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(AMERICAN REVOLUTION--1776.) Abraham W. de Peyster. Letter describing the deadly lightning storm just before the Battle of Long Island. Autograph Letter Signed to an unidentified brother. 3 pages, 9 3/4 x 7 1/2 inches, on one folding sheet, with docketing on final blank page, but no address panel or postal markings; folds and minor wear. With complete typed transcript. Tappan, NY, 24 August 1776
As the British prepared for an imminent assault on New York in August 1776, an intense and dramatic storm hit Manhattan. For three hours the storm cloud sat immobile above the city, with the thunder more of a continuous rumble than a series of crashes. Lighting strikes killed more than a dozen soldiers, as vividly described in David McCullough's best-seller "1776" (pages 155-6). The next morning, the British landed in Brooklyn, and five days later came the Battle of Long Island which gave the British control over Manhattan. Offered here is a letter written in the midst of this drama.
The letter was written by Abraham William de Peyster (1742-1799) to his brother. He starts by announcing the death of their mother Margretje Janse Roosevelt de Peyster (1709-1776), and explaining the difficulty of moving her body for burial in New York, "whenever the times will admitt of it, which at present are truly woefull and calamitous round that distressed and devoted city."
Yet more startling was the sudden death on 21 August of their nephew William de Peyster, the son of their brother William. Young William, an ensign in the 1st New York Regiment, had been out when the storm hit, and taken shelter in a tent full of fellow soldiers: "Sitting on Wednesday evening just after dark in Capt. Abr. Van Wyck's tent in their encampment on the south side of James Delancey's house in the Bowery Lane in company with the Capt. and Mr. Peter Vergerou, a leutenant in the same rigement, to which place they all three had but just before fled to avoid the most awfull storm of rain, thunder and lightning within the memory of man. While sitting together, Heaven was pleased to visit them with a flash of lightning which killed them all on the spot and almost instantaneously." Another officer found young William clinging to life and "had him bled as soon as a surgeon could be procured, but all was vain." Uncle Abraham had viewed the body and reported that "the lightning had struck him at first on the right side of his head, about an inch above the tempel, and had left its effects all along that side of his face & neck. His left leg and thigh was much brused, and the right side of his breast." The funeral "was by the general ordered to be on the evening before on account of the enemy having landed and a battle expected in Kings County."
De Peyster adds in a postscript that "5000 Hessians have penetrated almost to Flatbush and a battle hourly expected." That battle came quickly, just three days after this letter was written, in which the British gained control of Manhattan for the duration of the war.
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