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
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.
Buildings in Kingston’s historic district include (above, from left): the 1676 Senate House, one of only a handful to survive the fire; the 1812 Fred J. Johnston House, now a museum; and the Old Dutch Church, built in 1852
Two months later, delegates meeting there ratified a new constitution, turning the colony into New York State. That June, the first statewide elections were held; George Clinton — a distant cousin of Henry, the British general — was chosen as governor. In September the legislators convened in Kingston. (The Senate met at the home of Abraham Van Gaasbeck, which is today known as the Senate House State Historic Site.) Since Kingston was along the route of the northbound British forces, why not wreak a little havoc on the rebellious new government?
But even without the legislature, Kingston was a thorn in the British side. Most of its inhabitants were Dutch, descendants of those who’d settled the town in 1652; its sturdy stone homes were emblematic of its residents’ heritage. The people of the Netherlands had enjoyed “taxation only by consent” since the 15th century. So when the British Parliament began imposing new duties on the American colonists, Kingston was eager to support the revolution. Its farmers became major suppliers of wheat and other staples to the new Continental Army. All this led one British official to pronounce the town a “hotbed of perfidy and sedulous disloyalty to King George the Third.”
After a week of securing the vanquished forts in the Hudson Highlands and reconnoitering further upriver, 1,700 British forces sailed northward on October 14, now under the command of Gen. John Vaughan. His orders were to “proceed up Hudson’s river, to feel for General Burgoyne, to assist his operations, and even join him if that general required it.” Gov. Clinton — who also commanded patriot forces in the region and had barely escaped capture at Fort Montgomery — knew that Kingston would be a target. He ordered earthworks built at Esopus, on the Hudson’s shore near Kingston, and pleaded for the county militia to defend them. “Every man that can fire a Gun should be immediately embodied and employed at those works,” he wrote. Unfortunately, the militia had been so decimated in the recent battles that few men were available.
Thus it was that when the British arrived off Kingston, they were met by token resistance, which was quickly overcome. Gen. Vaughan related the day’s events to his superiors:
“I have the Honor to inform you that on the Evening of the 15th Instant I arrived off Esopus; finding that the Rebels had thrown up Works and had made every Disposition to annoy us, and cut off our Communication, I judged it necessary to attack them, the Wind being at that Time so much against us that we could make no Way. I according landed the Troops, attacked their Batteries, drove them from their Works, spiked and destroyed their Guns. Esopus being a Nursery for almost every Villain in the Country, I judged it necessary to proceed to that Town. On our Approach they were drawn up with Cannon which we took and drove them out of the Place. On our entering the Town they fired from their Houses, which induced me to reduce the Place to Ashes, which I accordingly did, not leaving a house. We found a considerable Quantity of Stores of all kinds, which shared the same Fate.”
The pro-patriot New York Packet put a different spin on the proceedings in an October 23 article: “Yesterday, General Vaughan, having under his command a large body of British, who have committed various acts of vandalism, in their passage up the [Hudson] River, landed a number of men at Esopus, marched up to the defenseless town of Kingston, about two miles from the river, and immediately set it on fire. The conflagration was general in a few minutes, and in a very short time that pleasant and wealthy town was reduced to ashes; one house only escaped the flames. Thus by the wantonness of power the third town in New York for size, elegance and wealth, is reduced to a heap of rubbish, and the once happy inhabitants... obliged to solicit for shelter among strangers; and those who lately possessed elegant and convenient dwellings, obliged to take up with such huts as they can find to defend them from the cold blasts of approaching winter.”
According to one tally, the flames consumed 116 houses, 103 barns, three schools, 17 shops, the courthouse, and the Dutch Reformed Church — virtually the entire town. Amazingly, no noncombatants seem to have been killed.
Tales abound about residents’ reactions. It was reported that as the British marauders approached the town, the streets rang out with the cry “Lope, younge, Lope-die Roye komme! Lope bei Hurley out!” (Dutch for “Run children, run the royalists come! Run to Hurley!”) Wagons were hastily loaded with belongings and driven to safety. Some took time to bury their prized possessions; several centuries later, the odd silver spoon was still being unearthed.
Perhaps the oddest tale involved Mary Crooke Elmendorph. Before fleeing her home, she prepared and laid out a dinner for the invaders, believing they would spare her house if they received hospitality. Legend has it the soldiers heartily enjoyed the food but torched the widow’s residence anyway.
The British proceeded only a little further upriver, just far enough to burn Clermont, the home of the staunchly patriot Livingston family in Columbia County. With news of Burgoyne’s surrender, they retreated to Manhattan.
Meanwhile in Kingston, the residents began to put their lives back together. Fortunately, most of the houses had simply been gutted by the blaze; their stone walls remained intact, making rebuilding a bit easier. By the end of the 18th century, Kingston was again a thriving town. Today, some 40 buildings in the Stockade District remain as mute witnesses to the events of October 16, 1777, a testament to these lines from an old poem about the calamity:
That day was kindled such a flame as nothing can assuage.
Upon the town a martyr’s crown doth rest from age to age.
The 232nd anniversary of the burning of Kingston will be commemorated on Oct. 16-18 with a Revolutionary War encampment, battle reenactments, period wooden boats, demonstrations of 18th-century life, and other activities. Events take place in Kingston Point Park; call 845-338-2724 for more information.