Greetings, readers! We’re kicking off the TURN postseason with a series of posts by Todd Braisted covering a number of heavily-requested topics related to the Battle of Setauket. Today’s post covers the British — or rather, not-so-British — military presence in Setauket in 1776 and 1777, and includes a primer on the distinctions between American-born “Provincials” and British regulars. Contrary to what we’ve seen on screen, Setauket was not awash in a sea of redcoats in the months leading up to the Battle of Setauket in August 1777. In fact, there were likely no redcoats stationed there at all… -RS
The first season of TURN has brought the central Long Island town of Setauket to life, showing us residents of one political persuasion or another living amongst a garrison of British soldiers. In TURN, the townspeople, though technically British colonists, are not thought of as “British,” and the scarlet-clad soldiers shown interacting with the residents certainly wouldn’t be considered American. But how does the Hollywood setup compare to what actually happened? In this piece, we will examine the actual troops that were in town during the time the show has covered in its first season, from December 1776 to August 1777. The historic reality may surprise you…
For the bulk of this time period, the main British and Hessian forces were located around New Brunswick, New Jersey under Sir William Howe, or in New York City and its immediate environs. Located nearly 60 miles from lower Manhattan, the Setauket garrison was quite isolated from other British posts, the bulk of which were in Brooklyn or Queens. The job of the troops stationed there was simply one of defense and the protection of the countryside from rebel incursions from Connecticut. The British therefore saw little need to waste valuable European troops in Setauket. Instead, they used loyal American forces.
Throughout the 18th century, the British had authorized their colonies to raise their own regiments to augment the relatively limited number of British Regulars available to fight the French and/or Indians during the different wars then raging (known collectively as the Colonial Wars). During the French and Indian War of 1756-1763, these Provincial Forces, or “Provincials,” consisted of tens of thousands of Americans who provided valuable service in successfully driving the French out of North America.
At the outbreak of war in America in 1775, the British saw no reason not to repeat the process: Let the “good” Americans help subdue the “bad” Americans. But the process for doing this in the American Revolution would be far more complicated than during the previous wars. Previously, colonial legislatures, flush with subsidies from Parliament, had raised regiments on a colony by colony basis to serve against the French – but there was no such infrastructure to do that in 1776. The British, therefore, needed to rely on influential individuals to raise troops both where the British held sway and more commonly, clandestinely behind the lines. One such individual, as we have seen on TURN, was Robert Rogers, whose Queen’s Rangers became one of the first Provincial regiments raised in the New York City area. In September 1776 though, the wheels would be in motion to raise troops specifically on Long Island. Lots of them.
By 1776, Oliver DeLancey had been a prominent New York politician for decades. Through his political and family connections, he was a man involved in all aspects of the colony’s governance. He had seen service in the French and Indian War and was considered by the British as both influential and reliable, having a son then serving as a captain in the British 17th Light Dragoons. On 5 September 1776, the senior DeLancey was authorized to raise a brigade of three battalions for service “Solely for the defence of [Long] Island and to reestablish Order, and Government within the Same, to Apprehend or drive all Concealed Rebels from among his Majesties well Affected Subjects & other essential Purposes…”
DeLancey immediately set about picking out the men he wished to lead his battalions. They in turn would issue warrants to those who would recruit the men (their success in recruiting would earn them their commissions as officers). Based on family names, the 1st Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger appears to have been raised primarily in Suffolk County, the 2nd Battalion under Colonel George Brewerton from western Long Island, New York City and Connecticut, while the 3rd Battalion under Colonel Gabriel G. Ludlow was heavily recruited in Queens County. It was actually Colonel Ludlow’s loyalist battalion, not any British redcoats, that formed the garrison of Setauket during the time when TURN takes place.
Far from the spiffy looking British portrayed in the show, the 3rd Battalion of DeLancey’s would not have even had uniforms of any sort until clothing arrived from England at the end of March 1777. And it would not have been the red coats folks are used to seeing Crown Forces wear, but rather a green regimental coat, with white lapels, cuff and collar. This was the uniform worn by the 5,000 or so Provincial troops raised in the New York City area at that time. Prior to this, the men would have served in whatever they wore from home, looking much like their rebel counterparts.
What is not known is exactly when the DeLancey’s 3rd Battalion (i.e., the battalion led by Colonel Ludlow) arrived at Setauket. In the beginning of 1777 the battalion was at Huntington NY, moving to Oyster Bay the 2nd week of May. Ludlow and his men were then relieved by the 1st Battalion and the King’s American Regiment about three weeks later, at which point they most likely moved to Setauket. WhileColonel Ludlow may have led the troops there in early June, the command soon devolved upon the battalion’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett. Yes, the real Hewlett, who (like Robert Rogers) was an American-born Loyalist.
We have a very good idea how many men were in town at the time of the Battle of Setauket (which we’ll discuss in a forthcoming post), as muster rolls of the battalion are dated just two days after the attack took place in August 1777. In addition to Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett, there were five other named officers, along with 5 lieutenants, 4 ensigns, 4 or 5 staff officers, 13 sergeants, 14 corporals, 5 drummers and 145 privates present and fit for duty, organized into five companies. Others were either absent elsewhere or sick. Relatively speaking, as far as battalions and garrisons were concerned, this one was pretty small.
While it may have been confusing for a general audience, it would have been wonderful to see an accurate portrayal of green-coated Loyalists – mostly native Long Islanders – interact with the residents of a Long Island town! Of course, “British vs. colonist” confrontation is easier to write, easier to portray, and easier for most to relate to. To expect more of an entertainment series is probably just wishful thinking, but still… (n.b. What an incredible dynamic that would have created!)
In any case, the Setauket garrison would be short-lived. On 17 November 1777, Sir Henry Clinton, commanding at New York and stripped of troops to reinforce Sir William Howe at Philadelphia, ordered Setauket abandoned and the fortifications there destroyed. Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett and his men dutifully complied, moving to Herricks, Queens County, about 35 miles to the west. While British troops would again occupy posts in Suffolk County, Setauket would generally spend the rest of the war free from a military presence, other than troops occasionally passing through.
As for Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett, we will cover him (and his men) in greater depth over the next few weeks. He’s not going anywhere. And while the series is off for the summer, someone should tell Burn Gorman — aka “Major Hewlett” — that he needs to lobby Craig Silverstein and the producers for a promotion!
(n.b. For more information about the men and officers of the Provincial brigades mentioned in this post, check out the library of transcribed primary source documents on royalprovincial.com.)
Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject. Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society.