Revolutionary War: Massacre at Pines Bridge Part II: Davenport House

Underhill House

The Isaac Underhill House – Photo: Mike Virgintino

Part I of Massacre at Pines Bridge explained that various military posts occupied this no-man’s land in Westchester County north of New York City. The scene also was the site of several skirmishes among American and British armies, militias and Loyalists. Eventually, General George Washington decided to place Lieutenant Christopher Greene in command of a permanent post at this location to protect the crossing of the Croton River.

Defenses were set up quickly and soldiers were quartered at the homes scattered throughout the nearby communities. Greene arrived during early April 1781 with his 1st Rhode Island Regiment of Negro and Indian slaves purchased by the government for military service. The soldiers were stationed in farmhouses north of the Croton River. These homes belonged to Widow Remsen, Isaiah Flewelling, Widow Griffin and David Montross.

Negroes were posted at the Griffin and Montross homes. Griffin lived on a part of Crompond Road, also known as King Street (presently Hanover Avenue, with Hanover an earlier name for the area), about one half-mile from Pines Bridge. Burned during 1913, the home was a three-story L-shaped white structure at the northeast corner of the present Boone Road and Hanover Avenue. Montross lived on the present Somers Road (which was known at the time as the Pines Bridge Road, as were several roads in the area, including Hanover, that led to the crossing). Remsen lived between them. The Montross, Remsen and Flewelling sites now are under the reservoir created when the Pines Bridge valley was flooded during the early 1900s.

Farther north on the Crompond Road continues to stand the farmhouse of Quaker Isaac Underhill. It served as quarters for a French general during that army’s movement through the area. It also is the house where British Major John Andre ate breakfast during 1780, supposedly on the back steps, before he crossed Pines Bridge to make his way back to the British lines with the plans to West Point.

Strategic Davenport House

The nearby Davenport House occasionally served as patriot headquarters. The first known occupation was by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Thompson, the commander at Young’s House about 12 miles south during a February 1780 raid. Not long before Greene arrived, it was headquarters for Colonel William Hull.

After his arrival at the Davenport House, Greene inspected defenses and wrote to Rhode Island’s secretary of state on April 16: “I was overjoyed at the Major’s (Ebenezer Flagg) arrival. I yesterday went with him to the lines at Pines Bridge…I expect when I go upon the lines to be more industrious and alert, otherwise I may be surprised; that, you know, I always held up as unpardonable for an officer.”

Davenport’s is a considerable distance from Pines Bridge by modern roads. A more direct route through the several hundred acres of the family farm existed at the time. This route joined with Crompond Road about a half mile north of the bridge at a once narrow pass through a rock formation. After the war, this area was called “Spook Rocks” as locals believed spirits of those who died during the war manifested themselves during favorable occasions.

Over the years, the appearance of the Davenport House has changed, but the original structure is evident. The first owners (Danfurtt anglicized to Danforth and then Davenport) settled the land prior to 1750. Croton Heights Road once passed in front of what is now the back of the house. Greene and his officers were quartered in the western portion of the house, allowing the Richard Davenport family to conduct life in the larger eastern section.

The Setting At The Davenport House

On the night of May 13, 1781, the Croton River’s passes were secured and the bridge’s floor planks removed to prevent a surprised approach by Loyalist bands and British soldiers. At widow Griffin’s home, 30 colored troops were quartered under Ensign Jeremiah Greenman (Colonel Greene’s nephew). Greene’s cousin, Captain Thomas Hughes, the regiment’s paymaster, came to the lines to pay the troops and elected to remain the night. Troops also were at the nearby Flewelling and Montross homes. Major Amos Morrill of the 1st New Hampshire Line and attached to the headquarters staff, was at Widow Remsen’s home and may have been off duty.

Davenport House

The Davenport House was the scene of battle for the Massacre at Pines Bridge -Photo: Mike Virgintino

At Davenport’s, a large bedchamber occupied most, if not all, of the second floor of the western section. Those present were Greene, Flagg, Lieutenant Ebenezer Macomber (confined to bed), an unknown lieutenant from the New Hampshire Line and a Continental Surgeon known as Dr. Cushman. About 50 troops occupied tents in the yard east and north of the house. A small unit was on the south side.

As May 14 dawned, patriot guards at nearby Oblenis Ford on the Croton River were dismissed. According to British accounts, a party of 300 (200 foot soldiers and 100 cavalry) had left Morrisania (now part of the borough of The Bronx but then part of southern Westchester County) on May 13. As the soldiers traveled overnight to Pines Bridge, Loyalist guides led them past patriot pickets and patrols.

American troops during the Revolutionary War had made preparations, at the urging of George Washington, to secure a critical crossing of the Croton River at Pines Bridge in New York’s northern Westchester County. Despite the defensive plans and the presence of troops, a band of men loyal to the British crown were able to penetrate the area on May 14, 1781 to launch a dawn attack. Officers and soldiers at American headquarters at the nearby Davenport House were ambushed. A number of them were killed in what become known as the Massacre at Pines Bridge.

The raid was a skirmish between Loyalist raiders from about 30 miles south and American soldiers of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment and the 1st New Hampshire Line. The best documentation of the fight appears in the recorded accounts of the people who lived in the area during that time, or from descendants who received first-hand accounts from their relatives.

Story From A Davenport Grandson

Joshua Carpenter, a Davenport grandson, was born in the house six years after the fight. He and others used the word “refugees” to describe the men who were loyal to the British. In the account by Davenport granddaughter Lydia Vail, she remembered that Rhode Island Lieutenant Christopher Greene called the attackers “cowboys.” This was a new American term and it was used to identify pro-British raiders who harassed and plundered the county’s rural districts along the boundary between American and British forces.

“The Refugees got to the house unperceived coming up from the west side where only a single sentinel who did not see them until near but who then fired. Some soldiers asleep on the south side stoop also fired. Greene and [Major Ebenezer] Flagg sprang up. The former encouraged the soldiers to defend themselves saying: ‘They are only a few cowboys, fire away boys, fire.’ Flagg advanced to the west window a pistol in each hand. He was answered by a volley and fell pierced by several balls.

“The Refugees at the same time burst in the north door thus making a cross fire. Fifty six bullet holes remain. Greene met the enemy at the north door and attempted defense sword in hand. He struck at [Captain Gilbert] Totten foremost with all his might and would have killed him but the blows were parried by a Refugee.

“Totten was stunned and wounded. Greene received several shots and was hacked with sabers. He then asked for and was given quarter. He then asked for parole. This was refused. They said that he must go to Morrisiania [the loyalist headquarters in the sourthern part of the county] and mounted him behind a dragoon. He fell off one and one half miles down the hill a little north of Griffen’s where he was left by the road.”

Witness Account From A Davenport Granddaughter

Lydia Vail’s story, recorded a number of years after the fight, provided additional details:

“I was at Davenport’s house a few minutes after the Refugees left…Greene, Flagg and a young Lieutenant whose name I do not remember, occupied a large room in the northwest corner of the second story…My grandfather [Richardson Davenport] was in the adjoining apartment, and overheard all the conversation of the three officers.

“The rashness and folly of the young Lieutenant was the cause of the disaster, as my grandfather and his family always said;…The young Lieutenant always slept with a pair of loaded pistols upon a stand at the head of his bend, and when he heard the noise he sprang up, raised the window sash on the west side of the room and discharged both pistols at the enemy…who instantly cried out: ‘Kill! Kill! No quarter!’ Flagg then exclaimed aloud to the Lieutenant, calling him by name, ‘…you’ve undone us!’ These were the last words he was ever to utter.

“Green(e), half dressed, but sword in hand, said, ‘We must sell our lives as dearly as we can.’ And approaching the head of the stairs, called aloud to the soldiers below: ‘Stand to your arms men! Courage! They are only a parcel of cow boys, fire away!’ Flagg approached the window from which the Lieutenant had fired, and a volley was discharged at him. He fell pierced with five or six balls.

“When I entered the house just after the Refugees had left, the young Lieutenant was lying dead at the door. He was the first one they killed on breaking in. Flagg, although desperately wounded, was yet alive and they dispatched him. Four or five were dead where the tents stood east of the house, besides many wounded…

“The Refugees retired by the south road or path to the Crompond Road taking Green(e) with them on horseback; near where the path or farm road comes into the highway. Greene, faint with the loss of blood, fell off. Finding that he was dying they placed him in a spot surrounded by whortleberry bushes, and putting something under his head for support, left him in that state to finish his days alone. Here he bled to death, and was found soon after with no clothing on but his shirt and drawers.

“Two negro servants and my father were wounded, one in the arm and the others in the shoulder…The disaster happened a little before sunrise…I lived at my father’s half a mile off, northerly on the Crompond Road; word came to us that they were all cut off and killed at head-quarters, and we all ran through the fields to Davenport’s house…found the floors and walls covered with the blood of the dead, wounded and dying…Major Morell…happened to pass the eventful night at Mrs. Remsen’s (courting it was said); returning to head-quarters next morning, he heard a noise which seemed to approach; spurring his horse he leapt over the fence and concealed himself in a thicket…The widow Griffin’s house stood above the Croton on the west side of the Crompond Road; her maiden name was brundage…”

Presence of Washington

Greene was found the following day near the residence of a Mr. Sutton by Major Joseph Strang and Captain Henry Strang of the local militia. The best available data locates this spot on the former Gilbert farm a short distance south of the Davenport property line and not far west of the current Hanover Avenue.

Abraham Underhill, the son of Isaac Underhill whose house stood along the nearby Crompond Road, stated years later:

“There was a party of Americans stationed at our house commanded by a lieutenant—but it was probably unknown to the British or they might have cut them off too. Had they attacked our house, the family would have been in great danger; for some of the boys were in bed with the officers, and in the confusion it is scarcely possible that all would have escaped injury. I have always thought of making the house musket proof by casing the outside with logs.

“During the Revolutionary War the main body of Washington’s army on its way from White Plains to New Jersey, marched past the house going from Pines Bridge to Peekskill. I frequently saw Washington pass during the time, so that I knew him as well as I did anybody. He also had a lifeguard of twelve young gentlemen riding before him with drawn swords for protection and honor—they were said to be Virginians.”

 

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