Early New York – The Battle Story Of The East River


PERHAPS it may be a weak ambition, but I should like to catch a snook before the season closes. I have not the least idea what sort of a fish the snook is, but the historian Van der Donck says that the waters of the East River abound in ” snook, forrels, palings, dunns, and scolls,” and I have fixed upon the most picturesque of the names, but have in vain questioned the lobster fishermen about his identity. The honest toilers of the wave look upon me, I find, with an eye of suspicion, not alone because of the unattainable snook, but because I repeated to them Van der Donck’s story about catching lobsters in these waters that were from five to six feet in length. They smile, shake their heads with an air of gentle incredulity, and say nothing.

To whom are we to pin our faith, however, if not to the historian? Here is Peter Kalm, writing about New York a century after Van der Donck had gone to reap the reward of his veracity, who tells us that originally the honest Dutch fishermen sought for lobsters in vain, and they were brought in great well-boats from New England. ” But,” he explains, ” it happened that one of these boats broke in pieces near Hell, Gate, about ten English miles from New York, and all the lobsters in it got off. Since that time they have so multiplied that they are now caught in the greatest abundance.” It is mournful to think that the New Yorker of 1748 could play tricks upon travellers, but I am afraid that Mr. Kalm had fallen into the company of some amateur fishermen of that day. Yet it is delicious to read these musty volumes of travel, and to look through their eyes upon the Island of Manhattan and its surroundings. When, in the quiet of yesterday’s sunset, Nellie said that she could fancy she heard the croaking of the frogs in the marshes beyond Horn’s Hook, I took down the journal of Peter Kalm and pointed out a paragraph which followed his description of the trees that gave “an agreeable shade” to the streets of the little city. “Besides numbers of birds which make these their abode,” he writes, ” there are likewise a kind of frogs which frequent them in great numbers in summer. They are very clamorous in the evening, and in a manner drown the singing of the birds. They frequently make such a noise that it is difficult for a per-son to make himself heard.” Poor man, the mosquitoes, which he always found troublesome, “did so disfigure” him at one time that he could not appear in public, and this may account for his prejudices on the subject of tree-toads and lobsters.

We are always finding something new in or about our ancient homestead, and this time we have made an important discovery. It was the old colonel who set it on foot. We had been speaking of the islands that day to the north and east of us ; of how little the busy New Yorker recked of the orchards and meadow lands, the stately willows and towering elms of Randall’s Island, and how general was the ignorance of its history ; wondering whence North and South Brother islands got their names, and talking over the days when Aunty Ackerson had her farm-house where the pest-houses of the city now stand, and raised her chickens under the shadow of Uncle Sam’s light-house. As we paced up and down the path of the little bluff at the river’s side in which the lawn ends, the old colonel stopped, pointed to an inequality in the ground, and said, ” What’s that ?” I told him that it was probably a part of an old terrace. ” Terrace!” he shouted ; ” and you are your grandfather’s ghost, I presume. It’s part of an earthwork, Felix.” Mindful of the experience of the Pickwick Club in the case of Bill Stumps, his Mark,” I begged the colonel not to fire off the town pump. For be it known that at the announcement of peace in 1812, the good people of Hebron, in the land of steady habits, resolved to fire a salute, and to this end pulled up the town pump, had it banded with iron by the village blacksmith, loaded it up, and touched it off. The fragments of that unique piece of artillery were found in the next township, and its fate has been used as a warning against vaulting ambition ever since. But the old colonel persisted, and we went to work and caught our “snook.” We had been on both sides of earth-works in piping times of war, and could not be mistaken in our conclusions. Besides, the record bears us out and shows that this acre was fighting ground in the days when redcoats were emblems of oppression.

Though the East River has been, the scene of but little fighting, it has yet witnessed vast military preparations ; and in the withdrawal of Washington’s army in the face of Howe’s victorious legions, on the night of August 30, 1776, it saw one of those master movements which command the admiration of all military men. I sit on the back porch, and looking out upon the swift and turbulent waters, I try to recall the scenes of those days of yore, when a fleet of English ships rode up and down the river; when Howe sent troops in boats from Hallett’s Point to occupy Buchanan’s and Montressor’s islands (as they were then called), and the scanty American garrisons evacuated the works along the front ; when Sir Henry Clinton, with 4000 men, crossed the river in flat-bottomed boats from the mouth of Newtown Creek and landed at Kip’s Bay under cover of a rattling cannonade from ten ships of war;

when a fleet of thirty-seven war vessels and 400 transports threatened annihilation to the meagre little army with which Washington was retreating; when men were so plentiful and cheap in their capacity as food for powder that soldiers from Hesse were hired at the rate of $34.50 for every one killed, with the understanding that three wounded men were to count as one dead hireling, in the settlement of accounts; when these fat-witted Hessians garrisoned this very water-front and the redoubt that began in my garden and reached out to the north and west ; when, after long years of occupation, the British flag was at length hauled down from every bastion and rampart on the Island of Manhattan, and peace came to deck these earthworks with the dandelion and the daisy.

Before the battle on Long Island, the American forces had fortified the most important points on the East River. A redoubt was cast up at Turtle Bay, between Forty- fourth and Forty- sixth streets ; a breastwork at the shot-tower, foot of Fifty-fourth Street ; a battery on the bold bluff at Seventy-fourth Street; another at the foot of Eighty-fifth Street; and a strong work, known as Thompson’s battery, upon the jutting promontory at the foot of Eighty-ninth Street, then called by the name of Horn’s Hook, and after-wards Gracie’s Point. This fortification commanded the mouth of Harlem River and the narrow channel at Hell Gate. A small work was also erected on Snake Hill, now Mount Morris, in the park of that name. These were the fortifications mapped out by the engineers; but besides these there were earthworks erected to command every place at which a landing could be effected and intended as a protection for light field-pieces. The whole river-front bristled with the preparations for war, and in my boyhood the traces of the works were plainly visible at Turtle Bay, at. Horn’s Hook-then a beautifully shaded, grassy dell, and still retaining many of its old characteristics-and on the rocky and well-wooded bluffs that lay between. When the British took possession of the island, by a simultaneous descent on Turtle Bay and Horn’s Hook, they found that the works which the Americans had erected were excellently adapted to their own defence, and they occupied and strengthened them. They had found out their value by experiment ; for on the night after the battle of Long Island a forty-gun ship that had passed the lower batteries and sought anchorage in Turtle Bay had been hulled by round-shot from a field battery upon the high bank at Forty-sixth Street, and had been compelled to seek shelter in the channel east of Blackwell’s Island.

As a boy I can vividly recall the picturesqueness of the small rock-bound cove of the East River known as Turtle Bay. The banks, which were high and precipitous, afforded a safe and snug harbor for small vessels. Here, in the year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the British authorities had made a magazine of military stores, and these the Sons of Liberty, whose names are on New York’s roll of patriotic honor, determined to seize. They knew the ground well, and laid their plans so as to in-sure success. Under the direction of John Lamb and Marinus Willett, a chosen band of twenty secured a sloop at a Connecticut village on the Sound, swept down stealthily through the perilous channels of Hell Gate in the twilight, and at midnight surprised and captured the guard at Turtle Bay and secured the stores. The old storehouse in which these valuable munitions of war were deposited was yet standing, in my boyhood, upon a grass-grown wharf on the southern side of the little bay. It is gone now, and the view from the_ rocky heights is changed, but the memory of brave men in the days wherein patriotism was cradled lingers there yet.

This region saw other troublous times later on. In the summer and autumn of 1814, New York was thrown into a wild fever of excitement over a rumor that the Island of Manhattan was to be invaded by a British army. The defences were few and insufficient.

DeWitt Clinton, the mayor, issued a stirring address to the people to give their personal services to aid in the completion of the unfinished fortifications of the city. Four days later 3000 persons were at work, and even the city newspapers suspended publication in order to give a helping hand. The men who handled pick and spade were journeymen printers, college students, sons of Erin, members of Asbury African Church, pilots, masons, and many heads of manufacturing establishments. School-teachers and their pupils went out together to give their aid, and urchins who were too small to lift a spade carried earth on shingles to add their mite to the breast-works. Such was the magnificent display that New York made of its heart of fire; and when the works were completed, every lad who could carry a musket on his tender shoulders offered himself to be enlisted for the war.

To guard against invasion by way of Long Island Sound, the fortifications built upon the East River during the Revolution were strengthened, and new ones were erected. Hell Gate and the channels of the East River were occupied by batteries, some of which were protected by towers. On Hallett’s Point quite an extensive work was laid out, and named Fort Stevens. In its rear, on Lawrence Hill, which commanded a wide sweep of land and water, a stone tower was erected, which stood there until recently, when the hill was levelled. On Mill Rock, where in late years Sandy Gibson built his rustic bower of refreshment for wearied fishermen, a very strong block-house and a powerful battery were placed, – adding to the already sufficient terrors of rock and current. The fort at Horn’s Hook was renewed re-doubts were built at Rhinelander Point and at the mouth of Harlem Creek ; and at Benson’s, nearly on a line with the present Second Avenue, was a smaller earthwork intended to guard the mill-dam and fording-place on the creek. Intrenchments extended back to Benson’s Creek, which then emptied into Harlem

River at the cove. At the head of Harlem Creek was the beginning of a parapet and ditch, which ran to Fort Clinton, on an elevated rock, now known as Mount St. Vincent, in the north-eastern part of Central Park. These defences bristled with the paraphernalia of war when completed, but the enemy never came to test them. The ploughshare and pick-

axe have almost obliterated them and left but the merest fragment here and there by way of remembrance. The roll-call of the Destroyer has been even more busy among the battalions of their defenders. Yet to-day I number among my friends, still erect and stalwart, though approaching the century mile-stone of his life, a gallant, white-haired gentleman who, in the ruddy strength of eighteen years, marched out under the command of Capt. Thomas Addis Em-met to do his devoir as a soldier of freedom. Emmet, who died in a court-room in the city while pleading an important case, lies buried under the shadow of old St. Paul’s.

We were talking the other day about the islands in the East River, the old colonel and I, and he ex-pressed his surprise that they had so long been a sealed book to him, as they yet were even to the New Yorker to whom they came as a territorial heritage. Did you ever hear, I inquired, that a battle had been fought upon one of them ? and he confessed that it had taken him eighty years to find it out. Then I told him the story of the engagement at Randall’s Island, which was known to military map-makers as Montressor’s Island, on a September evening, in 1776.

* On this island the British had placed a quantity of ammunition and stores, and the Americans determined, if possible, to seize them. A week after the brilliant and successful battle of Harlem Plains a battalion of 250 picked men, under command of Colonel Jackson, of Massachusetts, guided by Major Henly, aide-de-camp to General Heath, made a descent upon the British at Montressor’s Island, with the idea of giving the redcoats a surprise. It was a ‘dark night, September 24th, and the plans were well laid, and would have been successful had not an impetuous soldier discharged his gun prematurely. As it was, the little column charged bravely against the earth-works that were defended by twice their numbers.

* In the course of writing these papers, I find that the island to which we give the name Randall was known to our fathers as Randel’s Island, and the weight of testimony seems to give weight to the latter designation. Originally known as Little Barent’s Island, this was corrupted into Little Barn Island. When Elias Pipon bought it in 1732 he built a substantial house there, into which he removed his family, and christened it Belle Isle. Fifteen years later George Talbot purchased the property, settled on it, and gave it his own name. In 1772 he sold the island to Capt. John Montressor, who resided there when the British troops occupied it, and on the maps of the period it is designated as Montressor Island. The island passed into the hands of Samuel Ogden in the spring of 1784, but he had no chance to change its name, for. in the fall of the same year he sold it to Jonathan Randel for the sum of 24. It was from the executors of this gentleman that the city purchased the island for $50,00o in 1835, and the city has evidently sought to perpetuate the memory of its last owner, but has disagreed with him in the manner of spelling his name. However, it is the misfortune of a hero killed in battle to have his name misspelled in the despatches, and it is probably too late to do justice to the memory of Brother Jonathan. ” My little dear,” said the genial showman to the little girl who asked him which of the animals was a camel and which a hippopotamus, ” you pays your money and you takes your choice.”

It was a magnificent but useless display of gallantry. The assaulting column was repulsed with the loss of twenty-two men-as many as had been slain on Harlem Plains. Among the killed was Major Henly, who was shot at the head of his men and while cheering them on. His body was recovered, carried back to the American camp, and buried by the side of Colonel Knowlton, hero of the engagement of the week be-fore, within the embankments of a redoubt on the lofty bank of the Harlem River. The prominent outlines of the earthworks on that wooded promontory and the old road down the steep hill to the cove beyond High Bridge have but very recently given way to the touch of time and improvement. It was a sad surprise to the Americans, this first and only battle on the islands of the East River.

” The Americans were scooped, weren’t they ?” inquired Master Felix. Now, I hate slang of any sort, and yet I have been forced more than once to admit that it is very expressive in the way of phraseology, and that much of it is very good English. So, as I meditated upon a proper method of rebuke, it occurred to me that the word might be of Dutch derivation, and turning to my library I became convinced that it was so. For a traveller from Holland, who passed through ” the island of Manathans ” 200 years ago, has left it on record that when he reached Nieu Haerlem he stopped at the house of one Geresolveert (that is, his Christian name was ” Resolved “), who was a scoup, or constable, of New Amsterdam. Evidently he was the right sort of man for his business, for the guileless traveller adds that his house was “constantly filled with people all the time, drinking for the most part an agreeable rum.” The inference from his titular designation is irresistible. It is plain that the scoup who gathered in offenders against the laws has enriched the dictionary of slang with one of its most expressive words. Master Felix is right. The Americans were scooped.