The Misnamed Columbia County ‘Battle of Egremont’


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MilitiamenA small, but important part of the American Revolutionary War took place during 1777 at Livingston Manor, Albany County (now Columbia County), New York. The few historical references about this event identify the event as the Battle of Egremont, implying that it happened in Massachusetts.

While it was customary to name a battle after its location, participants or some other feature, these conventions were overlooked in this case and the involvement of Egremont, Massachusetts militiamen seems to be the primary reason for the naming of the battle. However, many participants were from New York militia units, and the battle actually took place in New York. The battle was actually a series of four skirmishes that occurred over two-days.

Livingston Manor 1777Troublesome Loyal Volunteers

During April of 1777, many patriots were convinced that almost everybody, especially men in Taghkanic, including a good number of militia officers in the Manor, pledged an oath of allegiance to the Crown. They were said to be true to the King of England and enemies of the Revolution. Many feared a Tory uprising was imminent. The lord of the Manor of Livingston, Robert R. Livingston, wrote to Governor George Clinton, “I am …convinced that something is in agitation among the tories.” He was concerned that an insurrection was in the making.

Indeed, there was “uneasiness” at Livingston Manor, because men between ages sixteen and sixty were required to perform militia service at a time when they wanted to be on their farms. It didn’t help that General Schuyler’s Northern Continental Army confiscated wagons that were desperately needed for farm work. When James Howetson, a half-pay British Lieutenant, received authority from the Crown to form a loyalist battalion, he targeted agitated farmers of Livingston Manor. Not surprisingly, hostility between local patriots and Tories flared up when Howetson’s Tories crossed Manor boundaries seeking arms and recruits.

Livingston Manor was a large tract of land in southern Albany County bounded on the west by the Hudson River, on the East by Massachusetts, on the north by the Claverack District and on the south by Dutchess County. The Manor Committee of Safety was charged by Albany officials with keeping the peace in this large territory and was empowered to enforce militia service requirements. The committee could impose penalties on those absent from routine muster; however, it seemed the committee was lax when it came to reluctant tenant farmers. There are no known extant records of fines or penalties.

In the winter of 1777 support for the war in New York was at low ebb. Many patriots were discouraged following Washington’s retreat with the main army to New Jersey; the enemy occupied New York City and the British threatened an new invasion from Canada. Immediately south of Livingston Manor, Tory activity in the Nine Partners District of Dutchess County added tension close to home. Unrest also existed further south in Westchester County. But in Livingston Manor and the Claverack District in Albany County, the atmosphere was explosive. The discovery of a widespread plot to recruit and organize a Battalion of Loyal Volunteers became the catalyst for bloody and deadly confrontations that followed.

William Smith, who was related by marriage to the commander of the Manor militia, Colonel Peter R. Livingston, reported that on April 28, the Claverack Committee of Safety became aware of a conspiracy to organize the Loyalist regiment in Albany and Dutchess Counties. According to Smith, conspirators bound themselves by “oath and secrecy & then swore Allegiance to the King to support each other and join the British Troops agt (against) all Opposers.” Smith, who once supported objectives of freedom, parted company with patriots when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed. Not willing to brand him as a Tory, New York officials instead confined him under house arrest at the Manor. Eventually he was sent behind British lines.

One of the major figures in the Tory recruitment conspiracy, Arnout Viele, said that he enlisted sixty to seventy men for the King’s Army. Colonel Livingston estimated that the count included about fifty Livingston Manor residents who were actually “attached to the crown.” Ten or twenty likely came from other districts in Albany County. During the Court Martial of Mr.Viele, it was confirmed that there was a concerted effort throughout Albany County to enlist men. In early May 1777, to the north of the Manor in Kings District, Colonel Whiting ordered Captains Bostwick and Gilbertz to arrest Elijah Owen, old Atwill and old Burr, and seize their arms, ammunition, and papers. These men were obviously suspected Tories.

Concurrently, militiamen under Captain John Strong marched from Pittsfield, Massachusetts into the northern part of Albany County to apprehend more Tories. At Viele’s Court Martial, he was formally charged with “…Inlisting many of the Subjects of said state (New York) into the Service of the King of Great Britain… & by swearing divers Persons…to bear Faith and true Allegiance to the said King…” His recruitment activity in the Manor and the threat of an invasion by the Loyalist Regiment were the primary reasons that patriots from Claverack and Egremont eventually took up arms and invaded the Manor of Livingston.

The Fight Begins in Earnest

Various sources record the Battle at Egremont as having occurred on May 1, 1777, however, Major Richard Esselestyn’s detailed account indicated that the battle began on May 2, ended on May 3, 1777 and took place at several locations in New York. Major Esselestyn was an officer in the 8th Albany (West Claverack Regiment) and one of the officers who recruited fighters from the Egremont militia.

This was not the first time Massachusetts men were recruited to hunt Tories in Albany County. During October 1776, Colonel Peter Van Ness, 9th Albany (East Claverack District) called on men from nearby Berkshire County to capture troublesome Tories in Kinderhook and Kings District in Albany County. Later that same month, Captain Erastus Sergeant’s Stockbridge, Massachusetts Company, was ordered out by the committee of Berkshire County to assist in quelling another insurrection in Kings District. It seemed that Berkshire Massachusetts militiamen were more reliable than many from Albany.

Battle of Egremont MapThe First Skirmish

The first skirmish in the Battle of Egremont took place on a farm in Taghkanic near the Manor’s eastern border. William Smith wrote that on May 2, the Egremont men went into “Taghkanic with some of the Claverack Militia searching for Tories.” To arrive in Taughkanic on May 2, the Egremont men must have met with the Claverack militia the day before, May 1, probably near the northern border with the Claverack District. It appeared they all entered the Manor from the Northern border with Claverack. Esselestyn reported that the first skirmish occurred near the hamlet of Taughkanic, about ten miles west of Egremont. Although two Claverack officers, Lt. Col. Stephen Hogeboom, 9th Albany and Major Esselestyn were leading the detachment, most of the men were apparently from Egremont. The detachment initially encountered Tories at Jury Wheeler’s farm in Taconic near the Manor’s eastern border. Esselestyn noted, “Scrimmige happened near Tachkanick 2 Horses killed of ours, of the Torys Nicolas Brassie Jur wounded and a few Prisoners taken.” It was alleged that Wheeler once said if called for militia duty, the first person he would shoot was his captain.

The Second Skirmish

The second skirmish took place at the house of Isaac Spoor in Taughkanic. As indicated in Esselestyn’s report, the Egremont men were engaged in the second skirmish on the same day as the first. According to the report, that evening, a party of the militia came upon more Tories. Another Tory was wounded and more prisoners were taken. Major Esselestyn said, “In the Evening … a Party of ours came up to the house of Isaac Spoor in Taghkanick where they found several Torys who opposed our men on which fireing Insued.” Mr. Spoor, a likely Tory, previously declined to serve on the Manor Committee of Safety. He was probably related to the Spoors who resided in Egremont.

The Third Skirmish

On Saturday, May 3rd, Hogeboom, who apparently split from Esselestyn’s group with a contingent of about 20 men, engaged another party of 100 Tories near Copake Lake (Great Lake). According to Esselestyn’s report, this third skirmish was, “near Tachkanic at the House of George Weler where a smart fireing happened… one John Lyck mortily Wounded.” Esselestyn also reported that after the exchange of fire, patriots were forced to retreat, one horse was killed and one Tory was wounded. Additionally, he indicated, “James Dacker wounded one (Mr.) Finkle and (they) took 15 prisoners.”

A member of Captain Diel Rockefeller’s Company in Livingston’s 10th Albany testified at Viele’s Court Marshal about being in battle near Great Lake. This places some of the Manor militia in the third skirmish. Although Esselestyn didn’t specify who reinforced Lt. Colonel Hogeboom, it was likely the men were from Rockefeller’s Company. This company came from the East Camp-Germantown District.

Supporting information about this skirmish found in Henry Dick’s pension application referred to the incident at the “Great Lake.” He collaborated that one Tory was killed another wounded and 15 prisoners were taken. Dick, a member of the Manor militia, stated that men from Captain Rockefeller’s Company joined the Egremont and Claverack militia during this skirmish.

The Fourth Skirmish

The fourth skirmish occurred about twelve miles southwest of Copake Lake. Major Esselestyn reported that after Hogeboom was reinforced, he pursued Tories to “Long Laik” where another skirmish happened and patriots “took 2 more of said Party.” The Major concluded, “Our Party took several prisoners and wounded Nicolas Brasie Senijor.” Hogeboom’s contingent moved from Copake Lake to the unincorporated area around Long Lake near the Dutchess County line. It was likely that Rockefeller’s men pursued and captured Brassie Sr. with Hogeboom.

Summary and Conclusion

William Smith reported, “In the late Skirmishes 3 Men were killed – Blastree Link & Decker – 3 more wounded one of whom Minkle or Finkle will probably lose his Arm as Dr. Latham Thinks.” It was likely that Smith’s “Blastree” was actually Nicolas Brassie Jr. or Sr., “Link” was Mr. John Lyck and that one of the wounded Tories was Mr. Finkle, not Mr. Minkle.

When the Egremont Militia entered Livingston Manor on May 2nd, they must have passed the house of Captain Jacob F. Shaver. Pension files indicate that Shaver marched on May 1 in command of a company of the Livingston Militia to reinforce the Northern Army. Captain Shaver lived near the boundary between Claverack and the Manor, and a mile and a half north of Copake Lake. It was an odd coincidence that he left just before the Claverack and Egremont men arrived near his home. One possible explanation was that Shaver wished to spare his men the task of fighting their own neighbors. Stranger still, 100 additional men from the Manor militia were diverted to Dutchess County to hunt Tories at the same time as the Battle of Egremont. Pension files, Smith’s memoirs, and other documents indicate that other Albany County units were with the Northern Army as well. The absence of Albany County and Manor militiamen no doubt contributed to the need to bring in outsiders.

According to Smith, one of the residents of Taughkanic filed a claim with New York officials and complained that, “the Noble Town People took from him and his Son 12 Horses… that the Convention mean to pay the Militia for their late Visit to the Manor & that he hopes they will not countenance the Plunder of the People.” Smith referred to the Egremont Militia and the “Nobletown Militia” as outsiders. The Nobletown men were within the beat of the 9th Albany in east Claverack and were required to follow the orders of their commanders. Even though militia officers were granted confiscatory powers and exercised them during the Battle of Egremont, militiamen were not awarded Tory plunder. The Claverack Committee of Safety was ordered to turn over the proceeds of confiscated property to the Albany Committee of Correspondence.

The number of Tory casualties in the so-called “Battle at Egremont” was an exact match with the number of casualties from the four skirmishes on May 2nd, and 3rd. From the information provided in Major Esselestyn’s report and Smith’s memoirs, the Battle of Egremont and the skirmishes in Livingston Manor were one and the same. The vicinity of the first three skirmishes on May 2nd & 3rd, was five to ten miles west of the Town of Egremont, near Copake Lake and the hamlet of Taughkanic. The fourth skirmish was near Long Lake thirty miles west of Egremont and approximately twelve miles southwest of Copake Lake. Therefore, all four skirmishes occurred in New York, not Massachusetts.

When the battle ended at Long Lake on May 3, the Egremont militia returned home the next day, but the search for Tories in the Manor continued. The Manor militia and Colonel VanRensselaer’s 8th Albany carried out ongoing raids. Units from Claverack, the Manor, and Dutchess and Ulster Counties eventually joined together in a wide-ranging sweep of the entire area.

On July 4, 1777, Lieutenant Howetson and Arnot Viele were hanged at the gallows in Albany.

Epilogue

The paragraphs that follow were written by my former colleague Donald E. Lampson. It gives his insight into the nature of the conflict and the after effects of this battle. Mr. Lampson conducted much of the research upon which this post is based and while he suggested that the mere participation of the Egremont militia in the battle was insufficient to justify the designation “Battle of Egremont,” he did not advocate changing the title.

“There were at least two apparent consequences of the Battle of Egremont. The first is that after the skirmishes, the hunt for suspected Tories persisted through the month of May and developed elements of a rather hysterical witch-hunt. While it appears that the Egremont Militia took only about twenty prisoners during their tour, the total number of prisoners eventually reached at least 200. Ultimately, most of those arrested were released in a general pardon. There were an extraordinary number of Livingston tenants arrested. Contributing to the fury was the Livingston’s frequent accusations that Manor tenants and militia members were disaffected. There was also envy of the dominant politicians and the newly emerging leaders who were not from the established landlord aristocracy. Consequently, even those casually associated with Tories became targets. The hunt for Tories apparently snowballed on its own momentum. The wives of those who escaped to the woods eventually appealed to the Livingstons for amnesty.”

Calling on outsiders was not the only reason the hunt escalated. The enmity between the Livingston and Van Rensselaer tenants in Livingston Manor and the Egremont militia, their relatives and friends was a result of burning, looting, destruction and battles between Berkshire residents and the New Yorkers and their landlords. This dispute ensued for 14 years over unsettled borders in the eastern Claverack District in Nobletown. The apparent enmity finally settled down in 1766, a little over a decade prior to the May 1777 skirmishes. Both sides took losses during the feuding, so there was cause for animosity.”

This is not to suggest that the Tory conspiracy was a fallacy. It was obvious there was a widespread conspiracy. The testimony and written evidence in subsequent court-martials definitely establish the existence of the plot to recruit a Tory regiment. However, the history of enmity between the New Englanders and the New Yorkers undeniably increased the seriousness of confrontations between residents in Berkshire and Albany Counties.”

The second result of the Battle of Egremont was that the repression of the Tory recruitment drive apparently put an end to such activity in Livingston Manor. Evidence of this effect was the subsequent overwhelming response to calls for militia service in the campaign to stop the British invasion from Canada during July of 1777. The unusually high enlistment of the Livingston Manor militia in and subsequent months was likely motivated by fear of being branded a Tory. Additionally, the willingness of men to serve was probably a desire to redeem their tarnished reputations.”

More evidence of the impact of the repression of the Tory conspiracy was that only five sons of Livingston Manor residents are recorded as going over to the British, with much higher numbers recorded for the Claverack Districts and for Dutchess County.”

The Claverack Committee of Safety made a strategic error in focusing on Livingston Manor to the exclusion of Tory activity in Claverack. In the months following the hunt for Tories in Livingston Manor, Claverack’s Lieutenant Henry Simmons and 45 of his men joined the British Army under General Burgoyne. On August 16, 1777, Lieutenant Simmons left Claverack with 27 men and fought for the British in the First Battle of Saratoga on September 19. On September 22, an additional 18 men from Claverack joined them. After the Second Battle of Saratoga, they all retreated to Canada.”

Because the records are so fragmentary, and the New York militia was called to serve against Burgoyne in many piecemeal detachments from the spring of 1777 until Burgoyne’s surrender, criticism of the service of the New York militia regiments was leveled without much evidence. However, it is revealing to compare and contrast the turn out of the Claverack and Livingston militia at the beginning of July 1777. These were the first units that Albany County activated to oppose Burgoyne. However, in response to this call, the two Claverack Regiments sent less that 120 men (about 16%), while over 200 (over 34%) of the Livingston Militia marched to the Army under Major Samuel Ten Broeck.”

According to the returns of the Albany County Brigade in the spring of 1778, the combined strength of the two Claverack Regiments (8th& 9th Albany) was 732, while the total strength of the Livingston Regiment was 584. While the 1778 returns included officers and men, the numbers given for those who marched in 1777 often did not include officers, therefore, the percentage of men sent from Livingston Manor to oppose Burgoyne in 1777 was likely conservative.”

Illustrations (from above): Militiamen Preparing to Hunt Tories (courtesy Alan H. Archambault); 2) Livingston Manor 1776; and 3) Map of Battle of Egremont.

A version of the post was previously published in Colombia County History and Heritage.

3 thoughts on “The Misnamed Columbia County ‘Battle of Egremont’

    1. Brian BarrettBrian S. Barrett

      There were two districts, the East Claverack District and the West District. Both had committees but were subordinate to the Albany Committee. I found “Minutes of the Albany County Committee of Correspondence” is a wealth of information. Minutes are indexed in Vol I of two volumes but be careful; the index omits some subjects recorded in the minutes. The minutes are held in many libraries and can be found on line too.

      Reply

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