As a site interpreter at Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh, A.J. Schenkman became fascinated with the history of the house and its place in the context of the American Revolution. He also became deeply interested in the life of its owner, a man named Jonathan Hasbrouck. This interest compelled Schenkman to tell Hasbrouck’s story, and resurrect him from his position as a “footnote in the history of his home” (12).
Telling Hasbrouck’s story is a difficult endeavor, though, as Schenkman honestly notes. Hasbrouck died years before George Washington established his headquarters there, and few documents or papers exist to tell the story of his life. Therefore, historians are left to fill in the holes with either family accounts or myths and legends, a problem Schenkman attempts to remedy. He tells us that we should care about Jonathan Hasbrouck because he was a major part of Newburgh’s transition from a small village to a major port on the Hudson River, and he was also a major part of the American Revolution. Both of these assertions seem, at least from the evidence Schenkman presents, to be a stretch.
Schenkman’s story begins with an exploration into Hasbrouck’s upbringing as the youngest of ten children and ends with a discussion of attempts to save Washington’s headquarters from demolition. In between, Schenkman discusses a plethora of different topics, from the history of Newburgh itself to religious and economic histories to the histories of colonial warfare and the Revolutionary War. In short, this is why Schenkman’s book fails to accomplish the goal he sets for it. Because there are very few documents to support a book about Jonathan Hasbrouck, Schenkman is forced to explore every other facet of life during the period that Hasbrouck lived, and attempt to make a connection that is relevant, important, and interesting. This reader, at least, did not see those connections, and would side with those who asked Schenkman why we should care.
Contradictions abound throughout this work. In the first place, the front cover is dominated by the figure of George Washington, with a small portrait of his headquarters in the background, and an individual on horseback (Hasbrouck perhaps?) in the vicinity of the house. This is certainly an interesting choice, given Schenkman’s effort to emphasize Hasbrouck, not Washington, in this story. Second, Schenkman continuously asserts that Hasbrouck was “respected for bravery on the frontier” (53) and a military leader in the community, yet tells us that Hasbrouck played little role in the French and Indian War and “never actually encountered any combat” (66) during the Revolutionary War. Third, though
Schenkman deplores historians’ attempts to fill holes, the book abounds with hole-filling stories that he says “might have,” “perhaps,” or “probably” took place.
In constructing this work, Schenkman undertook a monumental (and perhaps impossible) task. If, as he asserts, the documents simply do not exist, there is nothing more he could have done. This story may be as good as it gets. For serious historians of the period, that may not be good enough. But for tourists visiting Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, this book may be a useful companion and a genuine effort to place the site in historical context.
—Christopher Dempsey, USMA Department of History