It is well known that events in Boston and Philadelphia were of great importance in the beginning years of the Revolutionary War. Less well known is the importance of localities in Westchester County throughout the conflict, and especially at the war’s pivotal moment in the summer of 1781, when the American and French Armies were encamped side by side in Dobbs Ferry, Ardsley, Hartsdale, and White Plains. At that summer encampment of 1781, during the seventh year of what seemed to be an endless, inconclusive war, General George Washington and his French ally, General Jean-Baptiste, comte de Rochambeau, made the high-risk decision that would finally lead to victory.
Few areas suffered as greatly as Westchester from the devastation of the Revolutionary War. By late 1780, Westchester was described as “a country in ruins” by one of the chief chroniclers of the war, Dr. James Thacher:
This country…is called the neutral ground, but the miserable inhabitants who remain are not much favored with the privileges which their neutrality ought to secure them.
The country is rich and fertile…but it now has the marks of a country in ruins. A large proportion of the proprietors having abandoned their farms, the few that remain find it impossible to harvest their produce. Banditti, consisting of lawless villains…devote themselves to the most cruel pillage and robbery among the defenseless inhabitants between the lines. These shameless marauders have received the names of Cow-boys and Skinners. By their atrocious deeds they have become a scourge and terror to the people.
Westchester was called “the neutral ground” because most of its territory lay in a no man’s land between the forward posts of the opposing armies. For much of the war, those forward posts were located at Peekskill for the Americans and at King’s Bridge for the British. (The site of historic King’s Bridge is at the southern edge of the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx today.) As Dr. Thacher writes, shameless marauders, the Cow-boys and the Skinners, had free rein over that neutral ground. The origin of these sobriquets is not completely certain, but the Cow-boys appear to have earned their name because they specialized in stealing cattle, whereas the Skinners, in the view of the populace, stole everything, leaving civilians nothing but their skin.
In addition to attacks by Cow-boys and Skinners, Westchester experienced the war on a second level, suffering many raids by Loyalist militia, who were sometimes aided by regular troops of the Crown. The raiders targeted Patriot strongholds throughout the County and succeeded time after time in overwhelming local defenders. Patriot militiamen who survived the attacks frequently ended up in one of the notorious prisoner-of-war ships in New York Harbor, where conditions were abysmal, and a term of confinement often meant death by disease and starvation.
Among the worst Loyalist incursions into Westchester County were the attacks on the Van Tassels, who were Patriot cousins residing in Elmsford (1777); on Sheldon’s dragoons in Bedford and Pound Ridge (1779); and on Youngs’ House in Valhalla (1780). Westchester suffered an especially devastating raid on May 14, 1781, at Pines Bridge, an important crossing point on the Croton River. The bridge was defended by the majority-black First Rhode Island Regiment, commanded by Colonel Christopher Greene. While the American Army had been an integrated force from the early years of the Revolutionary War, Rhode Island stood out from the other states by actively seeking black troops for its units. Greene had been commander of the First Rhode Island Regiment from the time of its formation in 1778. On that grim day at Pines Bridge, the Loyalist militiamen were able to break into Greene’s headquarters. According to witnesses, he was slashed repeatedly with bayonet and sword, with stabbings that continued long after he had sustained mortal wounds, while his troops acted with exceptional bravery, defending their commander with their lives.
On some occasions, raids into Westchester were successfully repulsed by the American defenders, and that is what happened on September 30, 1778, thanks to the intervention of a civilian, Peter Post, whose property was located in the northern part of present-day Hastings-on-Hudson. A Hessian patrol of 80 men encountered Post at his farm on the eastern side of the river road (Broadway today, near Edgar’s Lane) and asked him if any rebels were about. Post was aware that American dragoons were lying in wait for the Hessians and directed them into the ambush. The Hessian company was routed by the Americans, but, when the defenders were gone, the Hessians returned and beat Post severely, leaving him for dead. Yet Peter Post survived. He recovered from the beating and continued to live in Hastings for many years.
There were counter-strikes from the Patriot side as well, most directed against Loyalist strongholds in the present-day Bronx. The counter-strikes were often facilitated by auxiliary troops called “guides,” such as John Odell, the “Greenburgh Guide,” who knew the geography and the hilly terrain well and could lead the commanders to their targets. Another auxiliary category comprised undercover agents on both sides, including the British spy, Ann Bates, and the American spy, Enoch Crosby. Both were effective at evading detection.
Westchester knew the war on still a third level, witnessing from time to time the movement of large armies and their deployment in the County: the British-Hessian Army early in the war, the French Army late in the war, and the American (or Continental) Army intermittently throughout the war.
General Washington deployed the Continental Army in Westchester County four times: the first time, in retreat (1776); the second time, to threaten, with little success (1778); the third time, to threaten, with great success (1780); and the fourth time, to devise the strategy that would win the war (1781). The last three, those in 1778, 1780, and 1781, were linked, in one way or another, to America’s French allies, whose assistance ultimately proved indispensable for victory.
Richard Borkow is the village historian of Dobbs Ferry, a trustee of the Dobbs Ferry Historical Society, and author of George Washington’s Westchester Gamble. He has been an attending physician at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla since 1981. Blythedale is located at the site of Joseph Youngs’ house, an important Patriot stronghold during the American Revolution.