Fanning the Flames
In 1777, British forces burned most of the city of Kingston to the ground — and added fuel to the colonists’ Revolutionary fervor
Taking aim: Local history buffs portray British soldiers at the biennial reenactment of the burning of Kingston
Photograph by Nancy B. Gill; photographs (page 2) by Mario Burger
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The next time you’re strolling through Kingston’s historic Stockade District, give a nod of thanks to the Dutch settlers who built their houses of stone. If they hadn’t, there’d be nothing left of the city’s colonial past. And for that, we’d have the British to thank.
The wanton burning of Kingston on October 16, 1777, was perhaps the most heinous act committed in the Hudson Valley during the American Revolution. It came about as part of the British Army’s campaign to wrest control of the strategically vital Hudson River from the rebel Americans. Three prongs would attack the Valley — from the west, north, and south — rendezvousing in Albany. The vast distances involved made coordination and communications between invading armies virtually impossible, practically dooming the plan from the get-go. However, it also didn’t help that Gen. William Howe, commander of British troops in Manhattan and a major player in the operation, dithered and finally took most of his men to Philadelphia to battle George Washington’s forces.
By the time the 3,000 British troops under Gen. Henry Clinton embarked from New York City on October 3 and 4, the plan already was in a shambles. The prong heading east through the Mohawk Valley had been checkmated at Fort Stanwix (in present-day Rome). While Clinton’s forces overran the patriot forts of Montgomery and Clinton — in the shadow of Bear Mountain — on October 6, the other remaining prong, invading southward from Quebec, was stymied at the Second Battle of Saratoga. With the noose tightening around his 4,500 soldiers, who were exhausted from their four-month wilderness march, British Gen. John Burgoyne held out for reinforcements as long as he could. He wound up agreeing to surrender terms on October 16 — the very day Kingston was put to the torch.
Why Kingston? A couple of reasons. First and primarily, it was New York’s capital. When the British took control of New York City in 1776, the rebellious colony’s government was forced to vacate. As the war moved further upriver, New York’s leaders kept one step ahead of it, setting up shop first in White Plains, then Fishkill. Finally, in February 1777, they found what appeared to be a secure location — Kingston.