Orange County
Historical Society

Were There Any "Prisoners of War" in Goshen During the American Revolution?


By Harold J. Jonas

[Editor's Note: This article appeared in the 1973-1974 Issue of the Journal of the Orange County Historical Society. It also appeared as a four-part series in the Independent Republican, on October 16, October 23, October 30, and November 6, 1974. It is being republished on the website as part of the ongoing activities surrounding the 250th Anniversary of the Revolutionary War. The footnoted version is contained in the 1973-1974 Journal which is available for purchase. JAC]

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"The mills of the gods grind slowly ..... " The poet said something like that and most of us are inclined to agree. The poet, however, did not note that historians also can move slowly, ever so slowly. And I seem to be no exception to that rule, as I come to respond to something that Mildred Parker Seese published on February 21, 1973, in The Times Herald Record.

Mrs. Seese, on the basis of a statement that will follow, declared that there was a "prisoner of war camp at Goshen during the Revolution." She suggested that the camp "was on the modern White Farm in the angle of Conklingtown and Fort Hill Roads in the reservoir neighborhood south of Goshen village and possibly on adjoining properties."

The basis of Mrs. Seese's claim appeared in 1926 in a book published by the Division of Archives and History of the University of the State of New York. Prepared in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the American Revolution, the book is entitled: The American Revolution in New York, Its Political, Social and Economic Significance.

At page 202 this appears: "British prisoners of war were under the oversight of the commissioners of prisoners. The first prisoners of war were taken at Ticonderoga. Dutchess, Orange, Ulster and Westchester counties had charge of most of these prisoners. The western bank of the Hudson was the favorite place for keeping them and the principal detention camp was at Goshen in Orange County. The practice of billeting them out at public expense was common. Ulster County had the most of this work to do. 'The fleet prison' was anchored off Esopus. Some of the prisoners were sent to the New England states at the expense of New York."

The key phrase appears to be "the principal detention camp was at Goshen." What evidence is there to support the statement as it appears in the 1926 text? Was there actuaily a "camp" with all the implications of the word? And was it at the place where Mrs. Seese thinks it was?

That place, incidentaily, is caIIed Fort Hill, a name which may have contributed more to the legend of a prisoner-of-war camp than the facts will support. In her article, Mrs. Seese says that the name of Fort Hill "is the only reminder that the area had some connection with a war." She does suggest further research in Continental Congress records for evidence about establishing and provisioning commands for prisoner camps in this period of history.

In this vicinity, it has to be noted, is a monument erected by the Minisink Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, recalling that signal fires once had been set at that point. In my boyhood in Goshen, there was extant a story that signal fires had also been set atop Slate Hill and I was shown-probably around 1920-a crumbled foundation on Slate Hill that was alleged to be the "tower" from which the signal fires flamed!

What we seem to have here in Goshen are some truths and some still-to-be answered questions. There was a place in Goshen where persons opposed to the American cause were imprisoned. There were also "prisoners of war" in Goshen, some quite famous ones, but they were here only fleetingly. They may have stopped at Fort Hill for a brief stay and historical archeology at the spot might produce evidence of their presence.

The idea of an actual "camp" (for prisoners of war) was implied by a single statement in a State-sponsored history of the American Revolution published in 1926. Was there such a "camp" in Goshen?

I discussed the matter with Donald F. Clark, Orange County Historian, and, at his suggestion, turned to Richard J. Koke, Curator of the Museum of The New-York Historical Society. Mr. Koke is completely familiar with the history of the Revolutionary period. His recent biography of Joshua Hett Smith, an accomplice in the Benedict Arnold treason, reveals that he is knowledgeable as well about history as it developed in Orange County. The hapless Smith spent time in detention in the jail at Goshen, and Mr. Koke tells us a great deal about that institution. Our attention has to be focussed on the Goshen jail if we are to clarify the basis for the prisoner-of-war camp story.

First, it is Mr. Koke's belief that the statement made in 1926 was based on "the fact that Goshen was freguently mentioned in the Clinton Papers and other Revolutionary War sources as a place where loyalists, renegades, and others who incurred the displeasure of the revolutionary authorities and local committees were incarcerated."

In a letter to me, dated March 25, 1974, Mr. Koke says: "The center of incarceration and trial, of course, was the stone jail and courthouse in the village. It was the county seat north of the mountains, and consequently the place where all this sort of thing would center."

In some manner, not at all clear, the stone jail apparently was transformed into "camp" by the writer of the 1926 book cited above. Mr. Koke is emphatic: "I have never heard of a detention 'camp' at Goshen. People were locked up in a jail or were accorded the 'liberties' of the jail - that is, they were permitted to circulate around the town within certain specified limits, beyond which they could not go."

Debtors also were locked up in the Goshen jail, a quaint custom that has long since been abandoned. At two places in Goshen on Greenwich Avenue and Scotchtown Avenue iron markers, inscribed Jail Limit, survived well into the 20th Century.

Mr. Koke reports that the Governor George Clinton Papers have frequent references to the trials of Loyalists at Goshen; such events, he thinks, centering around the jail. He reminds us that Claudius Smith was held in that place and came to his end there.

In my view, aided considerably by what Mr. Koke says, the idea of a prisoner-of-war camp in Goshen, during the American Revolution, needs to be set aside. There was a jail here, a somewhat famous, or is it infamous, one. Claudius Smith was there. Joshua Hett Smith was there. It probably housed a considerable number of others, most of them, however, charged with offenses other than bearing arms as a soldier against the Continental Congress.

But what elements did contribute to the legend? Let us examine the presence in Goshen of prisoners-of-war during the period of the American Revolution. There may have been some such individuals in the Goshen jail, but they were never there in numbers.

But at one moment, one notable, perhaps even flamboyant moment, in Goshen's history there were a great many prisoners-of-war here! Who were they?

The American phase of the story begins with the Battle of Saratoga where, among the soldiers engaged on the British side, were German troops, Brunswickian mercenaries, led by Baron von Riedesel. General Burgoyne's surrender to the Americans included arrangements for these soldiers, henceforth to be known as the Convention Troops, who would, under documents signed on October 15-17, 1777, be marched to Boston for internment.

The stay at Boston proved inconvenient for everyone, both captors and captives. It was decided in 1778 to move the Convention Troops from New England to Virginia. And they would be moved as most troops were moved in that period - they would march the distance! The march would include soldiers, officers, families, and such others as accompanied armed forces in that day. These people would be on the road for twelve weeks and cover "678 English miles."

Among those who would make the journey was Baroness von Riedesel, the wife of the General. A sensitive, intelligent woman and mother, she left behind a journal and letters that give us insights into a less-than-noble episode in American Revolutionary history. In her Letters and Journals (published in Albany, 1867), she starkly notes: "As winter approached ... we were ordered to Virginia." The order to move was received in November 1778.



Portrait of Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow, Barroness von Riedesel.

The weather was unpleasant, but the march was planned nevertheless. The troops and the others, some in wagons as was the Baroness and her children, marched for three days with only overnight bivouacs. A halt was made every fourth day to allow a longer rest. The column proceeded westward from Boston, finally arriving at Fishkill on the Hudson River. The crossing of the river was a slow process because of the lack of boats and the condition of the river. It required eight days to complete the transfer of the troops to the west bank of the Hudson. The party evidently remained on the west bank until everyone had been brought across.

Boston had been happy to see the Germans go. They were being marched to Virginia, the Baroness wrote, because it was thought "better able to furnish the needful supplies." Like other military movements of the period, the column relied, in part, on foraging. The Americans along the route were, therefore, no happier to have the Germans appear than had been the Bostonians to have them remain. The Baroness makes it clear that the "hosts" along the way were frequently unwilling to play the role. Some of the Yankees were (as reported by the lady) mean-spirited, even cruel to the family and the Baroness herself. An officer accompanying her party commented: "The people of almost every house where we stopped, seemed to delight in rendering our stay as unpleasant as they possibly could."

With the Hudson River crossed, the column then marched across Orange County, touching at Newburgh, Little Britain, Otterkill, Goshen, Florida and Warwick.

The Baroness, it appears, does not make any specific references to any stops or stays in Goshen. She does mention the third stopping place after the river crossing: "At the house of a German ... the son of a coachman who had been in the service of Count Goertz in Germany." There is also a reference to staying at the house of a Colonel Howe. She reports, too, on an eight-day halt "before we passed the socalled Blue Mountains" but that may have been in Virginia, not Orange County nor its immediate neighbors.

Another member of the troop; DuRoi the Elder, a Lieutenant and Adjutant in the service of the Duke of Brunswick, also kept a journal and he is specific. On December 3, 1778, the column marched seven miles "to Goshen, a town of 200 nice houses." By December 4th, the Convention Troops were passing through Florida and Warwick (he spelled it "Warrick") doing thirteen miles that day.

And that is it. These rather remarkable prisoners of war, these German mercenaries, were in Goshen overnight, December 3, 1778. Where did they halt? At Fort Hill? Perhaps they did. In any event, they were not held in the Goshen jail and they were not in Goshen for long. Their memory has dimmed and warped, but maybe now we can see them a little more clearly, thanks to the query raised by Mrs. Seese.

I am unable to explain the statement from the 1926 State-sponsored history that suggests that a principal detention camp was located in Goshen. In view of what research I have been able to do in this regard, it would seem as if that phrase was hastily conceived and hastily written. If there is evidence to support it, I would like to know about it.

My attention has been called also to the concluding paragraph in Mrs. Seese's exploratory article. It is reported that "the second John Steward," whose ancestral home in 1778 stood near where the Quickway goes under Greenwich Avenue (as of 1974), entertained the German General von Riedesel. The General (his troops were Brunswickers not Hessians) was not with the troops when they made that march from Boston to Virginia in the Winter of 1778. He was already in Virginia, planning for the arrival of his soldiers and his family.

The journal kept by the Baroness makes it clear that she travelled with her children during the twelve-week march and looked forward to joining her husband at the end of the journey.

It is quite possible that the Baron was in Goshen when he made his trip earlier and that he could have been the guest of John Steward. If General von Riedesel was accompanied by any troops on this occasion, probably earlier in 1778, they must have been only a few in number. It will be helpful to "firm up" the date of that breakfast at the Steward's, particularly since the Baron enjoyed the coffee.

Several people have talked to me about Fort Hill. Some additional research should be made here. If it was a fort, what was the purpose? Not every fort constructed by the Americans revealed total wisdom in the choice of the site, and the question may be raised about the location: For what was it fortified?

Was it the site, as has been suggested, for the overnight stay of the south-bound Brunswickers? Would historical archeology find artifacts there that might provide clues as to occupancy, by whom, and for how long?

It has been suggested that the name was actually Fourth Hill, but what ever happened to First Hill, Second Hill, Third Hill? Some more study is surely needed. If plans develop to refurbish and better-protect the D.A.R. monument that stands there, we may be able to get more information and a sharper focus.

The story persists that signal fires atop hills were used to "carry" messages of some sort from one place to another. Fort Hill is described as such a place. Slate Hill, overlooking Goshen village toward the east, was said to have been also the site of a signal fire used during the Revolution.

I do not know if any of this is correct, and I welcome information about signal fires and their use. Were they used for smoke signals in the daytime, following what is said to have been a practice of Plains Indians? If they were used at night, what kind of messages, except those pre-arranged, would have been carried aloft into the night sky? I'm just wondering out loud here. Any answers? Any evidences?

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