Spring has not get touched the tree-covered hills to the east of Elmira, New York, but the Chemung River sparkles in quiet anticipation as it flows between them. The Newtown Battlefield State Park won’t open for another few days or so—it operates seasonally May through October—but I have stopped nonetheless to see what might be here.
“I am very apprehensive our Expedition will not appear in History,” wrote Lt. Obadiah Gore, Jr., of the Continental Army.
And indeed Gore’s worries seem to have played out just that way. I know almost nothing about this Revolutionary War battle, although I have driven by the battlefield for decades. In fact, for two full years not so long ago, as I was doing my Ph.D. at Binghamton University, I drove through the battlefield four times a week on my way from and to Saint Bonaventure University, where I work. I really need to stop sometime, I kept telling myself.
For years, the old State Route 17 passed through the battlefield with little more than a sign telling motorists they were passing through and an arrow pointing up a road that could have been someone’s driveway. The expansion of Route 17 into Interstate 86 now gives motorists the chance to whisk right on by even faster, giving even less notice, despite signs that still say I am passing through.
But today, I’m finally stopping.
As I get off the interstate to explore the battlefield, a tractor-trailer cuts me off, then chugs forward just far enough to turn into the parking lot of an adult outlet that sits just off the exit. Next to the outlet, a gray, two-story post office looks like someone’s not-kept-up home. A roadside sign tells me this is Lowman. Low, indeed.
A wayside near a computer parking lot highlights Gore’s quote about being forgotten. The nearby state park is still closed. Is this the Rodney Dangerfield of Rev War battlefields?
The battle of Newtown, Aug. 29, 1779, capped off an expedition led by Gen. John Sullivan intended to punish the six-nation Iroquois for siding with the British during the Revolutionary War. Sullivan had some five thousand troops.
British and Iroquois forces tried to ambush them along the Chemung River, but Continental scouts discovered their position. As a result, Sullivan’s forces outflanked the British/Iroquois forces and trounced them. They never again mounted credible resistance, although Sullivan’s campaign lasted another three weeks.
A monument stands near the corner of commuter lot, with a flag fluttering overhead honoring the Spirit of 76. On the other side of the lot is a sign that explains breastworks set up by British and Iroquois troops to resist the Colonial advance.
A half a mile to the west along the local road sits another monument, erected by the state of New York in 1929, that depicts the movement of Colonial and British forces, “an expedition against the hostile Indian nations which checked the aggressions of the English and Indians on the frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania, extending westward dominion of the United States.” A British flag flies over the monument but the language seems aggressively pro-Colonial.
“Here by nightfall of August 29, 1779 only smoke and ashes marked the sites of log cabins and storage sheds and the trampled corn fields of a loyalist “Tory” and Indian settlement sometimes called ‘Butler’s Newtown,’” the reverse side of the monument says. “Faced by nearly one third of all the American Continental forces, here died the hope and prestige of the ancient league of No-De-No-Sau-Nee, the fabled ‘long house’ Confederacy of the Iroquois Six Nations.”
Farther down the road, a barricade blocks the loop road up to the Sullivan monument, which honors Sullivan and marks the area where his men executed their flanking movement. The hillside offered a commanding location for their artillery to dominate the British/Iroquois position. Someone has parked in front of the gate and apparently walked up the loop road to check things out for him or herself. The monument is, I suppose, the centerpiece and marquee attraction of the battlefield.
I instead make my way to a small cemetery—Knoll Cemetery—that I passed on my way in from the highway. It’s not far from the British monument, and a state historical marker points the way. The road, little more than ruts in the dirt, is single-lane narrow. There is barely enough room for me to pull over.
The cemetery gate at the top of the knoll hangs open. Were this a haunted autumn night, it might look creepy, but in the early spring sun, it seems inviting—at least until one of the wooden steps—landscaping timbers set to the ground—crumbles beneath the ball of my foot as I climb the knoll.
Most of the headstones are Colonial-era old: slabs of marble and granite with lichen crawling across their weather-poked surfaces. But the small cemetery is also resplendent with American flags and D.A.R. markers. Three new headstones of the kind of V.A. puts in national cemeteries line one of the cemetery’s edges. I am uplifted to see that these veterans of America’s first war have not been forgotten.
The Chemung County Historical Society has put together a wonderful driving tour that takes motorists across the battlefield. The tour starts in Elmira at the Historical Society and traces the British route out to the battlefield; then it circles around to trace the Colonial approach, with stops along the way to fill in action.
I’m glad I stopped even though the park itself was closed. I’ll come back some time to see the Sullivan Monument and to visit the historical society—which is really a first-rate place (I have been there before on Civil War and Mark Twain-related business). This forgotten little battle on the hillside merits a closer look.
Lt. Gore, I am sure, would be glad to have me back.
[NOTE: The battlefield park opens this year May 1.]