For many years historical enthusiasts have sustained a legend about George Washington’s visit to the Belcher-Ogden Mansion, a wonderful Georgian residence in Elizabeth NJ. The building’s owners remodeled the structure in the 1750s to house the royal governor, Jonathan Belcher (1681-1757). The New Jersey governor arrived in 1751 and remained at the residence until he died in his bedroom there in 1757.1 The house was then purchased by William Peartree Smith, (1723-1801)a graduate of Yale, a founding trustee of Princeton University, the mayor of Elizabeth. Elizabeth devotees think the order was ascending! On October 14, 1778, Smith’s daughter, Caty (1750-1797), married Elisha Boudinot (1749-1819), who was the brother of Elias Boudinot (1740-1821), a very distinguished citizen of Elizabeth, sometime President of the Continental Congress and neighbor of the Smiths on East Jersey Street. At this point the legend contends2 that there was a Belcher-Ogden wedding reception for the newlyweds attended by Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), acting as Master of Ceremonies, with dignitaries who included George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and William Alexander aka Lord Stirling (1726-1783), who served as the general of the New Jersey Brigade. Lord Stirling was also the brother in law of NJ Governor William Livingston (1723-1790).3
A later resident of the Belcher-Ogden mansion, Mr. Warren Dix, President of the Union County Historical Society, published an article “Old Houses of Elizabethtown.4 There Dix summarized the key features of the legend and, because of his careful description of many historic features of his own and other city residences, his narrative about the Boudinot wedding took on the authority of fact. Many later individuals, including a substantive benefactor, Mrs. Mary Kean, repeated the legendary narrative as she led groups through the residence.
For the three hundredth anniversary of Elizabeth in 1964, E. J. Grassmann, an historically-minded Elizabeth entrepreneur, financed a professional history of the city. The result was Theodore Thayer’s As We Were: The Story of Old Elizabethtown.5 Tucked in a footnote was Thayer’s observation that Washington could not have attended the Oct 14 wedding, since he was in temporary headquarters at Fredericksburgh, NY, about 65 miles away in Putnam county.6 Lord Stirling reinforced this distance by writing from Elizabethtown to General Washington –that on October 14 “here is a Grand Wedding of Miss Smith to Mr Elisha Boudinot. The Ladys pressed their compliments to your Excellency and family.” Thayer also specifically asserted the wedding took place at the Belcher-Ogden mansion. Almost as an aside, he noted that the wedding dress bought by William Peartree Smith for his daughter was “seized and sold according to law” because of its provenance as smuggled contraband.7 The poor bride, Thayer continued quoting Lord Stirling was “put under the Mortification of being married in her Old Cloaths.”8
The narrative becomes more complicated when still later investigation revealed that all the principals named in the legend were seldom together after their collective effort in the Battle of Monmouth in July 1778. Hamilton remained close to Washington as his aide-de camp, entrusted with many duties including writing the general’s letters. But Lafayette had worked his way to Philadelphia, then to Warren, Rhode Island, then to Boston and by the year’s end had returned to France for a year and a half, not to return until April 27, 1780 and not back in Elizabethtown until October 1780. Lord Stirling had returned to his base in Elizabethtown and closely monitored British ship maneuvers in the North River as well as keeping watch for foraging raids by Staten Island Tories. Washington himself kept on the move and in October could be found in White Plains, Fishkill, and Frederickburg, all in New York, never long in any “temporary Headquarters.” He was not back in Elizabethtown until early December 1778, readying himself for relocation to his winter quarters in Middlebrook, New Jersey.9 With all this frenetic activity and movement, how could the legend have arisen and, more important, what might it illuminate about the dynamics of the Revolutionary War?
Washington’s intensive letter-writing, weekly and sometimes daily communication with officers and political leaders, from Boston to the Carolinas, dramatizes the necessity and problem of communication, not to mention accurate knowledge. If there is one refrain throughout the general’s correspondence, there is the difficulty of knowing with any certainty where the enemy was and how his scanty forces should respond. There is constant advice to fight defensively, skirmish and pull back, to learn the enemy’s strengths before committing soldiers and material to a confrontation. The immense relief that the Battle of Monmouth was not a loss meant in effect a victory for the colonial forces. In October 1778 Washington knew Sir Henry Clinton’s fleet was moving in the North river but he could not discern Clinton’s design. Was he about to strike or was he merely setting the stage for foraging missions along the river? Washington was very preoccupied with a full scale British attack on West Point and various strategic places south to Elizabethtown. His strategy was to rely on local systems of reconnaissance, emphasized in many letters especially to General Anthony Wayne(1745-1796) in the West Point Highlands and Lord Stirling in Elizabeth.
His own officers relied on surveillance and everyone knew the importance of watching the waterways, where initial preparations and attacks would begin. However, Washington’s close friend and much admired associate, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), had his own devious methods. If he was not actually in Elizabeth during the last half of 1778, he was in intense communication with two key individuals. The first was Elias Boudinot, whose work for the American cause, took form in the initially undramatic office of Commissary General of Prisoners.10 It was his task to travel under flags of truce to Manhattan, confer with Clinton and his officer chain, to see that prisoners were properly fed and clothed. Indeed he was charged with the delicate task of exchanging British for American prisoners, especially the officer class. His Elizabeth residence made the trip across New York Harbor a highly effective location. But his correspondence with Lafayette made his work more important still. Lafayette explicitly offers a hundred guineas for hard information from Boudinot’s spy ring about British shipping intentions Is Clinton’s fleet about to depart for the Southern colonies, for the West Indies or for a return to England? Boudinot’s access to the British routines of Manhattan made him (and Elizabeth) a central link in the most important work of information gathering in this portion of the war, the spy trade.11
In addition, Lafayette wrote to the Rev. James Caldwell (1734-1781), the pastor of Elizabeth’s First Presbyterian Church, to activate his spy ring. Lafayette makes an offer, similar to that he made to Boudinot, to put sizeable amounts of his own French money to learn British priorities. During the week the Reverend James Caldwell was the quartermaster of the New Jersey Brigade and travelled everywhere in search of stores to sustain the soldiers. His movement took him in to the areas of both support and resistance to the Revolutionary cause. Of course, such a situation put him in touch with individuals who passed through these regions seeking profit from whatever source. Lafayette is suspicious of many of his own spies, registering in one letter that a very clever fellow probably had mixed British pounds with French guineas at the bottom of his pocket.12 During the war the Reverend Caldwell’s wife (nee Hannah Ogden) would be killed – the colonialists said “murdered” – by a British soldier (an event memorialized on the Union county flag to this day). But her death was likely intentional given the known work the minister did for the colonial cause of both supply and information via his spy ring. Indeed the minister himself would be shot in the back and killed near Elizabethport, ostensibly for not obeying a British sentry’s charge to halt. Caldwell may have become overconfident in his ability to pass between and among both the enemy and loyal colonials.13
The information gathering network not only made Elizabeth, a central transfer point to New York and points north, strategically important during the War; it also became the jumping-off point for much disinformation. Boudinot was often commissioned to drop items in his exchanges with the British to mask Washington’s actual intentions. As important, Washington himself not only kept to a highly mobile pattern, it was not out of character to identify his “temporary headquarters” as someplace other than where he actually was. Moreover, Washington, a noted horseman, often travelled great distances in a short period of time. In early December he signs letters from “Elizabethtown,” then suddenly is writing from Paramus, NJ, normally an entire day’s ride north into Bergen County. Two days later, he was back in Elizabethtown. In this December interlude, Elizabeth also contained many of the principals of the legendary “wedding reception:” Hamilton, Lord Stirling, Washington and it would have been a welcome but very brief appearance that Washington could have allowed, given the pressing issues of his moment. One historical account noted that Washington was given a “festive entertainment” in Elizabeth on December 4, 1778 but does not mention where.14
The wedding reception might well have received little notice amidst Washington’s needs to discern Sir Henry Clinton’s intentions. In his published letters Washington made no mention of the event, however, his correspondence repeatedly insisted on his desire to meet and talk with individuals like Boudinot and Lafayette, genuine friends as well as comrades in arms. It is also very likely that the legendary wedding reception was a separate event from the actual wedding ceremony. The actual wedding is registered (October 14, 1778) in the Westfield Presbyterian Church rather than Elizabeth’s First Presbyterian church, where Wm Peartree Smith had served as a trustee since 1753.15 So it was not a local Elizabeth event and over a day’s carriage ride away. Moreover, Caty (nee Catherine Smith) Boudinot was married in her “old cloaths” rather than a festive ceremonial gown, fit for a wedding reception. That gown was formally confiscated by Lord Stirling himself, as he admits, because Washington had explicitly ordered a ban on all smuggled contraband, an effort to slow wartime profiteering among colonialists and indeed spymaster communication on the British side.16 The incident did not preclude Lord Stirling’s invitation to the “wedding,” which he pronounced a “Grand Wedding.” But the likelihood is very strong that the two events were separate, if the reception was held at William Peartree Smith’s Elizabeth residence. Elisha Boudinot, the bridegroom, it should be noted, served as the Commissary of Prisoners for New Jersey,17 at his older brother ‘s behest, insuring that though his aegis of authority was smaller, that he had his own spy ring and his own strategic role in gathering wartime information. He was a person whose own work and relatives would have made his reception an obligatory affair for Washington and his officers.
The Boudinot wedding reception thus involved so many central principals to the Revolutionary War that it is hardly surprising it was not announced or noticed later. The absence of comment, however, did not mean that a wedding reception never happened. Still, the British spy network was not idle and supposedly “a fortnight later” according to Hatfield’s History of Elizabeth NJ , and he reported the plundering of Smith’s residence took place February 10, 1780. An additional Tory raid on Elizabethtown occurred Feb 27 to capture Governor William Livingston. So the legend’s inclusion of a raid after the wedding, intent on capturing Washington, was not a stretch of the imagination. They undoubtedly knew that Elizabeth was a constantly, busy switching point with soldiers and officers continually moving through the city en route to the army’s Middlebrook winter quarters. Indeed Washington maintained a regular socializing pattern while in winter camp and on one occasion invited Elias Boudinot and his family to visit him in Middlebrook.18 The British failure to find the General meant that in his absence they took out their spleen on the house. They dragged furniture and paintings into the street and burned them, an event sufficiently traumatic to William Peartree Smith’s wife that she eventually prevailed upon her husband to move the family to Newark. Elisha Boudinot himself had set up his law practice in Newark where he became Judge of Common Pleas, then associate justice of the NJ Supreme Court and a writer of local distinction.
The legend of the 1778 Boudinot wedding reception is not entirely mythology. Its narrative captured the central, strategic importance of Elizabeth, as entrepot of supplies and information during the American Revolution. It underscored the roles of all the principals, all of whom won distinguished laurels at the Battle of Monmouth and later. If it masked the indispensible service of the varied spy networks, the legend itself represented the kind of mixed fact and fiction that made those networks so critical. More importantly, the legend made clear that history is not a chain of incontestable facts but rather a narrative that uses documented evidence to convey understanding that is more than the sum of its parts.
1Belcher Foundation, Governor Jonathan Belcher (Belcher Ky: np. 2006); Michael Batinski, Jonathan Belcher, Colonial Governor Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
2 W. Jay Mills, Historic Houses of New Jersey (Philadelphia and London: J P. Lippincott, 1902), pp123-24.
3 Alan Valentine, Lord Stirling (NY: Oxford University Press, 1969; see Carl E. Prince (ed.) The Papers of William Livingston, v2,
4 Warren Dix, “Old Houses of Elizabethtown,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society (July 1923).
5 Theodore Thayer, As We Were: The Story of Old Elizabethtown (Elizabeth NJ: The N. J. Historical Society, 1964).
6 Ibid, p. 263.
7 The Papers of George Washington, v. 4, p 416.
8 Thayer, Old Elizabethtown, pp. 126-27.
9 The Papers of George Washington, Letter of Lord Stirling to GW, November 24, 1778, p287
10 Carl E. Prince, Middlebrook: The American Eagle’s Nest (Somerville, NJ: Somerville Press, 1958). Washington was in Elizabeth the first week in December 1778 (except for one night in Paramus NJ) until December 9. By Dec 11th he is in Middlebrook.
11 Spying was pandemic from the beginning of the American Revolution, if not before. See John A. Nagy, Spies in the Continental Capital; Espionage Across Pennsylvania During the American Revolution (Yardley, Pa: Westholme Publishing Co, 2011); Also John A. Nagy, Rebellion in the Ranks: Mutinies of the American Revolution (Yardley, Pa: Westholme Publishing Co., 2008). Nagy finds a pattern of spies exploiting American problems with soldiers’ pay, food and clothing, the context for many mutinies and desertions. Nagy documented the energetic work of Elizabethan Cornelius Hetfield and his family, constantly operating from Staten island to the Jersey mainland. George Adam Boyd, Elias Boudinot: Patriot and Statesman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952).
12 Letter from Lafayette to Elias Boudinot July 15, 1778 & July 25 1778, in Stanley Iztgerda (ed) Lafayette in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977).
13 Thayer, Old Elizabethtown, pp. 149-50.
14 Rev. Edwin F. Hatfield, History of Elizabeth NJ ( New York:L Carlton and Lanahan,1868), p471 cites the Riv. Gaz. #228 and J Sparks Vi, 125, 9, 131,155);
15 Ibid., p. 515. Lord Stirling apparently hosted a reception for Washington nearer the time of the wedding at Smyth’s in Elizabeth on November 5, 1778. Many of Washington’s officers including James Monroe, were present.
16 Letter of Lord Stirling to George Washington, Nov 24, 1778 in The Papers of George Washington, v. 5, p 287.
17 Letter of William Livingston to Elisha Boudinot Dec 17, 1778 in Carl E. Prince, The Papers of William Livingston, v2, p, 515.
18 Letter of George Washington to Elias Boudinot, Feb 27, 1779 in The Papers of George Washington