By Paul Hicks
Descendants of Revolutionary War military leaders, many of whom are present inhabitants of Westchester, have reason to feel a generous pride in the virtue of their ancestors who so nobly stood the test of those trying times.
My article about Aaron Burr in a recent issue (“Aaron Burr Revisited”) mentioned his distinguished military service during the Revolutionary War, which included command of a regiment, based in Westchester County. I have since discovered that the military paths of Burr and his friend, William Hull, converged in this area early in 1779, as described in the following excerpts from a memoir written by two of Hull’s descendants.
<<“Head-Quarters, Peekskill, March 11, 1779.>>
<To Major Hull, at the Lines.>
Sir — I received last night a letter of yours, without date. It is my intention, when Lieutenant Colonel Burr leaves the lines, you are to command, and to remain there as long as the duties of your office of Inspector will permit, with all the power with which Colonel Burr was invested. These I wish you to exercise in their full extent. Previous to his leaving you, I beg him and you to digest in order all those directions I gave him, and what has appeared to him necessary to answer the objects of his command, which I desire may be observed by you, till I can revise them, if that should be found necessary.
1 am, sir, your humble servant,
“…The troops then commenced their march to the White Plains, where they arrived early in December. ‘Colonel Burr, afterwards Vice-President of the United States,’ writes Major Hull, ‘had commanded for several months on this station, from which duty I was now ordered to relieve him. He remained a few days, and furnished us with necessary and important information with respect to the situation of the enemy, the different routes leading from Kingsbridge, and the position he had taken for the security and defence of his corps. In justice to his military character, it must be said that his plans were highly judicious…’”
“Major Hull had his main body compactly posted, occupying a central position between the rivers, at and below the White Plains; but frequently changing its locality, and generally this change took place in the evening. Small parties were constantly on duty, patrolling to the right, above and sometimes below Dobbs’ Ferry, and to the left, as far as the Sound at Mamaroneck, and below. Major Hull was aided by guides, selected from the most active, intelligent, and well-disposed inhabitants, who were familiar with every part of the country. These persons received remuneration, were furnished with horses, and proved faithful and exceedingly useful in the service…”
“Indeed this portion of the country, infested by a roving banditti equally cruel to all parties, was a scene of terror and suffering throughout most of the years of the war. The Cowboys and Skinners ravaged the whole region. The first, called Refugees, ranked themselves on the British side. They were employed in plundering cattle and driving them to the city: their name is derived from their occupation. The latter, called Skinners, while professing attachment to the American cause, were devoted to indiscriminate robbery, murder, and every species of the most brutal outrage.
“By the laws of the State of New-York, if they refused to take the oath of fidelity to the State, their property was liable to confiscation… “Any person who took the oath, would instantly find the Cowboys robbing him of his all; and to offer defence, was at the peril of life. Such as did not take the oath, were left to the tender mercies of the Skinners, who, taking the law into their own hands, branded them as Tories, confiscated their property, and went off secure, in the possession of their booty. In this condition of the social state, the innocent and guilty equally suffered.
“Major Hull, at this period, was about twenty-five years of age, and blessed with a good constitution. He remarks, while speaking of this service, ‘In a command so responsible, I adopted a system, to which I steadfastly adhered; nor did storms, cold, or the darkness of the night, ever interfere with its performance. Early in the evening, without taking off my clothes, with my arms by my side, I laid myself down before a fire, covered only by a blanket, and gave directions to the sentinel to awake me at one o’clock in the morning…’”
<This is the first of a two-part article and will be continued in the April 27, 2018 issue.>
Extract from a letter from Mrs. Hull to one of her daughters. Newton, Massachusetts, April 12, 1822. ”
We have been reading the Spy, with a good deal of interest. It brought to your father’s recollection the days of yore. The scenes were laid on ground he had often travelled over ; and that part of the book in relation to the Skinners, is no fiction. Your father has no recollection of the families the author mentions, although he knew almost every individual in that part of the country, for twenty or thirty miles around. He commanded on the lines, be APPENDIX. 285 tween our army and the British, for three winters ; and a hard time he had of it, he says ; for he made ithis constant rule, never to take off his clothes at night, but merely to lay down and take a nap, and be called at one o’clock, and mount his horse and reconnoiter the country till morning. “The author begins his history in 1781. It was an interesting year —it was the year we were married. Your father applied to General Washington for leave of absence: the General replied, it was necessary for a scouring party to go down to West Chester ; and as he had been there, and was acquainted with the grounds, he wished him to go ; after that, he would give him leave of absence till the opening of the spring campaign. Previous to this, he wrote me that he should be here early in January. I, not knowing of the secret expedition, nor hearing a word from him, a long month passed, in wonder to me, you may well think ; but after he had scoured the grounds around West Chester, and brought off old Tillo (whose history you have heard long ago) ; he came, and we were married. I returned with him to the army. There I met Dr. Thomas, a surgeon of the regiment. He congratulated me on my arri val, and gave me the history of the engagement at Morrissania, which was a pretty warm one, he said. He was on the top of a hill, where he had a full view of the manoeuvers; and his whole thoughts were on me ; and knowing that I hourly expected your father, and what I expected him for, he trembled at what might be the events of this day. “The closing scene of the history was affecting to us ; it ended in Lundy’s Lane, where your unfortunate brother was killed.* Thus, beginning on the ground where your father fought, and ending where your brother fell.”