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Chapter 4

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 not been proofread.
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Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p69  Chapter V

Progress of Obstructing the Hudson. — Relic of the Boom and Chain. — Letters of General Glover and Captain Machin. — Disposition of the Boom, Chain, etc. — Fort Arnold. — Discrepancies in the Name of the Work. — Assignment of Major-General Heath to the Command. — Head-quarters of Washington Established at West Point. — Washington's Orders. — Severity of the Winter of 1778‑'80. — Assignment of General Howe to the Command of the Post.

The obstructions to the navigation of the river had suffered less from the delay before mentioned than the Forts. Governor Clinton, in accordance with his promise to "Render any assistance in his power," had exercised considerable supervision over that branch of the service; and had directed Captain Machin,​1 who had been employed in completing the obstructions at Pollopel's Island, to take charge of the obstructions at West Point also. The links of the Chain were brought from the Stirling Iron Works to Captain Machin's Forges at New Windsor, where they were joined together and properly fastened of the logs which farmed the support of the Children when completed.

From the Contract of Noble & Townsend, dated Feb. 2d, 1778, we are enabled to fix the time of the commencement  p70 of the manufacture of the Chain. The letter of General Putnam, dated 13th February, same year, referring to "Parts of the Boom intended to have been used at Fort Montgomery;" the Plans accompanying the Proceedings of the Secret Committee, showing how the Chain and Boom were disposed at the latter place; the relic found in the river at West Point, in the summer of 1855; and the subjoined bill for the Boom at latter place, the last payment for which was made on the day the Chain was contracted for, demonstrate that the obstructions at West Point consisted of a Boom and a Chain, the former being in front of the latter.

Are Relic here referred to consists of two logs, one of white wood and the other of white pine, about eighteen feet in length, and about fifteen inches in diameter, dressed in the centre in the form of an octagon, and rounded at the ends. These logs are untied to each other by an iron band stretched around each end, and two links of Chain of nearly two‑inch bar iron, but which have evidently lost much of their original size from corrosion. This Boom extended the whole width of the river.

The Plan of its construction and disposition is represented by the accompanying engraving.

The strength of this Boom may be inferred from the bill of Noble & Townsend, which specifies 136 tons of iron wrought into booms, bolts, clips, chains, swivels, and bands, the very articles of which the relics are composed, and which were in part recovered. The following is the Bill for the Boom — that for the Chain has not been found.2 HORRIBLE TABLE p71 includes3

 p72  By the Bill of Captain Machin, which is also annexed, it will be observed that he calls the Boom, Chain Logs, and that they were taken to West Point on April 7th. The Chain appears from the same Bill to have been taken down on the 6th April, and stretched across the river on the 30th. TABLE extending over 2pp

It will be observed that Boom combined great strength with practicability. It was indeed the main obstruct innocent, and placed below the Chain to receive the first shock of approaching vessels.

Contrary to the usual belief, the Boom must have been placed in position some time after the chain had been drawn across. The following letter confirms this opinion:—

 p74  Fort Arnold, 2d July, 1778.

"Hon. Major-General Gate:—

"Sir:— These [enclosed] will inform your honor the state of the garrison at this piece, 'which is by no means in a defensible condition, the works not near finished.' Fort Putnam, 'on which the strength of the Post depends, is far from being complete; the Boom is not yet come down, nor do I know when it will, or who to apply to about it.'​4 ******

[Signed] "John Glover,

The Chain designed to obstruct the river is fully described in the contract with Noble & Townsend, already quoted, and its accuracy is confirmed by an examination of portion yet remaining at West Point.

On the 20th of April, 1778, Captain Machin, the Engineer, wrote General McDougall: "Lieutenant Woodward, who I told you was at the Stirling Iron Works inspecting the Chain, is now returned, and informs me that seventeen hundred feet of the great Chain, which is more than equal to the breadth of the river at the place last fixed upon, is now ready for use. *** The capson [capstan] and docks are set up in the lower place; the mud blocks are launched, and only wait for good weather to carry them down. **** If the weather should be favorable, I am in hopes to take the Chain down all fixed in about six days."​5 If the date of this letter has been erroneously printed 20th, instead of 10th, the latter will be found to agree with Captain Machin's bill. The  p75 chain was put together, "all fixed, at New Windsor, and floated down to West Point, and secured in its proper place in the latter part of April, 1778, as appears from the following extract from a letter from General Clinton to Captain Machin, dated Poughkeepsie, 3d of May, 1778:—

"Dear Sir:— I received your letter, and am happy to learn that the Chain is across the river, and that you had the good fortune to accomplish it so expeditiously and so much to your satisfaction."

The chain, as it appeared when placed in its position, is thus described by General Heath in his Memoirs:

"November 14th, 1780.— The great chain, which was laid across the Hudson at West Point, was taken up for the winter. It was done under the direction of Colonel Govion, Captain Buchanan, and Captain Nevers [Niven], with a strong detachment of the garrison, and with skill and dexterity. This chain was as long as the width of the river between West Point and Constitution Island, where it was fixed to great blocks on each side, and under the fire of batteries on both side so the river. The links of this chain were probably 12 inches wide, and 18 inches long; the iron about 2 inches square. This heavy chain was buoyed up by very large logs, of perhaps 16 or more feet long, a little pointed at the ends, to lessen their opposition to the force of the water on flood and ebb. The logs were placed at short distances from each other, the chain carried over them, and made fast to each by staples, to prevent their shifting; and there were a number of anchors dropped at distances, with cables made fast to the chain, to give it a greater stability. The short bend of the river at this  p76 place was much in favour of the chain's proving effectual; for a vessel coming up the river with the fairest wind and strongest way must lose them on changing her course to turn the Point; and before she could get under any considerable way again, even if the wind was fair, she would be on the chain, and at the same time under a heavy shower of shot and shells."

"April 10th, 1781. — The great chain was hauled from off the beach near the Red House at West Point, and towed down to the blocks, in order to its being laid across the river. About 280 men were ordered on this duty."

"April 11th. — The chain was properly fixed with great dexterity, and fortunately without any accident."

A great variety of traditions have been repeated, historically, in reference to the obstructions at West Point, and which may be fully explained when the precise character of the latter is understood. For example, it is said in the "Field-Book of the Revolution": "Arnold wrote a letter to André in a disguised hand manner, informing him that he had weakened the obstruction in the river by ordering a link of the chain to be taken out and carried to the smiths, under a pretence that it needed repairs."

He assured his employer that the link would not be returned to its place before the Forts should be in possession of the enemy.

A link could not have been thus displaced without removing that part of obstruction altogether; better boom might easily have been weakened by taking out a link from either side. Governor Clinton, it is further said, walked across the river on the chain, and this  p77 statement is repeated in the narratives of others as having been accomplished by them.

These traditions are easily reconciled by substituting the word Boom for that of the Chain. The Boom could readily be converted into a bridge, and it is not improbable that in its construction reference was had to this object, as it would afford facility safety transport of troops from one side of the river to the other.

Another writer affirms that the Chain was removed every winter "by means of a large windlass,' and that it made a "huge pile on the river-bank." It has also been represented that one end of the Chain and of the Boom being loosened from its fastenings, a windlass was employed to swing the whole around to the shore, — a process easy accomplished.

Those who have witnessed the movements of the immense fields of ice in December and March at West Point, ebbing and flowing with tide, will perceive the impossibility of the Chain remaining attached by one end, floating as it would with the masses of ice; nor would securing both ends have prevented its destruction from the agency mentioned.

The first statement concerning its disposition is doubtless the correct one, and is sustained by the following, from "Heath's Memoirs": "April 10. — The great Chain was hauled from off the beach near the Red House, at West Point, and towed down to the blocks, in order to its being laid across the river."

The Red House was situated in "Washington's Valley," where a safe anchorage on the flats, from the moving fields of ice, could be secured. The Chain and Boom were fastened when in position to cribbage-blocks, the  p78 remains of which are yet visible in the little cove just above the boat-house, on Constitution Island, and directly across from the "Chain Battery," yet in existence, and near which the south end was secured. Sixteen links of the Chain yet remain united at West Point, including a swivel and clevis. Two of the largest links weigh respectively 130 and 129 pounds. Two of the smallest weigh 100 and 98 pounds, while the medium weight is 114 pounds. The whole Chain is said to have weighed 186 tons.6

A portion of the Chain [about thirty-four tons] was sold to the Cold Spring Foundry Association, and removed to New York many years ago, where it was worked up.

In removing the Boom finally, a portion of it became detached, and the logs, being water-soaked, sank to the bottom of the river, where, after being washed by the tide for eighty years, they have been in part recovered, and now serve the noble purpose of elucidating an PROOFREAD PAGE 79 FROM THE OTHER GOOGLE ITEM!  p79 important point in the defensive operations at West Point, in the struggle for independence.

Returning to the fortifications at West Point, the work on which continued to progress under the general direction of General McDougall, superintended by Kosciuszko as engineer, until the assignment of General Gates to command the Northern department {head-Quarters at Fishkill, and at Robinson's house], when, on the 22d of April, 1778, General McDougall was ordered to join the main army​7 at Valley Forge, leaving the command again under General Parsons.

The operations of the army in the Eastern department led this officer, at intervals, to the performance of duties in that quarter to which his brigade had been ordered; zzzzz nominal command was not changed thereby.

The principal work on the western angle of the Plain at West Point had, in early June, so far advanced as to receive its garrison, and was named Fort Arnold.8

Some discrepancy exists in regard to the name of this work, for Washington, while en route from Head-Quarters, at White Plains, to Fishkill, to examine the condition of the Highlands, first visited West Point, and to General Duportail, the Chief Engineer of the army, he addressed the following, dated,

Fort Clinton, West Point, Sept. 19, 1778.

Sir:— I have perused the memorial which you delivered relative to the defence of the North River at this place, and upon a view of it, highly approve what you have offered upon the subject. Colonel Kosciuszko, who  p80 was charged by Congress with the direction of the Forts and batteries, has already made such progress in the constructing of them as would render any alteration of them in the general plan a work of too much time, and the favorable testimony which you have given of Colonel Kosciuszko's abilities prevents any uneasiness on this head."​9


Again, nine months later, he reported to Congress from the "Ringwood Furnace," the intention of the enemy to advance viâ Continental Village, and "gain, if possible, Nelson's Point opposite to Fort Arnold."10

Many other authorities conduce to the belief, now become general, that Fort Arnold the original appellation, was continued not the defection of Arnold was made known, at which time every individual in the army seemed to vie with each other in the bitterness of their denunciations of him.

Then every memento of his existence was expunged from the garrison he had so basely undertaken to betray; and the name of Fort Clinton was bestowed in place of one unknown in history, save in the military correspondence and garrison orders of that day.

In response to the inquiries of the Commander-in‑chief as to the disposition of the army for the winter, General Parsons urged, on the 17th of October, that six or seven thousand men be stationed at Fishkill, or near it; one thousand be posted as the garrison at West Point; three thousand near the Clove on the west side of the river; and the remainder, two thousand, in Connecticut.

 p81  This arrangement was partially adopted; for in the assignment of the army to winter quarters in November, nine brigades were stationed on the west side of the Hudson, covering the lower part of New Jersey, and six on the east side of the river.

Three Massachusetts regiments were assigned, one to West Point, in addition to the garrison, and two to Fishkill and the Continental Village. The remaining three brigades were to cover the Sound in Connecticut, while the general Head-Quarters were located at Middlebrook.

The spring of 1779 brought no change in the disposition of affairs until the end of May, at which time Verplanck's and zzz consisting of Larned's, Patterson's, and the Carolina Brigades; while at the same time, the command of the troops on the east side of the river was assign to Major-General Heath.11

The main body of the army, under Major-General Putnam, was posted at Smith's Clove; Nixon's Brigade on Constitution Island; Parsons's, near the Robinson House, opposite West Point; and Huntington's, on the road above, leading to Fishkill.12

On the twenty-fifth of July, the Head-Quarters of the Commander-in‑chief were transferred to West Point, and there remained until the twenty-eighth of November following.13

 p8  During the summer, the completion of the works around and above Fort Putnam was effected, there being no less than two thousand five hundred men on fatigue duty daily.14

It was at this period that the following GENERAL Orders, selected from the MS. Order Book of the General, were issued. Aside from the interest they impart to the locality, they portray in a strong manner the decision, patriotism, and religious character of Washington.15

[Head-Quarters, Moore's House', "West Point, July 4, 1779.

"This day being the anniversary of our glorious independence, will be commemorated by the firing of thirteen cannon from West Point, at one o'clock, P.M.

"The Commander-in‑chief thinks proper to grant a general pardon to all prisoners in this Army under sentence of death. They are to be released from confinement accordingly."

[Head-Quarters, Moore's House', "West Point, July 10, 1779.

"At a Brigade Court Martial, held by order of General Woodford, the 2d instant, Major Clark, President, John Develin, of the 8th Virga Regiment, was tried for 'Desertion in attempting to go to the enemy,' found guilty and sentenced to suffer death, two-thirds of the Court concurring therein. The Commander-in‑chief confirms the sentence — but as it was previous to the pardon of the 4th instant, the prisoner is comprehended in the benefit of it."

 p83  [Head-Quarters, Moore's House', "West Point, July 16, 1779.

The Commander-in‑chief is happy to congratulate the Army on the success of our arms under Brigadier-General Wayne, who, last night, with the Corps of light infantry, surprised and took the enemy's post at Stony Point with the whole garrison, cannon and stores, with very inconsiderable loss on our side. The General has not yet received the particulars of the affair; but he has the satisfaction to learn that the officers and men in general gloriously distinguished themselves in the attack. He requests the Brigadier and his whole Corps to accept his warmest thanks for the good conduct and signal bravery manifested upon the occasion."

[Head-Quarters, Moore's House', "West Point, July 18, 1779.

"At a General Court Martial held at Stony Point in the light infantry on the 17th inst., by order of Brigadier-General Wayne, whereof Colonel Meigs was President,

William Fitzgerald, of the 9th Penna Regiment,
Isaac Wilson, of Colonel Bradford's,
John Williams, of the earth Maryland,
Joseph Chace, of the 1st Connecticut, and

John Blackman, of Colonel Bradley's —

were tried for 'Deserting to the enemy,' found guilty, and sentenced (two-thirds of the Court agreeing thereto) to suffer death. His Excellency the Commander-in‑chief confirms the sentences, and orders the above-mentioned criminals to be hanged this afternoon at 5 o'clock, in the flag bastion [at Stony Point]."

 p84  [Head-Quarters, Moore's House', "West Point, July 29, 1779.

"Many and pointed orders have been issued that unmeaning and abominable custom of swearing, notwithstanding which, with much regret, the General observes that it prevails, if possible, more than ever; his feelings are continually wounded by the oaths in imprecations of the soldiers whenever he is in hearing of them.

"The name of that Being from whose bountiful goodness we are permitted to exist and enjoy the comforts of life, is incessantly imprecated and profaned, in a manner as wanton as it is shocking. For the sake therefore of religion, decency, and order, the General hopes and trusts that officers of every rank will use their influence and authority to check a vice which is an unprofitable as it is wicked and shameful.

"If officers would make it an avoidable rule to reprimand, and, if that does not do, punish soldiers for offend ces of this kind, it could not fail of having the desired effect."

TO superintend the fatigue parties employed on the works, the following orders were issued:

 p84  [Head-Quarters, Moore's House', "West Point, July 30, 1779.

"Lieutenant Colonel Howard, with Lieutenant Hugo as his assistant, the redoubts assigned to General Smallwood's brigade. Lieutenant Colonel Williams, with Captain Gosmer, Fort Putnam and Fort Webb. Colonel Tupper, with Captain Drew, the works at the Point, including  p85 Fort Clinton [Fort Arnold]. Captain Hall and Captain Tatum, the works on Constitution Island. Major Troop, with Captain Holmes, the works on the east side of the river."

In the autumn of this year, the garrison consisted of two Massachusetts brigades on the Point; the Connecticut line on the east side of the river, between Garrison's and the Robinson House; and the North Carolina brigade on Constitution Island. The light infantry and the Maryland line were encamped from Fort Montgomery northward, and Nixon's brigade occupied The Continental Village.

In the assignment of the army to winter quarters, the Massachusetts line were left to garrison West Point and the Highlands, the command of which General Heath assumed on the 28th of November.16

The winter of 1779 and 1780 was one of unexampled severity at West Point. The troops, except those on garrison duty, were cantonized in huts two miles back of West Point, on the "public meadows," and at "Budd's," on the east side of the river. So intense was the cold, that for a period of forty days, no water dripped from the roofs which sheltered them.17

The snow was four feet deep on a level, requiring a heavy force to be constantly engaged in keeping open the communication with the six or seven redoubts built and building. Twice during the winter the North Redoubt barely escaped total destruction by fire. The parapet, built of logs, covered with earth, and difficult of access, burned nearly three days before the fire could  p86 be extinguished. The South Barrack in Fort Arnold was entirely consumed, with a large quantity of stores; but the adjacent buildings were saved by the indefatigable labor of the garrison, and the personal efforts of General Patterson.18

On the 21st of February, General Heath obtained a leave of absence, and being shortly afterward appointed by the State of Massachusetts to superintend the recruiting services, the command at West Point was transferred, early in April, to General Robert Howe. Throughout the spring of 1780, the movements of the enemy so fully impressed the Commander-in‑chief with their intention to assail West Point, that he directed Generals McDougall and Steuben to repair thither. The garrison was reinforced, and the army moved up to cover the entrance of the Highlands.

The Author's Notes:

1 Thomas Machin was born in Staffordshire, England, 20th March, 1744. He took up his residence in Boston, and, espousing the popular feeling of the time, made one of the Tea-Party in 1773; was wounded at Bunker Hill, while acting as Lieutenant of Artillery. He continued in service until the close of the War, having attained the rank of Captain of Artillery, and died April 3d, 1816, at the age of 72. — [Sim's History of Schoharie County]

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2 A part of the chain at Fort Montgomery, near Pooplopen's Hill, was bread from Lake Champlain, having been designed to obstruct the River Sorel; the other part was made at Poughkeepsie, out of iron furnished from the Livingston Manor. [Am. Arch. V.III] This chain was first Sr. Hd across the river in October, 1776. It broke by the action of accumulated water, and after repairing and adding new floats, it was finally placed in position in March, 1777, and remained until removed by the British at the capture of the Fort. — [Munsell's Hist. Series, No. V, 68.]

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3 So called in the correspondence of the day, to distinguish it from the older chain at Fort Montgomery.

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4 Gates, MSS., N. Y. Hist. Col.

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5 Sim's Hist. Schoharie Co., 566.

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6 Hist. Orange Co. — Eager.

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7 Sparks, V.333.

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8 Gates, MSS. N. Y. Hist. Col.

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9 Writings of Washington, Sparks, VI.67.

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10 Id., ibid., 269.

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11 Heath's Memoirs, 205.

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12 Sparks, VI.276, Writings of Washington.

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13 Heath's Memoirs, 224.

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14 Sparks, VI.304, Writings of Washington.

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15 The original MS. Order-Book, in Washington's own hand-writing, is in the possession of Professor Weir, at the Military Academy.

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16 Heath's Memoirs.

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17 Sim's Hist. Schoharie Co.

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18 Heath's Memoirs.

Page updated: 23 Apr 16