Roguish New Yorkers and a Hard Winter: The Guards in Occupied NYC

The primary source for this one comes courtesy of Mr. Don Hagist who, being a foremost expert on the life and experiences of everyday British soldiers during the Rebellion, forwarded us the account of one George Mathew - a 15 year old Ensign in the Coldstream Guards and aide-de-camp for his uncle and the commander of the Brigade of Guards from 1776 to 1780, Brigadier (later Major in 1779) General Edward Mathew.

The younger Mathew's account, published in 1857, provides fascinating insights into the life of a Guardsman in occupied New York.

The southernmost areas of Manhattan Island in 1776. Mathew and the Guards were encamped farther north.

Arriving as part of an annual levy of replacements to the Guards nearly three years after the Brigade first came to America, Mathew reveals a New York that he likely viewed in stunning contrast from the London he had last seen in March 1779 before transiting the Atlantic.

The houses, except in the best streets, are built of wood. There are two or three very good streets; but one of the best is partly burnt down [the Great Fire of New York had occurred in September 1776, shortly after the British occupation of the city had begun].
The Great Fire of New York (1776), with a contemporary illustration depicting the burning of a more developed section of the city.

A more likely example of New York City architecture, namely that of primarily wooden structures. This illustration is of the Bulls Head Tavern in the Bowery section of Manhattan.

He goes on to say some not-so-kind things about New Yorkers, though.
The inhabitants [of New York City] are everywhere alike (I mean the common people), excepting those who have been used to our army. They are the most disobliging, uncivil, indifferent, lazy set of people that the world produces; so much so that, if they can cultivate enough grain to subsist themselves, they are satisfied; and those that have dealings with us show much low cunning and roguery.
It's interesting that Mathew expresses such low opinions of the city's inhabitants at the time, considering New York is frequently cited as a bastion of Loyalist support during the war. It should be noted, however, that suspicions the fire had been set by "unprincipled zealots...with a view to destroying [the City], rather than it should become a place of refuge for the British Army" implies the Guards did not feel completely at home during their time in the colony.

Moreover, Mathew's narrative refutes a popular myth that British soldiers during the New York occupation were all quartering themselves in the homes of colonists and living a luxurious lifestyle throughout the harsh winters of the late 1770s. Instead, even he as an officer in the Coldstream Guards was tasked with building huts on the northern outskirts of the City as a temporary measure until a more permanent presence could be established in Fort Tryon, an outpost of the captured Fort Washington in the northernmost section of Manhattan.
Upon our going down we encamped on the hills until we learnt that we were to winter there, when we set about building huts, which, however from the vast scarcity of materials, we could not get finished until after Christmas, during which time we had a great deal of snow and bad weather...some of the officers, who did not mind expense, sent to New York to buy boards and materials, and built very comfortable huts. Others built theirs against a bank of earth, and by cutting it down made it, as it were, a side wall. Sometimes the weather was so extremely severe that the men could not work. Whilst the huts were building, my tent being blown off the ground in a storm, and my room (in a barrack at Fort Tryon, then building) not being finished, I was allowed to go into a room adjoining a hospital, until mine should be habitable...This [blowing down of my tent] happened to me one morning as I lay in bed. It snowed very hard at the time, and lay two or three feet deep. I was obliged to throw my things over me, and run down about a quarter of a mile to the hospital...I was very ill at the time, having caught a cold, and required a warm room.
Fort Tryon's namesake was Colonel William Tryon, the Second Major of the First Guards, former Royal Governor of North Carolina, and the last Royal Governor of New York. Before the British took New York City in the summer of 1776, Tryon had "found himself forced to seek refuge aboard a British vessel [in New York harbor], from whence he in vain issued proclamations urging on the people to return their allegiance." He would later be accused of conducting brutal raids against civilian populations in southern New England.

William Tryon in 1767, of the First Guards and the namesake of Fort Tryon where Mathew was billeted.

Needless to say, Mathew's account provides rich detail into the life of a young officer in the Guards serving in America. Stay tuned for future blog postings that will focus his experiences in combat.


Balch, Thomas (1857), "Mathew's Narrative", in The Historical Magazine and Notes and Queries Concerning The Antiquities, History, and Biography of America (Boston: C. Benjamin Richardson)

Hamilton, Lieut.-Gen. Sir F. W. (1874), The Origin and History of the First or Grenadier Guards (London: John Murray)