John Watts DePeyster was born on March 9, 1821, the son of Frederic de Peyster, a wealthy and powerful New York lawyer, investor and philanthropist. His great-great grandfather, Abraham de Peyster, was an early mayor of New York City, as was Abraham’s brother Johannes. His grandfather was a nephew of Lt. Col. Arent de Peyster, commandant of the British garrison at Fort Michilimackinac and Fort Detroit controlled during the American Revolution. John Watts DePeyster was a first cousin of Civil War hero Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny, the one-armed, swashbuckling general killed at Chantilly on September 1, 1862. He was also a nephew of the legendary dragoon, Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny.
DePeyster inherited vast wealth at a young age, more than one million dollars by the time he was twenty-one. He studied law at Columbia College, although he did not graduate on account of his poor health. He became an invalid at a young age due to a heart affliction he developed during service as a volunteer firefighter with the No. 5 Hose Carriage during his collegiate years, including a major fire in 1836 that caused his health problems. He helped to organize the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York.
DePeyster married Estelle Livingston (1819-1898) on March 2, 1841. They had five children: John Watts De Peyster was born 2 December 1841 and died 12 April 1873), Colonel Frederick De Peyster , who was born 13 December 1842 and married Mary Livingston, Estelle Elizabeth De Peyster Toler, (James B Toler), who was born 1844 and died 12 December 1889, Colonel Johnston Livingston De Peyster, who was born 14 June 1846 and married Julia Anna Toler and Maria Livingston De Peyster (born7 July 1852 and died 24 September 1857).
In 1845 he entered state service in New York and was soon named colonel of a militia regiment. The consistently poor state of his health prohibited him from commanding troops in the field. He served as state Judge Advocate General and then as Adjutant General, holding the rank of brigadier general, until he resigned his commission in 1855 after a conflict with the Governor of New York. He traveled extensively through Europe as a military observer, and implemented many reforms that modernized the militia for the upcoming conflict as result of his travels. He continued to serve in an administrative capacity throughout the war after his efforts to obtain a field commission.
In 1861, DePeyster went to Washington, D.C., to solicit a commission as a brigadier general in the Regular Army and offered to raise two regiments of artillery, which he felt best suited his expertise and physical condition. However, New York had already raised its recruitment quote of 75,000 men, so he met with no interest. Rebuffed, he returned home to New York. In June 1863, just before the Battle of Gettysburg, he turned down a commission as a colonel of cavalry offered to him by prominent New York Senator Ira Harris on behalf of Generals Joseph Hooker and Alfred Pleasonton—Pleasonton, a known careerist, may have thought that the wealthy DePeyster’s social connections could have helped his career.
All three of DePeyster’s sons served in the Union armies during the Civil War. His eldest son and namesake, John Watts DePeyster, Jr., served as an aide-de-camp and as an artillery commander with the Army of the Potomac and received a brevet to brigadier general of volunteers. His middle son, Frederic DePeyster, III, was a colonel and a regimental surgeon, and his youngest son, Lt. Johnston DePeyster, commanded a battery of artillery and received credit for hoisting the first Union flag to fly over Richmond in April 1865.
He penned a well-respected treatise titled New American Tactics that was serialized in The Army and Navy Journal that advocated using skirmish lines instead of main lines of battle, a revolutionary theory for the times. In spite of his ill health, DePeyster still achieved the rank of brevet major general of the New York State Militia in 1866. After the war, he was active in the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, a veterans’ organization for former Union officers.
DePeyster and his family resided on an estate–Rose Hill–located in Tivoli, Duchess County, New York. He was a prolific writer and an accomplished military historian. After the Civil War, he was known as “America’s foremost military critic.” In that capacity, he published hundreds of pieces, including, perhaps, approximately fifty under the pseudonym “Anchor.” One commentator noted DePeyster’s “keen eye for topography, his long and still unceasing military education, his uncommon memory, his power of description and his opportunities for using his abilities constitute him the only as well as the first military critic in America.” DePeyster “rejoiced in overriding conventionalities and often showed strong bias, particularly in defense of a familial connection, but his writings show exceptional knowledge of military history and science.” This kind of erudition comes through plainly in DePeyster’s writings.
He strongly supported his fellow Empire Stater and close friend, Daniel E. Sickles, and, using the “Anchor” pen name, vigorously defended Sickles’ role at the Battle of Gettysburg. He also defended Hooker’s role leading up to the battle, and harshly criticized the role of the XI Corps at Chancellorsville. He praised the generalship of George H. Thomas, helping to establish Thomas as one of the pantheon of great captains of the Civil War. In numerous articles, including The New York Times and various scholarly journals, he correctly predicted the coming of the Franco-Austrian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
DePeyster was actively involved in alumni activity of his old friend Sickles’ former command, the III Corps. An organization called the Third Army Corps Union was formed as a beneficial society for the wives and children of veterans of the III Corps, and DePeyster helped write its history. Long his cousin’s advocate, DePeyster also wrote a fawning biography of Kearny. He was particularly interested in the Battle of Saratoga, and donated a memorial called the “Boot Monument” which commemorates Benedict Arnold’s heroic role and wounding in the battle (although he is not mentioned by name, and the memorial depicts only his boot), in 1887. DePeyster also authored numerous other well-regarded works of a military nature.
Because DePeyster enthusiastically defended Sickles’ conduct at Gettysburg, he took up his pen to attack George Gordon Meade. He penned a number of articles under the “Anchor” anonym that were published in a veterans’ publication in 1867, after the end of the war, and well after the release of the Joint Committee’s report. DePeyster then bundled them and published them under his real name in book format under the title The Decisive Conflicts of the Late Civil War, or Slaveholders’ Rebellion. He devoted half of his book to his criticisms of Meade’s conduct of the pursuit of Lee’s army.
His list of publications included Life of Field Marshal Torstenson (1855), The Dutch at the North Pole (1857), Caurausius, the Dutch Augustus (1858), Life of Baron Cohorn (1860), The Decisive Conflicts of the Late Civil War, or Slaveholder’s Rebellion (1867), Personal and Military History of General Philip Kearny (1869), The Life and Misfortunes and the Military Career of Brig.-Gen. Sir John Johnson (1882), and Gypsies: Some Curious Investigations, Collected, Translated, Or Reprinted from Various Sources (1887). He also contributed to numerous other books, biographies, publications, and articles.After the war, DePeyster became a major real estate developer in his hometown of Tivoli, New York. In 1892, he constructed a large Methodist church that remains an active congregation to this day. He refurbished an old school house and turned into an industrial school for girls. Then, in 1895, he constructed a very large brick firehouse for the local fire department which remained in use until 1986. He eventually had a falling out with Tivoli’s mayor–his own son, Johnston–and DePeyster barred the mayor from entering the building, forcing the village government to relocate to another building until the old firehouse was restored in 1994, when the village government again too up residence in the firehouse.
A 1908 newspaper article stated:
Gen. John Watts De Peyster, the millionaire philanthropist, is living the life of a recluse at Rose Hill, the ancestral seat of his family, at Tivoli. He is reputed to be worth millions, much of his property consisting of real estate in the city of New York, which has been in possession of his family over a century. He had isolated himself from his kindred and it is believed will give his fortune at his death to the institutions he has founded.
Years before the death of his wife, the general and Mrs. De Peyster lived apart and Col. Johnson L. De Peyster, the general’s only son still living, lost his father’s friendship by espousing his mother’s cause. Father and son did not speak or hold any communication with each other, although their two estates adjoined. Gen. De Peyster was persistent in his estrangement from his son even up to the son’s death. He did not visit him or inquire about him when he was ill. When Col. De Peyster died in May, two years ago, the grim old general closed the gates of Rose Hill.
A delegation of villagers who wished permission to drape De Peyster hall in memory of the colonel, who was very popular in Tivoli, was turned away without an audience. Gen. De Peyster refused to attend his son’s funeral. His sole concession was to offer to the widow the keys of the family vault. The tender was ignored and Col. De Peyster’s remains were laid at rest in the vault of Johnston Livingston, an uncle of the colonel’s on his mother’s side.
In 1901, he donated several thousand books and maps to the Smithsonian Institution, one of many major philanthropic gifts he gave over the court of his life. He donated the money to construct the first library at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and donated one of the largest collections of rare books about European military history, a collection gathered while he traveled Europe to research a biography of Napoleon he published in 1896. He also served as Vice President of the American Numismatic Society. Post #71 of the New York G.A.R. in Tivoli, New York was named for him.
De Peyster died in 1907 of natural causes at a family residence in Manhattan. He was buried in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Tivoli. He willed his massive manor house Rose Hill to a local Children’s Home.
DePeyster’s vigorous defense of Sickles and his aggressive attacks on George Gordon Meade’s conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg played a major role in relegating Meade to under appreciated obscurity in the years after the American Civil War, which makes DePeyster worthy of study.Scridb filter