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This webpage reproduces part of
A Sketch of the History and Topography of West Point and the U. S. Military Academy

by
Roswell Park

published by
Henry Perkins,
Philadelphia, 1840

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part 2

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

The History of West Point

["Part 1" of 5 in this Web transcription]

p5 Few places in our own country, or even in the wide world, are connected with more interesting associations than that which it is our present purpose to describe. Hallowed by the footsteps of Washington and Kosciuszko, adorned by nature with surpassing variety of scenery, consecrated by a nation to the Spartan-like training of her chosen youth for military service, and secluded as it were purposely for retirement and study, it seems alike calculated to please the sage and the hero, to elevate the soul, and to inspire it with patriotic emotions.

West Point is situated among the Highlands about fifty-five miles north of New York city; being, as it name indicates, a point of land projecting into the Hudson p6river on the west side. It seems to have interrupted the southward course of the Hudson, which on meeting and fronting it, turns suddenly to the east, forming an elbow, until, having passed the obstacle, it resumes its previous course. The eastern margin of West Point is a straight precipitous shore; while the northern side has a more gentle slope and commands the view up the river. On the opposite side, towards the north, is a corresponding rocky projection, connected by a salt marsh with the eastern shore, and known by the name of Constitution Island. West Point, properly so called, is chiefly a level plain, widest on the north, narrowing towards the south, and flanked on the west by rocky heights, of which Mount Independence, the site of Fort Putnam, is the nearest and most prominent. The plain contains about one hundred and sixty acres; and is about one hundred and sixty feet above the level of the river, being highest at the northeastern angle, the site of Fort Clinton.

Looking from West Point towards the north, the fine town of Newburgh, eight miles distant, is seen through the wild vista p7formed by the rupture of the Highland range, where the Hudson passes through what might be appropriately termed the Water Gap of the Highlands. On the east side of this Gap is Bull's Hill, and farther north Breakneck Hill, beyond which is the village of Fishkill. On the west side of the Gap is the Crow's Nest, and farther north Butter Hill, beyond which, near the river, are the villages of New Windsor and Canterbury. A road leads westward from West Point, breaking through the mountains, known as the Canterbury road; and another runs southward, not far from the shore, leading to Forts Montgomery on the north side, and Clinton on the south side of Polopen'sº Creek, at its entrance into the Hudson, six miles south of West Point. South of these forts, about six miles farther, is the memorable Stony Point; between which and the preceding forts is the hill called Dunderberg or Thunder Hill. Below West Point, on the east side, is the mountain called Anthony's Nose, about six miles distant; and one mile south of it is Fort Independence, east of which lies the village of Peekskill. Verplanck's Point, about ten miles p8south of West Point, is nearly opposite to Stony Point, connecting with it by King's Ferry. The margin of the river opposite to West Point is a high level plain, but at some distance farther east is Sugar Loaf Hill, between which and Anthony's Nose was Continental Village, about five miles southeast of West Point. Buttermilk Falls are about a mile and a half below West Point, on the west side; and Robinson's House, about two miles below on the east side, was for some time Washington's headquarters. Opposite to West Point, towards the northeast, are extensive iron works, and between these and Bull's Hill, on the north, is the village of Cold Spring. On the northwestern slope of West Point, fronting a slight bay of the river, is the suburb or hamlet called Camp Town, including buildings erected for military storehouses during the revolution, and others now occupied by soldiers, and subordinates of the academy. Farther north, at the extremity of an elevated plain called the German Flats, is the West Point Cemetery; and just north of this, is a sequestered nook called Washington's Valley, in which formerly stood a house p9actually occupied by Washington during a portion of the time of the Revolution. We have thus named the principal localities of this interesting region; but to describe its grandeur, and the wild and romantic beauty of its scenery, would far transcend the limits of this sketch, or the powers of our pen. They must be seen and dwelt upon, in order to be fully realized. The present buildings and localities of West Point proper, will be described in connexion with the Military Academy.

West Point proper was originally granted by the British Crown to Captain John Evans; but afterwards vacated and reassumed by the Crown, which finally granted it to cause Congreve, May 17, 1723, on condition that it should be actually settled within three years from that date. Another portion, originally patented to Evans, adjoining the southwest corner of the preceding, was patented to John Moore, March 25, 1747, on a like condition of settlement within three years. The patent of Congreve having been purchased by Moore, both patents descended by will to Stephen Moore of North Carolina, by whom p10they were deeded to the United States, September 10, 1790, in accordance with an Act of Congress of July 5, the same year. The tract adjoining Congreve's patent, on the south, was one of those granted to Gabriel and William Ludlow, October 18, 1731; and it was finally purchased by the United States from Oliver Gridley of New Jersey, May 13, 1824. The jurisdiction of West Point was ceded by New York to the United States, March 2, 1826; reserving the usual right of serving civil or criminal process there.

For information concerning the fortifications at West Point we are chiefly indebted to Sparks's Writings of Washington, a work of inestimable value. It appears that Fort Constitution, on the island or point of that name, was already in existence, in July, 1776; when General George Clinton garrisoned it, and collected sloops and boats there, to form a chain of them across the river, but with the intention of burning them, if the enemy should break through.1 His brother, Colonel James Clinton, had been stationed for several p11weeks at Fort Constitution, superintending the construction of military works in the Highlands.2 In October of the same year, the same gentleman, then a brigadier-general in the continental service, was placed in command of the Highland posts.3 A chain was stretched across the river, opposite Fort Montgomery, as a barrier against the enemy's shipping; but this fell into the enemy's hands on their capture of Forts Montgomery and Clinton, October 6, 1777; and they having then the command of the river, Fort Constitution was evacuated by our troops. The enemy demolished Forts Constitution and Montgomery, but were repairing Fort Clinton, till the announcement of Burgoyne's capture, when they abandoned it, October 26, and sailed down the river.4 "On the 5th of November, 1777, Congress appointed General Gates to command in the Highlands, or rather connected that post with the northern department, and invested him with ample powers to carry on the works; but as he was soon after made President of the Board of War, he never entered upon these duties."5 p12The commander in the Highlands during this period was General Israel Putnam, who had been ordered there as early as May 24, 1777; and continued there until his command was suspended, and General McDougall ordered to succeed him, March 16, 1778.6

On the 2d of December, 1777, Washington wrote to General Putnam concerning the importance of fortifying the North River, in order to secure the intercourse of the eastern states with the middle and southern, and to protect the country above the Highlands against farther ravages of the enemy. "Seize the present opportunity," said Washington, "and employ your whole force, and all the means in your power for erecting and completing, as far as it shall be possible, such works and obstructions as may be necessary to defend and secure the river against any future attempts of the enemy. You will consult General Clinton, General Parsons, and the French engineer, Colonel Radière, upon the occasion."7 Washington also wrote to General Gates, in general terms, and to Governor Clinton particularly on this subject; p13and the latter, in reply, December 20, 1777, recommended that a "strong fortress should be erected at West Point, opposite to Fort Constitution." This, says Mr. Sparks, "was probably the first suggestion, from any official source, which led to the fortifying of that post."8 Washington wrote again from Valley Forge, January 25, 1778, urging upon General Putnam the vigorous prosecution of the works on the North River.9

Mr. Sparks states in a note,10 that "the forts and other works in the Highlands were entirely demolished by the British; and it now became a question of some importance, whether they should be restored in their former positions, or new places be selected for that purpose. About the beginning of January, 1778, the grounds were examined by General Putnam, Governor Clinton, General James Clinton, and several other gentlemen, among whom was Radière, the French engineer; and they were all, except Radière, united in the opinion, that West Point was the most eligible place to be fortified. p14Radière opposed this decision with considerable vehemence, and drew up a memorial, designed to show that the site of Fort Clinton possessed advantages much superior to West Point. As the engineer was a man of science, and had the confidence of Congress and the commander-in‑chief, it was deemed expedient by General Putnam to consult the Council and Assembly of New York, before he came to a final determination. A committee was appointed by those bodies, who spent three days reconnoitring the borders of the river in the Highlands, and they were unanimous in favour of West Point, agreeing herein with every other person authorized to act in the affair, except the engineer. It was accordingly decided, on the 13th of January, that the fortifications should be erected at West Point."11 Colonel Radière was still, however, regarded as a valuable officer, and continued in the service of the United States till his death in 1780.12

On the 13th of February, 1778, General Putnam wrote in reply to the commander-in‑chief, p15that the chain and necessary anchors were contracted for, and would probably be ready by the 1st of April; to which statement he added the following: "Parts of the boom intended to have been used at Fort Montgomery, sufficient for this place, are remaining. Some of the iron is exceedingly bad; this I hope to have replaced with good iron soon. The chevaux-de‑frise will be completed by the time the river will admit of sinking them. The batteries near the water, and the fort to cover them, are laid out. The latter is, within the walls, six hundred yards around, twenty-one feet base, fourteen feet high, the talus two inches to the foot. This, I fear, is too large to be completed by the time expected. Governor Clinton and the committee have agreed to this plan, and nothing on my part shall be wanting to complete it in the best and most expeditious manner. Barracks and huts for about three hundred men are placed, and barracks for about the same number are nearly covered. A road to the river has been made with great difficulty."13 The fort here alluded to, was evidently p16the new Fort Clinton, and the road was doubtless that leading down to Gee's Point, at the extreme angle of West Point.

On the 18th of February, 1778, Congress requested Governor Clinton to take the immediate charge of these fortifications; but his civil duties preventing this, the works, during General Putnam's absence in Connecticut, were left under the charge of General Parsons, till the arrival of General McDougall; who "took the command on the 28th of March. Two days previously, Kosciuszko arrived, who had been appointed engineer in the place of Radière. From that time the works were pressed forward with spirit. To the scientific skill and sedulous application of Kosciuszko, the public was mainly indebted for the construction of the military defences at West Point."14 It appears, however, that Radière did not leave immediately; since, on the 22d of April, Washington wrote from Valley Forge to General McDougall in the following terms. "As Colonel Radière and Colonel Kosciuszko will never agree, I think p17it will be best to order Radière to return, especially as you say Kosciuszko is better adapted to the genius and temper of the people."15 We here take occasion to remark that Kosciuszko was educated in the military school of Warsaw, and afterwards studied in France. He came to America, recommended by Franklin to General Washington, whom it is said that he attended as an aide-de‑camp. He was appointed an engineer, October 18, 1776, and planned General Gates' encampment at Behmus' Heights, in the campaign against Burgoyne.

On the 13th of April, 1778, General McDougall wrote that the fort was so nearly enclosed as to resist a sudden attack of the enemy; but the heights near it were such, that the fort would not be tenable if the enemy should possess them. "For this reason," he added, "we are obliged to make some works on them. It will require five thousand men effectually to secure the grounds near the fort, which command it. And these objections exist against almost all the points on the river, p18proper for erecting works to annoy the shipping. Mr. Kosciuszko is esteemed by those who have attended the works at West Point, to have more practice than Colonel Radière, and his manner of treating the people is more acceptable than that of the latter; which induced General Parsons and Governor Clinton to desire the former may be continued at West Point."16 It thus appears that Fort Putnam, as well as Fort Clinton, was commenced in the early part of 1778. The latter was doubtless named after Governor George Clinton; and Fort Putnam, according to Dr. Thacher, was so named "from the general who had the principal share in its plan and construction."17 On the arrival of General Gates to command the northern department, General McDougall was ordered, April 22, to join the main army.18

On the 19th of September, 1778, General Washington thus wrote from Fort Clinton to General Duportail, the chief engineer, "I have perused the memorial, which you delivered, relative to the defence of the North River at p19this place, and, upon a view of it, highly approve what you have offered upon the subject. Colonel Kosciuszko, who was charged by Congress with the direction of the forts and batteries, has already made such a progress in the constructing of them, as would render any alteration in the general plan a work of too much time, and the favourable testimony which you have given of Colonel Kosciuszko's abilities, prevents uneasiness on this head; but whatever amendments, subordinate to the general disposition, shall occur as proper to be made, you will be pleased to point out to Colonel Kosciuszko, that they may be carried into execution. The works proposed on the peninsula, not being subject to the above mentioned inconveniences, you will desire Colonel Kosciuszko to show you his plans for approbation, before he proceeds to the construction, or have them traced in the first instance conformably to your own ideas."19 Soon after this, or prior to October 3rd, Washington, apprehending p20danger to West Point, ordered General Putnam to cross the river for its immediate security; but his stay there was short, as he was appointed to command at Danbury, Connecticut, in the following winter; and the command at West Point was assigned to General McDougall.20 In June, 1779, when the enemy took new possession of Stony Point, General McDougall was again transferred to the command at West Point, and three brigades were stationed on the opposite side of the river, under the command of General Heath, with orders to send parties across daily to work on the fortifications.21

On the 21st of July, 1779, five days after the capture of Stony Point by General Wayne, Washington removed his head-quarters from New Windsor to West Point, and remained there till December, when the army went into winter quarters. "It was during this period," says Mr. Sparks, "that the strong works at West Point and its vicinity were chiefly constructed. Part of the time, two thousand five hundred men were daily on fatigue duty. p21The right wing of the army, consisting of the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia troops, was commanded by General Putnam; the left wing, composed of the Connecticut brigades, and some of the Massachusetts regiments, was under General Heath, and posted in the Highlands on the east side of the river. The centre, or garrison of West Point, was under the immediate command of General McDougall."22 On the removal of head-quarters to Morristown, General Heath was left in command at West Point; and February 16, 1780, Washington wrote to him concerning the frequency of fires at that post; suggesting means for their prevention. He adds, "The posts at the Highlands are of so much consequence p22to the people the State of New York, that I am convinced they will readily afford every assistance towards the safety and security of the works."23

In the spring of 1780, General Heath was appointed on recruiting service, and about the 13th of April, the command of West Point was entrusted to General Robert Howe.24 On the 1st of June, Washington wrote to General Howe, expressing his suspicions that the enemy meditated an attack on West Point; and on the 10th of June he added, "You do well to consider the post of West Point as the capital object of your attention, and every other as secondary. This is peculiarly necessary at the present moment, as there are circumstances that authorize a suspicion of something being intended against that post. I would therefore have you by all means keep your force collected in such a manner, that there may not be a possibility of your being found in a divided state, in case of a sudden movement of the enemy your way." He added, "You will order p23Colonel Hay to detain the ship carpenters in his employ, even if the business now in hand should be finished; for we shall have essential need of their services hereafter."25

Again, on the 15th of June, Washington thus wrote to General Howe from Springfield, N. J. "If the enemy's designs should be against this army, you may be useful to us, by making a demonstration in your quarter. I would therefore have you collect a number of boats at West Point, sufficient for two thousand men; put the garrison under moving orders with three days' provisions; circulate ideas of having the militia ready for a sudden call," &c.; the object being to alarm the enemy in New York city.26 Again, on the 21st of June, Washington wrote to General Howe, "From the immense importance of the post under your direction, I wish, as expressed in my letter of the 15th, that you may have and keep your force completed to two thousand five hundred efficient men." The extracts here given will suffice to show the solicitude of Washington for the safety p24of West Point; and others of the same tenor, and of nearly the same date, are accordingly omitted.

On the 22d of July, 1780, Mr. Robert R. Livingston wrote to Washington, expressing his fears that General Howe, in case of an exigency, would not inspire sufficient confidence in the New York militia; and soliciting the command for General Arnold. This was doubtless at the suggestion of the latter, who inspected the works at West Point on the 30th of June; with what motives we may judge from the result. On the 29th of June, Washington wrote in reply to Mr. Livingston, saying, "I am under no apprehension now of danger to the post at West Point, on the score either of provisions, the strength of the works, or of the garrison. I am sorry, however, to find there are apprehensions on account of the commandant, and that my knowledge of him does not enable me to form any decisive judgment of his fitness to command; but as General McDougall and Baron Steuben, men of approved bravery, are both with him, and the main army is within supporting distance, I confess I have no fear on the p25ground of what I presume is suspected. To remove him, therefore, under these circumstances, and at this period, must be too severe a wound to the feelings of any officer, to be given but in cases of real necessity."27 It is unnecessary to add that these aspersions of a worthy character were unjust, and probably prompted by him who would bartered his country's freedom for base revenge or paltry gold.

On the 3d of August, Washington wrote in reply to a letter from Colonel Kosciuszko, saying, "The artificers are drawn from the post at West Point for a particular and temporary service only, and as there is a necessity for a gentleman in the engineering department to remain constantly at that post, and as you, from your long residence there, are particularly well acquainted with the nature of the works, and the plans for their completion, it was my intention that you should continue. The infantry corps was arranged before the receipt of your letter. The southern army, by the captivity of General p26Duportail and the other gentlemen of that branch, is without an engineer; and as you seem to express a wish for going there, rather than remaining at West Point, I shall, if you prefer it to your present appointment, have no objection to your going." This permission Kosciuszko immediately accepted.28

On the same day last mentioned, August 3, 1780, Washington wrote from head-quarters at Peekskill, directing General Arnold to "proceed to West Point, and take the command of that post and its dependencies," extending from Fishkill to King's Ferry. This was in consequence of Arnold's dissatisfaction with his appointment to the command of the left wing of the main army, and the complaint that his wound would not allow him to act in the field.29 Washington wrote his last letter to Arnold on the 14th of September; and on the 18th he set out for Hartford, to have an interview with Count de Rochambeau, and the Chevalier de Ternay; meeting Arnold at King's Ferry on ship way. He returned from Hartford, and reached Robinson's p27House about noon on the 25th September; and not finding Arnold there, went over to West Point in the afternoon, but without finding him. On returning to Robinson's House towards evening, he discovered the plot, which, if perpetrated, would perhaps have been the death-blow to American independence. Arnold had just escaped; his boat having been hardly out of sight when Washington first arrived. The latter immediately wrote to Colonel Wade, then senior officer at West Point, to assume the command and be vigilant; as also to Major Low at Fishkill; to Lieutenant-Colonel Livingston at Stony Point; to Lieutenant-Colonel Jameson, who then had the custody of Major André; and to Lieutenant-colonel Gray and General Greene, directing the latter to advance their respective forces, for the safety of West Point.30 The particulars of Arnold's treason and escape, and of André's capture and execution, are too voluminous and too well known, to require to be here repeated; but they will be found at some length in the p28Encyclopaedia Americana; in Marshall's Life of Washington; and especially in Sparks's Life and Treason of Benedict Arnold, vol. III of the Library of American Biography. We will only add that André was taken at Tarrytown, September 23d; sent to Salem on the same day; thence to West Point on the 26th; and on the 28th, he was sent to Tappan, then the head-quarters of the American army. He was examined on the 29th, condemned on the 30th, and executed as a spy on the 2d of October, deeply lamented even by his captors. The dispositions made by Arnold, in dispersing the troops, distributing them in dangerous gorges, and leaving the passes feebly guarded, were such that, but for Providential interference, West Point must have fallen into the hands of the enemy.

On the 27th of September, 1780, General McDougall was placed in command of West Point, till the arrival of General St. Clair; who was instructed on the 1st of October to relieve him from that command.31 On the 5th of October, General Greene wrote to Washington, p29soliciting the command of West Point; which was conferred upon him on the following day. He was directed to exert himself to complete the works, and to put them in the most perfect state of defence; and Lieutenant-Colonel Gouvion was ordered to join him for this purpose with his corps.32 On the 14th of October, 1780, General Greene having been appointed, at the request of the southern states, to command the southern army, the command of West Point was entrusted to General Heath; who arrived on the 16th, and continued there through the following winter, so memorable for the distress of all the troops, and the consequent mutiny of the Pennsylvania line.33 On the 19th of August, 1781, General Heath was entrusted with the command of the whole department, including West Point; and he remained in command of that post until the following year.34 But on the 29th of August, 1782, General Knox was appointed to the command of West Point, and instructed to pay particular attention to the public building p30then in progress, and to the alterations and repairs of the works.35

On the 24th of June, 1783, after the conclusion of the war, Washington thus wrote from Newburgh to the President of Congress. "The army being thus reduced to merely a competent garrison for West Point, that being the only object of importance in this quarter, and it being necessary to employ a considerable part of the men in building an arsenal and magazines at that post, agreeably to the directions given by the secretary at war, the troops accordingly broke up the cantonment yesterday, and removed to that garrison, where General Knox still retains the command."36

General Knox, with the troops under his command, was ordered to New York to receive the surrender of that city when it was evacuated by the British, on the 25th of November, 1783; but they soon returned to West Point, where he continued his head-quarters, and was engaged in the preservation of the ordnance and other military stores,37 until he was relieved, as we are p31otherwise informed, by Captain Fleming with a guard of twelve men. This was probably not long before he was appointed Secretary of War by Congress, in 1785; which office he filled during the first six years of Washington's administration.


The Author's Notes:

1 Sparks, III.469.

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2 Sparks, III.469.

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3 Ib. IV.149.

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4 Ib. V.104 and 123.

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5 Ib. V.282.

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6 Sparks, IV.434; and V.283.

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7 Ib. V.176, 7.

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8 Sparks, V.178.

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9 Ib. V.223.

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10 Ib. V.224.

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11 Sparks, V.224.

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12 Ib. VI.431.

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13 Sparks, V.224, 5.

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14 Sparks, V.282.

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15 Sparks, V.334.

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16 Sparks, V.331.

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17 Thacher's Military Journal, p258.

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18 Sparks, V.333.

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19 Sparks, VI.67, 8. General Duportail was appointed chief engineer, we believe, in the autumn of 1777; and continued in that station till he left the service, in the autumn of 1783. Sparks, V.141.

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20 Sparks, VI.75 and 125.

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21 Ib. VI.276.

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22 Sparks, VI.304. By an extract from Washington's Order-Book, it appears that on the 30th of July, 1779, the officers appointed to superintend the different works, were as follows. "Lieutenant-Colonel Howard, with Lieutenant Hugo as his assistant; the redoubts assigned to General Smallwood's brigade. Lieutenant-Colonel Williams, with Captain Gosner, Fort Putnam and Fort Webb. Colonel Tupper, with Captain Drew, the works at the Point, [including Fort Clinton]. Captain Hall and Captain Tatum, the works on Constitution Island. Major Troop, with Captain Holmes, the works on the east side of the river."

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23 Sparks, VI.467.

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24 Ib. VII.16.

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25 Sparks, VII.69 and 74, 5.

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26 Ib. VII.78.

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27 Sparks, VII.94, 5.

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28 Sparks, VII.141.

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29 Ib. VII.139.

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30 Sparks, VII.212, 19.

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31 Sparks, VII.221, 2.

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32 Sparks, VII.232, 3.

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33 Ib. VII.259 and 374.

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34 Ib. VIII.136.

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35 Sparks, VIII.339, 40.

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36 Ib. VIII.456, 7.

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37 Ib. VIII.499 and 502, 3.


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