 500 men landed at Lent’s Cove. After burning a house owned by the Lent family the British troops, accompanied by four light artillery pieces, marched up the Post Road and took up positions on Drum Hill, where they began firing at the settlement and the American positions on Fort Hill.
Brigadier General Alexander McDougall, in charge of the 250-member Highland Command, used advance knowledge of the British expedition to remove as much of his supplies as possible to nearby posts before the fleet arrived. Outnumbered 2-1, he quickly realized that a defense of Peekskill (then commonly known as Peekskill Landing) would be foolhardy. Carrying what additional supplies he could, he ordered the burning of what remained, along with the barracks, principal storehouses and a wharf, and retreated a couple of miles north to Gallows Hill to protect Continental Village.
As McDougall withdrew, the raiders continued the destruction he started. A British officer, while doubling the size of the American force and crediting his comrades with some of the work carried out by McDougall’s troops, provided the following account in the March 31, 1777, edition of William Gaine’s Mercury, published in New York: The 500-man British force landed without incident and the “almost unapprised” rebels, though “at least equal” in number, soon fled, first burning mills and supplies on Gregory’s Creek (McGregory Brook, along modern Central Avenue). The British then destroyed barracks, workshops and storehouses along with more than 150 wagons, tools, food, ammunition, uniforms, leather, bark for tanning and more than 400 hogsheads of rum. They took to their ships other materials for their own use. “The whole affair was carried on with the utmost spirit and harmony, and to the honor of the soldiers it may be said, that not one of them, among the streams of rum that run about in every quarter, was in the least disordered in his duty. … Nothing could exceed the cool intrepidity and precautions of the commanding officers throughout the enterprise, nor the alacrity and vigor of the whole party. Not a man was lost or hurt upon the occasion.”
Meanwhile, the American contingent at nearby Fort Independence (also known as Fort Constitution), under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett, was preparing for its customary Sunday parade when orders arrived from McDougall to leave a small guard at the Hudson River outpost on Roa Hook and bring the rest of the force to Gallows Hill.
On Monday, March 24, 200 British troops marched up the Post Road (later known as Hillside Avenue and Oregon Road) to the Twin Hills, just south of the Van Cortlandt family’s Upper Manor House, where McDougall had posted an advance guard. Scouts informed him of the British advance but the general, as he explained in a letter to Washington, thought he had too few men to attack and risk a defeat that would expose the Highlands and the large Fishkill Supply Depot to a British invasion. In view of his responsibilities for the entire Highlands region, the general reasoned it was better to lose supplies and facilities, such as those at Peekskill, than to risk losing his army.
When Willett and his 80 men joined McDougall at the Gallows Hill barracks Monday afternoon the colonel observed a British detachment burning a house. He also observed that the detachment was separated from the rest of the troops by a ravine, and he implored McDougall to attack them. As the sun was setting Willett finally persuaded his cautious commander to let him do so. While other Americans created a diversion to the west, the zealous colonel ordered his 80 men to fix bayonets and attacked the eastern flank of the British. Willett’s troops overwhelmed the British with the unexpected assault, sniping at them from behind trees and stone walls.
Aided by darkness the British fled back to Fort Hill. After waiting for the full moon to rise, the entire invasion force retreated to its ships and sailed back to New York the next day. McDougall returned to Peekskill and reoccupied the Fort Hill redoubts and the settlement.
Willett’s counterattack left nine British dead and four wounded. Four more British were killed while trying to burn American boats at Canopus Creek The colonel reported two men killed and four or five wounded.
Stung by Willett’s counterattack, the British did not return to the Hudson Highlands in force until the following October. Jeff Canning is a retired newspaper editor and past president of the Van Cortlandtville Historical Society. Jeff has been recently appointed as a historical advisor for the Town of Cortlandt.