Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

David P. Schuyler

Gulian C. Verplanck, "Washington's Headquarters," New-York Mirror, Dec. 27, 1834, in Lyman Cobb, ed., North American Reader (New York, 1835), pp. 137-46.



The old Hasbrouck-house, as it is called, situated on the west bank of the Hudson, a little south of the village of Newburgh, is one of the most interesting relicks of the first and heroick age of our republick; for at several periods of the war of the revolution, and especially from the autumn of 1782 until the troops were finally disbanded, it was occupied by General Washington, as the headquarters of the American army.

The views from the house and grounds, as well as the whole neighbourhood around it, are rich alike in natural beauty and historical remembrances. You look from the old house upon the broad bay into which the Hudson expands itself, just before entering the deep, rocky bed, through which it flows towards the ocean between the lofty mountain-banks of the Highlands.

On the opposite shore, is seen the ridge of mountains, upon the bald, rocky summits of which, during the war of 1776, the beacon fires so often blazed to alarm the country at the incursions of the enemy from the south, or else to communicate signals between the frontier posts in Westchester, along the line of the American position at Verplanck's Point, West Point, and the barracks and encampments on the plains of Fishkill.

As these mountains recede eastward from the river, you see the romantick stream of Mattovoan winding wildly along their base, through glens and over falls, until, at last, as if fatigued with its wanton rambles, it mingles quietly and placidly with the Hudson. On this side of it are stretched the rich plains of Dutchess county, with their woods and picturesque shores. All along these plains and shores are to be found other memorials of the revolution; for these were the storehouses, barracks, and hospitals of our army, and there, for many months, were the headquarters of the father of American tacticks, the disciplinarian Steuben.

To the south, you look down upon the opening of the Highlands and the rock of Pollopell's Island, once a military prison, and thence follow, with your eye, the Great River of the Mountains [the Indian name of the Hudson] till it turns suddenly and disappears around the rocky promontory of West Point; a spot consecrated by the most exciting recollections of our history, by the story of Arnold's guilt and Andre's hapless fate, and the incorruptible virtue of our yeomanry; by the memory and virtues of Kosciusko and Lafayette; of the wisdom and valour of our own chiefs and sages.

The Hasbrouck-house itself, is a solid, irregular building of rough stone, erected about a century ago. The excellent landscape, painted by [Robert] Weir, and engraved with equal spirit and fidelity by [James] Smillie, will give the reader a better idea of its appearance and character than words can convey. The interiour remains very nearly as Washington left it. The largest room is in the centre of the house, about twenty-four feet square, but so disproportionately low, as to appear very much larger.

It served the general during his residence there, in the daytime, for his hall of reception and his dining-room, where he regularly kept up a liberal, though plain hospitality. At night it was used as a bedroom for his aid de camps and occasional military visitors and guests. It was long memorable among the veterans who had seen the chief there, for its huge wood fire, built against the wall, in, or rather under, a wide chimney, the fireplace of which was quite open at both sides.

It was still more remarkable for the whimsical peculiarity of having seven doors, and but one window. The unceiled roof of this house, with its massive painted beams, corresponds to the simplicity of the rest of the building, as well as shows the indifference of our ancestors to the free communication of noise and cold air, which their wiser or more fastidious descendants take so much pain to avoid. On the northeast corner of the house, communicating with the large center-room, is a small chamber, which the general used as a study, or private office.

Those who have had the good fortune to enjoy the acquaintance of officers of the northern division of our old army, have heard many a revolutionary anecdote, the scene of which was laid in the old square room at Newburgh, "with its seven doors and one window." In it were every day served up, to as many guests as the table and chairs could accommodate, a dinner and a supper, as plentiful as the country could supply, and as good as they could be made by the continental cooks, whose deficiency in culinary skill drew forth in one of his private letters (since printed) the only piece of literary pleasantry, it is believed, in which the great man was ever tempted to indulge.

But then, as we have heard old soldiers affirm with great emphasis, there was always plenty of good wine. French wines for our French allies, and those who had acquired or who affected their tastes, and sound Madeira for the Americans of the old school, circulated briskly, and were taken in little silver mugs or goblets, made in France for the general's camp equipage.

They were accompanied by the famous apples of the Hudson, the Spitzenbergh and other varieties, and invariably by heaped plates of hickory nuts, the amazing consumption of which, by the general and his staff, was the theme of boundless admiration to the Marquis de Chastelleux and other French officers.

The jest, the argument, the song, and the story, circulated as briskly as the wine; while the chief, at the head of his table, sat long, listened to all, or appeared to listen, smiled at and enjoyed all, but all gravely, without partaking much in the conversation or at all contributing to the laugh, either by swelling its chorus or furnishing the occasion; for he was neither a joker nor a story-teller. He had no talent, and he knew he had none, for humour, repartee, or amusing anecdote; and if he had possessed it, he was too wise to indulge in it in the position in which he was placed.

One evidence, among many others, of the impression which Washington's presence in this scene had made, and the dignity and permanence it could lend to every idea or recollection, however trivial otherwise, with which it had been accidentally associated, was given some years ago at Paris.

The American minister (we forget whether it was Mr. Crawford, Mr. Brown, or one of their successors), and several of his countrymen, together with General Lafayette, were invited to an entertainment at the house of a distinguished and patriotick Frenchman, who had served his country in his youth, in the United States, during the war of our independence.

At the supper hour the company was shown into a room fitted up for the occasion, which contrasted quite oddly with the Parisian elegance of the other apartments, where they had spent their evening. A low, boarded, painted ceiling, with large beams, a single, small, uncurtained window, with numerous small doors, as well as the general style of the whole, gave at first the idea of the kitchen, or largest room of a Dutch or Belgian farmhouse.

On a long, rough table was a repast, just as little in keeping with the refined kitchen of Paris, as the room was with its architecture. It consisted of large dishes of meat, uncouth-looking pastry, and wine in decanters and bottles, accompanied by glasses and silver mugs, such as indicated other habits and tastes than those of modern Paris. "Do you know where we are now?" said the host to General Lafayette and his companions.

They paused for a few moments, in suspense. They had seen something like this before, but when and where? "Ah, the seven doors and one window," said Lafayette, "and the silver camp-goblets, such as our marshals of France used in my youth! We are at Washington's Headquarters on the Hudson, fifty years ago!" We relate the story as we have heard it told by the late Colonel Fish, and, if we mistake not, the host was the excellent M. Marbois.

There is another anecdote of a higher and more moral interest, the scene of which was also laid in this house. We remember to have heard it told by the late Colonel Willett, our "bravest of the brave," then past his eightieth year, with a feeling that warmed the coldest of his listeners, and made the tears gush into the eyes of his younger listeners.

A British officer had been brought in from the river, a prisoner, and wounded. Some accidental circumstance had attracted him to General Washington's special notice, who had him placed under the best medical and surgical care the army could afford, and ordered him to be lodged at his own quarters. There, according to custom, a large party of officers had assembled in the evening, to sup with the commander-in-chief.

When the meats and cloth were removed, the unfailing nuts appeared, and the wine, a luxury seldom seen by American subalterns, except at "his excellency's" table, began to circulate. The general rose much before his usual hour, but, putting one of his aide de camps in his place, requested his friends to remain, adding, in a gentle tone, "I have only to ask you to remember, in your sociality, that there is a wounded officer in the very next room."

This injunction had its effect for a short time, but, as the wine and punch passed round, the soldier's jest and mirth gradually burst forth, conversation warmed into argument, and, by-and-by, came a song. In the midst of all this, a side-door opened, and some one entered in silence and on tiptoe. It was the general.

Without a word to any of the company, he passed silently along the table, with almost noiseless tread, to the opposite door, where he opened and closed after him as gently and cautiously as a nurse in the sick room of a tender and beloved patient. The song, the story, the merriment, died away at once. All were hushed. All felt the rebuke, and dropped off quietly, one by one, to their chambers or tents.

But the Newburgh Headquarters are also memorable as the scene of a far more important transaction. In the summer of 1783, the war had closed with glory. The national independence had been won. The army, which had fought the battles, which had gone through the hardships and privations, of that long, and doubtful, and bloody war without a murmur, were encamped on the banks of the Hudson, unpaid, almost unclothed, individually loaded with private debt, awaiting to be disbanded, and to return to the pursuits of civil life, without the prospect of any settlement of their long arrears of pay, and without the means of temporary support, until other prospects might open upon them in their new avocations.

It was under these circumstances, while Congress, from the impotence of our frame of government under the old confederation, and the extreme poverty of the country, found themselves utterly unable to advance even a single month's pay, and, as if loathe to meet the question, seemed but to delay and procrastinate any decision upon it; the impatient and suffering soldiery, losing, as their military excitement died away with its cause, all feeling of loyalty towards their civil rulers, began to regard them as cold-hearted and ungrateful masters, who sought to avoid the scanty and stipulated payment of those services, the abundant fruits of which they had already reaped.

Then it was that the celebrated anonymous Newburgh letters were circulated through the camp, touching, with powerful effect, upon every topick that could rouse the feelings of men suffering under the sense of wrong, and sensitive to every stain upon their honour. The glowing language of this address painted their country as trampling upon their rights, disdaining their cries, and insulting their distress.

It spoke of farther acquiescence and submission to such injury and calumny, as exposing the high-spirited soldier to "the jest of tories and the scorn of whigs; the ridicule, and, what is worse, the pity of the world." Finally, the writer called upon his fellow-soldiers, never to sheath their swords until they had obtained full and ample justice, and pointed distinctly to their "illustrious leader," as the chief under whose auspices and directions they could most boldly claim, and most successfully compel, the unwilling justice of their country.

The power of this appeal did not consist merely in its animated and polished eloquence. It was far more powerful, and, therefore, more dangerous, because it came warm from the heart, and did but give bold utterance to the thoughts over which thousands had long brooded in silence.

Precisely that state of feeling pervaded the whole army, that discontent towards their civil rulers, verging every hour more and more towards indignation and hatred, that despair of justice from any other means or quarter than themselves and their own good swords, that rallying of all their homes and affections to their comrades in arms and their long-tired chief, such as in other times and countries, have again and again enthroned the successful military leader upon the ruins of the republick he had gloriously served.

The disinterested patriotism of Washington rejected the lure to his ambition; his firm and mild prudence repressed the discontents, and preserved the honour of the army, as well as the peace, and, probably, the future liberties of his country. It was the triumph of patriotick wisdom over the sense of injury, over misapplied genius and eloquence, over chivalrous, but ill-directed feeling.

The opinions and the arguments of Washington, expressed in his orders, and in the address delivered by him to his officers, calmed the minds of the army, and brought them, at once, to a sense of submissive duty; not solely from the weight of moral truth and noble sentiment, great as that was, but because they came from a person whom the army had long been accustomed to love, to revere, and to obey; the purity of whose views, the soundness of whose judgement, and the sincerity of whose friendship, no man could dream of questioning.

Shortly after, the army disbanded itself. The veterans laid down their swords in peace, trusting to the faith and gratitude of their country, leaving the honour of the "Continental Army" unstained, and the holy cause of liberty unsullied by any one act of rebellious, or ambitious, or selfish insubordination.

They fulfilled the prophetic language of their chief, when, in the closing words of his address on this memorable occasion, he expressed his sure confidence, that their patient virtue, rising superiour to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings, would enable "posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example they had exhibited to mankind; had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining."

Why should we dilate here on the particulars of this transaction? They form the brightest page in our history, the nobles theme of our orators; but no eloquence can increase the interest and dignity of the narrative, as told in the plain language of Marshall, and in the orders and address of Washington himself.

Let it suffice for us to fulfill faithfully the humbler task of the local antiquary, which we have here undertaken to perform. When any of our readers visit this scene, they will feel grateful to us for informing them, that it was in the little northeastern room of the "old stone house" at Newburgh, that Washington meditated on this momentous question, and prepared the general orders to the army, and the address, which he read, with such happy effect, to the military convention that assembled, at his invitation, on the fifteenth of October, 1783, at a large barrack or storehouse, then called "the new building," in the immediate neighbourhood.

It was but a few days after this, that, upon the lawn before the house, Washington finally parted with that portion of his army which did not accompany him to take possession of New York. He parted with his faithful comrades with a deep emotion, that contrasted strongly with the cold and calm severity of manner which had distinguished him throughout the whole seven years of the war.

That parting hour has often suggested itself to the writer, as affording one of the most splendid and abundant subjects that American history can furnish to the painter. It combines the richest materials of landscape, portrait, history, and invention, any of which might predominate, or all be united, as the particular talent or taste of the artist might dictate.

It offers to the painter, magnificent and varied scenery, shipping, and river craft of the old times, with their white sails and picturesque outlines, arms, military costume, fine horses, beautiful women and children with every expression of conjugal and filial joy, mixed with the soldiers in groups such as art might dispose and contrast at its pleasure, numerous most interesting historical personages, and, above the whole, the lofty person and majestick presence of the chief himself, not the grave and venerable man we are accustomed to see in the fine portraits of Stuart, but still in the pride of manly and military grace and beauty, and melted into tenderness as he departs from the tried and loved companions of seven years of danger, hardship, and toil.

Ornaments and pride of American art; Allston, Trumbull, Vanderlyn, Dunlap, Cole, Sully, Morse, Inman, Weir; we commend this subject to your genius, to your patriotism! It is a natural and good tendency of the human mind, and one leading to excellent ends, that prompts the man of taste or the scholar to "Worship the turn where Virgil trod, And think it like no other sod, And guard each leaf from Shakespeare's tree, With Druid-like idolatry."

But how much more elevated the feeling, how much worthier the motive, and salutary in the influence, are the emotions that throb in the patriot's breast as he treads upon a soil, dignified by recollections of wisdom, of courage, of publick virtue, such as those we have now imperfectly described!

If, therefore, to use the often-quoted, and deservedly often-quoted language of Johnson, "that man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona": what shall we say of the American who feels no glow of patriotism, who kindles not into warmer love for his country, and her glorious institutions, who rises into no grand and fervent aspiration for the virtue and happiness of this people, when he enters the humble, but venerable walls, of the HEADQUARTERS AT NEWBURGH.

 


Discussion thoughts:
1. Why did Verplanck believe the Hasbrouck House was an important icon of American history and culture?
2. Why did the preservation of surviving artifacts of the Revolutionary era appear to be of such pressing importance in the 1830s, when Verplanck wrote this essay?
3. Why does Verplanck use archaic spellings and expressions in his prose?
4. What evidence can you detect in Verplanck's prose that reveals his conservative political views?
5. Think about the significance of the story of Washington and his discontented soldiers. Why does the author give this such prominence ? Why did the soldiers' action threaten the nation's experiment with republican institutions?


 

F&M College/American Studies//June 27, 1996