Who knew that a military encampment once existed in today’s busy eclectic Chelsea in Manhattan?
The inquisitive tourist will not see or hear anything about a Revolutionary War camp there. Nor will they hear about General John Fellows or his headquarters at a glass works factory. Additionally, there were long forgotten tent encampments near the glassworks where 1500 Massachusetts Provincials slept.
These ghosts with muskets and white canvas tents were members of the Fellows’ Massachusetts Brigade. History recorded little about their activities and no known permanent monuments or markers were ever established to give us a clue about soldiers actual location or activities.
The Chelsea camp quickly became a fortified garrison with cannon batteries, picket guards and tent bivouac areas. This garrison was strategically located where Continental troops probably rested after a hurried retreat from Brooklyn and the Battle of Long Island.
This exhausted broken army would welcome an opportunity to stop, rest and refresh before moving on. The men had just crossed the East River under the cover of darkness and heavy fog. The safe crossing of 9,000 men was a miraculous event as patriots from the battle were rowed across the river on August 29, 1776.
Fellows’ guards welcomed them the following morning and kept a watchful eye on British warships that patrolled the North (Hudson) River. Menacing enemy ship’s loomed nearby waiting for a reason to fire a broadside. British sailors kept close watch on the Chelsea Garrison. Through spyglasses these watchmen were baffled by the flurry of activity near the camp.
Chelsea as a community dates to about 1750 when an Englishman named Thomas Clarke bought a ten-square-block span of land near the water in the city of New York. He named his estate Chelsea after a soldier’s home near London. It was judged an ideal place for a military camp.
Fellows’ glass works headquarters was likely built by the Glass House Company formed in 1750. It was said to be on the so-called Glass House farm which was still in operation in 1765. It was the only reference given as to location. The factory was thought to have been constructed during 1758 and shuttered sometime before 1776. It temporarily protected Fellows and his aides from the elements. Its exact location remains unknown, but was thought to be located between 34th and 40th Streets, and 8th and 11th Avenues. It was about two miles west of Kips Bay.
Chelsea Garrison would have included cannons and breastworks at several locations on elevated ground. Guard posts were established at entry points and a centrally located alarm cannon was manned around the clock. Typically an encampment included a blacksmith forge, butcher shop and latrines throughout the garrison.
Officer marquee tents housed four men while A-frame tents housed six men sleeping spoon style. Fresh water for bathing and cleaning eating utensils was a must. Each tent had an arms stand, a kettle and campfire. The men were allotted meat, fish, oysters, vegetables, butter and fruit when available. Most often food shortages prevailed. Because water was considered unsafe to drink, men were issued rum, spruce beer and wine as beverage.
Daily activity in the Chelsea Garrison included roll call, duty assignments and drills. Typical duties included butchering, cooking, nursing the sick and so-called fatigue duty. This last job involved trenching for defensive works, roads and latrines and it was assigned to the strongest. Latrine duty was an undesirable job for so-called colimen (coulormen) who were likely being punished.
In spite of daily assignments, there was much idle time and misbehavior was prevalent. General Washington prohibited gambling, fighting, cussing, theft and disobedience. Court martial records indicate that men were prone to steal scarce fencewood, garden produce and fruit from trees in nearby orchards. In 1776, there were a number of tempting farms nearby. Hungry men took risks. Anyone caught violating the rules was punished. Discipline varied with severity but often included lashes with the “cat-o-nine-tails” or riding the wooden horse with weighted legs.
Other than camp duties and mischief, days in the Chelsea Garrison were relatively quiet until September 15th, 1776. That’s when Fellows’ men heard the rumble and roar of cannon to the east. The Battle of Kips Bay ensued. Fellows immediately dispatched men to the sound of the cannon. After quick marching less than a mile they encountered General Parson’s Connecticut militiamen on the run and in total chaos.
Cannon balls rained down as the last of them described. Officers tried to form them into lines to repel the British but panic had set in and it was impossible the scene. Washington himself entered the may lee but couldn’t turn the tide of fleeing men. He came close to meeting his maker that day. Sixty were killed and many were captured. The last roll call taken for the garrison listed about 1,300 men. This suggested that some of the men from Chelsea Garrison were among the lost or missing.
Fortunately, most of Fellows’ and Parson’s men managed to escape. They were lucky to make it to the road to Kingsbridge and safety. It was likely that Fellows’ men went back to the Chelsea Garrison briefly. They had precious little time to fold tents, gather their gear and run. Fellows orders were to, “…raft the boards from his present camp to Kingsbridge” where he was to establish a new safer headquarters. The boards were floated to his new headquarters and would be used as flooring to keep his men dry while they slept. With these actions the patriot’s occupancy of the Chelsea Garrison unceremoniously ended.
There is no indication that any patriots returned to Chelsea after enemy lines were established below Harlem Heights. His men arrived at the new patriot defense line in Harlem to loud cheers from compatriots late in the day on September 15, 1776. In subsequent months, they saw action at the Battles of Harlem Heights and White Plains.
Illustrations, from above: Revolutionary War Encampment courtesy frontierfolk.org; Chelsea, NY circa 1750; Battle of Kip’s Bay battle map Revolutionarywar.us; The Wooden Horse courtesy American Revolutionary War Journal; and Cat-o-nine-tails courtesy American Revolutionary War Journal.