Every other year, the City of Kingston reenacts its history in a citywide Burning of Kingston celebration. The three-day event will be held this year from Friday, October 13 through Sunday, October 15, with a full schedule of historical reenactments at different locations and a number of supplementary activities that include a Colonial grand ball, exhibits, a cemetery tour, a bucket brigade competition and Redcoat and Militia camp tours and demonstrations. Most events are free to attend.
A celebration of the time your city was burned to the ground by invading soldiers seems, on the face of it, an odd thing to commemorate. But the real celebration here is that of the original American spirit: the brave and resilient Colonial Kingstonians who lost everything they had in the burning of Kingston, yet persevered, rebuilding their city stronger than ever.
The Continental Army’s first major victories at the Battles of Saratoga on September 19 and October 7 of 1777 had given the fledgling Americans a much-needed boost of confidence. The triumphant win would cause Spain, France and Holland to come around finally and offer the supplies, loans and military support that the Colonists had been seeking, and would lead to a formal alliance with France in February 1778. But for the newly defeated British in Saratoga, the loss didn’t go down well, and as the news spread quickly on both sides of the Atlantic, their conquest became their humiliation.
Infuriated, British soldiers captured New York City, and on October 13 sailed up the Hudson River to take retaliation against Kingston, one of three major cities along the river and the newly established capital of New York State. Landing at Kingston Point, the Redcoats marched along the Rondout Creek and up to the Stockade, burning houses along the way.
As the British army approached, deputy county clerk Christopher Tappen and several other Colonists saved important city documents and ledgers, and some residents stayed to fight. But they were mostly boys and older men, with most of the soldiering-age men in the city off fighting the British elsewhere. Kingston residents, primarily patriots, weren’t left with many options as the invading troops advanced toward them, so most evacuated to Hurley.
In a matter of hours, the British burned down more than 300 buildings and left Kingston in ruins. But when the people returned, the devastation they came back to didn’t destroy them, and only hardened the Colonists’ determination to gain their independence.
The 20th anniversary of the biennial Burning of Kingston reenactments will kick off on Friday, October 13 in the Vanderlyn Gallery at the Senate House Museum at 296 Fair Street. Hank Yost of the First Ulster Militia will give a presentation at 5:30 p.m. about the events that led up to the burning of Kingston and its aftermath. (The reenactor’s considerable storytelling skills may be previewed in a video on www.burningofkingston.com.)
With the story still fresh in listeners’ minds, the Procession of Lights will leave the Senate House at 6:30 p.m. and cross the heart of the Stockade to the historic Persen House at 74 John Street, where at 7 p.m. the Colonial Kingston Committee of Safety will offer “The Great Debate,” a reenactment of the town residents hearing the news of General John Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga. Reenactors will discuss fears of British invasion, hear of the British landing at Kingston Point and debate what to do next.
For an eerier approach to history, a $10 admission fee allows entrance into the Old Dutch Church Cemetery at 7:45 p.m. on Friday, where the true story of the Burning of Kingston will be told by the long-dead, rising up to provide firsthand accounts of their ordeal.
On Saturday, October 14, visitors are invited to take the Revolutionary Express Trolley Ride: a trip back in time on the trolley from Kingston’s historic Rondout District out to Kingston Point Park, where visitors can comfortably watch reenactors at close range. The round-trip ride costs $5 and picks up at 10:30 a.m. sharp at the end of Broadway. It returns by noon. There is limited seating available; more info and tickets are available at www.tmny.org.
The British landing begins on Saturday at 11 a.m. with a dramatic reenactment at Kingston Point Park along the Hudson River (not at Kingston Point Beach, it should be noted). Parking is available at the park, or city bus shuttles (Broadway) are available.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum (HRMM) at 50 Rondout Landing will offer a full day of activities on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Learn about the strategic naval importance of the Hudson River during the American Revolution and play Colonial-era games like Nine Men’s Morris and the Game of Graces from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the courtyard. Visitors will create their own Nine Men’s Morris game board to take home. The documentary Fort Montgomery, about the British takeover prior to the burning of the city, will be screened throughout the day. Admission costs $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and children.
The Kingston Volunteer Firemen’s Museum at 266 Fair Street is adding a new element to the day’s events with a bucket brigade contest at 1 p.m. and viewing of its museum exhibit all day.
At 2:45 p.m., the Senate House will relive the moments when American Colonists fled the Senate House with key possessions, including important documents. Minutes later, British troops will arrive at the Senate House, replacing the flag of the Colonists with the British flag. (Those who wish to receive “Loyalty Papers” in advance to avoid capture may do so at the Persen House.) Reenactors will dispatch Colonial resisters and prepare to march through the Stockade.
By 3 p.m., visitors can witness British troops advancing up Fair Street, turning at Main Street in the Stockade District, where they’ll be attacked by the remnants of the local Militia but seize the Persen House. The Redcoats will march down Main to Green Street and then Crown Street, arriving at the historic Four Corners of Kingston for a final street battle scene at John and Crown Streets.
With the fighting over by 3:45 p.m., the Redcoats will hold a victory celebration and dispatch the mayor of Kingston. Redcoat and militia camps set up at Forsyth Park will be open to the public from 6:30 to 8 p.m., with impromptu lectures on the Revolution.
Saturday evening closes out with the Colonial Grand Ball, featuring live music in the Common Council Chambers of the Kingston City Hall at 420 Broadway. Attendees are encouraged to wear 18th-century garb to get into the spirit of things and dance to “the real oldies”: music from the 1770s. Free dance lessons will begin at 7 p.m., followed by the ball. Bus shuttles will run continuously throughout the evening from Forsyth Park to City Hall (with stops along the way), starting at 6:15 p.m. The last shuttle back leaves City Hall at 11:30 p.m.
Sunday, October 15 is the final day of the commemoration. Reenactor camps at Forsyth Park will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. See company drills, safety inspections and demonstrations. The only scheduled tour of the camps will take place at 11 a.m. (sharp), with opportunities for visitors to test their own mettle with 18th-century drills and camp life.
A live-action tactical demonstration showing how American and British troops battled it out in 1777 will be held at Forsyth Park at 12:30 p.m.
At the Persen House from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Colonial medical reenactor Don Terpening will give demonstrations of medical treatment in Colonial times. All weekend long, visitors to the Persen House can try their hand at historic games that include the Game of Graces, Jacob’s Ladder, Hoop-Rolling and Whirligigs. The site will also feature two exhibits of drawings and paintings created by Kingston students, “A Fingerprint on History” and “The Stockade and the Hudson River,” illustrating the connection between the past and our future.
The Burning of Kingston, Friday-Sunday, October 13-15, www.burningofkingston.com.