Westchester, and the Revolutionary War: Historical Figures
A look at some of the war’s most influential players and their connections to our County, from generals to spies.
Enoch Crosby is no doubt the best-known Patriot spy who was active in Westchester during the war, for his exploits were later fictionalized by James Fenimore Cooper in the popular 1821 novel, The Spy.
Ann Bates was a Loyalist undercover agent active during the Revolutionary War. She did her best work in Westchester in the late summer of 1778, when the Continental Army was encamped in the environs of White Plains. In the guise of a peddler, Bates was able to pass through the American
camp, collecting valuable information for General Henry Clinton in New York.
Joseph Youngs was a Patriot militiaman whose house in Valhalla became an important Patriot meeting place. On February 3, 1780, a British-Hessian-Loyalist raiding party attacked the house and its grounds and overwhelmed the defenders. Many militiamen were killed, and 93 were taken prisoner, Youngs among them. He managed to survive both his period of detention and the war and lived until 1789, long enough to see New York State ratify the United States Constitution.
Colonel Alexander Scammell, the officer in charge of the light infantry at the 1781 encampment, had a rare ability to elicit laughs from the extremely reserved commander-in-chief. One observer noted, “He never saw Washington laugh except when Colonel Scammell came to dine at headquarters. Scammell had a fund of ludicrous anecdotes and the manner of telling them which relaxed the gravity of the commander in chief.”
John Odell, the “Greenburgh Guide,” was one of several Westchester Guides, men who played an indispensable role at a time when no good maps of the County existed. Commanders attempting to navigate the unfamiliar byways of Westchester would call upon the Guides to lead them.
General George Washington was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. He became the first president of the United States in 1789.
John Jay played a more prominent role at a national level than any other Westchester Patriot. During the war, he was president of the Continental Congress and later commissioner at the peace negotiations in Paris. After the war, Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton authored the Federalist Papers, which called for ratification of the proposed federal Constitution. Jay was appointed by President Washington as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In 1795, he became governor of New York State. His childhood home is in Rye, and his residence in later years was the Jay Homestead in Bedford, near Katonah.
General William Howe was commander-in-chief of the British Army in America from 1776 until 1778. He led the troops who, after advancing through New Rochelle and Scarsdale, overwhelmed American positions on Chatterton Hill at the Battle of White Plains in October, 1776.
General Sir Henry Clinton succeeded General Howe in 1778 as commander-in-chief of the British Army in America. In 1781, Clinton’s headquarters were in Manhattan and his northern defensive perimeter was at King’s Bridge.
General Charles Cornwallis was in command of the British-Hessian Army, which surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, in October, 1781. Cornwallis' defeat caused the pro-war faction in Parliament to fall from power and led to the formation of a new British ministry, willing to accept the independence of the United States.
General Jean-Baptiste, comte de Rochambeau, headed the French expeditionary army that came to America in 1780 to assist Washington’s forces. In July and August, 1781, Rochambeau’s army was encamped alongside the Continental Army in Westchester County.
French Admiral François-Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse’s fleet bested the British Navy at the Battle of the Capes, off the coast of Virginia, in September, 1781, helping to ensure the defeat, a few weeks later, of Cornwallis at Yorktown.