George Washington's Visits
Throughout the Revolutionary War, the homes and property of The Hermitage were managed by Theodosia Prevost, with five children, and her mother, Ann, with her teenage daughter Caty. There may also have been one or two African American slaves in the household. Theodosia, now 29, took the leadership role, and the women’s major challenge was simple survival.
Throughout the war, The Hermitage lay in one of the most contested areas in the American colonies. Whig (Patriot) militias—and at times the Continental Army—had almost full control of northern Bergen County. From their major base in New York City, the British had almost full control of lower Bergen County. The region in between was subjected to attacks from both sides. Paramus and Hopperstown endured skirmishes, foraging, troop movements, and encampments throughout the war. In addition, the region suffered ongoing guerrilla warfare by both active Patriot and Tory (Loyalist) residents. Neighbors on both sides were killed, wounded, captured, and imprisoned. [Tell me more about the Revolutionary War in Bergen County.]
British and Loyalist actions in the vicinity of The Hermitage did not pose a threat to the women, who could count on immunity from direct attacks by the British because the property was well known to belong to James Prevost, a British military officer. In 1777, in fact, the British placed Samuel Bradhurst, a captured Rebel medical officer and relative of Theodosia’s by marriage, under house arrest at The Hermitage. He remained there throughout the war and married Theodosia's cousin Mary Smith in December 1778.
Theodosia and Ann did have to worry, however, that their homes would be confiscated by the Patriots. There were Whig leaders in New Jersey who wanted to send the women to the British in New York and make The Hermitage a prize to raise money for the Revolutionary cause or to reward one of their major officials. Theodosia knew she had to counter this threat and did so with considerable resourcefulness and courage by cultivating influential contacts and advocates on many sides of the conflict.
In July 1778, following the important Battle of Monmouth, the Continental Army marched from New Brunswick toward the Hudson Highlands, with plans to rest in camp at Paramus. As the army approached Paramus, Washington and his top aides expected to make their headquarters at the Paramus home of Lydia Watkins, a sister of Ann De Visme. Watkins’s husband was abroad, and her son was fighting against the British, who had commandeered her home in Harlem Heights. One of Washington’s aides, Dr. James McHenry, wrote:
After leaving the falls of the Passaic, we passed through fertile country to a place called Paramus. We stopped at a Mrs. Watkins', whose house was marked for headquarters. But the General, receiving a note of invitation from a Mrs. Provost to make her hermitage, as it was called, the seat of his stay while at Paramus, we only dined with Mrs. Watkins and her two charming daughters, who sang us several pretty songs in a very agreeable manner.
Washington accepted Theodosia’s invitation, which read:
Mrs. Prevost Presents her best respects to his Excellency Gen'l Washington. Requests the Honour of his Company as she flatters herself the accommodations will more Commodious than those to be procured in the Neighborhood. Mrs. Prevost will be particularly happy to make her House Agreeable to His Excellency.
The army encamped in Paramus and Hopperstown on July 11–14, 1778. The Paramus Dutch Reformed Church was a resting place for the wounded, as well as the site of the ongoing court-martial of General Charles Lee. [Tell me more about General Lee's court-martial.] Most of the troops stayed north of the church, while Washington's guards camped at "Head Quarters two miles from Primmiss [Paramus] Church," near The Hermitage. [Tell me more about what General Washington did while staying near The Hermitage.]
Another letter written by McHenry provides insight into the activities of the Continental Army’s officers while they rested between battles and long marches:
At Mrs. Prevost's we found some fair refugees from New York who were on a visit to the lady of the Hermitage. With them we talked and walked and laughed and danced and gallanted away the leisure hours of four days and four nights, and would have gallanted and danced and laughed and talked and walked with them till now had not the general given orders for our departure.
Who were the women who so captivated the officers? There was Theodosia's half-sister Caty, who lived at The Hermitage; Theodosia’s aunt Lydia Watkins, who lived in Paramus; some cousins of Theodosia whose parents lived in New York; almost certainly Mary Smith and perhaps her sisters Catherine and Margaret. In a letter, James Monroe mentioned a "Mrs. Duvall," another half-sister of Theodosia’s who was married to a Royal American Regiment officer. Other friends of Theodosia and her mother may also have been meant.
In addition to dancing, the officers engaged in much conversation at the Watkins household and at The Hermitage. The women who had come to Paramus from New York City seem to have brought all kinds of news of life in the city, including the actions of the British soldiers and officials. Among the items that were reported to Washington was the rumor of a gift that had been made by the French queen to his wife, Martha, but that had been captured by the British and taken to New York City. [Tell me more about the captured gift to Mrs. Washington.]
One of Theodosia’s most controversial guests during the Revolutionary War was Peggy Shippen Arnold, the wife of General Benedict Arnold. She stayed briefly at The Hermitage in 1780. [Tell me more about Peggy Arnold's visit.]
Continue to The Fight to Keep The Hermitage