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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The History of West Point

Edward C. Boynton

published by
D. Van Nostrand,
New York, 1864

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p39  Chapter III

Appointment of a Secret Committee for Obstructing the Channel of the Hudson. — Their Action and Letter to Washington. — Assignment of General Geo. Clinton to Command in the Highlands. — General Clinton and other Officers examine Works and Report upon the Necessity of a Boom and Chain at Fort Montgomery. — Major-General Putnam appointed to Command. — Advance of Sir Henry Clinton up the Hudson to Co‑operate with General Burgoyne. — Assault and Capture of Forts Montgomery and Clinton.

The Suggestions of the Committee of June 13th, 1775 (p14), in regard to obstructing the navigation of the river, do not, however, appear to have been acted upon, further than to order the survey mentioned, until the subsequent year (1776); when, on the 16th of July, a few days after the Declaration of Independence, the Provincial Convention​1 again took up the matter, and appointed a Secret Committee to take the whole subject in charge, as will be seen by the following resolutions:

"Resolved, unanimously, That a Secret Committee be appointed to devise and carry into execution such measures as to them shall appear most effectual for obstructing the channel of the Hudson River, or annoying the enemy's ships in their passage up said river; and that this Convention pledge themselves for defraying the charges incident thereto.

"Resolved, That Mr. Jay, Mr. Robert Yates, Major C. Tappan, Mr. Robert R. Livingston, and Mr. Paulding, be said Committee."

 p40  The proceedings of this Secret Committee, appointed 16th July, 1776, have been recently discovered by Mr. James C. Bolton, among the papers of his grandfather, General James Clinton. Besides these minutes, Mr. Bolton has found maps of the Chain at Fort Montgomery, showing the manner in which it was fastened and floated, and the character of the Booms placed in front of it. These long-hidden and valuable documents receive additional illustration from a relic of the original obstruction at West Point, which was raised from the river's bed by Bishop's derrick, in 1855. Collating and combining this mass of new and important materials, with that to be derived from the proceedings of the Provincial Convention, and from other previously known sources, we find that —

There were four points at which it was sought to obstruct the navigation of the river, by means, either singly or combined, of fire-ships, booms and chains, and chevaux-de‑frise. The first point was at Fort Washington, the second at Fort Montgomery, the third at Pollopel's Island, and the fourth at West Point. The fire-ships and obstructions at Fort Washington were constructed in the summer of 1776; the obstructions at Fort Montgomery and Pollopel's Island, in the autumn of 1776 and springs of 1777 and 1778; and those at West Point in 1778.

The Secret Committee, on the 17th of July, addressed a letter to the Commander-in‑chief, soliciting his advice as to a plan the defences of Hudson's River, which, they alleged, had been unfortunately too long neglected. To this Washington replied on the 21st, detailing his order to Lord Stirling, and stating that while he had repeatedly urged on Colonel Clinton to spare no pains to put them  p41 on the best possible footing, he had reason to suppose they were in tolerable order to receive the enemy. On the same day Lieutenant Machin was despatched by him to Colonel Clinton, as the Engineer of the works in the Highlands. He was described as "an ingenious man, who was a proper person, and one who had given great satisfaction as an engineer."

As early as the 15th of July, at the request of the Commander-in‑chief, General George Clinton had been appointed by the Provincial Congress to command the newly raised levies, and this officer was now actively co-operating with his brother in obstructing the river at Pollopel's Island, and expediting the erection of Forts Clinton and Montgomery, at Pooplopen's Kill.

The garrison at Fort Constitution, weakened by detachments to prosecute the latter operations,​2 was, on the 1st of December, strengthened by the addition of two regiments, which, under the command of General George Clinton, were to furnish working parties to aid in obstructing the channel of the Hudson at Pollopel's Island;​3 this General being, in addition, specially instructed on the 10th of December, by the New York Committee of Safety, in relation to the necessity of securing the passes in the Highlands, and on "no account to place himself beyond the power to regain them."4

The spring of 1777 approached, and the task of strengthening the defences in the Highlands still continued. On the 25th of March, Congress appointed George Clinton a brigadier-general, thus transferring him from the Provincial rank before held by him, to the  p42 Continental Service; and although, upon the adoption of the State Constitution, he was chosen Governor in July, he nevertheless continued cordially co-operating in the work before mentioned.

On the 7th of May, from head-quarters at Morristown, N. J., Washington wrote Brigadier-General McDougall, who had succeeded Brigadier-General Heath in the command of the New England troops at Peekskill​5 and vicinity, that the imperfect state of the fortifications at Fort Montgomery gave him great uneasiness, and that a concurrence of circumstances indicated a movement of the enemy up the North River.

General McDougall was directed, in connection with General George Clinton, to employ every measure to put the works in a condition to resist sudden attack, or detain the enemy until re-enforcements could arrive.6

In compliance with these instructions, Generals McDougall, Knox, Greene, George Clinton, and Wayne, proceed to examine the works already erected; and on the "17th of May, these officers submitted a joint report to the Commander-in‑chief, in which they recommended the obstruction of the river at Fort Montgomery by stretching a boom or chain across, in front of which should be one or two cables, to break the force of a vessel before it should strike the chain; that two Continental ships then on the spot, and two row-galleys, should be manned and stationed just above the obstruction, in such  p43 a manner as to fire upon the enemy's ships in front when they approached." They also added: "We are very confident, if the obstructions of the river can be rendered effectual, the enemy will not attempt to operate by land, the passes through the Highlands are so exceedingly difficult."7

Unfortunately, the latter course, by penetrating overland, through the defiles in the mountains, was the very one adopted, and so successfully carried out by the enemy.

At this time the command of the forces in and near the Highlands had assumed such proportions as to require a Major-General for its head, and accordingly Major-General Putnam was directed to relieve General McDougall early in the month of May.

On the 1st of July, from head-quarters at Middlebrook, Washington wrote Putnam: *** for "It appears almost certain to me that General Howe and General Burgoyne does not, if possible, to unite their attacks and form a junction of their two armies, *** and I am persuaded, if General Howe is going up the river, he will make a rapid and vigorous push to gain the Highland passes."8

These indications of an active movement on the part of the enemy were continued throughout the summer, and served to prepare the way for more decisive results in the autumn of 1777.

"The advance of General Burgoyne from the North towards Albany had been checked, and his army was suffering from want of provisions, while at the same time  p44 General Howe, with the main body of the army under his command, was struggling with General Washington for the possession of Philadelphia. For the purpose of diverting the attention of the American forces, to secure the passes in the Highlands, and, if possible, to withdraw a portion of General Gates's army from its careful attention to General Burgoyne, General Sir Henry Clinton, then in command in the city of New York, organized an expedition for the capture of the forts in the Highlands, and for such other movements in that direction as the circumstances might warrant."9

In addition to the works already mentioned, redoubts had been thrown up by the troops encamped around Peekskill, at Verplanck's Point, and on the southern base of Anthony's Nose.

"Early in October the British General embarked his forces, ostensibly for a southern expedition, and awaited a favorable wind for the execution of his real design.

"The opportunities were propitious, and a powerful naval armament, with about four thousand troops on board, suddenly menaced Putnam's position and landed at Verplanck's Point, the garrison at which retreated on the approach of the fleet. Putnam was caught by the device; and, believing the defences on the east side of the river to be the object of the British General, obstinately refused the entreaties of the officers more sagacious than himself, to send adequate succors to the posts opposite. Nor after the main body of the British had on the next day crossed over to Stony Point, and were on their march to Forts Clinton and Montgomery, and even after  p45 the firing was heard at the forts above him, could he be persuaded to send forces to the relief of the beleaguered posts."

"But Governor Clinton was not so easily blinded. As soon as he heard that the fleet was on the river, he adjourned the Legislature, then in session at Kingston, and collecting such militia as could be assembled, proceeded to the point to which he had before been assigned by Congress. He had scarcely time to throw himself with four hundred followers into the works, when the British, having deceived Putnam, landed at Stony Point at daybreak on the morning of the 6th of October.10

"Five hundred regulars and four hundred loyal Americans under Colonel Beverly Robinson, the whole commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell, moved as an advanced guard around the Dunderberg to the base of Bear Mountain, followed by General Vaughn with twelve hundred men. Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell was directed to make the détour of Bear Mountain seven miles around to the west, and débouche in rear of Fort Montgomery; while General Vaughn was to proceed eastward between the two mountains, accompanied by Sir Henry Clinton, and assail Fort Clinton on its south flank and rear. The rear-guard, under Ex‑Governor General Tryon, was left in the valley, at the point of separation of the two columns.

"The former body reached the vicinity of Fort Clinton at about 5 P.M., and receiving a scornful refusal from the garrison to surrender, commenced the assault at about the same moment the first column under Campbell attacked  p46 Fort Montgomery, aided by the vessels of war which had moved up the river to participate in the conflict."11

The garrisons, for the most part composed of untrained militia, and wholly inadequate to man the extensive lines, resisted and repeatedly repulsed with great vigor the attack of superior numbers, and not until darkness closed around were the six hundred brave defenders over­powered.

Part of the garrisons were made prisoners, but both commanders escaped: Governor George Clinton by a boat across the river, while General James Clinton, the commander of the fort bearing his name, forced his passage to the rear.

A sloop of ten guns, the frigate Montgomery, and two row-galleys, stationed near for the defence of the boom and chain, were burned to prevent their capture by the enemy. The frigate Congress, ordered up the river on the 5th, ran on the flats near Fort Constitution, and shared the same fate.

Lighted by the flames of the burning vessels, the fugitives dispersed through the mountains, and pursuing their flight over the plain at West Point, found a resting-spot with General James Clinton, at New Windsor.

"The garrison at Fort Constitution, reduced to a mere guard under Captain Gershom Mott, who had there assumed command on the 9th of August, and now completely at the mercy of an enemy's battery if planted at West Point, awaited a summons to surrender, borne under a white flag, on the morning of the 7th. Captain  p47 Mott fired on the flag, and that night abandoned the island, after burning the barracks and leaving his guns unspiked, with a portion of his stores unconsumed.

"On the morning of the 8th, two thousand men under General Tryon proceeded on the fleet from Fort Montgomery up the river, and landing on the east side, completed the demolition of the 'Fortifications in the Highlands.' "12

Thus was effected, in the brief time of two days, the destruction of works and stores which had cost the country not less than a quarter of a million of dollars, no portion of which had been appropriated to the erection of a single battery at West Point, so often urged as "the key to the passage in the Highlands."

A portion of the British force, left as a garrison at Fort Clinton, commenced its reconstruction under the name of Fort Vaughn,º while another party made an expedition to "Continental Village," on the east side of the river, and about four miles distant.

At this point a large amount of supplies, and barracks for fifteen hundred men, were destroyed without molestation.

The capture of the army under General Burgoyne having been ascertained, the whole expedition abandoned the Highlands, after twenty days' occupation, and returned to New York.

The Author's Notes:

1 The title of the Legislature of the State was changed on the 10th July, 1776, from Congress to Convention.

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2 Am. Arch, V.III., 1040.

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3 Am. Arch, V.III., 348.

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4 Am. Arch, V.III., 1157.

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5 The command of the department in the Highlands and vicinity, including Forts Constitution, Montgomery, and Independence, the passes, and the Division of Connecticut and Massachusetts troops, had been assigned to Brigadier-General Heath, 12th November, 1776 — head-quarters at Peekskill. — [Heath's Memoirs, 85.]

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6 Writings of Washington, Sparks, IV, 409.

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7 Spark's Writings of Washington, IV.416.

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8 Id.IV.476.

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9 Battles of the U. S., I.332.— Dawson.

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10 Life and Times of Colonel Lamb, 174. — Leake.

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11 Sir H. Clinton's Despatch.

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12 Life and Times of Colonel Lamb, 185. Idem, MSS. N. Y. Hist. Col.

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