A Bit of Local History
Aaron Burr and William Hull
By Paul Hicks
Two prior articles mentioned the distinguished military service of the well-known Aaron Burr and the lesser-known William Hull during the Revolutionary War. Although they had been fellow law students briefly at Litchfield, Conn., in 1775, their paths did not cross again until Hull succeeded Burr in 1779 as commander of a Continental Army brigade, based in Westchester County.
Much of Westchester was located between American and British forces and was known as a no-man’s land of combatants, spies and roving bandits (called Skinners and Cowboys). Commanding the lines was a demanding assignment. Through January and February, 1779, Burr improved the brigade’s operations and tightened discipline. The result, according to his memoirs, was that “a country, which for three years before had been a scene of robbery, cruelty, and murder, became at once the abode of security and peace.”
In March 1779, Hull assumed command from Burr, who wrote a friend that his duty in Westchester was “the most fatiguing, the most difficult and most troublesome that could have been contrived.” Hull’s own grueling experience in Westchester was captured in a letter written by his wife to a daughter years later:
“We have been reading ‘The Spy’ [a novel by James Fennimore Cooper set in Westchester] 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, between our army and the British, for three winters; and a hard time he had of it, he says; for he made it his 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 reconnoitre the country till morning.
“The author begins his history in 1781 — 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, he came, and we were married…”
In 1805, President Jefferson appointed Hull as governor of the recently created Michigan Territory. Because of Hull’s success in that position, President Madison appointed him a Brigadier General in command of the new Army of the Northwest, following the declaration of war in June of 1812. Hull, then nearly 60 years old, reluctantly accepted the command while continuing as the territorial governor.
In carrying out his orders to invade Canada, Hull was the victim of poor preparation for war by the government and insufficient communication from his superior officer. Because of his decision to save civilian lives by surrendering Detroit to a combined force of British soldiers and their Native American allies Hull faced a court martial. He was found guilty of cowardice and neglect of duty and sentenced to death, but Madison granted a reprieve because of his Revolutionary War record, and Hull retired to his farm in Massachusetts.
Thus Hull and Burr, two brave and patriotic young men whose paths crossed in Westchester, ended their days as pariahs. Burr, whose life story and accomplishments are well known, has many defenders, but Hull’s story deserves to be better known and appreciated.