American author of The Last of the Mohicans.
Autograph Letter Signed, J. Fenimore Cooper, four full pages, legal folio, [May 20-27, 1848]. To Messrs Editors [George Pope Morris and Nathaniel Parker Willis] of The Home Journal.
The Battle of Long Island that James Cooper discusses in the present letter took place on August 27, 1776. It was a successful British action in Brooklyn against the American Continental Army during the Revolution. The battle initiated the British campaign of 1776 to seize control of New York and thereby isolate New England from the rest of the colonies. The British general Lord Howe had moved to occupy New York City. The defending American general, George Washington, stationed one-third of his troops on the Long Island side of the East River in order to protect his left flank. From his encampment on Staten Island, Howe attacked Washington’s isolated wing on August 22. After four day’s reconnaissance, Howe drove the Americans back and inflicted heavy losses. Howe might have captured Washington’s entire force on Long Island at this point, but instead he elected to lay siege. The following week Washington took advantage of this delay to retreat across the river to Manhattan, a successful move that helped repair low American morale. When the British landed on Long Island in August 1776 and threatened New York from Brooklyn, General Nathaniel Woodhull “was ordered to Jamaica to command his militia in the removal of stock and other supplies that might be useful to the enemy to the eastern end of the island and in furnishing protection to the inhabitants. With scarcely a hundred militiamenÖhe succeeded in driving a large quantity of stock out of the enemy’s reach. The disastrous outcome of the battle of Long Island on August 27, however, cut him off entirely from the rest of the army, and in this desperate situation, he retired to his headquarters at Jamaica to await fresh orders, which he confidently expected. Repeated appeals to the Provincial Congress and to Washington in his behalf met with no practical response. Committees were dispatched to aid him with ‘advice’; Connecticut was asked to send troops, but none came. There are various versions of his capture near Jamaica by a detachment of British dragoons, but it seems in keeping with his soldierly character to suppose that he did not yield his sword without a fight and that he was wounded in his attempt to escape from his captors. His subsequent ill treatment which resulted in his death within a few weeks raised him to the rank of hero and martyr” [Dictionary of American Biography].
James Cooper writes in response to a letter of author Henry Onderdonk, Jr. dated May 8, 1848 from Jamaica, Long Island, criticizing Judge Jones’s History of George Washington. Onderdonk’s letter was published in the May 20, 1848 issue of The Home Journal. Cooper obviously wrote his letter before he had a chance to read Onderdonk’s second letter of May 15, which was also published in The Home Journal the following week on May 27. Onderdonk’s chief criticisms concerned factual errors found in Judge Jones’s unpublished History and, in particular, with the controversy surrounding General Woodhull’s failure to join Washington. Cooper’s letter was published in the June 3, 1848 issue of The Home Journal, although over twenty manuscript revisions do not appear in the published text. It details the events contributing to Woodhull’s failure to join Washington and, most importantly, to the circumstances of his death. Cooper’s argument draws heavily from his maritime experiences and is filled with examples of conduct aboard fighting ships in time of battle. While Cooper’s facts are not always accurate, the letter is informative and important to our understanding of General Woodhull’s conduct. Cooper states that for Onderdonk to claim that Judge Jones’s manuscript History is worthless because of its few inaccuracies, then Marshall’s Life of Washington must also be considered worthless. He goes on to refute the criticisms of Onderdonk, citing examples of the kind of slaughter that generally goes on during a battle. Cooper also responds of Onderdonk’s charge against Oliver De Lancey and details many of the incidents that went on at the time of the Battle of Long Island, and attempts to give new insight into Woodhull’s failure to march to Washington’s side when needed.
“I confess that the reasoning of Mr. Onderdonk does not strike me as at all conclusive against the credit that is due to the history of Judge Jones. No one of his objections is unanswerable; and most of them manifest a bias to regard only one side of the question. That Judge Jones was mistaken in supposing that General Woodhull was stopped on his march to join Washington by the battle of the 26th, I was aware at the time I copied the statement. To believe, however, that his mistake in this respect, contributes to show that his manuscript is ‘utterly worthless as an historical document,’ involves the necessity of believing that ‘Marshall’s Life of Washington’ is also ‘utterly worthless,’ for something very like the same reason. These sweeping charges seldom convince. Judge Jones, in this particular, gave what appears to have been the prevailing opinion of the time; and he gave it temperately, without any imputation on Gen. Woodhull’s conduct. Now, Marshall, the highest American authority has firstly much the same idea, with the addition of supposing that General Woodhull remain at, or near Jamaica, contrary to his orders. All this has been explained since, but it was not until 1804, that even Judge Marshall was made aware of the nature of the particular duty on which Gen. Woodhull was employed. The mistake of Judge Marshall, and its correction, is given at length, p. 413 in Thompson’s History of Long Island.
“This is the only circumstance [addressed] by Mr Onderdonk that appears to me to require a serious answer. The historical fact involved, is of no great general importance, and is of none whatever as connected with the particular inquiry before us. Judge Jones was mistaken on a very immaterial fact, so far as the main history of events was concerned, in common with Judge Marshall. He is in respectable company, and I question if Marshall’s Life of Washington will lose its high character on account of the mistake into which its author fell. Mr Onderdonk tells us that, in quoting Judge Jones, he italicises the mistakes of the writer. I will follow him, seriation, after pointing out the errors connected with what was certainly a mistake in supposing that Gen. Woodhull wished to join Washington, he Italicise the word ‘quarters,’ though I can not see that he makes any comments on its use. If Judge Jones miscalled a halt ‘quarters,’ it is not a very grave offence in an unprinted work.
“The next objection that Mr Onderdonk raises is to the statement of Judge Jones that the dragoons were sent to scout certain prisoners from Jamaica to Brooklyn, ‘The evening after the battle.’ Mr. Onderdonk thinks there were no prisoners, and says, correctly enough, that the dragoons did not arrive until the evening of the day after the battle.
“As respects the first objection, there might have been prisoners of whom Mr Onderdonk knows nothing. Then a party might have been sent under a misapprehension of the fact where the prisoners actually made were. Such things as useless marches and countermarches are of constant occurrence in war. What should we think of the historian who denied that Gen. Taylor countermarched from near Victoria all the way to Monterey, in order to aid in repelling an attack on Saltillo, on the ground that Saltillo was not attacked!
“Judge Jones evidently was aware of the charges against the English, in connection with the death of Gen. Woodhull, and it seems to me that he has given his statement expressly in reference to these charges. Now the historian and the officer commanding these dragoons were pretty nearly connected. They saw each other constantly, and, under the circumstances, I take it for granted that Judge Jones got many of his facts from Oliver De Lancey himself, and this among others. It was of no moment in any sense, except to the truth, whether the dragoons were sent to escort prisoners, or to seize Gen. Woodhull, and why should Judge Jones state the fact unless he had authority for it? Mr Onderdonk gives no authority for his assertion that the dragoons went out to take Gen. Woodhull.
“As for the ‘evening after the battle,’ admitting it to be a mistake, it is merely a mistake of a day in a date in a matter of very little moment. I confess, however, that I understood the writer to mean the evening of the next day, the omission of the words ‘of the day’ being just such an error as an unprinted work would be apt to contain. An uncorrected work should always be received with large allowances. Very few unpracticed writers avoid such errors, for errors of mere oversight. The expression was colloquial, and as many persons would probably understand it in one sense, as in the other.
“The use of the words ‘generously granted,’ in reference to the ‘quarter’ given to the party with Gen. Woodhull, convinces me that Judge Jones wrote with the charges distinctly in his mind. Mr Onderdonk Italicises the words, and answers them by showing how theÖ(Highlanders) had bayonetted the Americans the previous day on the field! Men in the heat of battle do many things they would not dream of doing in their cooler moments. After showing how these Highlanders slaughtered the Americans, Mr Onderdonk, not very logically, to say nothing of any other quality, adds that the facts ‘show that the British Army regarded the Americans with much the same feeling as Mr Cooper does the anti-renters. I quote the passage, to give its writer the full benefit of his mode of illustrating. ‘The manuscript speaks of Woodhull’s having one wound on the arm, ‘says Mr Onderdonk.’ There are persons now leaving, who have heard an eye witness, and who watched at his bed side that night, say his arm was hacked as a butcher would hack a shin of beef. There were seven gashes on the arm, but there may have been one deeper than the rest.’ Here, I think, Mr Onderdonk meets his own objection. Judge Jones obviously means to say that ‘the particularly one (wound) on the arm’ was the serious wound. We are told, elsewhere, that one cut was on the elbow, a hurt that produced the mortification, which terminated in death; another allusion is so very apparent to this fact, that it strikes me the Italics might have been spared in this instance, without at all weakening the criticism. To have made his own statement perfectly fair, moreover, Mr Onderdonk ought to have added that Judge Jones says Gen. Woodhull received several strikes from their broad swords, particularly one on the arm.’
‘The manuscript says’ continues Mr Onderdonk, ‘Woodhull was carried on board a man of war. Then, considering his high rank, he ought to have been carried, but was not. Robert Troup Esquire, was, with seventy or eighty officers, (?) put on board a vessel used for conveying live stock from England, and while there, Woodhull was also brought on board, Troup’s affidavit shows what hospitality Woodhull recieved.’ As respects the preference between a man of war and a transport for a wounded man, and as a rule, I think Mr Onderdonk is evidently in an error. Certainly, if going off to a fleet containing an empty transport and cruiser, a wounded man and among strangers, I should choose the transport in preference to the cruiser. A cruiser has all her room occupied. The captain alone has more room than he absolutely wants, and entering his cabin is like intruding into a private dwelling. On the other hand, empty transports usually are comfortable, and can be treated more like inns. It is a delicate thing to intrude into a vessel of war, and often leads to the most unpleasant collisions. I think any prudent commanding officer, who had empty tranports at his disposal, would, as an indulgence to his prisoners, send them on board such vessels, instead of taking them into his cruisers.
“Judge Jones was mistaken in calling the vessel a ‘man of war.’ This may have arisen from having been told that the prisoners had been sent aboard the ‘fleet.’ Very few landsmen understand the term ‘man of war’ as it is used by seamen. Half the papers at the south speak daily of this ‘U. States Steamer’ and that ‘U. States’ ship, meaning tranports or store ships, that are armed by the Government. A man of war’s man would call these craft ‘transports’ or ‘store ships,’ or, at most ‘Government vessels.’ Judge Jones may have been misinformed as to the character of the vessel in which the prisoners were kept, or he may have deceived himself in his terms. I think it pretty evident that Mr Onderdonk is under the popular notion that a ‘man of war’ is a ship of the line. This is a mistake; the smallest cruiser in that fleet having been just as much a ‘man of war’, as the largest. A brig, or a schooner, is a ‘man of war’ as well as a three decker. A transport for beeres, is usually a large vessel, and, if thoroughly cleaned, and free from smell, would make a good hospital ship, on account of its size. Mr Onderdonk thinks Gen. Woodhull’s rank entitled him to especial attention. I think so too; though I should not have selected a man-of-war to receive him, did a comfortable transport offer. Humanity is always policy. Notwithstanding Mr Onderdonk’s notions of British cruelty, it has been said ‘had Sir Grey Carleton commanded, he would have conquered America by his kindness.’ Still, we are not to forget that the English recognised no rank in General Woodhull. In this they were perfectly consistent and perhaps wise. He had no legal authority according to their notions, and they had as much right to these notions as we had to ours. It was a struggle that was to get its character from the result. As respects this cattle-ship, I will add, that the English fleet was near, or quite three months in making its passage; and that there was consequently time as we had to sun, to get rid of the oxen, and to air the ship. Such a vessel cleaned is like any other vessel.
“Mr Onderdonk’s Past stricture is on Judge Jones’ statement that Gen. Woodhull refused to have his arm amputated, whereas he insists that the arm was amputated. Did Judge Jones and Mr Onderdonk refer to the same moment of time, or to the same incident, the objection would have more weight. Judge Jones clearly refers to what passed on board ship, with the intention of showing that Gen. Woodhull was not neglected, as well as of showing why he died, where, as he says ‘The surgeons advised amputation; to this he would not assent. The wound mortified, and he died in a few days.’ Now, all this is not only perfectly reconcileable with the fact that after the prisoner was sent on shore he changed his mind, but it is perfectly natural. The reluctance of men to lose their limbs is well known, and what is here stated often happens. I have quite as much difficulty in believing that the English surgeons neglected their duty, in a case of this subs[tance], as in believing that any officer behaved to Gen. Woodhull as has been stated. Judge Jones means that Gen. Woodhull died in consequence of refusing to submit to arm amputation when first offered. This is true, if the offer were even made. It is no where proved that such an offer was not made.
“As for Col. Troup’s statement of the treatment offered to the prisoner, so far as it appears in the affidavit as published, I have already shown its value. He says that the General would have been obliged to lie on the naked deck, had he not been supplied with a mattress, by a lieutenant! In the English service, a transport, almost uniformly, has a sec-lieutenant in line, as the ‘agent.’ He controls every thing, so that this statement, taking in the other end foremost, amounts to just this-‘The officer in command furnished the prisoner with a mattress, thereby preventing his lying on the naked deck. How differently a thing reads by looking at it on its two sides! As for the deck, this may, or may not have been a disadvantage. At anchor, in smooth water, it was probably the best place for a man in General Woodhull’s situation. Perry died on his cabin floor, and Clayton lay on the same floor, about the same time, I believe. Nelson died on a mattress in the Victory’s cockpit, I think, though my memory may deceive me. I believe Lawrence, also, died in some such situation. It is an every day occurrence on board ship, whether I am right, or not, in the instances last quoted.
“The charge against Oliver de Lancey is of the most improbable nature, and ought to be sustained by the clearest proof. Instead of that, it seems to rest, entirely, on one of the flimsiest affidavits I ever read. [Execute], get up for political effect, on its face, hearsay at the very best, with all the chances of misconceptions of meaning, and then so vague in its terms that the deponent does not distinctly say who told him a single thing to which he swears! The language usual to such documents is evaded, in order to produce the statement that is published. The circumstance that Mr Troup asked Gen. Woodhull how he got hurt, is set forth distinctly, though of no moment at all, unless to assist in mystifying, while the all important fact that Mr Troup was told the story he repeats by the wounded man, is so slurred over as to tell nothing clearly. No man has a right to say, from that affidavit, that Mr Troup swears that Gen. Woodhull told him any thing. On the contrary, the departure from the closeness and distinctness usual to fair-dealing affidavits leaves a fair presumption that he did not. The very same number of words as those actually used might have made the matter perfectly clear. ‘He asked the General the particulars of his capture, who told him that he’ would have put this all important point beyond dispute. ‘And he told him’ would sound better, perhaps, or ‘was told by him.’ There was no want of skill in drawing up the affidavit, which is otherwise quite artistically done, and when the deponent says that he ‘was informed’ that Gen. Woodhull perished subsequently for want of care, the necessity of adding ‘on good authority’ is felt. No court in christendom would accept this affidavit as establishing the fact that Gen. Woodhull ‘told’ Col. Troup the account of his own capture.
“Mr Onderdonk attributes Judge Jones’ mistakes to the fact that he was not at Fort neck, when the battle of Long Island was fought. Now, this reasoning happens to apply very well to the fact in which Judge Jones is clearly wrong, which it does not apply at all, to the parts of his account that have any connection with the matter at issue. If Judge Jones had been at Fort neck when Gen. Woodhull marched down the island he might not have made the mistake of supposing he did not reach Jamaica, but what could his absence have to do with the knowledge he subsequently obtained of the attempt to escape? He was at trial when the affidavit appeared, was in the way of hearing all that was said about that, and learning the manner in which it was met. Oliver De Lancey was his wife’s cousin. They saw each other constantly, and what is more, Judge Jones must have been in the constant habit of seeing others who were probably at the port at Jamaica. In a word, he was so situated as unavoidably to hear both sides of the question! How such a man, sitting down to leave a record of facts behind him, not to publish to produce a political effect, but to remain in manuscript as matter of record for his friends, would be very apt to state what he had ascertained as proper enquiry. He was often in Jamaica, and possessed all the necessary means to ascertain the truth touching a fact that had become matter of public interest. It is not reasonable to suppose he neglected to use these means. This is a very different matter from taking up a false impression as to Gen. Woodhull’s having got a few miles further, on a few miles less, on his march.
“Now, look at the probabilities. Mr Woodhull was a political man, as well as a soldier. By English law, he was a rebel; liable to be hanged. He was the first man, of that character, who had been taken with arms in his hands; or, taken at all, I believe. The result must have troubled him. Then he described as a cold, resolute man. It was night, and there was a thunder storm. Judge Jones says that, he attempted to escape. Mr Onderdonk, turns off, tells us that ‘the General came out of the house, took his horse from under the shed, and laid his hands on the reins,’ when the dragoons came up. Wm Warne says a dragoon told him he took Gen. Woodhull in a barn, in the dark, and refusing to answer, the General received his hunts &c.
“All this looks very much as if Gen. Woodhull was endeavouring to profit by the darkness and the storm, and to get off. Mr Onderdonk’s particularity about his just getting the reins of his horse is significant. He has [un]doubtedly heard this somewhere, and it sounds very much as if the General was about to mount, to be off. It is no where stated that he knew the dragoons were coming, and would he be likely to start in the height of the ‘lightening red glare’ unless with a design to escape.
“It is admitted, all round, that much ambiguity and doubt exists as to the care of Gen. Woodhull. Mr Onderdonk himself allows this, by the conflicting accounts he gives. Now, this business of escaping, is an affair that obtains in character from the result, as much as any thing else in the world. When a man of dignified station is caught in an attempt to escape, no matter how elevated the motive, he suffers no public estimation, in a certain way. Any allusion to the event must be painful to such a man. This fact may have produced much of the confusion that exists in the accounts. When I ascertained that Gen. Woodhull was said to have been wounded in attempting to escape, it at once occurred to me that a reluctance to dwell on the circumstances may have induced him to give such a mutilated and disjointed account to Col. Troup, as to have misled that witness; and this without any deliberate design to decieve, in either party; such may have been the fact, but when the affidavit was closely examined, and the significant concession was properly noted, I came to the conclusion that some other person has been thus misled, which other person ‘told’ Col. Troup.
“From the character of Gen. Woodhull, I do not believe he attempted to violate a parole. It was not only natural, but it might have been his public duty, to try to get away if he could. Still, a president of a state Congress might not think he appeared to advantage in an account of a frustrated attempt to escape, in which he was cut up by sentinels. Success is very necessary to make such things go well, and one can easily understand that it would not be a subject much dilated on by the losing party. Even admitting that Gen. Woodhull did make a statement to Col. Troup, it was probably made under the influence of such feeling, as to give it very little value. If the affidavit is good for any thing, it proves of itself, he would not have considered himself in danger of dying, when he gave in. This is also proved by another circumstance. Gen. Woodhull sent for his wife, when he supposed himself about to die; and this he did not until he was removed to a building on shore, on some days after he went on board the transport.
“The death of Gen. Woodhull is a point in American history that deserves to be thoroughly investigated, and I am not sorry that this discussion has occurred. I feel satisfied that it will relieve the memory of a gallant soldier from a most unjust and severe imputation, that has arisen from political prejudices and political intrigues. These prejudices and intrigues rest, like a blight on this country, even at the present hour; perverting facts, misleading opinions and having the marked effect of placing inimitable men in places of profits and power. Under this blight we possess two public opinions; a Whig public opinion and a Loco Foco [a member of the anti-monopolist wing of New York City Democrats] public opinion. Of independent, sound, healthful, manly public opinion there is very little-almost none and every effort to extricate truth from the tyrants of the land should be hailed with pleasure. We get so little of that sacred quality that there is great danger of our not knowing it when we see it. As respects the main fact stated by Judge Jones, our reasoning ought to be very simple. He has either invented it, or he had heard it. I presume no one will affirm the first. If heard, then, we ask to look at his sources of information, remembering that the point was publicly discussed at the time, and that his attention was drawn to the subject. I think there can be little doubt that he has given Oliver De Lancey’s explanation.
“I will take this occasion to say that several misprints occurred in my Past letter; the consequence of a careless manner of writing. ‘Fort neck’ is spelt ‘Fat neck,’ the ’71st’ is called the ’70th’ regiment, in one place ‘Woodhull’ is printed for ‘Onderdonk’, an oversight of my own, quite likely; ‘all so loudly expressed’ should read ‘loosely expressed’ &c &c &c.”
Oliver de Lancey was the Loyalist soldier whose “notable contribution of his military career was in raising a brigade of fifteen hundred Loyalists ‘for the defense of Long Island and for other exigencies.’ Of these ‘De Lancey’s Battalions,’ two afterward took a brilliant part in the British campaigns in the south, while the third remained in Queens County during the whole period of hostilities. De Lancey himself, in chief command of this force as brigadier-general, remained in New York, as was the senior Loyalist officer in the British army in America” [DAB] Henry Onderdonk was a teacher and local historian who “made his recreation, the study of Long Island antiquities.Ö After following the teaching profession for thirty-three years, he retired and engaged wholly in the work for which he had been preparing by his investigations in history and genealogy.Ö His work represents the painstaking collection and compilation of such materials as yield no great reputations but bring honor in the end to those who lay these foundations for prouder structures” [DAB].
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- Literature – American