Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Nicholas Quackenbush - Continental Army Assistant Quartermaster General, 1775-1783

A member of a powerful Dutch family in the Hudson River Valley, Nicholas Quackenbush (1734-1813) sided with the Revolutionary cause in the 1760s through 1780s, serving as Assistant Deputy Quartermaster to the Continental forces in Albany with rank as Major. A major trade and transport route linking British-held New York City with the Iroquois country, Canada, and to the settlements along the Mohawk River, the Hudson was a strategic keystone for both Patriot and Redcoat, and it was the focus of particularly bitter contestation. From the fight for Fort Ticonderoga and invasion of Quebec at the start of the armed struggle, to Benedict Arnold’s West Point plot, to the final evacuation of British troops in 1783, control of the Hudson was viewed as critical to military success.

While the position of Quartermaster (Quartermaster meant that basically he was in charge of all supplies) may seem less than glorious, it is one of those posts on which the success of any army hangs. Concerned with the details of provisions, tents, wood for fire, shoes, and shipping, the records of the Quartermaster army reveals much about the inner workings of the Continental Army as it sought to avoid destruction by their superior British foes, and about relations with the populace of upstate New York. The 50 letters written to Maj. Quackenbush during the Revolutionary years also provide a sense for how the American forces learned from their experiences, improving in their operations, and how their periodic successes at arms buoyed their effort and sustained them, ultimately, toward victory.

Cowan's Auctions, held a Fall Americana Auction on November 16 & 17 in 2006. One of the lots presented was No. 818, Major Quackenbush Revolutionary War Archive &

Business Archive consisting of 194 items and was sold for $17,825.00.

The earliest letters in the collection suggest just how vital efficient communications were to the military effort, and how procedures were still being worked out two years into the war. In a fit of exasperation in one letter, Hugh Hughes, the Deputy Quartermaster for the district and the most frequent correspondent in the collection scolded Quackenbush: “Why don’t you let me have a Line every Day? Tyson can easily give me a little Narrative of the preceeding Day, and so from Day to Day. Let me know what Militia are come in & What Continental Troops? What Regmts & What Numbers are stop’d & who, and what & who are gone on to Hdqrs.?” (April 16, 1777). Hughes had a great deal on his plate to be concerned with, and knowing how precarious the position of American forces was that spring, he advised caution for Quackenbush as the better part of valor. From Fishkill, he wrote: “I am very glad you are so well stock’d with Cash, but don’t be unnecessarily lavish of it, as perhaps the Enemy may throw themselves between Hdqrs and us for some Time. I want to see you greatly, but am waiting General Washington’s Orders, which you’l be please to acquaint the General with. I am to go up this side, as high as Esopus, cross, & meet General Clinton the other Side, in order to fix on Places for the Commissary’s Stores &c.” (May 22, 1777)

Important information on military affairs, however, did flow from all points to the Albany district, where Quackenbush and his comrades eagerly followed the events of the Jersey Campaign and other struggles. Abraham B. Bancker, for example, reported “Since closing my Letter, General G. Clinton brings the acct. of General Miflin having taken 300 of the Enemy Prisoners near Paramas, which may be depended upon. Another Acct. from the Eastward says 500 of the Enemy are made Prisoners at Rhode Island, brave news for all Honest Americans…” (Jan. 4, 1777)

The thickest documentation in the collection is reserved for the seminal events of the summer 1777, events much closer to Quackenbush’s home that arguably shaped the outcome of the war. Early in the summer, the situation of the Continental Army looked precarious. With John Burgoyne’s army rampaging through northern New York and Sir Henry Clinton occupying New York City, however, the third commander of British forces, William Howe, made the famous and fateful decision to take his forces by sea to attack Philadelphia from the Chesapeake. Burgoyne -- and perhaps Clinton himself -- were left exposed. It was not long before word of Howe’s blunder spread to Albany. Writing from the “Continental Village” (an army encampment), his friend John Tyson reported: “We have heard reports here, that our people have killed & taken a number of the Enemy. If it be true you will be easy at Albany.” With Washington moving southward, Tyson added, “Most of our Troops are marching towards Philadelphia, as the Enemy are moving that way…” (July 10, 1777). Another letter from Charles Tillinghast added much more detail. After duly reporting that the buildings at Continental Village were being erected “as fast as possible,” Tillinghast added, “all the news that we have at present is that the British Army is gone towards Philadelphia, the fleet is sailed out of the Hook, to the amount of 200 Sail… Genl. Washington’s Army are moving southward, he has ordered Gen. Stirlings & Sullivans divisions over the river again -- and Col. Cranes Artillery over…” (July 26, 1777)

For Quackenbush and the Continental regulars and militia in Albany, Burgoyne was still a force to be feared. In late July, Hughes reported from Fishkill, implying that Burgoyne was not far from Albany (and mentioning that “General Washington was two Days ago near the

Delaware. -- No Acct. of the Enemy yet.” -- July 30, 1777). Three weeks later, an urgent request came from Horatio Gates for “all the Boards that can be Collected & Spared in the Northern department…” (Aug. 21, 1777), a letter presumably written as Gates was preparing for one of the war’s most significant battles, Saratoga, the battle that devastated the British, resulting in the surrender of Burgoyne’s entire army. Although New York remained safely in British hands, this crushing defeat shifted the momentum toward the revolutionary side, raising morale all across the revolutionary lines, and it did as much as anything to prevent the British from using the Hudson to supply their forces from Canada.

The elation of Saratoga was still palpable the following spring. Writing from Fishkill, John Keese overflowed with optimisism about what 1778 would hold for the American army:

I have only to tell you that I am well, and in high Spirits at the prospect of shortly, seeing New York -- You cannot conceive the joy visible in every honest countenance here; -- I hope we may not be disappointed.

A French Fleet has, certainly, stop’d the Passage at Sandy Hook, and it is currently Reported, & Believed, that the sound Passage is also stop’d, or rendered very hazardous by two or three large French men laying in it -- This is somewhat, confirmed by the report of a Deserter who says, that, a few days ago, a Frigate was sent from New York to carry Despatches to Rhode Island that after being away three days she return’d & the Capt. being call’d upon to Account for not performing his Business declar’d that the French had block’d the Channel.

Major Dobbs rec’d a Letter written, and sign’d by General Washington, desiring him without delay, to repair to him in order to go on Board the Fleet and Pilot them into New York Harbor… (July 22, 1778)

From Red Hook that summer, John W. Vredenburgh passed news of the further success of American arms at the Battle of Monmouth, one of Washington’s most extraordinary victories: “Their has bin an Action on Sunday Last in Jersey,” Vredenburgh reported, “the particulars is not yet Come here, but from Report it is greatly in favour as Genl. Washington Incamped on the field…” (July 4, 1778)

There are relatively few letters in the collection for the period 1779 and 1780, however in 1781, Quackenbush preserved several important items documenting what may be the most famous battle of the Revolution, Yorktown. Although Quackenbush was far from the scene of action, news of the American success reached him in relatively short order. On October 27, with his typical sense of good humor and military perspective, Hughes wrote a remarkable letter:

“The General will let you have a Party to cut Wood as soon as the Alarm is over, & that will be very shortly, you may rely, as those Rascals are sent out only to keep this Army from making an Attack on N. York in Sir Harry’s [Henry Clinton] Absence. He having sail’d last Wednesday… with 25 ships of the Line, Frigates, &c. and troops on board to relieve his Ldship, who was a Prisoner before Sir Harry could get to his assistance. -- I desired Major Keefe to inclose you an Extract of Col. M[?] Letter to me on that Subject, same when General Heath writes me that a Person directly from Philadelphia says he saw a printed Handbill there giving the same Acct. Some Deserters from N. York confirmed it also, so that an official one may be hourly expected. Mine came with so much Dispatch that many who knew Nothing of the Writers Character were staggered, as they were at Hdqrs. in 77

when I gave them the first acct. of Burgoyne’s Fate. You see I am lucky at News, tho I deal but little in it…” (Oct. 27, 1781)

More exciting, perhaps, is a contemporary copy of a letter from the French Col. Gauvion to Maj. Campbell (probably the letter mentioned by Hughes) which provides a fabulous first hand analysis of French naval strategy off Yorktown, suggesting how it was the French who won the American Revolution.

there is only thirty seven French Ships of the Line on the Bay, not Frigates included… The Count de Grasse has brought with him one ship of 110 Guns, four of 84 Guns, nineteen of 74 Guns, 4 of 64 Guns, two of 50 Guns, to 44 Gun Frigates, two 32 Gun Frigates, and one Cutter of 18 Guns, which have made their Junction with the Fleet from Rhode Island. We have in the Bay twenty british Vessels, two of them are the Iris and Richmond Frigates, and twelve others are armed, from Sixteen to twenty Guns.

General Washington will have ten thousand french Troops, five thousand Continentals, and as many militia as he will call for, a large train of brass Artillery, with an imense quantity of Ammunition, so I am confident that we shall be able to give a good account of his Lordship.

The British Squadron has presented itself at the entrance of the Bay, it did consist of twenty two ships of the Line, at that time the Count de Grasse had all his Boats with 150 Sailors employed in landing the Troops, but without waiting for them he cut his Cables and put under sail, he engaged the British who kept the wind all the while, but from the moment the wind shifted, the Enemy crouded all their Sail, and the Count did not chuse to follow them for fear of going too far from the Bay, which at that moment was the main Object. He had left four ships to block Cornwallis in the Bay, and since that time he has been joined by the Fleet from Rhode Island… (Sept. 23, 1781)

The bulk of the remaining correspondence deals with the essential details of a quartermaster’s business, including securing and transporting forage, supplies, and equipment, and miscellaneous military matters. In a particularly interesting letter, D. Lyman wrote for Quackenbush’s assistance: “The General has received information from his Excellency General Washington, that a number of soldiers have deserted from the regiments under his Command as it is probably some under this description may attempt to cross the ferry at Albany, you will please to order the strictest examination to be made and send all such as are of suspicious Character to the Head Quarters of Genl. Heath…” (Sept. 10, 1781)

Several of these so-called "routine" letters were written by illustrious Revolutionary figures, including two from William Alexander Lord Stirling (LS from Saratoga, Nov. 1, 1781, regarding sending off grindstones, and an ALS, Sept. 3, 1782, regarding his horses and wagons), one from William Popham (aide de camp to Gen. James Clinton); and a contemporary LS Cy from George Washington, May 1, 1782 (signature mimicking Washington’s) requesting provisions for the troops. Also of note is a pass issued for a dispatch messenger Thomas Clump, signed by famed soldier Marinus Willett, Jan. 30, 1783; an ALS from General and later Governor of NY, George Clinton, May 20, 1777; a Joshua Mersereau ALS, May 30, 1777 (regarding debts: Mersereau was a deputy commissary of prisoners); and an ALS from George Reed, Lt. Col. 2nd New Hampshire Regiment. An important ALS from Continental Army Gen. John Stark, July 10, 1778,

reveals another dimension to a Quartermaster’s duties during the Revolution. Almost a year after Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga, Stark writes: “You are hereby Authorized to make search for the Goods and stores of all kinds whatsoever, left by Genl. Burgoyne, on his Retreat from Behmus Heights to Saratoga and Wherever, or Whosoever, such Stores of Effects, shall be found with you are hereby Impowered to Sieze said Affects for the use & Benefit of these United States, & all officers, both Civil & Military…”

In a different vein, the language of the oath of office taken by Quackenbush as Assistant Deputy QM, Oct. 10, 1780 (signed twice by Gen. Daniel Tucker), is redolent with the language of revolution and gives an excellent flavor of the high feelings surrounding the fight for the cause of independence: “I… do acknowledge the UNITED STATES of AMERICA to be Free, Independent, and Sovereign States,” it reads, “and declare that the People thereof owe no allegiance or Obedience to George the Third, King of Great-Britain; and I renounce, refuse, and abjure any Allegiance of Obedience to him…” Also signed by Pierre van Cortlandt.

Revolutionary War collections of this size and historical value seldom appear, and particularly those with such fine content. The rich details these letters and documents provide and the insight into the operations of the Quartermasters Department in the vital Hudson River Valley alone make the Quackenbush Papers an important collection for Revolutionary historians, but the presence of letters written by Continental Army generals and officers such as Clinton, Stark, Stirling, Willett, and Mersereau, and interesting reports on Saratoga and Yorktown made this a rare opportunity. Some fold separations on a few of the accounts, and some ink fading, but generally excellent condition.

Two-thirds of the Quackenbush collection consists not of correspondence, but of receipts, returns, invoices, and accounts documenting the "nitty gritty" of his work with the Quartermaster`s Department. These include an account and memorandum book, 1777-1782 (a leather-bound pocket volume); the Continental Quartermaster General Accounts (27p. -- and itemized record of money owed to Continental Army figures, including Philip and Henry Van Rensselaer, Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler, Anthony Wayne). Among the subtle items are returns for distribution of entrenching tools dated New York, March 1776, a time when British troops were evacuating for Boston and bound for New York. Presumably, the picks, shovels, and axes being distributed were intended for entrenching positions to prepare for the British onslaught. Among a large number of loose items:

Accounts (3): blacksmith’s accounts, 1782 (2pp., for shoeing horses, mending wiffletrees, making axes, etc.); board and plank accounts, 1781 (13p.); forage accounts, 1782 (2 folio pp.)

Certificates documenting uncompensated transactions, 1779-1783 (12 items). Includes two attesting that Quackenbush has purchased horses branded CA [Continental Army], documenting transport of troops of 1st New York Regiment and 7 prisoners of war to West Point (one other documenting several occasions for transport of supplies and soldiers of the regiment); for supply of wood and forage.

Promissory notes, 1775-1783 (7 items).

Receipts, 1775-1783 (32 items). Receipts for payment for miscellaneous goods and services, several signed by the soldier receiving the payment, often with a mark rather than signature. E.g. $15 for riding express to Saratoga and $80 to Poughkeepsie (ten

receipts for riding express to various points); receipts for coal, lime, chisels, tent poles, tarred rope, and miscellaneous goods.

Returns. Persons employed in the QM General Dept., Oct. 24, 1781 (Quackenbush listed as ADQM); Inventory of entrenching tools, March 1776 (7 items, detailed records of entrenching tools issued, by company, to Continental Army troops in New York)

Vouchers, Jan.-July 1783 (62 items) for small amounts of goods purchased from Albany merchants (one pound of tea, four shillings of goods)

Folio documents (3): List of claims against the government for performance of duties, 1783 (6pp., mostly for transport services, wood, oar making); “Account of sundries Received in the Quartermaster General’s Department at Albany…,” 1781 (5pp.); “Account of articles delivered by Nicholas Quackenbush…,” 1782 (2pp., blank).

Misc. items include a list of persons in Schenectady having boards, 1776.; testimony of witness regarding wood allegedly sent to Maj. Gen. Schuyler, 1781; copy of congressional resolutions regarding payment of accounts, 1781; “Proposal for supplying the American Army with Smith work by Jacob Reader,” ca.1781; estimates (2) of articles and labor hired by QM, 1781; 3 special orders; notification of outstanding accounts against Hugh Hughes, ca.1783. Two documents from the end of the war are rather unusual, to say the least, notifying that the barracks and guardhouse at Schenectady were to be sold at public auction, 1783.

Source: Cowan's Auctions

No comments:

Post a Comment