Revolutionary War Historical Article

Walking the Neutrality Tight Rope During the Revolution

by Donald N. Moran

Founding Father and our Second President John Adams is often misquoted as saying that during the American Revolution on America was divided 1/3 - Patriot, 1/3 - Loyalist, and 1/3- Neutral. Any serious student of the Revolutionary War knows that one's political allegiance usually depended on where one lived. Neither the Americans or the British trusted anyone proclaiming that they were neutral, with the exception of a few religious groups, who were well known to be pacifists. Those families that resided in the actual zones of the war were the most threatened. They were often abused by both sides. To maintain a believable neutrality was almost impossible. The exception was the Colonel Phillip Van Horne family of Middlebrook, New Jersey, living dead center in the middle of "no man's land". They became experts at this very dangerous game. Colonel Van Horne (1) was extremely wealthy. He lived in a 16 room mansion in Middlebrook, New Jersey. The Van Horne's were among the early Dutch settlers and were closely related to many of the most influential families in the middle and northern colonies. Among these families were the Schuylers, Van Rensselaers and Livingstons.

The Colonel Phillip Van Horne House, Middlebrook
New Jersey. It is owned by the Heritage Trail
Association and is Open to the Public

He was the father of five daughters, described as "all handsome and well bred". His late brother, John left a widow and three daughters, Catherine, Elizabeth and Hannah. Phillip took care of them and they came to Middlebrook so often they were often confused with his own daughters (2). They were known as "The Misses Van Hornes". If an individual wanted to maintain an unpopular political position, having eight very desirable and wealthy young women of marrying age supporting him certainly wouldn't hurt!

The sisters and nieces quite often traveled to Flat Bush (part of today's Brooklyn), visiting relatives. While there they attended British hosted Balls and Royal Anniversaries affairs. When visiting their uncle in New Brunswick, New Jersey, they entertained Hessian officers. Colonel Carl von Donop of the Hesse-Kassel Regiment was one of the suitors (3), as was Captain Johann Ewald of the Lieb Jaegers Korps, who fell in love with Jeanette Van Horne (4). Catherine Van Horne was courted by General William Phillips, of the Royal Artillery. He died of camp fever in the Spring of 1781 and named her in his will, leaving her a nice inheritance. American Cavalry Officer Col. Stephen Moylan courted Mary and married her in October of 1778. Hannah, one of Phillip's nieces married British Captain Edward Foy.

Other well known visitors were Light Horse Harry Lee, Major Generals Benjamin Lincoln, William Alexander "Lord Stirling", Anthony Wayne, Friedrich Wilheim von Steuben, John Sullivan and British General Charles, Lord Cornwallis. Along with these well known of the Revolution was a large contingent of junior officers.

Captain Alexander Graydon wrote in his memoirs: "[Mr. Van Horne] alternately entertained the officers of both armies, being visited by one and sometimes the other. . .his house, used as a hotel seemed constantly full (5)."

What arrangements Colonel Van Horne made to keep these regular visitors apart is not known, but it had to be a real feat of scheduling.

General George Washington was not at all pleased with the ambidextrous Phillip Van Horne. Obviously his concern was for the possibility of intelligence being passed to the enemy. On January 12th, 1777, he wrote to his former Aide-de-Camp, Colonel Joseph Reed: "I wish you had brought Vanhorne off with you, for from his noted character there is no dependence to be placed upon his parole". A week later, on the 19th he again wrote Reed stating: "Would it not be better to order P. Vanhorne to Brunswick - - these people in my opinion can do us less injury there than anywhere else (6)., "

There are times when not even the necessity of war can overrule popularity, wealth and position. Not even the Great George Washington was able to influence the social habits of the Van Hornes.

General Washington was not the only person that had concerns about the social activities at the Van Horne mansion. Martha Washington wrote: "General Wayne lodged nearby, as did Sullivan, both men philosophically wifeless as usual, and Baron Steuben equally footloose and almost as popular with the local ladies . . . a group of bachelor officers, including Moylan and Harry Lee, were so fortunate as to be quartered in the Van Horne House, whose wide roof also sheltered five accomplished Van Horne daughters. . . . (7)"

Another distinguished guest was the Baroness Frederika von Riedesel. Her husband was Major General, the Baron Friedrich Riedesel, who surrendered with General John Burgoyne at Saratoga on October 17th, 1777. Before he was exchanged from General Benjamin Lincoln, his wife and daughters were"guests" of the American Congress and followed the prisoners of war from one location to another. She was an aristocrat and acted accordingly. The Americans nicknamed her "Mrs. General". She ended up spending time at the Van Horne mansion in Middlebrook. She noted in her diary, "We found a nephew of General Washington [Captain George Lewis of the Commander-­in-Chief's Guard] there with a lot of other American officers. Three days had wrought a wonderful change in the sentiments of these people. The daughters of these pretended Royalists on a most similar footing with the anti-Royalist and allowing them all sorts of liberties. There was a wild party, in the course of which everyone sang 'God Bless Great Washington, God damn the King', all night long (8). "

Phillip Van Horne and family survived the war without any major problems, other than the high costs of entertaining so many so often. They even maintained their high social standings and no researcher has been able to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether they were truly neutral, loyalist or Patriots.

Washington does not mention the Van Hornes again until April 10th, 1785, two years after the war. He replied to a letter from Duane, Mayor of New City, and in a postscript, wrote: "If our Rocky-hill acquaintance, Mrs. Van Horne, has removed (as she talked of doing) to the City of New York, I pray you recall me, in respectful terms, to her remembrance."

Bibliography and Notes

1. Phillip Van Horne was made a colonel during the F & I Wars
2. "The Van Horne Family History" - - by: Francis M. Marvin
3. Colonel Von Donop was killed in action on October 25th, 1777 during the Battle of Red Bank
4. Van Horne - Ewald Love letters, in terrible French, are at the Library of Congress.
5. "Memoirs of his own times, with reminiscences of the Men and events of the Revolution" - by: Alexander Graydon
6. "The Papers of George Washington" by: W. W. Abbott
7. "The Life of Martha Washington" - By: E. Thane, NY 1954
8. "Letters and Journals Relating to the War of American Revolution" by: Mrs. General Riedesel

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