Posted by: daynamcdowell | July 26, 2010

Generous Enemies by Judith Van Buskirk


George Washington statue at Federal Hall, New York City

War, Enemies, and Shared Connections

     The traditional view of wartime experiences during the American Revolution undergoes a shift in Generous Enemies written by Judith Van Buskirk. Instead of two distinct groups battling each other for power, the British invasion of New York City became an occupation in which the opposing sides lived in close proximity with one another, learning to survive through the connections they established. The boundary lines which divided their political views and corresponding actions blurred considerably due to their close proximity to each other. Van Buskirk used ample documentary evidence in the forms of diaries, family letters, soldier pensions, personal memoirs, committee and church records, newspapers, and Loyalist claims to illustrate a New York City during the American Revolution in which family bonds triumphed over biased causes, personal interests surpassed political beliefs, and financial interests overcame military strategies in an effort to survive.

     Family connections often triumphed over biased causes during the British occupation of New York City. For example John Jay, a member of Continental Congress, had a brother who was a Loyalist. Instead of disowning his brother, Jay made a distinction between his brother and the rest of the population (70-71). Jacob and Hannah Schieffelin serve as another example of the strength of family bonds defeating politics during the American Revolution. In their younger years, the two held opposing political views. Jacob was a British soldier and Hannah was a Patriot poetess. During the occupation, they met and started a secret relationship which resulted in an elopement (69-71). Still another example involves two sisters, Catherine and Mary Alexander, both confirmed Whigs, who remained close during the New York occupation despite the fact that Mary wed Robert Watts, a prominent Loyalist merchant. Catherine and her mother “received permission from the American and British armies to cross the military lines around occupied New York” in order to visit Mary (45). Throughout the war and the occupation of New York City, “the Alexanders continued to act like a family despite the obstacles thrown up by the war” (45).  Clearly, politics could not compete with the familial love of John Jay, the Schieffelins, or the Alexander women and the boundary lines between opposing sides began to blur.      

George Wshington's military headquarters on Coogan's Bluff at the onset of the British occupation of New York City

          Personal interests also won over political beliefs during the revolutionary occupation of New York City.  Loyalists and Whigs both feared for their personal property as British soldiers moved into the city and Patriot forces inhabited the surrounding areas.  Loyalists remained in the city and Whigs fled as refugees for the outlying areas.  In New York City, Loylists discovered that “the most intrusive force in their daily lives was not the enemy but their own army and government (22).  For those who chose to stay in New York, loss of personal property occurred frequently.  Plundering and destruction were so extensive that “not only the victims of theft lamented the sad situation, but also certain sensitive British soldiers like John Andre” (23) were affected.  As an example, the occupying British army “moved into civilians’ homes, requisitioning supplies, and rarely prosecuting their own soldiers who attacked the people they were supposed to defend (31).  Loyalist concern for personal possessions and safety soon superseded their political ties and their disdain for British officers resulted from the constant plundering.  For William Smith, a liberal Loyalist, sarcastically nicknamed  Sir Henry Clinton, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, “as ‘The Knight’ because of the general’s many excursions to the country for fox hunting and riding” (30 ).  Likewise, General Howe was described by Loyalists as “always too busy for military matters, as he was involved in a constant round of feasting, gunning, and banqueting” (31).  Ironically, Loyalists and Whigs turned to each other for aid.  For “they often found relief with their counterparts on the other side of the lines—individuals contending with similar challenges, but facing uniforms of a different color (23).  As the British “military regime regulated all aspects of life in the city, attempting to insure order and to guarantee that the needs of the army came first” (29), these shared conditions helped to further obscure the lines between those who were supposed to be at odds with each other.  Thus, the personal concerns of people at war championed over their political views.    

     A last connection for both sides of the occupation of New York City was trade.  For whatever the reason for trading with the other side, there were those who valued profits and survival more than honor.  “A number of citizens put the profit motive or family survival above civic virtue, thereby warranting the attention of their governments” (108) for trading with the other side.  Some of these people smuggled in goods between the New York Islands and the Jerseys, causing the British to devise new laws and repeat old ones (115).  Legitimized piracy or “privateering was so lucrative that the navy had a problem keeping sailors” and was so “prevalent that merchants had a hard time competing with the auctions of cheap prize goods “ (117).  Yet, there were others who traded with the other side primarily for military information.  For example, George Washington used “spies whose cover was black market trading with New York” (119).  When Washington desired information about “sudden British troop movements in November 1778, he depended upon Lord Stirling’s spies” (119) using the cover of traders to get the information for him.  It was noted in 1782 that “the people will risk anything to enjoy the cheapest market” (127).  For all these types of illicit trading methods, it is clear that making a profit was the ultimate goal and loyalty to a specific side mattered little as the differences separating the two groups continued to fade.

     Thus, those who lived inside New York City and those who lived in the surrounding areas both valued family relationships, personal interests, and financial gain more than politics.  For some, these shared priorities connected them, despite their personal stance on the Revolutionary War.  Consequently, the lines of loyalty which some say distinctly separated them into opposing sides blurred, blending together so  that the line of demarcation appears unclear; linking them together with invisible shared bonds.


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