[Editor's Note: Richard J. Koke authored a series of five articles that appeared in Volumes 19 -23 of the OCHS Journal between 1990 and 1994. These articles will be presented in multiple sections over the next few years.]
Finally, A Dreary Blockhouse
Chapter 7: The Allies at New Antrim
The last major operation of military significance at Smith’s Clove, brushing the mouth of the corridor, was the passage in August of the 5,982-man allied army under Washington and Rochambeau - 2,482 American, the remainder French - on the march that ended at Yorktown. In mid-August, when preparations were being made, John Suffern's New Antrim tavern was selected as one of six staging areas west of the Hudson on the road to the Delaware where, at each, fifteen tons of hay, twenty tons of straw, 230 bushels of corn and five cords of wood were ordered assembled for the use of the French army.
After a laborious six-day crossing at King's Ferry from Westchester, the combined force began its march from Haverstraw on August 25. Washington, moving ahead of the French and starting at 4:00 in the morning, sent a strong force from Kakiat to Paramus as a protective cover for the army under orders to move to Springfield by way of Second River, while the slow-moving elements of the American detachment - artillery, sappers and miners, spare ammunition and stores and baggage - under convoy of the Rhode Island regiment were dispatched from the Kakiat crossroads by the well-traveled road leading to New Antrim and once again, as so often before, Washington's troops moved past Suffern's into Bergen and pitched camp three miles beyond the tavern at Ramapo, now Mahwah, where the commander-in-chief, following from the ferry, joined them and passed the night.
On the same day and on the next, while Washington continued on to Pompton and Chatham, the Comte de Rochambeau and the French army arrived at New Antrim and made camp on the west side of what is now Washington Avenue in the village of Suffern. Louis-Alexandre Berthier, the Soissonnais cartographer who drew maps of the encampments and later was to become Napoleon's favorite marshal and Prince of Neuchatel and Wagram, termed it “Camp a Suffrants”, and it can be readily assumed that innkeeper Suffern's best chamber was made available with great deference for the general's overnight use.
For three days, from the twenty-fifth to the twenty-seventh, the stolid Bergen Dutchmen and Ramapo farmers and the country girls who lived close to the soil could flock to the French camp beneath the Point of the Mountains and stare in wide-eyed fascination at a military assemblage never before seen in the region. They listened to a tongue few understood and watched regiments of disciplined and well-equipped infantry in white and blue with the proud names of Bourbonnais, Soissonnais, Deux-Ponts and Saintonge, officered by nobles and young scions of the best families who rode and marched with the men in the hot sun. They gaped at the Legion of the Duc de Lauzun, six hundred strong, with mustached huzzars in tall black bonnets with pendants and gold galloon and garbed in sky blue jackets and yellow breeches and fur-edged pelisses rich with loops and braid.
The onlookers, in one sense, were looking at history. Within a dozen years the awe-inspiring signs of the Bourbon monarchy they saw before them would vanish and lives would change in the upheaval that was to engulf Europe. Some, like Lauzun and the Comte de Custine, who commanded the Saintonge, would meet their end beneath the knife of the guillotine; others would be imprisoned; others would emigrate to safe havens away from France – some even to America. Some would espouse the new cause and live to regret it; but others would survive The Terror and tumult with dextrous flexibility and attain rank and prestige in the glory years of Napoleonic France when the capitals of Europe lay in the long shadow of Paris.
By the third day the French, marching one day apart, were gone. The Brigade Bourbonnais departed for Pompton on the twenty-sixth; the Brigade Soissonnais followed the next day, along with the heavy artillery and baggage; and on the same day quartermaster-general Pickering arrived from King's Ferry with wagons filled with entrenching tools and toiling teams dragging heavy wheeled carriages on which thirty flatboats were mounted, each capable of carrying about forty men, all under escort of Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt and the 2nd New York Regiment that had been ordered down from Albany.
Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt (1749-1831) commanding officer of the New York Brigade stationed at the Pompton and New Antrim entrances to Smith's Clove, 1781-82. Miniature on ivory by John Ramage (c. 1748-1802). Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.
Few knew for certain the ultimate objective, and speculation was rife as to what Washington was up to. Some said a crossing was to be made onto Staten Island, and that an investiture of New York was in the making from the Jersey side with the cooperation of a French fleet that was expected at Sandy Hook; but others, more knowingly, said this was a feint designed to conceal a secret move to Virginia. By August 29 the army seemed to veer towards the Jersey shore to facilitate the entrance of French naval forces into the harbor; but the moving columns, traveling light, suddenly changed direction in the region of the Raritan and bore swiftly towards Princeton and Trenton. One of Rochambeau's aides put it plainly: “The mask is being raised!"