In the summer of 1778, Theodosia Bartow Prevost (1746-1794) was in a precarious position. Her husband, Lieutenant Colonel Jacques-Marc Prévost (also known as James Marcus) was serving in the British army in the colonial rebellion - a rebellion that would become known as the American Revolution. The war had taken Colonel Prevost far from their home, a generous country estate near Hopperstown, New Jersey known as The Hermitage, and Theodosia, left behind with their young children as well as her mother and step-sister, was in charge of overseeing The Hermitage.
During this particular summer, however, that oversight was much more complicated than making sure that the crops were harvested and the estate prepared for winter. The Hermitage lay in the uneasy no-man’s-land of Bergen County, flanked on one side by the Continental forces, and on the other by the British occupying New York City. Both armies raided the region’s farms, cutting down fences , outbuildings, and orchards for firewood, seizing crops and other produce, slaughtering cattle and sheep, and appropriating oxen and horses. Some farmsteads were burned, and those who protested could be arrested and imprisoned as enemies by either side. While the area had showed support for the Patriots early in the war, allegiances now shifted towards whoever was in power; few felt safe.
As the wife of a British officer, there was seemingly little doubt which army Theodosia supported, and the State of New Jersey threatened to confiscate the Prevost property. In order to protect her land and family, she managed the most difficult of balancing acts, and maintained friendships with powerful men on both sides of the conflict. Although she left no records that detail how she achieved this - or even if at heart she herself were a Patriot, or a Loyalist - she clearly must have relied on her much-admired charm, intelligence, and wit to preserve The Hermitage.
Perhaps the most dramatic instance of her political agility occurred in July, 1788; it also inspired one of my favorite chapters in The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr. Commander-in-Chief Gen. George Washington and his army had fought the British in the grueling, day-long Battle of Monmouth on June 28, and were planning an encampment to rest and recover in Bergen County. Learning of this, Theodosia acted swiftly. What better way could there be to prove herself committed to the Patriot’s cause? She sent the letter of invitation, above (and transcribed below) to the general:
Mrs Prevost Presents her best respects to his Excellency Genl Washington [and] requests the Honour of his Company as she flatters herself the accommodations will [be] more Commodious than those to be procured in the Neighborhood. Mrs. Prevost will be particularly happy to make her House agreeable to His Excellency, and family.
Gen. Washington accepted her offer, and arrived at The Hermitage with his army, spending July 11-18 as Theodosia’s guest. The house would have served as the headquarters, acting as an office and site for entertaining, with the General, his officers, aides-de-camp, and servants (the extended military “family” mentioned in the letter) quartered in their tents along with hundreds of their troops. Still, Theodosia did have a houseful of guests, including a number of young ladies exiled from New York City eager to divert the officers with walks and evening entertainments. Among these officers enjoying Theodosia’s hospitality were Baron von Steuben, Lt. Col. John Laurens, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton.
Another young officer there at the time, one that was likely already acquainted with Theodosia. He would later return to The Hermitage to recuperate from the effects of the battle, and eventually become a dear friend, lover, and husband to Theodosia: Lt. Col. Aaron Burr.
Above: Letter by Theodosia Bartow Prevost, from the collection of The Hermitage Museum.
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