” . . . . I think we may call our Jaunt an agreeable one”

New York City was occupied by the British from 1776, when George Washington’s campaign against the British failed, until 1783, the end of the war. In September 1776, a terrible fire, suspicious in origin, broke out and destroyed almost a quarter of the city. Large numbers of residents had already fled to avoid being caught in the fighting. (See post called “this deplorable cyte”.) Most Patriots departed when the the British occupied the city, while a few stayed to try to hold on to their property. Loyalist refugees flocked in as did escaped slaves who thought to obtain their freedom by fighting for the British. New York City became the command center of British military and political operations in North America. The wealthy and well connected, including British officers, restored a semblance of the social scene which featured plays and parties, dinners and dances.

On occasion members of certain families were allowed by the authorities to visit friends and relatives in New York City under a white flag of truce. CATHERINE ALEXANDER and her mother were granted this privilege. Catherine was the daughter of William Alexander, a major general in the American army who was called “Lord Stirling” because of his claim (never validated) to be a Scottish earl and Sarah Livingston. (Sarah’s brother was William Livingston, governor of New Jersey.) The couple had two daughters, Mary and Catherine. In 1776 Lord Stirling was in White Plains, following the American defeat in New York City. His wife and daughter Catherine called “Lady Kitty” joined him there and the two women obtained permission to enter New York City to visit the elder daughter Mary and her husband Robert Watts who were resident there, living quietly and trying to be neutral. “Lady Kitty” wrote the following letter to her father from New Jersey where she was visiting the family of her uncle William Livingston which had relocated from Elizabethtown to Persippany for safety’s sake. It gives some indication of what life was like in New York City during the British occupation.

I have made several attempts to perform an injunction [request], laid on me by my dear Pappa, in a letter to Genl. Maxwell but have always been interrupted, or entirely prevented by some trivial accident which tho’ important enough to prevent my writing are scarce worth mentioning to you, Coll. Livingstons [Brockholst, Kitty’s cousin, son of William Livingston] going to camp at last furnishes me with an opportunity of acquainting you with every thing that my memory retains of our Jaunt to N.York.

In the first place we had the satisfaction of being civilly treated by the British officers, one indignity indeed we receiv’d from Genl. Grant who order’d a Serjeant to conduct the Flag to town instead of an officer but we were so happy at getting permission to go on that we readily excused his want of politeness in that instance—our acquaintances in town were also, in general, very polite to us: many indeed were remarkably attentive—but whether it proceeded from regard to themselves or no, is hard to determine—the Truth is, they are a good deal alarmed at their situation, & wish to make as much interest as possible on our side. [T]he sentiments I really believe of a great number have undergone a thorough change since they have been with the British Army as they have had many opportunities of seeing flagrant acts of injustice & cruelty which they cou’d not have believed their freinds capable of; if they had not been witnesses to, & which convinces them that if they conquer we must live in abject slavery.

Mamma has I suppose mention’d to you the distressed situation, in which we found poor Mary, the alarms of the Fire & explosion added to her recent misfortune kept her for several days in a very weak state—but we had the satisfaction to leave her perfectly recovered. [T]he Child she now has is one of the most charming little creatures I ever saw— & by all accounts more likely to live than either of the others. Mr. Watts, I was very glad to find is among the number of those who are heartily sick of British Tyranny, & as to Mary, her political principles are perfectly Rebellious.

[S]everal Gentlemen of your former acquaintance in the British Army made particular enquiries after you . . . .

Upon the whole I think we may call our Jaunt an agreeable one, tho’ it was checkered with several unlucky circumstances[,] for my own part I liked it so well that I cou’d wish to repeat it in a few months if my Sister does not get permission to pay us a Visit—I left Mamma very well two days ago [at the family home in Basking Ridge, New Jersey] to pay a Visit to the Governors Family who sent the Coll down with an absolute command to fetch me—they all beg to be remember’d to you but believe me to be my dear Pappa with greater sincerity your
very affectionate D[aughte]r. C Alexander
Persipany Septr 6th. 1778

The New-York Historical Society, W. Alexander Papers, vol. II, #95, written in a small neat hand and including the red wax seal. The portrait is of Kitty after she had married William Duer in 1779. Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Lady Catherine Duer (Lady Catherine Alexander, daughter of Lord Stirling)” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 19, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-2b5b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.


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