Saturday, September 24, 2011

17th Light Dragoons in Newtown, Queens

This post concerns a British regiment called the 17th Light Dragoons. The 17th Light Dragoons were a predecessor of the 17th Lancers, about which I wrote the other day. The post is also about Newtown, Queens, during the American Revolution. In the middle of the nineteenth century a small village called Woodside would emerge within Newtown and this village was the place where my great-grandfather build his family a home.

I've written previously about Newtown. The place was inhabited first by American Indians, then colonial Dutch, and, from the 1660s onward, by British subjects.[1] The Newtown freeholders tended their fertile lands with care and eventually became relatively prosperous farmers, providing for themselves and selling their surplus to the burgeoning metropolis across the East River. However, when, toward the end of the eighteenth century, colonial aspirations came into serious conflict with Parliamentary prerogatives, the men and women of Newtown found this prosperity to be in jeopardy. Along with other Americans across the Eastern Seaboard, they divided into two camps over the proper way to handle their grievances. One side, the tories, argued for conciliation and supplication. They saw continued pursuit of legal redress as the best response. For the most part, these families were among the more prosperous inhabitants. The other side believed that the moderate course recommended by tories had been tried over and over without success. These men, the whigs, argued for resistance and, if circumstances warranted, decisive action. In the middle years of the 1770s, the positions of the two opposing groups grew increasingly polarized.

When the whigs at last came to believe that British oppression had become unbearable, they formed governing councils in preparation for armed conflict. As these committees formed, the freeholders of Newtown, who were mostly whigs, were set in opposition to neighboring communities, all of which had loyalist majorities.

In December 1774 a committee appointed by Newtown's citizens declared themselves willing to fight to redress their grievances. They said actions of the British Parliament were "intended absolutely to deprive his Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the inhabitants of the American colonies, of their most inestimable rights and privileges, by subjugating them to the British Parliament, and driving them to the dire necessity of submitting to have their property taken from them without their consent." And they resolved to oppose these "tyrannical and oppressive acts."[2]

Within months hostilities broke out. In the whole of New York the whigs outnumbered tories by a considerable margin and thus whigs of the New York militia, with help from the men of Newtown, were able to disarm the better-known men among the Queens tories.[3] The tide began to turn against the whigs when, in the summer of 1776, British troops from Boston began to assemble in preparation for the Battle of Long Island.

The 17th Light Dragoons figured in the early stages of this battle as they had at Bunker Hill. By one account, the colonial army might have been forced to submit rather than retreating, but an instance of General Howe's habitual passivity came to the Americans' rescue: "On the action on Long Island the 17th were to find themselves in an excellent position to trap the American army who were pinned with their backs to the river. Unfortunately, General Howe did not take advantage of the situation, and 12,000 Americans rowed to safety to Manhattan Island." -- American War of Independence

During the summer of 1776, after the British began to offload from their ships at Staten Island, members of the Newtown militia then were assigned to deprive their enemy of needed provisions by driving livestock as far away as they could.[3] The 17th Light Dragoons first shows up in Newtown history when a detachment that had been sent to disrupt the whig effort encountered members of Newtown's own light-horse militia. Here's one account of the conflict:
SEIZURE OF WHIGS

Newtown — Jona. Coe and Hezekiah Field, two lighthorse, with regimentals on, returned to White Pot, August 28 [1776]. They had been driving off stock. Early next morning, when starting to cross the Sound, they were seized by British light-horse from Jamaica. Lieut. Coe had thrown his epaulett in the bushes. They were carried to Flatbush jail, where Coe died of dysentery, having suffered much for want of food and necessary attendance. His body was refused his friends for burial.

Richard Bragaw, Robert Moore, George Brinckerhoff, Abm. Devine, and Ludlum Haire, had been with Woodhull, driving off stock. After they left him, they were surprised at Hinchman's tavern, Jamaica. A British light-horse rode up, when Moore came out and received a sabre cut, which nearly severed his two fingers. The other four were taken to the prison ship, where they were urged to enlist; but, by bribing a friend to government, were released. --Documents and letters intended to illustrate the revolutionary incidents of Queens county
Other whigs were not so fortunate. General Woodhull, named above, was the officer in charge of keeping provisions out of British hands. While directing this effort he was captured by members of the 17th Light Dragoons and mistreated. Some accounts say that the mistreatment came from the dragoons; others say it was a British infantry officer, accompanying the dragoons, who attacked the defenseless man with his sword and that a dragoon officer intervened to stop the outrage.[4]

Several men of Newtown were taken prisoner at this time. The History of Newtown goes on to say that, "Newtown was now open to the enemy, and many of the Whig families, alarmed at their defenseless condition, fled in the utmost confusion. Early the next morning the British light dragoons [i.e., the 17th] entered the town. The tories, in the excess of their triumph, informed against their Whig neighbors. The leading Whigs were imprisoned or sent into exile, and their property was seized by the enemy."[5]

Riker gives an incident of this time:
The light horse scoured the town, and while it was yet early, guided by one George Rapelye, a loyalist, came along the Poor Bowery, and halted at Jacobus Lent's (late Isaac Rapelye's,) to get some bread. Brandishing their naked swords, they declared that they were in pursuit of that d—d rebel, Doctor Riker. The doctor had spent the night in visiting different sections of the town, tearing down Howe's proclamations, that none might be misled, and induced, at this critical juncture, to remain and accept British protection, instead of hasting to the support of the American arms. The females at Mr. Lent's were terrified at the ferocious appearance of the light horse, and observing the haste and greediness with which they broke and ate the dry bread, Balche, a colored bondwoman, innocently inquired of her mistress whether they would not eat them. They dashed on towards Hellgate, but the doctor had escaped in a boat to Barn Island, and thus eluded these demons in human form.
Once they had occupied Queens, the British troops bivouacked in fields while officers and noncoms were quartered in private homes. Officers and noncoms of the 17th were assigned to Newtown. An article by Gus Dallas in the Richmond Hill Record says "Ten to 20 noncoms were assigned to a house. They were ordered to take over just one room in the house, and they shrewdly chose the kitchen, setting up hammocks in tiers. British officers were arrogant, and Queens folk had to tip their hats outdoors or stand like inferiors when speaking to them inside their own homes. Slave owners grumbled that their slaves tended to become snippy and disobedient after they saw how the officers pushed the master around."[6]

The next action seen by the 17th was in the Battle of White Plains[7] and then followed the retreat of Washington's troops, remaining in the South until 1778. In the winter of that year the British feared that the American forces were preparing to attack New York. Here's a report of this, the final appearance of the 17th Light Dragoons in Newtown.
Newtown in the winter of 1778 presented an unusually animated appearance. General Washington was expected to make an attack upon New York, and for the better preservation and safety of the shipping Sir Henry Clinton ordered all vessels not in the service of the government to be removed to Newtown Creek.

A large number of British troops were also barracked here. There were the seventeenth regiment of light dragoons, the Maryland loyalists, the royal Highlanders, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Sterling, who had seen long and arduous service in America during the French and Indian war; the royal artillery, with their cannon and horses; and the thirty-third regiment, Lord Cornwallis. During this period the farmers were subjected to many severe burdens. They were required to furnish from year to year, for the use of the army, the greater portion of their hay, straw, rye, corn, oats and provisions, under pain of being imprisoned and having their crops confiscated. The commissary weighed or measured the produce, and then rendered payment according to the prices fixed by the king’s commissioners. If the seller demanded more it was at the risk of losing the whole. The private soldiers were billeted in the houses of the Whig families. The family was generally allowed one fireplace. Robberies were frequent, and Newtown became a prey to depredation, alarm and cruelty. The civil courts were suspended, and martial law prevailed through seven long years. It was a happy day for Newtown when news arrived that Great Britain had virtually acknowledged our independence, and when her patriotic sons were permitted to return from a tedious exile. -- History of Queens [One notes that it was a happy day for whigs, not, of course, for tories, many of whom would — temporarily or permanently — exile themselves to Canada.]
These images all appear in A History of the 17th Lancers (Duke of Cambridge's Own) by John William Fortescue (Macmillan and co., 1895)

An officer of the 17th Light Dragoons in the late eighteenth century.


Members of the regiment in 1764.


Two private soldiers from the early nineteenth century.


Two private soldiers and an officer, a few decades later.


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Some sources:

HISTORY OF QUEENS COUNTY, with illustrations, Portraits & Sketches of Prominent Families and Individuals. New York: W.W. Munsell & Co.; 1882

The annals of Newtown, in Queens county, New-York containing its history from its first settlement, together with many interesting facts concerning the adjacent towns; also, a particular account of numerous Long island families now spread over this and various other states of the union, by James Riker (D. Fanshaw, 1852)

Documents and letters intended to illustrate the revolutionary incidents of Queens county with connecting narratives, explanatory notes, and additions by Henry Onderdonk (Leavitt, Trow and company, 1846)

Battle of Long Island, Hard Times followed Battle of Long Island, by Gus Dallas for the Richmond Hill Record

Battle of Long Island Hard Times followed Battle of Long Island by Gus Dallas, Printed by The Richmond Hill Record

17th Light Dragoons, a blog

17th Light Dragoons on the British Empire web site

The Battle of Long Island 1776 on the British Battles web site

17th Lancers in wikipedia

The Birth of the American Cavalry

Revolutionary incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties with an account of the Battle of Long Island and the British prisons and prison-ships at New York by Henry Onderdonk (Leavitt & Co., 1849)

The Streets Of New York in Something About Everything Military

American War of Independence, 17th Light Dragoons, The British Empire

17th Light Dragoons

17th Light Dragoons in A Miniature History of the American Revolution

A History of the 17th Lancers (Duke of Cambridge's Own) by John William Fortescue (Macmillan and co., 1895)

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Notes:

[1] James Riker's History of Newtown gives a detailed account of the town's early history. In part, he writes: "Newtown, or, as it was called by the Indians at the time of the discovery of this section of country by Henry Hudson in 1609, "Mespat," was a part of the New Netherlands, the trade from which was exclusively granted by the States-General of Holland in 1621 to the organization known as the West India Company. Valuable cargoes of beaver and other skins were annually shipped from here. The population up to 1638 numbered but a few individuals, in the employ of the company; but in that year the monopoly was abolished, and then trade with the New Netherlands opened to all. The encouragement thus given to emigration was further extended in 1640 by the grant of a new charter, providing for the administration of civil government, and establishing the rights and privileges of the inhabitants on a footing parallel with those in Holland. This had a benign effect, and gave an impulse to emigration, ‘not from Europe’ only but from New England also, many of whose inhabitants, fleeing from religious persecution, took up their abode here... The fertility of the Newtown lands early attracted the attention of colonists... [and] in 1652 a goodly company of Englishmen arrived from New England. [After several name changes, the place became "New Towne" in 1665.] -- The annals of Newtown, in Queens county, New-York

[2] Here's the text:
Having seriously considered the consequences that must evidently flow from the several acts of the British Parliament to raise revenue in America, and likewise that of having power to bind the people of these Colonies by statute in all cases whatsoever; and that of extending the limits of the Admiralty Court, whereby the judges are empowered to receive their salaries and fees from effects to be condemned by themselves, and his Majesty's American subjects deprived of the right of trial by jury; that of empowering the Commissioners of Customs to break open and enter houses, without authority of any civil magistrate; stopping the Port of Boston; changing the form of government in Massachusetts Bay; and the Quebec Bill: all which, as appears to us, are absolutely intended to deprive his Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects of the American Colonies of their most inestimable rights and privileges, by subjugating them to the British Parliament, and driving them to the dire necessity of having their property taken from them without their consent: Resolved,
1. That we consider it our greatest happiness and glory to be governed by the illustrious House of Hanover, and that we acknowledge and bear true allegiance to King George the Third as our rightful sovereign, and under his protection have a right to enjoy the privileges of the Constitution of Great Britain.

2. That man ought to have the disposition of his property, either by himself or his representatives.

3. That it is our indispensable duty to transmit unimpaired to posterity all our most valuable rights and privileges as we have received them from our ancestors—particularly that of disposing of our own property.

4. That as some mode of opposition to the Acts of Parliament imposing taxes in America, has been thought necessary by the inhabitants of the different Colonies on this Continent, to secure their.invaded rights and properties: which mode has been left to the determination of the Delegates sent by each Colony, and met in Congress, at Philadelphia, in September last: they having, among other articles of their association, recommended that a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town, whose business it should be to observe the conduct of all persons touching said association; and, as we are willing to establish harmony and union, we will, so far as our influence extends, endeavor that the measures of Congress be strictly adhered to in this town.

5. As we highly approve of the wise, prudent, and constitutional mode of opposition adopted by our worthy Delegates in the General Congress, to the several late tyrannical and oppressive acts of the British Parliament, we therefore render our most sincere and hearty thanks to those gentlemen for their patriotic spirit in so cheerfully undertaking the difficult and arduous task, for their faithfulness in council, and great wisdom in drawing conclusions, which, through the influence of Divine Providence, we trust will be the means of securing to us of liberty and privileges as freeborn Englishmen, and again re store harmony and confidence throughout the British Empire, which is the hearty wish of all the friends to liberty and foes to oppression.
Signed by order of the Committee,

JACOB BLACKWELL, Chairman.
--
Documents and letters intended to illustrate the revolutionary incidents of Queens county with connecting narratives, explanatory notes, and additions by Henry Onderdonk (Leavitt, Trow and company, 1846)
[3] The whigs wanted both to collect the livestock in a safe area and also, by setting guards on roadways, to prevent tories from communicating with the enemy.

[4] Henry Onderdonk gives several versions of the account and says "as the accounts both written and traditional are conflicting, we ... leave the reader to form his own opinion.". See Revolutionary incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties with an account of the Battle of Long Island and the British prisons and prison-ships at New York by Henry Onderdonk (Leavitt & Co., 1849)

[5] NEWTOWN, in HISTORY OF QUEENS COUNTY

[6] The annals of Newtown, in Queens county, New-York containing its history from its first settlement, together with many interesting facts concerning the adjacent towns; also, a particular account of numerous Long island families now spread over this and various other states of the union, by James Riker (D. Fanshaw, 1852)

[7] In the Battle of White Plains the 17th were once again successful:
The hill was now held by green militia and Connecticut and New York troops still shaken by the beating they had recently taken on Long Island. Behind these units, however, were tough, battle-wise Maryland and Delaware regiments. While the main body of the British army was assembling on the plain below the Americans, gunners of the Royal Artillery opened up on Chatterton’s Hill, and the troops there replied to the heavy fire as best they could with two small fieldpieces. When the cannonading eventually lifted, long lines of Hessian and British troops splashed across the Bronx River and moved up the hill with fixed bayonets. They met unexpectedly strong resistance from the militia, and the battle seesawed back and forth, the Americans giving as good as they got.

But while the king’s troops were wavering, trumpets sounded a charge, and the 17th Dragoons galloped into view, terrible with plumed brass helmets and cavalry sabres. It was more than most of the Americans could stand, and their line dissolved. They fled the field, covered by the steadfast Delaware regiment, which brought up the rear and held off the British attack until their fellow soldiers had reached safety.
-- The Streets Of New York

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