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Cornelia Van Cortlandt Beekman 1752 ~ 1847


Cornelia Van Cortland Beekman

In the venerable Van Cortlandt mansion, the old-fashioned stone house erected upon the banks of the Croton River many years previous to the Revolution, Cornelia, the second daughter of Peter Van Cortlandt and Johanna, was born in 1752. Peter Van Cortlandt was Lieutenant-Governor of the state of New York under George Clinton from 1777 to 1795, and was distinguished for his zealous maintenance of American rights.

His daughter inherited the principles to which in after life she was so ardently devoted. On her marriage at about the age of seventeen, with Gerard G. Beekman, she removed to the city of New York, where her residence was in the street which still bears her name. Her husband was in mind, education and character worthy of her choice. Not many years of her married life had passed when the storm of war burst upon the land and taught her to share in aspirations for liberty. She entered into the feelings of the people with all the warmth of her generous nature. She even spoke with enthusiasm of an impressive ceremonial procession she witnessed, when the mechanics of the city brought their tools and deposited them in a large coffin made for the purpose and then marched to the solemn music of a funeral dirge and buried the coffin in Potter's Field. They returned to present themselves each with a musket in readiness for military service. Finding a residence in New York impossible in the state of popular excitement she withdrew to the Peekskill Manor House, a large brick building situated two miles north of Peekskill. Here she resided during the war marked as an object of insult by the Royalists, on account of the part taken by her relatives and friends as well as her own ardent attachment to the American cause. At times in the struggle, when portions of the British army were ranging through Westchester she was exposed to their injuries, but her high spirit and strong will contributed to her safety, and supported her through many scenes and trials.

One day, when the troops were in the neighborhood a soldier entered the house and walked unceremoniously toward the closet. Mrs. Beekman asked him what he wanted. "Some brandy," was the reply. When she reproved him for the intrusion he presented his bayonet at her breast and with many harsh epithets swore he would kill her on the spot. Although alone in the house except for an old black servant, she showed no alarm at the threats of the cowardly assailant but told him that she would call her husband and send information of his conduct to his officer. Her resolution triumphed over his audacity, for seeing that she showed no fear he was not long in obeying her command to leave the house. Upon another occasion she was writing a letter to her father, when looking out she saw the enemy approaching. There was only time to secrete the paper behind the framework of the mantelpiece, where it was discovered when the house was repaired after the war.

The gist of Mrs. Beekman's contemptuous replies to the enemy under Bayard and Fanning is related by herself in a letter written in 1777. A party of Royalists commanded by those two Colonels paid a visit to her house, conducting themselves with the arrogance and insolence she was accustomed to suffer. One of them imprudently said to her, "Are you the daughter of that old Rebel, Pierre Van Cortlandt?" She replied, "I am the daughter of Pierre Van Cortlandt, but it does not become such as you to call my father a Rebel." The Tory raised his musket, but with perfect calmness she reproved him for his insolence and bade him begone. He finally turned away abashed.

The illustrations in every page of the world's history of vast results depending upon trivial things finds support in a simple incident in the life of Cornelia Beekman. It would really seem that in the Providence that disposes all human events the fate of a Nation may be found suspended upon this woman's judgment.

This is the incident: John Webb, familiarly known as "Lieutenant Jack,'' who actively served as aid on the staff of the commander-in-chief, was much at her house during operations of the American army on the banks of the Hudson. On one occasion passing through Peekskill he rode up and requested her to take charge of a valise which contained his new suit of uniform and a quantity of gold. "I will send for it whenever I want it," he added, "but do not deliver it without a written order from me or brother Sam.' He then threw the valise in at the door and rode on to the tavern at Peekskill, where he stopped to dine, A fortnight or so after this departure Mrs. Beekman saw an acquaintance named Smith, whose loyalty to the Whig cause had been suspected, ride rapidly up to the house. She heard him ask her husband for Lieutenant Jack's valise and Mr. Beekman was about to direct the servant to bring it. Mrs. Beekman, however, demanded whether the messenger had a written order from either of the brothers. Smith replied that he had no written order, the officer having had no time to write one. He added, "You know me, Mrs. Beekman, and when I assure you that Lieutenant Webb sent me for the valise you will not refuse to deliver it, as he is greatly in want of his uniform.'' Mrs. Beekman often said that she had an instinctive antipathy toward Smith, and by an intuition felt that he had not been authorized to call for the article she had in trust, so she answered, "I do know you very well; too well to give up to you the valise without a written order from the owner or the Colonel." Greatly angered at her statement he turned to her husband urging that the fact of his knowing that the valise was there and its contents should be sufficient evidence that he came by authority. His representations had no effect upon Mrs. Beekman's resolution. Although even her husband was displeased at this treatment of the messenger she remained firm in her denial and the disappointed horseman rode away as rapidly as he had come.

 Results proved that he had no authority to make the application, and it was subsequently ascertained that at the very time of this attempt Major Andre was in Smith's house, and had Smith obtained possession of the uniform Andre would have made his escape through the American lines. Lieutenant Webb confessed that while dining at the tavern that night he had mentioned that Mrs. Beekman had taken charge of his valise, and told what its contents were. Smith had evidently over-heard and Major Andre being of the same stature and form as Lieutenant Jack, the scheme to steal the American officer's uniform as a disguise for the spy had immediately taken form. Lieutenant Webb was deeply grateful to Mrs. Beekman for the prudence which had protected him from the dire result of his own folly, had saved his property, and had prevented an occurrence which might have caused a train of national disasters.

Many of Mrs. Beekman's letters written during the war breathed the most ardent spirit of patriotism. The wrongs she was compelled to suffer in person, and the aggregation of wrongs she witnessed on every side aroused her just indignation. Her feelings were expressed in her many and frequent prayers for the success of the American armies. Although surrounded by peril and disaster she would not consent to leave her home; her zeal for the honor of her family and her country inspired her with the courage that never faltered and caused her to disregard the wrong she so continually had to bear.

The energy of mind which characterized her through life was evinced on her deathbed. Calmly and quietly, bearing much suffering, she awaited the coming of that last enemy, whose nearer and yet nearer approach she announced un-shrinkingly to those about her. When it was necessary to affix her signature to an important paper, and being supposedly too weak to write, she was told that her mark would be sufficient, she immediately asked to be raised, called for a pen and placing her left hand on the pulse of her right, wrote her name distinctly. It was the last act of her life. She looked death in the face with the same high resolve and strong will with which she had been wont in her lifetime to encounter losses and terrible enemies. It was the strength of Christian faith which thus gave her the victory over the "King of Terrors."

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.


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