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Historic America

The 1777 Van Cortlandtville Skirmish

A daring attack by outnumbered colonials routs a British raid, while a blue cloak captured in the skirmish later provided material for a U.S. flag flying above Fort Stanwix.

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The Van Cortlandtville Skirmish was fought on March 24, 1777 between American patriot troops commanded by Lt. Col. Marinus Willett and a British raiding party commanded by Lt. Col. John Bird near modern-day Cortlandt, New York during the American Revolutionary War. The battle ended in American victory, with the British withdrawing back to their boats.

After being pushed out of New York City in 1776, George Washington established his headquarters in Peekskill along the Hudson River. He considered the area critical for keeping the Continental Army supplied. The British were well-aware, and in late March 1777, 500 British troops sailed up the Hudson River to raid Patriot farms and burn supplies. They landed at Peekskill Bay on March 23 and began pummeling Brig. Gen. Alexander McDougall‘s 250-man force on Fort Hill with artillery.

The following day, a force of 200 British troops marched northeast toward the Van Cortlandt family manor and began pillaging. Some became separated from the main body. Sensing an opportunity, Lt. Col. Marinus Willett, newly arrived with his 80-man detachment, persuaded McDougall to allow him to attack. His men fixed bayonets and charged the unsuspecting British raiders as the sun disappeared behind the horizon.

McDougall wrote to George Washington: “…the Enemy fled with great precipitation to the main Body. They were panick struck, asserted the Woods were full of Rebel Soldiers.” The British slipped away in their boats the next morning. When Willett’s unit was re-assigned to Fort Stanwix a few months later, a blue cloak his men captured at Van Cortlandtville provided material for an early version of the U.S. flag, possibly its first use in battle.

Fought between Great Britain and her Thirteen American Colonies from 1775 to 1883, the Revolutionary War led to a Declaration of Independence and the formation of the United States of America in 1776. The Thirteen Colonies won their independence, at the cost of an estimated 158,000 British, American, French, German, Spanish, and American Indian lives. It was a dynamic and surprisingly international conflict.

After the war, this engagement faded from public memory aside from a bit of historical trivia. The sleepy town of Cortlandt, New York grew from 1,932 people in 1790 to over 41,500 in 2010. As far as I’m aware, there was no sign or marker commemorating the skirmish until the Van Cortlandtville Historical Society erected one in a public park in 2004.

The Van Cortlandtville Skirmish sign is located along Oregon Road north of Peekskill, New York, across from St. Columbanus School at GPS coordinates 41.31265, -73.90344. Roadside parking is available along Donnelly Place, which diverges from and returns to Oregon Road around the park.

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