The day before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the British Navy landed 30,000 troops on Staten Island and the war of the American Revolution now had arrived in New York. For the rest of the summer the British soldiers made quick landings in Brooklyn, then on Manhattan Island, fighting their way northward and sending troops towards the Bronx and Long Island.
General Washington wrote to the Continental Congress on September 8 (1776) that; The case of our sick is also worthy of much consideration, their numbers by the returns form at least one fourth of the army: policy and humanity require they should be made as comfortable as possible.However, General Howe was slow to press his advantage and allowed the rebel army to regroup in Harlem Heights. Their ranks were seriously depleted by desertions and dysentery and as seasons changed there were known to be insufficient tents, shoes and blankets.
It was concluded to arrange the Army under three Divisions, 5000 to remain for the defense of the City, 9000 to remove to Kingsbridge, as well to Possess and secure those Posts, as to be ready to Attack the Enemy, who are moving Eastward on Long Island, if they should attempt to land on this side; The remainder to occupy the intermediate space and support either, that the sick should be immediately removed to Orange-Town–and Barracks prepared at Kingsbridge with all expedition, to cover the Troops… At the time, of about 28,000 men, 4,433 were listed as present sick, 3,433 as absent sick.
This same day Washington wrote to the New York Convention,
It being determined to move our sick to Orange-Town, we shall want four large Albany sloops for that purpose. The fatigue of traveling that distance by land would not only be more than patients could bear.
Why to Orange-Town? Washington may have had in mind that Dutch Reformed Churches were traditionally built on waterways and, as he felt, this would be less stressful for the wounded going by boat than a trip by wagon on land. The Orange-Town or Tappan Reformed Church was built on the shore of the Sparkill Creek, easily accessible from two entrances on the Hudson River. Its location was also close enough to crossings connecting with the east bank, at Dobb’s Ferry or Sneden’s Landing.
The next day in a note, General James Clinton was instructed by General Washington:
“Head-Quarters, New-York, September 9, 1776:
“SIR: I wrote you this morning by your express, but omitted mentioning a matter of consequence. It being determined to remove our sick to Orange-Town, we shall want four large Albany sloops for that purpose. The fatigue of traveling that distance by land would not only be more than the patients could bear, but we have full employ for our wagons in transporting baggage, tents, &c., for the troops, from hence to our outposts. I must, therefore, beg the favor of your honorable body to procure the above number of vessels, and send them down with as much dispatch as possible to this city.
“I am, with respect, sir, your most obedient servant, “GO. WASHINGTON.
“To Abraham Yates, Jun., Esq., President of Convention of New-York.
“P. S. I shall be glad to know, by return of the express, when I may probably expect the sloops down. There are several now on the lower parts of the river, with boards: perhaps you might engage them to come this way, which would save time.”
Resolved, That Brigadier-General James Clinton be requested to send a careful officer, in a whale-boat well manned, down Hudson’ s River, to impress four large river Sloops, to go to New- York for the Sick, agreeable to the request of his Excellency General Washington, and that a press warrant issue for that purpose. And lest such four Sloops should not be large enough for the purpose, Resolved, that two other Sloops be impressed at Fishkill landing and dispatched for the same purpose.
These sloops were large boats that were used to carry both passengers and freight up and down the Hudson River. The sloops were adapted from those used in Holland. x Upon arrival in Orange-Town, the sloops would unloaded their cargo of wounded soldiers at the church. Next to the Church, in the village green, were the Court House and Jail. Budhke wrote in the Journal News, October 11, 1941 that the Court House and Jail could be “discerned” in Robertson’s painting and even though the Courthouse and Jail had been burned down in 1773, Similarly, Judge John Haring, one of the leading Patriots in Orange-Town (a signer of the Orange-Town Resolutions) accompanied Morgan on his brief survey, and then reported to General George Clinton that no place could be found “without turning a number of distressed persons out of doors. Almost every house is filled and crowded with people who fled out of the city . . . . Every hovel in Orange County is full of inhabitants from New York.”
Among them were the family of General John Morin Scott who described his wife’s plight in a letter to his commanding officer General Heath:
“I have accounts of Mrs. Scott, of her being at Tappan with her whole family in one room. She is overwhelmed with distress, and continually in tears, not knowing how to dispose of all that are dear to her except myself. She cannot be comforted till she sees me and receives my direction for her future disposal.”
Some of the sick and wounded were shipped directly to Newark as Morgan had suggested and on September 15, a newspaper account from Paulus-Hook (now Jersey City) reported, “Last night the sick were ordered to Newark,in the Jersies, but most of them could be got no further than this place and Hoebuck, and as there is but one house at each of these places many were obliged to lie in the open air till this morning.”
On September 16 the British attacked Harlem Heights and were repelled with each side suffering about seventy killed. Dr. Morgan helped caring for the wounded and hurried back and forth until, when Redcoats arrived, he was forced to flee. Wagons and boats were in short supply and the appearance of three British Ships of War impeded further ferrying across the Hudson River.
Yet by September 21, General Washington still was proposing those too sick to fight be immediately removed to Orange-Town . . . on the Jersey side.
Then to add to the new and growing population of Tappan and Orange County, came the report of a fire (9/26/1776) consuming a quarter of New York City. A British letter from Harlem dated September 26, 1776 is interesting:
“Friday last was discovered a vast cloud of smoke arising from the north part of the city, which continued till Saturday evening, The consequence was the the Broadway, from the new City-Hall down to Whitehall, is laid in ashes. Our friends were immediately suspected, and according to the report of a flag of truce who came to our lines soon after, those that were found on or near the spot were pitched into the conflagration, some hanged by the heels, and others by their necks, with their throats cut. Inhuman barbarity! One Hale in New-York, on suspicion of being a spy, was taken up and dragged without ceremony to the execution post, and hung up (September 22). General Washington has since sent in a flag supposed to be on that account.”
On the “morning reports” dated 5 October 1776 the hospital at the Dutch Church in Tappan is probably being used to capacity and has the wounded and sick still being treated. Some die and are buried. The town is packed with visitors and there is no more room for any more in homes or the hospital. The wounded from Harlem Heights went directly by boat across to New Jersey. The Tappan hospital was in action until the last soldier was cured and was returned to his unit, or had died.
By the fall of the year, November 16, 1776, Fort Washington was captured and General Washington had watched from Fort Lee as the British flag was raised. This action gave the British complete control of New York City and a large percentage of the suburbs. Less than two weeks later the Medical Department appointed and divided the responsibility for the care of the wounded between their two Medical chiefs, Doctors Shippen and Dr. Morgan. On November 28, 1776, The Medical Committee, to whom Dr. Shippen’s letter was referred,brought in a report, which was taken into consideration;
“Whereupon, Resolved, That Dr. Morgan take care of such sick and wounded of the army of the United States, as are on the east side of Hudson’s river, and that Dr. Shippen take care of such of the said sick and wounded as are on the west side of Hudson’s river; and that they both be directed to use the utmost diligence in superintending the surgeons and mates of the army, so that the sick and wounded may be effectually provided with everything necessary for their recovery.”
But some of those in the hospital at the Tappan Reformed Church didn’t recover and were probably hastily buried, and as Dr. Cole wrote, “There is a tradition, in regard to which I think that no one now knows it as more than a tradition, that a hundred soldiers were rudely “buried in a heap” in its northeast corner during the Revolution.