[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 15: A Man of Passion
Judging from what Duncan intimated, his detachment was an odd-lot assortment of men and invalids of the regiment with whom he was not too happy and who were apparently better suited for camp duty than active service on the lines, as was evident in Hazen's order to Duncan that he send a return with the men's names and the companies to which they belonged for examination with the regimental books. The blockhouse was a command Duncan did not relish. He hated the place when he came and he hated it when he left, but his few letters afford a very interesting insight into his personal life at the post.
He came to Sidman's bridge with one consuming obsession: he hated his commanding officer, and his animosity was probably heightened all the more by Hazen's refusal to allow him the comparative comfort of the Sidman tavern. The bad blood between them went back a long way, and could well be one reason why Duncan was given the blockhouse post to get him away from Pompton.
The gist of his dissatisfaction became apparent when he wrote to Washington on December 7 and preferred a complaint of injustice and persecution against Hazen, whereby, going back to when the regiment was in Pennsylvania, he had, he said, been “most unwarrantably” removed from command of his company while on leave of absence during a regimental reorganization in which junior officers had been appointed over him to the command of companies. Highly injured, he appealed to Hazen for redress, but Hazen made no disposition to grant him the justice he thought due him and was inclined to continue his persecution, and because of this he was reluctantly appealing to the commander-in-chief.
For Washington, the complaints of sensitive officers over rank and preference had long been an accepted bane of his rank, and after inquiring of Hazen about the particulars upon which the arrangement of his officers had been made, he returned word to Hazen at the end of the month that the matter might best remain “as at present until further directions."
But Duncan, unacquainted with the exchange between Washington and Hazen and wrapped in his own misfortune, was not easily put aside and his animosity dragged on into the new year. On March 3 he sent another letter to Washington from the blockhouse, charging that “If my conduct had been reprehensible, why does not Genl. Hazen arrest and bring me to justice....He has been my avowed enemy these three years and not only watched himself but had his spies on my conduct. If therefore he has charged me with any crimes, they are creations of his own brain, forged on purpose to prevent your Excellency from granting me a hearing.” Added to this, he had to maintain the post without the assistance of a single subaltern officer; Hazen would not relieve him, and he was – ironically - even being denied his proportion of writing paper. But these were "trifles,” he said, compared to the injuries he had already complained of, and “thus insulted, injured, oppressed and persecuted, what am I to do?” He asked for a court of inquiry or some solution whereby he could be vindicated and obtain justice.
Washington returned word that as the regiment was soon to be reduced, it would not be proper to make any alteration until the reduction and his rank in a new arrangement would then be determined by a board of officers. As for the problem of serving without a subaltern, he informed Duncan that he would inquire into the matter when he saw Hazen in a few days. A final solution was reached on April 3, when Washington ordered Hazen to relieve Duncan "from the stationary command of the Block House in the Clove” and it was to be done as soon as may be.” Washington's directive was the last allusion in Revolutionary War documents to the military post at Sidman's bridge that had its inception in 1776.
But Duncan’s grousing in his leaky blockhouse was no different than the grumbling that went on in the main camp at New Windsor. The dissension among the rank and file that had manifested itself in mutiny at Morristown and Pompton took an equally dangerous course among the officers over neglect by Congress, and developed into a crisis that was quieted only by Washington's masterful intervention and plea for restraint.
The war was winding down. In March, news reached America of the signing of the preliminaries of a general peace, and on April 19 a cessation of hostilities was announced to the army at the Publick Building in the New Windsor camp. On the same day, Washington and quartermaster-general Pickering set forth on an overnight trip through the Clove to Mrs. Erskine's at Ringwood – now Mrs. Hooper - to meet with the Secretary at War, who came from Philadelphia, to make arrangements for the release of prisoners of war. By 7:00 the next evening, the commander-in-chief was back at the Widow Hasbrouck's. As far as is known, this was his last journey through Smith's Clove.