Sunday, July 17, 2016

Places: The "Little Gibraltar"

Command of the Hudson

After a summer of inaction following the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778, the British commander in chief in North America, Sir Henry Clinton received orders the following winter “to bring Mr. Washington to a general and decisive action.” To that end, in May of 1779 Clinton assembled some 6,000 men at Kingsbridge (the Bronx) in preparation of a quick strike on West Point, considered the "key to the continent." The series of fortifications at West Point controlled the Hudson River and prevented the British from cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies. Twelve miles south was Stony Point, a fortified peninsula jutting one half mile into and 150 feet above the Hudson River. Directly across the river from Stony Point was Verplanck's Point, with a garrison at Fort Lafayette.

British General Sir Henry Clinton

British Strike North

On 30 May Clinton's forces sailed north aboard 70 ships commanded by Commodore George Collier.  The 40-man American garrison at Stony Point, observing the superior force approaching, burned the blockhouse and abandoned the works without firing a shot. On the east bank of the Hudson the other American garrison was not so fortunate. Seventy North Carolina Continental troops were trapped and forced to surrender. Sir Henry ordered the defenses of both forts be significantly strengthened. At Stony Point they did this by cutting down trees, and by erecting an earthen fort and two barriers called abatis. In addition, two British ships offered extra protection.  The defense works at Verplanck’s Point, across the river, were fortified with troops that could quickly reinforce Stony Point if needed. British domination of the water gave them an extreme advantage. Clinton garrisoned both forts with a combined force of 1,000 men, taking the remainder into raids on Connecticut.

The British felt certain the defenses were secure, calling the new fort “Little Gibraltar.” To hold "Little Gibraltar" they had a garrison of some six hundred men consisting, of the 17th Regiment of Foot, the Grenadier Company of the 71st Regiment, a company of the Royal Americans, and a small Detachment of the Royal Artillery, under the command of Lieut. Colonel Henry Johnson of the 17th Regiment. Stony Point was a natural fortress and with these trustworthy troops improving their position on a daily basis, Clinton had no fear for the post’s safety. He did not, as he later wrote, "entertain the smallest apprehension that any attack the enemy could make against that place…could possibly be attended with mischief before I should be able to afford them assistance." The British not only wanted to secure the Hudson to split the rebellious colonies but to also draw out George Washington's Continental Army, which lay between Philadelphia and New York  in positions around Middlebrook, New Jersey. A move on West Point was meant to do just that. Clinton's move gave him the advantage of initiative, interior lines, and of course, rapid reinforcement and movement by water.

General Anthony Wayne

Washington Reacts

Now, with the British move, Washington hurried north to meet the new threat. When Washington arrived in the area he was concerned that the loss of Stony Point posed a grave threat to the Hudson and the approaches to West Point. When intelligence reports indicated that the defenses were not yet completed, he immediately decided on an attack. And he had just the man to lead it: Brigadier General Anthony Wayne.  Wayne was a tough and bold leader of men, crafty and fearless, he ponce said he was "ready to take hell." Wayne performed a "leader's" reconnaissance of the position and then a second with Washington at his side. Both agreed a siege or a storming of the fort would be impractical but he should take the fort quickly in a coup de main (surprise attack). Wayne was in command of the Light Division, elite companies selected from regiments of Continental infantry. He formed his assault force in three columns totaling 1,350 men. They departed on the 15th of July, 1779. For eight hours they struggled over narrow mountain trails, arresting civilians they encountered en route to avoid detection. When the soldiers arrived at Sprintsteel’s farm, two miles from Stony Point, they were told for the first time about their mission. Three columns would lead the Continental force. One column of 300 men would wade through the marches of the Hudson River from the north. A second column, led by Wayne, would wade through the waters of Haverstraw Bay and approach from the south. Each of these two columns would consist of three parts: the first was a group of twenty men called “the forlorn hope” who would enter the enemy lines first, overcome sentries and cut through the abatis. Then an advance party, which would enter the fort and seize its works. Finally the main body, which would continue around the unfinished back of the fort and approach it from the river.

Famed Night Attack

Light Division meets British regulars
with cold steel
The forlorn hope moved out around midnight 15-16 July. It was a moonless night and they reached the British defenses undetected. Wayne, taking a lesson from his humiliating defeat at Paoli, had the men in his columns remove their flints and advance with fixed bayonets. One of the columns, a diversion under Major Hardee Murfee attacked the British center and drew away several companies of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Johnson's 17th Regiment. Murfee's men did have flints and powder as their mission was to get the attention of the defenders. With the diversion underway, Wayne's column and the second column under Colonel Richard Butler scaled the heights and overran the defenses. Despite their surprise, the 600 or so British defenders performed their duty as professionals and resisted  bitterly.The fighting was hand to hand and vicious.  But after 30 minutes, the fort fell. The British lost 63 killed, 70 wounded and the remaining 543 captured, along with twelve guns. The American attackers lost 15 killed and 83 wounded. Wayne received a head wound early in the attack, but continued to lead his forces.  Earlier, the fiery Wayne had offered a bounty to the first man to enter the enemy works. The recipient of the award was an officer named Francois LouisTeissedre de Fleury, who had come to America from France and had served gallantly in previous battles, rising to captain of engineers. The "Little Gibraltar" on the Hudson had succumbed to Yankee stealth, audacity and courage - with some Gallic help.

Wounded early, Wayne continues leading the attack

The Value?

The symbolic importance of Stony Point caused the Continental Congress to strike three medals of the ten struck during the War for Independence - gold for Wayne and silver for de Fleury and Major John Stewart, who commanded the advance party of the left column. The British reacted to the bold stroke by reinforcing the fort at Verplanck's point, and sinking an American ship that was hauling some the twelve captured guns from Stony Point to West Point. With Verplamck's Point secure, the value of Stony Point was lessened in Washington's viewpoint. He also realized that Wayne's attack showed the position not so easily defensible. He ordered the fortifications reduced and Wayne's men to with withdraw on the 18th. The British reoccupied the point on the 19th. Although the operation had little strategic value, it had  tremendous morale value as it demonstrated the ever-improving fighting qualities of the American Army. In addition to the Congressional medals, the engagement was  noted beyond the American shores. Edmund Burke's Annual Register (a British publication that was an annual round up of politics,history and literature) for the year 1779 noted that the action"would have done honor to most veteran soldiers." The French Ambassador in Philadelphia wrote, "I am convinced this action will elevate the ideas of Europe about the military qualities of Americans..."

General Anthony Wayne during the Assault

Stony Point apres War

In 1826, Stony Point became the site of a lighthouse built to guide ships through the narrow passage of Haverstraw Bay at the southern end of the Hudson Highlands. In its 99 years, only one vessel ran aground, with no reported fatalities – a testament to the vigilance of the lightkeepers. A new light tower was built in 1926 at the water’s edge (not accessible to the public,) and serves to this day as an aid to navigation under the care of the United States Coast Guard. The 1826 Lighthouse is now a historic light, a reminder of the importance of the Hudson River maritime community to the development of New York. The grounds of Stony Point today are a mix of woods and tended lawns, with commanding panoramic views of the Hudson River looking north to the Hudson Highlands and south to Haverstraw Bay. There is a site museum, which has some of the captured guns and other artifacts from the site’s past military engagements and soldiers camp life. The artifacts, including an authentically reconstructed mortar bed for a captured 8” mortar and a stand of period bayonets, are laid out around a diorama of Stony Point as it appeared the night of the attack.

Stony Point Light House

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