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Female Ancestors
Letter from Catharine Van Cortland, 1777

[Letter from Catharine VAN CORTLAND to her husband Philip VAN CORTLAND, dated Hanover, New Jersey, January 20, 1777.]

My beloved Philly

Since my last letter to you a great variety of troubles and afflictions have beset our dear family and put your Kitty's resolution to its utmost strength.

The arrival of the Rebel Troops in this neighbourhood has been severely felt by us.

Parties continually passing this way were always directed by officious people to stop at our house to breakfast, dine, or stay the night; the horses from the teams were put into our barns to feed, without even the ceremony of asking liberty.

During the stay of the officers of the hospital we had some protection. But immediately on their removal, several field officers from the New England line and a company of privates took possession, a number of men were put into the kitchen and store.

They were the most disorderly of their species and their officers were from the dregs of the people. Indeed, two lieutenants messed and slept in the kitchen altogether, and would not be prevailed upon to leave their quarters.

To complete the whole, a French general has also come on the hill at Dashwood, and daily draws his supply for his numerous cavalry from our granary and barrack.

Many of our female neighbours have been here, but I find their visits are only to gratify curiosity and to add insult to our unremitted distress.

One of them who lives across the river, whose family we took so much pleasure in relieving when friendless, made a return of gratitude yesterday by a humane speech. She said that formerly she always respected you and loved the ground over which you walked, but now could with pleasure see your blood run down the road.

Her husband came a night or two past, with a number of others, around one o'clock, on pretense to search for a British Light Horseman who they were informed was secreted in our house.

On being assured that such a supposition was ridiculous, as the house was guarded day and night, and no one permitted to speak to me but in presence of an officer or the sentry, they then acknowledged their errand was to look for you, as they had positive orders to take you dead or alive and were determined to do it.

After much abuse they went off, though not before one of the officers in the house told them you was not at home.

The pious, devout and Reverend Mr. Green is very industrious in promoting your ruin by declaring you an enemy to their cause.

The farmers are forbid to sell me provisions, and the millers to grind our grain.

Our woods are cut down for the use of their army, and that which you bought and left corded near the river my servants are forbid to touch, though we are in the greatest distress for the want of it, as you may suppose when I assure you that our dear children have been six weeks without any other covering to their tender feet but woollen rags sewed round them to keep them from freezing.

A few days ago, the colonel and other officers quartered here told me they expected some of their brother officers to dine and spend the evening with them.

This I understood as a hint to provide accordingly, which I was determined to do to the utmost of my powers, though from necessity. The dinner was plentiful, well dressed, and such as I wished to have given to more welcome guests.

The old Madeira was drank in profusion; and, if we judge from the eating and drinking, they paid a compliment to our entertainment.

After removal of the cloth, I took the earliest opportunity with our dear children to absent myself; and then they set in for a drinking match, every few minutes calling aloud upon the landlady to replenish the decanters which were kept continually going.

It grieved me to see the countenances of our little ones. I endeavoured to conceal my emotions, but did it awkwardly.

At length, one of them observed that the Gentlemen who used to dine with Pappa never did so; and, if these were not his friends, why did Mamma treat them so well.

The guests now grew noisy; and, in order to shun it, I ordered one of the servants to sit in the back room with the keys and a lantern ready to obey their calls for wine.

I then took our children to the little Island behind the Garden to beguile the time; and, whilst they were diverting themselves in picking up sticks to kindle a fire and cut little fish out of the ice, I sat down under the beautiful spreading branches of the lofty Elm which we in Summer season daily visited with mutual uninterrupted pleasure.

Though the weather was cold, I did not perceive it until my return to the house, which was much sooner than I wished.

A Servant came down and said the Gentlemen desired my company, as they were going to dance. This confounded me.

I hastened with our flock into the back room, where I had not been long before the colonel knocked at the door and being admitted told me, 'the fiddler and the guests were assembled and he hoped I would honour them with my Company.'

Though I was much distressed, my resolution supported me whilst I told him that the present situation of myself and children would sufficiently apologize for my refusing to partake of any scenes of mirth where my husband could not attend me.

This brought the tears from my eyes, which before had been suppressed, and relieved me from any further importunity until near ten o'clock when he returned and entreated me 'to honour the Company for a few minutes as a Spectator.'

I thought it best to make merit of necessity and, taking the older children with me, placed ourselves between the clock and back room door.

The Officers were dancing Reels with some tawdry dressed females I had never seen, and among them the colonel's housekeeper, whom I did know.

I felt shocked and from the behaviour of the company resolved to withdraw, and [found] strength sufficient to reach my room with our dear children, whose eyes were all swimming in tears, and passed the remainder of the night without further interruption.

Vernon-Jackson, H. O. H., "A Loyalist's Wife: Letters of Mrs. Philip Van Cortlandt December 1776 to February 1777", History Today Magazine, Volume XIV, no. 8, Pages 574-580.

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