Sunday, November 29, 2015

People: The Surgeon was a... Counter-insurgent!

The cause of the the American Revolution was a war of two causes: one for independence from Britain and its monarchy, the other for continued allegiance to the same monarchy as part of the greater British "empire" that emerged in the 18th century. The Loyalists often get a bad rap. They were not evil, misguided or any more treacherous than the patriots as a whole. The were simply traditional folk who saw a greater benefit from staying under the crown than in casting it off. In the long run up to the War for Independence many tried to guide the politics of their respective colonies towards conciliation of grievances.

Political agitation caused some to  remain ambivalent

But by the outbreak of actual hostilities Loyalists were forced to go underground (keep their sympathies secret) or assert royal prerogative with action. New Jersey was possibly the most torn of all the states in this way. Many influential Loyalists had taken part in the various committees,  associations and even Congress in order to guide the disaffected towards a political solution. But once the gauntlet was thrown, they began to slide quietly or abruptly to action.

Loyalists organized for the day the British would come

One such "First Loyalist" was a little know doctor from Teaneck, New Jersey - in the divided Bergen County, by the name of Abraham Van Buskirk. Van Buskirk was a prominent name in the region. The Van Buskirk's were an old, Dutch family that lived in the area for many years. His father Lawrence van Buskirk operated a successful stagecoach service. By the time of the war, the elder Van Buskirk passed the enterprise, called The Flying Machine, to his son Andrew, who ran the stage to the Hoboken Ferry. He also operated a tavern in new Bridge. Doctor Abraham pitched in from time to time, typically making the run to Paulhus Hook. It is clear that Van Buskirk and his family were well entrenched in the area. His travels on the stage and knowledge of the area would later prove useful.
Abraham Van Buskirk and many other prominent New Jersey Dutch failed in their political efforts to keep the colony in line with the crown. Also they secretly took other measures as the cloud of war descended on the the troubled Royal Colony. Despite his Tory leanings, Van Buskirk became an officer in the county militia. But many local patriots were skeptical and figured him as a Loyalist. He had been associated with the patriot cause early on, being elected as a moderate to the county committee and provincial congress. Van Buskirk was able to dodge and evade accusations so cleverly that he came out looking more the patriot. But he was a man of principle, he broke with the patriots over the question of outright independence for the thirteen colonies, refusing to swear the oath of abjuration renouncing his loyalty to the Crown and resigning from the provincial congress. But in his practical Dutch way, Van Buskirk and his fellow secret Loyalists would only declare openly if the British appeared in loco. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for the patriots, they did not have to wait long.

Cornwallis's Invasion of the Jerseys

During the late summer and through the fall of 1776, the people of Jersey waited anxiously as the British under Lord William Howe methodically drove Washington and his Continental Army from Staten Island, Long Island and the Island of New York (Manhattan). Then, after an inconclusive engagement at White Plains (in Westchester), Washington slid the bulk of his forces across the North (Hudson) River to the "safety" of the Jerseys. In November, the British General Lord Cornwallis led a force of 5,000 men up the palisades overlooking the Hudson River and sent the Continental Army in headlong flight towards Pennsylvania. Now was Van Buskirk's time! On 22 November the British crossed the Hackensack river took the city. Swarms of Hessians dazzled or terrified residents, depending on their allegiance. The Volunteer Loyalists assembled in town. He and his men could declare openly and organize their unit - the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers. Van Buskirk, the citizen soon became an accomplished military leader, guiding his unit with a firm hand and grim efficiency.

Loyalist Infantry
The War for Independence was fought at the local level, and often savagely, especially between Loyalists and rebels. Some of the most savage fighting was in the Hackensack Valley. To support British efforts to pacify Jersey, Van Buskirk started sending his men on raids across Bergen County and later guarding the critical area of Bergen Neck and Staten Island. Van Buskirk's patrols snatched prisoners for interrogation or exchange. They foraged on the local populace's resources (as did the patriots). They fought countless skirmishes with the hated rebel militia and, sometimes, Continental units. Van Buskirk rapidly became a scourge to Hackensack Valley patriots and to any Continental units that moved through the area. After Washington's surprise victory at Trenton, many British units had returned to New York. The few remaining in Jersey concentrated near the Paulhus Hook and Bergen. From there, Van Buskirk's companies launched more raids into the so-called "neutral ground" of the valley. They played a part in the "Winter War" (or Forage War) helping to protect farmers trying to supply goods to the British concentrated in the New York area. Throughout 1777, Van Buskirk successfully waged unconventional warfare from his headquarters at Bergen Point, sending operatives as far as the New York border to capture patriots for interrogation and retribution.

In September 1777, the British commander in New York, General Clinton, launched a 2,000 man three-pronged assault into Jersey. Van Buskirk's men played their part with relish, landing at Elizabeth Town and moving quickly north and acquitting themselves well in an action at Passaic. In August of that year, American General John Sullivan launched an attack on British and Loyalist forces on Staten Island. Abraham Van Buskirk's battalion was part of Brigadier General Cortland Skinner's Loyalist Brigade.

Patrick Ferguson
In May 1779, Van Buskirk supported a British raid on Closter (objective: Paramus). Captain Patrick Ferguson, later of King's Mountain fame, played a significant role in the raid. Later that year, Van Buskirk frustrated local patriots in a different way by escaping Light Horse Harry Lee's raid on Paulhus Hook, in which Van Buskirk himself was among the intended targets. Van Buskirk's intelligence network, now firmly established in that part of Jersey, made the difference.

Lord Stirling

The winter of 1779-80 proved brutally cold. Van Buskirk's 4th New Jersey was quartered on Staten Island. Things would soon warm up. On 14 January, the American General, Lord Stirling tried his hand with a failed raid against Van Buskirk. Undaunted, Van Buskirk retaliated on 25 January with a counter raid that bagged 50 prisoners, despite the brutal cold that affected both sides. In April of that year Van Buskirk played a lead role at the battle of Hooperstown.

Benedict Arnold: British general

In September 1781, Van Buskirk led his battalion in the turncoat Benedict Arnold's infamous burning of New London and siege at Fort Griswold, where the surrendering fort commander, Colonel Ledyard was infamously stabbed and many of his men were bayoneted to death. The last action of the war in the north is somehow emblematic of the true nature of the desperate struggle for America.

The action in Connecticut in 1781 was one of the last large engagements in the north. With the long period of negotiation following Yorktown in October 1781, the war became  once again one of "low intensity." One can imagine Van Buskirk played his part masterfully till the end. After the war, Van Buskirk's fate was no different than so many other Loyalists whose dreams were shattered and homes destroyed or taken by vengeful rebels.  Someone as committed to the crown as Van Buskirk had few options. So the surgeon, businessman, politico and warrior joined the many other Loyalists who emigrated to Nova Scotia. There he settled in Shelburne, where he died in 1791.

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