The United States Military Academy crowns a series of eminences which rise sheer from the waters of the river-fjord that flows beneath it narrow as a moat below the battlements of a legendary castle. Considered with its site, the Academy at West Point is surely one of the finest efforts of American building. Yet the beginnings of this institution were humble; its early life was precarious. It grew as the United States of America grew, in adversity and in warfare.
The school owed its first existence to the noble river beneath it, for the fortress in which it was enclosed would have had no strategic importance had it not been for the river; the Hudson was at that time America's greatest highway. The p2 fortress, as things happened, came first and became the parent of the school.
The peculiar bend of the Hudson at West Point and its narrowness made this gorge in the Highlands of peculiar interest to the white men who used the river as an artery connecting the English Colonies with Canada and with the West. Beyond the natural military advantage afforded by the mountains which commanded the narrow water on each bank lay the circumstance that the sharp turn slowed down, and in light airs almost stopped, sailing vessels rounding this point.
"Few places," wrote Roswell Parka one hundred and three years ago "in our country or even in the wide world are connected with more interesting associations."
Perhaps the story of the place begins on Monday the fourteenth of September, 1609,b though for more than a century and a half afterward the point was left in virgin solitude, peopled only by the red man with his round huts of oak bark. In the forests bear, wildcats, snakes, and birds lived in mutual fear. The brilliant hot summer sun came and stayed a long while to be succeeded by almost endless winters, when the river was solid with white ice and sharp and terrible winds blew the powdering snows straight off the bare crags. Was that the whining of the wind or was it a mountain bobcat screaming in the hunger of winter?
But on this Monday, the fourteenth of September, the weather was clear and hot. The dirty brigands who manned the Half Moon were crowded in the bow or high in the rigging of the little Dutch ship. At that minute it seemed to them, as it seemed to their master, that this voyage had not, after all, been in vain. For they had come to a "streight between two points," which strait led north and a little to the east, and the "land grew very high and mountainious." This is from John de Laet's translation of the Journal of Henry Hudson. The p3 explorer noticed the difference between the Highlands and the more gentle country he was soon to pass, which he describes as "the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon, and it also abounds in trees of every description." And again his mate calls it "As pleasant a land as one need tred upon."
Already Henry Hudson knew that the river was not the Northwest Passage of his quest. And yet it was to become a northwest passage of the greatest importance, called, in fact, the "North River." Could Hudson have counted in the English sovereigns or the Dutch guilders of his day the wealth in fur alone which was to be carried by the waters of this river he would have forgotten the wealth of the East Indies.
During the French and Indian wars the river became for the first time a military road. Through Lakes George and Champlain and by means of a few portages it connected with the St. Lawrence; and through its mighty branch, the Mohawk, it led to the Great Lakes, which appear in various shapes on the maps of that time. It was the military road to the Canadas. Upon its waters and upon those of the Mohawk traveled the Indian warriors hostile to the French, friendly to the English.
The young English colonel George Washington, rounding West Point in an Indian canoe, noticed its strategic significance. He was to consider it again nearly twenty years later when tragedy loomed.
Between the settlements to the north made by voyagers down the St. Lawrence and those more southerly settlements in New England, New York, and to the south, the Hudson was for centuries the natural artery. It connected an intricate and extensive network of interior water communications with the Atlantic and, draining the resources of almost half a continent, it became the highway to the sea.
The British had been taught the value of the "North River" p4 during the French and Indian wars. Thus, in the plan of operations for the subjugation of America which originated in London, we read that their object was
to command the Hudson and East Rivers with a number of small men-of‑war, and cutters, stationed at different parts of it so as to cut off all communication by water between New York and the Provinces to the North of it, and between New York and Albany . . . and to prevent also all communication between the city of New York and the Provinces of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and those to the Southward of them. [By these means] to divide the Provincial forces . . . depopulate their country, and compel an absolute subjection to Great Britain.
At no time did Washington show himself more resolute than in 1776 when it seemed to almost all about him that the American cause was lost. In conference General Sir William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne had decided to concentrate upon the capture of New York City with the object of controlling "North or Hudson's" River. Carlton and Burgoyne were to proceed south upon the waterways which led to the river from Canada. On July 5, 1776, Howe had camped on Staten Island, backed by his powerful armada of British men-of‑war. On August the twenty-second, with a force of twenty thousand men, having crossed to Long Island, he surprised the Americans. Fourteen hundred patriots were taken prisoner, including two generals: the self-styled Lord Sterling and John Sullivan.
Slowly, fort by fort, most of the positions around New York had been lost. The city itself was now occupied by the British. Only in the rear-guard action at Harlem Heights had the Americans achieved anything like a victory. Even though Washington had been able to withdraw his forces to Westchester p5 they were again defeated at Chatterton Hill in White Plains. Then Howe returned to capture the last American stronghold. Fort Washington on Manhattan Island fell. Nearly three thousand Americans were taken prisoner.
It was a bleak November for the commander in chief. Howe was marching to Philadelphia, then the greatest of American cities. Burgoyne was said to be marching toward the Hudson with his own great force augmented by Indians in war paint. Men previously enthusiastic for the American cause were beginning to lose all faith in victory. Some of Washington's raw troops had behaved badly on Manhattan Island; obviously, men said, they were no match for trained British soldiers.
It was declared that the commander in chief had himself cried out in fury, "Are these the troops with whom I am expected to defend this continent?"
Forced to march south through New Jersey in pursuit of Cornwallis, Washington thought anxiously of the Hudson and the crucial Highlands. He knew as well as if he had read the English orders to that effect that the Hudson was the spine of the British plan of offense. He knew also that there were inadequate fortifications at vital points along the river.
His anxiety was justified. The Congress of the State of New York had taken measures to fortify the Highland posts, for they also knew that the British would fight to master the Hudson River, which, as their spokesman said, "will give them the entire command of the water communications with the Indian nations, effectively prevent all intercourse between the Eastern and Southern Confederates, divide our strength and enfeeble every effort for our common preservation and security." But not so easily done as said. As early as 1775, the year in which the Provincial Convention (afterwards called "Congress") heard this report, Colonel James Clinton with a p6 small force was stationed opposite West Point at Constitution Island, where there existed but the primitive beginnings of fortifications.
The Continental Congress was likewise alive to the importance of the Highlands. Various resolutions were passed regarding them. On the twenty-fifth of May, 1775, it was resolved in the Continental Congress:
That a post be taken in the Highlands on each side of the Hudson River, and batteries erected; and that experienced persons be immediately sent to examine said river in order to discover where it will be most advisable and proper to obstruct the navigation.
Unfortunately the "experienced persons" sent were not able to reach entire agreement with the engineer who had already been placed in charge of the works. Colonel Romans, who was the first of those engineers who battled in the wilderness around West Point, would not agree with the Commissioners appointed by the Congress of New York. The works upon Fort Constitution on Martelaer's Rock, or Constitution Island, were the only ones actually progressing. Even these were considered to be more decorative than practicable by the commander in chief's representative, General Lord Sterling, who wrote at great length about them in his excellent letter to Washington in 1776. Lord Sterling also recommended a fortification on "the West Point," which, as he pointed out, could command anything which could be erected on Constitution Island. Lieutenant Colonel Livingston, stationed in the Highlands, wrote to the same effect. Washington's memorandum based on Sterling's findings was read to the Continental Congress.
Colonel Romans, who according to Sterling had displayed his genius at great expense and with decorative effect but with p7 little or no result which might further the public safety, was replaced by Lieutenant Machin. He was in turn supervised by various committees who lived with their retainers and assistants in the vicinity, all expenses being charged to the infant State of New York. There were, besides, many able generals who were successively in command of the posts in the Highlands — men of the stature of the two Clintons, James and George; Generals Heath, McDougall, and Israel Putnam. Even after General George Clinton was appointed first Governor of the State of New York he kept a watchful eye on the fortifications and yet, in spite of all this work and all these good intentions, the works remained, as Washington remarked, in "tolerable order to receive the enemy."
Fort Montgomery at Bear Mountain described a rough and broken half circle open to the wild and towering mountains at its rear. But Colonel Romans' principal works at Constitution Island were at right angles to the river, while the blockhouse which he had constructed on the highest point of the island was thought by Sterling to be more picturesque than practicable in spite of the eight cannon which projected from the attic windows.
There were perhaps too many advisers, too many changes in command, and yet we must realize the very hard conditions under which these rude forts rose above the unyielding rocks. The winters in the Highlands were almost intolerably severe. Temperatures often twenty-five below zero were made even more merciless by high winds. The shelters of the troops were anything but tight. Later, when the garrisons at the posts in the Highlands were augmented, such an essential as good firewood was scarce. The troops were alone in a wilderness deserted even by the Indians. They were at a painful distance from the settlements at New Windsor and Newburgh and from the farming country which lay behind them.
p8 The passes over the mountains were considered so impassable that the Americans felt secure in the belief that the British could never penetrate them. They were too smug about this as events proved. The river for long months was covered with ice or ice floes. Only in summer could the work proceed with speed. Even then the heavy timber needed for the fortifications was hauled from points far distant from the Highlands, whose rocks and promontories had starved the trees — which were twisted out of shape by the winds. The troops were afflicted by the melancholy of isolation. They may also have felt the precariousness of their situation even before they were forced to abandon it.
Meanwhile Sir Henry Clinton was restless in New York, anxious to bring about that crushing defeat of the Americans which his junction with Burgoyne would, he felt sure, accomplish. According to plan, as we have seen, this drama was to be acted before the impressive scenery of the Hudson gorge.
Giving out that he was about to make a southern expedition, Sir Henry Clinton in fact sailed northward up the Hudson with four thousand troops and a formidable fleet. It was a triumphal progress and the forts proved, as Washington had suggested, ready — to receive the enemy. General Israel Putnam, stationed at Verplanks Point, refused the desperate request of the garrison across the river for reinforcements.
Governor George Clinton adjourned the legislature at Kingston and raised four hundred men and rode hard for Bear Mountain and Forts Montgomery and Clinton. But the British under the able and ruthless command of Tryon flanked these positions by doing the impossible — marching through the defiles of the mountains. The American sloops of war which had been stationed below on the river to guard the boom that had been stretched across it were burned by the patriots; so were two American frigates, one of which grounded farther p9 north on Constitution Island — which was hardly defended at all by Captain Gershom Mott.
On the eighth of October two thousand men under the command of General Tryon landed upon the east side of the river above Constitution Island and contemptuously explored those "Fortifications in the Highlands" which had been the object of so many resolutions in two American Congresses and had been the anxious care of so many eminent Americans.
In two days they were all destroyed and the stores gathered there fell into the enemy's possession. One quarter of a million dollarsc was said to have been spent upon these fortifications; but we note here with interest that not one cent of this had been spent upon West Point itself, which remained as bald and rocky as it had been in the Devonian age.
In the pleasant autumn days the British busied themselves tearing down the American fortifications above West Point. Only Fort Clinton — not to be confused with that other Fort Clinton farther down the river — they built up, calling it Fort Vaughan. They crossed the river and burned the barracks at Continental Village, which were built to house fifteen hundred men; they captured a vast amount of stores. Yet now occasionally sudden sharp and bitter winds had begun to whistle rudely straight into their faces. Indians brought them tidings which most of the British officers dismissed as idle rumor.
Then on the twentieth day after their occupation of the forts above "the West Point" came news, authenticated news.
It concerned Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, the same who some years before — replying to Dr. Franklin's suggestion, made at a dinner of state held during the French and Indian wars, that possibly the methods of the Indians were the most effective in fighting Indians — had risen to say, "Sir! The British Square is invincible!"
p10 Sir Henry Clinton learned that Gentleman Johnny had been utterly defeated by the Americans at Saratoga; his whole starving army of more than six thousand had surrendered with their commander. So ended the campaign to gain control of the Hudson. Sir Henry Clinton returned to New York City, leaving a strong garrison at Stony Point.
Washington, with characteristic determination that did not know discouragement, began — as soon as the British had deserted the Highlands — to rebuild the fortifications which, having taken two years to build, had been destroyed in two days. He wrote three letters: to General Putnam, Governor Clinton, and General Gates. To Putnam he said, with weary reiteration, referring to the vast strategic importance of the Hudson:
These facts are familiar to all; they are familiar to you. I therefore request you in the most urgent terms, to turn your most serious and active attention to this infinitely important object. Seize the present opportunity, 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 further attempts of the enemy.
About the twentieth of January, in the face of the bitter north wind, without proper tools, with no shelter whatever, and with no money, General Parsons' brigade landed on "the West Point."
With him was a young Frenchman, an engineer, Colonel Radière, who was responsible to General Putnam. This young man was of frail constitution and his present assignment may be said to have been fatal, as he contracted something like tuberculosis and died in camp at New Windsor two years later. However, at this time he was much alive. He planned extensive p11 works which were quite beyond the means at hand. He quarreled with his workmen and could hardly agree with his superiors. Yet we must pity this young Frenchman; for it must have seemed to him that spring would never come and that he might never again see his home, which lay over so many perilous leagues of stormy water. The huts, rudely constructed on the frozen, rocky ground, hardly kept out the deathlike cold and the log fires were good to warm one side of a man only. The Americans grew hardy on this sort of thing, but the nervous and irritable Frenchman existed in misery.
The Americans apparently lacked money all of the time, lacked clothes most of the time and food some of the time.
"I have several times advanced my last shilling," wrote General Parsons, "towards the purchasing of materials etc. and I believe this is the case with almost every officer here."
The men's clothes had begun to wear out and they were ragged and barefooted in the cold.
Foraging was increasingly difficult; for supplies were scarce even on the farms, which were at such a weary distance from the Point in the wilderness. Marauders, in the name of the Continental Congress and in the name of the King, had already plundered the landholders in the vicinity. Many of these were quite indifferent to politics so that they might only hold their own. And the foraging parties were for the most part without money, that persuader.
General Heath records that, worst of all, the troops were more often than not reduced to the necessity of drinking nothing better than cold water! We may perhaps admit that a little rum might have helped matters.
On his ice-cold drawing table the engineer, Colonel Radière, planned elaborate fortresses. He projected terrepleins, curtains, and banquettes, all on a vast scale. When General Parsons p12 tried to modify this somewhat embarrassing display of military science, Radière replied that he would not risk his reputation on less elaborate works.
General Putnam was conspicuously absent. However, he sent several able deputies to assist in the work. Among these was Deputy Quartermaster General Hugh Hughes. To this latter officer, who was efficient and honorable, went the mighty matter of contracting for the great chain. For it had been determined by both Governor Clinton and his brother, General James, that the most feasible way to obstruct traffic on the river would be by means of a chain stretched across it at that narrowest part below West Point.
This chain and boom had also been recommended by the committee sent to investigate the defenses, on which committee Chancellor Livingston and Supreme Court Justice Hobart had served. The boom was made of massive timbers and was to be stretched down-river, below the chain. On the second of February we find Hugh Hughes signing a paper at the Sterling Iron Works in the Ramapo Mountains. It was the articles of agreement for the iron work and called for a chain •five hundred yards long, each link to be made of the best Sterling iron and to be •two feet long. The links were afterward found to weigh •one hundred and twenty pounds, though some of them were somewhat lighter. There was to be a swivel to •every hundred feet and a clevis to every thousand feet. There were also to be twelve tons of anchors. The chain and anchors were to be paid for at the rate of four hundred and forty pounds for each ton of weight. Sixty artificers were to be exempt from military duty. The company was to keep seven fires at forging and ten at welding until the completion of the work. The contract was signed on February 2, 1778.
The links of the chain were accordingly forged at the Sterling Iron Works and were then brought to Captain Machin's forge p13 at New Windsor, where they were joined together and fastened to the logs which supported them.
Colonel Troup wrote to General Gates on the twentieth of April that the works at West Point were progressing at a rapid rate and that in a week's time he hoped to see the great chain stretched across the river, and added, "If they let us alone two weeks longer we shall have reason to rejoice at their moving this way."
Though the exact day on which the chain and boom were stretched across the river is not known, it is safe to say that they were in place before the first of May, 1778. The news of the great chain ran up and down the waters of the Hudson. The British remained below at their stronghold at Stony Point. West Point had become an American fortress, so to remain through the centuries, defying treachery, defying neglect. Since the days when the great chain was stretched across the Hudson River at West Point foreign enemies have never dared to assail it.
Colonel Radière, angry that his plans could not be executed, at variance with most of the officers and men at the post, was superseded by Colonel Kosciuszko, who had been Chief Engineer in the Northern Army which had defeated Burgoyne. Like Radière he had been selected by Dr. Franklin, but this amiable Pole was much nearer the personal pattern set by America's Ambassador to France. As an engineer he contributed much to the early fortifications at West Point — was, in fact, responsible for most of them. As a human being he was able to cheer the ragged unpaid troops. He was gay.d There are times when gaiety is only another name for bravery. A legal spring gushed from the crevices of the rocks and about it Kosciuszko built himself a rock garden. This garden — or one very like it — exists today, and bears his name. When we consider the great difficulties of life at the post in those days we p14 can only admire the spirit of a man who could see the natural beauties about him and who could make himself a little garden, sit among his ferns and flowers, and enjoy the glorious prospect of the river and the mountains. To others with the wilderness of the place was a necessary evil and the mountains no more than natural barriers to be fortified and defended.
General Israel Putnam, whose command of the post at West Point seemed to be an empty honor, since he was always leaving to others the actual residence among the mountains, had become increasingly unpopular. He was superseded by General McDougall, while Colonel Rufus Putnam, an engineer, no relation to the general, was already working with skill upon the fort which bore his name. Later General Heath, one of Washington's boldest and most sagacious generals, was in command of the forts. He needed these qualities during his sojourn in the Highlands.
Much has been written of the privations and hardships of Washington's troops at Valley Forge, and yet it is to be doubted if these were greater or even as severe as those experienced by the garrisons stationed in the Highlands of the Hudson at the same time. General Heath records in his Memoirs that for forty days no water dripped from the roofs of the barracks. The snow was •four feet deep on the level where it was not drifted. The troubles with the commissary had not lessened during the years of work in the Highlands; they had, in fact, increased. We read in the Orderly Book kept by Benjamin Peabody, one of General Heath's Massachusetts men, that:
The extreme irregular manner in which provisions have been drawn at this post renders it necessary that it should be prevented and a regular mode adopted. [And in another place Peabody notes that] the inhabitants in the vicinity complain that they are constantly plundered by the soldiers.
p15 Under date of October 4, 1780, we find:
As it rained last night will issue Jill of Rum to the Non-Commissioned Officers and Privets . . . the state of Flower and bread render it necesary to Lesson the Ration of Bread to •three quarters of a pound, when a stock arrives the Defficiency shall be issued.
The winters brought hardships, but the springs throughout the War for American Independence brought desertions. The men could not stand the first warm days in camp. They thought too strongly of their farms in which they had lived in security and a great measure of comfort. They thought of their wives and of their big broods of babies. Who would plow? Who would plant the seed? And if they stayed here in camp needlessly and endlessly, as it seemed to them, who would eat?
Under General Heath's command was the Pennsylvania line. They deserted to a man. The general could not, he saw, bring them back by force. He would have had a civil war on his hands had he attempted it, and he would have found himself on the losing side. He did, however, send after the men and demand an explanation.
After they had refused — as he had foreseen that they would refuse — his command to return to camp he questioned their spokesman, who explained, "My men are willing to fight if there is a war to fight or if the enemy appear before them. They are unwilling to remain longer in camp in starvation and idleness."
It proved useless to explain to them that the construction of the works in the Highlands was not "idleness," that the enemy might attack at any time and, when he did, would almost surely surprise them if that were possible. Only a small detachment returned to duty; the others continued on their way home.
p16 On July 25, 1779, Washington made his headquarters at Moores' House near the Point.
A little before this, General (Mad Anthony) Wayne was supposed to have said to his commander, "Sir, I will storm hell if you will but plan the strategy!"
And Washington, who had only a little before issued an order of the day excoriating profanity, replied, "Suppose you try Stony Point first?"
Stony Point was accordingly stormed and taken by General Wayne to the glory of American arms, and the British were driven away from the immediate vicinity of West Point.
Yet one of the last entries in Benjamin Peabody's Orderly Book bearing a September date, reads: "General Arnold run away to the enemy."
b O. S. = Monday, September 24th, N. S.
c Very roughly, in 2009 money, $3,500,000.
d In the twenty-first century, what with the continuing changes in English usage and in order to avoid all misunderstanding, nonsensical citations in term papers, and vituperative e‑mail to yours truly, it is probably best for me, alas, to state that the text has not been tampered with: our author is referring to Kosciuszko's habitual cheerfulness, not to any rash assumptions one might make from the mere fact that (like Sylvanus Thayer for that matter) he never married.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
History of West Point
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 15 Jun 16