By Caitlin Cummings
Although the majority of our previous blog posts have focused on the wide variety of objects that make up the Permanent Collection (everything from Civil War era hardtack to 17th century African trade beads), Historic Huguenot Street is also home to an amazing archive of historical documents. The HHS Archives contain many different types of documents from the past (many of which you can explore by visiting the “Learn More” tab on the HHS website, or by taking a trip to our Library), including family papers, journals, letters, legal papers, photographs, etc. Our new exhibit on display in the DuBois Fort Visitor Center relies on five archival pieces that serve to paint a larger picture of New Paltz and its participation in the American War for Independence. “‘By the Grace of God, Free and Independent:’ The Revolutionary War in Ulster County” is a selection of objects and documents that have direct ties to local residents and which inspire our visitors to remember this period of American history through the particular lens of this mid-Hudson Valley community.
One of the documents featured in the exhibit is the Orderly Book of David Bevier, dating from August 1776 to October 1777. This Orderly Book provides a rare glimpse into the daily routine at Fort Montgomery (near Bear Mountain in Orange County) during the Revolution. It functions as a daily journal containing “Morning Reports” (including lists of “Tories in confinement”), “Garrison Orders” given by Col. Cornelius Humphrey, and “General’s Orders,” given by Brigadier General James Clinton of the Continental Army. These reports largely deal with issues involving the construction of defense preparations designed to enable the rebel army to “more effectually annoy the Enemies Shipping, should they attempt to come up the River.”
To comprehend the significance of orderly books from this time period and what they can tell us about life during the Revolution, we must first understand the role they played for the Continental Army. Only a few several centuries prior to 1775, both the rates of literacy throughout Europe and the eastern hemisphere were so low that great gaps in the historical record are common (as record-keeping and archival preservation were somewhat forgotten practices). Conversely, fast-forward less than one century later to the American Civil War (1861-1865) and you’ll find that the U.S. War Department published a 128-volume set of “official records,” as well as hundreds of maps, a tremendous body of private correspondence, and thousands of soldiers’ diaries.
Although our knowledge regarding the fight for American Independence is in no way characterized as a “great gap” in the historical record, it is hard to compare the thousands of diaries relating to the Civil War to the less than one hundred that have been traced to Continental soldiers. However this is not to say that Washington’s Army was failing to keep thorough records of their day-to-day proceedings, nor that Continental solders were illiterate. In fact, quite the opposite is true; Most of the senior officers of the Continental army had been well schooled in the mid-century record-keeping practices held by the British army during the French and Indian War. Therefore, the majority of officers were implementing similar paperwork practices as early as April of 1775. Regimental officers and their companies were expected to understand and cooperate with the broad array of weekly strength reports, bi-monthly muster rolls and payrolls, clothing & arms returns, and inspection reports that were required for submission to the higher headquarters. The orderly book, above all other paperwork, was probably the most basic and familiar document to the Continental soldiers. Immediately after the first military engagements of the Revolution at Lexington and Concord on April 19th, 1775, the New England militia companies around Boston were ordered to begin keeping orderly books. As Washington’s forces grew more organized, so did the methods of handing out orders, and what better way to record those direct orders than in a daily log of military activity?
General orders for the day originated at Washington’s Headquarters and were given to the “major general of the day,” a position that was filled on rotation by a different officer each morning. The rotating major general then transferred the orders to the adjutant general (an adjutant being a commanding officer’s administrative assistant). Then, adjutants from all of the divisions would congregate in the office of the adjutant general during the early morning hours where the daily orders would be dictated to them. The division adjutants would then return to their respective quarters and pass along the day’s orders to the assembled brigade majors, who would then inform the appropriate regimental adjutants, who would finally dictate to the orderly sergeant who would record and announce the day’s orders from the company-specific orderly book.
To give you a sense of the large number of orderly books that were being maintained on a daily basis, here is the estimate presented by John Robertson & Bob McDonald:
Average of 75 regiments, 9 companies per regiment = 675 books per day
1 headquarters per regiment, 75 regiments = 75 books per day
15 brigade headquarters, 8 division headquarters, & miscellaneous staff positions= 23+ books per day
TOTAL= At least 800 orderly books within the Continental Army being maintained each day
To take that figure one step further, Robertson and McDonald estimated that one orderly book would allow about three months of coverage, so each station listed above would essentially cycle through four orderly books per year. Take that figure and multiply it by the seven and a half years that the war lasted, and the approximate number of orderly books produced by the Continental army during the Revolution becomes about 20,000. Currently, there are only 1,000 orderly books accounted for.
The next question is inevitably, “Why, and how, have nearly 19,000 Revolutionary War records of this kind been lost?” This absence, historians argue, is in no way random. An examination of the existing Orderly Book Index will prove that the large majority of surviving texts come from New England states. While several factors affected the survival rate of orderly books and other revolutionary period archival material, the widespread destruction that accompanied the Civil War is cited as the most prevalent cause.
Luckily, there are a small number of orderly books still surviving, and Historic Huguenot Street is honored to house one of them in its Permanent Collection. Given that the majority of orderly books were created through the transcription of verbal dictation, it is not surprising that the quality of penmanship and the use of spelling vary tremendously from volume to volume. Additionally, it is much more common to find orderly books with poor penmanship, numerous misspellings, errors in syntax, and a large sprinkling of scratch-outs and ink blots than it is to find one that is as beautifully written as this.
Transcription, Cover Page:
Book of Sept. 27th 1771
Scriptum Pr Me Chrisopheris Millerus
The leather of David Bevier’s Orderly Book has suffered considerable water damage and the binding, in combination with its old age, has begun to fall apart. However, what the cover lacks in aesthetic appeal, the book makes up for within its pages. The first page of the Orderly Book is a lovely arrangement of elegant flowing script that serves to identify the book’s owner as well as the man who transcribed his words. It is unclear exactly who “Christopher Miller Fitz Gerald” was in relation to David Bevier, but it is fascinating to notice the seemingly Latin influence he used to ornament his name. Unfortunately my research has not shown that this tendency was common, and this fact stands as another distinguishing element of the Orderly Book in our Collection.
We do know, however, that in addition to his post as an orderly at Fort Montgomery, David Bevier was also owner of the now popular Bevier House in Marbletown during the Revolution. Andries Pieterse Van Leuvan built the house in the 17th century, and it is now open to the public as the Bevier House Museum. It is praised for its colonial Dutch architecture, but moreover, for its role during the War for Independence. David Bevier’s house was reportedly the first “safe house,” just six miles outside the city, following the burning of Kingston by the British on October 13th, 1777. According to current Museum Director, Suzanne Hauspurg, “Kingston residents fled the city as the British army entered it. The Bevier house was the closest private home outside the city.” The story is that David Bevier returned home in October (most likely from his post at Fort Montgomery) to find his yard full of people. His wife, Maria, had apparently been feeding and caring for the Kingston residents for three days. The story of the Bevier House, which now also serves as home to the Ulster County Historical Society, is a reminder that the revolution impacted mid-Hudson Valley communities (rather than the soldiers alone) in almost every way imaginable.
In light of the rarity of orderly books as beautifully composed and descriptive as this, HHS is very pleased to feature the Orderly Book of David Bevier in its upcoming exhibit. Be sure to stop by and take a look at this, and other intriguing Archival pieces (as well as the assortment of war-time artifacts) that are included in “‘By the Grace of God, Free and Independent:’ The Revolutionary War in Ulster County.” The exhibit is located in the DuBois Fort Visitor Center and is open until August 2. We hope that our visitors enjoy looking at the history of the Revolutionary War as it unfolded in Ulster County, and subsequently learn more about the local people, places, and objects that experienced it firsthand.
Gibbons, Ann. “Bevier House history set in stone.” Daily Freeman News, 26 Feb. 2012. Web. 18 June 2015.
Robertson, John K., and Bob McDonald. A Brief Profile of Orderly Books. N.p., 2005. Web. 18 June 2015.