The Neutral Ground
Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes words are all we have. Consider the following descriptions of a community in the midst of a war, and try to imagine the setting:
- “the remaining civilian population…feared everybody whom they saw”
- “vacuum of jurisdiction”
- “no man’s land”
- “scene of continual struggle”
- “increasing militancy of the partisans”
- “indiscriminate military violence”
- “a free zone for looting and destruction”
- “famine”, “malnutrition”, and “smallpox”
My own mind invokes images of Bosnia in the 1980s, or perhaps modern-day Iraq or Syria. But no, the words above were actually used to describe the situation on the ground in the Lower Hudson Valley during the American Revolution. Specifically, in Westchester County, New York, from roughly the fall of 1776 to July, 1781.
It’s hard for me to imagine four and a half years of almost total anarchy, on American soil, the idea of complete lawlessness being so unimaginable that I can barely conjure up the mental imagery. And the atrocities were not just committed by a few renegade British officers, as we Americans would prefer to think. No, unfortunately both sides were equally guilty of oppressing the civilian population in this shameful display of human nature at its worst.
It’s a fascinating story, made even more so to me because of the fact that many members of my paternal grandmother’s family were players on this stage, with most of them living in or near Bedford, New York during this time. Many of their stories were recorded in “the McDonald Papers”. (Read some of those stories here.)
A little geography and history, if you will…
By the fall of 1776, the British had occupied the island of Manhattan, and were encamped in the area around Kingsbridge (modern day Bronx). Washington’s armies had retreated north, taking positions on either side of the Hudson River, roughly the area between Peekskill and West Point. The territory in between the two armies has gone down in American history as “the Neutral Ground”, and was mercilessly pillaged by both sides for the next four to five years. (Map courtesy of Emerson Kent.)
It’s easy to mentally gloss over phrases like “continually pillaged”, but the situation in the Neutral Ground was so bad, that anyone who had the option to leave, left. Unfortunately many of them had no where else to go, and so they stayed and endured as best they could the continual attacks on life and property inflicted on them by both the Loyalist sympathizers and the Americans. Sometimes these attacks were done in the name of obtaining food and provisions for either army, but many times the plundering was done simply for personal gain. And it wasn’t just a loss of property – people were shot or lynched just for taking one side or the other. These were dangerous times to have an opinion, and so I’m guessing that most of the citizens of Westchester tried hard to avoid voicing theirs between 1776 and 1781.
The people living in the area had been notoriously neutral even before the war. They consisted of a blend of Tories – people who were loyal to the British king, and Whigs – those who wanted American independence. Before the vacuum of power in the area, they were able to co-exist at least without killing each other. But after November, 1776, being sandwiched between two armies, and having no real structure in place for local government, the situation changed. The lowest common denominator seemed to prevail, and the worst of human nature seemed to rear its ugly head.
On the Loyalist side, in addition to the regular army troops foraging for food and supplies, there were other armed groups, sometimes known as “the Cowboys” – presumably because they stole cattle from the local farmers.
The Americans had their local militia groups, which were supposed to be relied on to keep the peace, but which often abused the very population that they were supposed to protect. My ancestor James Lyon (of Bedford), in an interview given many years after the war, describes a certain local militia captain as a good and skillful soldier, but “somewhat addicted to plundering”. The American militia were said to have inadvertently created many Loyalists among the local population simply because they were so repugnant to them.
There were also various groups on the American side which maneuvered outside of any official chain of command. They were known variously as “the Refugees” and “the Skinners”, and they plundered and murdered as much or more than their Tory counterparts. Consider the following quote from the article The Limits of Politicization in the Revolution: The Experience of Westchester, New York, by Dr. Sung Bok Kim, a former Distinguished Professor of History at the State University of New York at Albany:
The Refugees and Skinners were notorious for their “Spirit of Plunder” and “love of gain”. Operating behind and within the lines, they “skinned” their victims first and asked about their political affiliation later…According to General William Heath, some of these Refugees employed an ingenious method of enriching themselves at the expense of both the “well affected” and innocent people. They robbed the inhabitants between the lines of the opposing armies of their cattle. Having brought the animals to the north side of the Croton River, they kindled fires, discharged their muskets, and then drove up the cattle, “pretending” that they had defeated the Loyalist Cowboys and retaken the cattle, which they then sold at vendue (auction). They often insulted, whipped, beat, and occasionally hanged the inhabitants to extort money and other valuables from them. In the spring of 1780, General Heath wrote that he feared that such atrocities had already “driven a very considerable number to join the enemy” for protection, and that they would supply “more recruits” for the enemy than Tory recruiters.
Eventually, in July of 1781, a combined force of American and French troops marched through the Neutral Ground on their way to Yorktown, Virginia. The British lines were forced several miles farther to the south, and the balance of power was shifted decisively in the American direction for the first time since the fall of 1776.
I can only wonder what the long-term psychological effects were, on the people who lived in the Neutral Ground from 1776 to 1781. At the very least one would think that they would have been deeply distrustful of either side when it came to political arguments.
And yes, I would love to have been there as they were debating the 2nd Amendment to their new Constitution, a decade later.
Osborn, David. “The Revolutionary War ‘ Neutral Ground ’ of Westchester County.” (2014): 1-4. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, Mar. 2014. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.
Kim, Sung Bok. “The Limits of Politicization in the American Revolution: The Experience of Westchester County, New York.” The Journal of American History 80.3 (1993): 868. Web.
“The McDonald Papers Index.” Westchester County Historical Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.