By the middle of 1779, the British had settled into New York and Newport, Rhode Island, without an expectation of major operations in the area. The only British offensive at the time was operating in the south, where the British in Savannah were making moves against South Carolina.
The main British army in New York City by this time probably consisted of a majority of Hessian soldiers and loyalists. Most of the regulars had been sent off to other parts of the empire. I couldn’t find a good authoritative source to tell me exactly how many soldiers General Henry Clinton had in New York at this time, but my guess is around 10,000-12,000 effectives.
Meanwhile, George Washington also struggled to keep an army of a similar size just outside of New York City to keep the British in check. The Continentals encamped primarily around the newly constructed defenses at West Point.
British Spring Offensive
Despite the fact that London had removed thousands of soldiers from New York, Secretary of State Lord Germain, in London, still encouraged General Clinton to take some offensive actions in the spring. Germain suggested that the British push into the Hudson Valley, forcing the Continentals to retreat further inland.
Such an offensive would also force the Continentals to keep larger numbers of soldiers in New York to challenge the British Army. With more of the Continental Army in upstate New York, the British Navy could engage in coastal raids both in New England and the Chesapeake Bay area. At the same time, British forces in Quebec would continue to make use of loyalists and Native Americans to harass the rebels in upstate New York. The goal was not to recapture those areas, but to harass American trade and make the people miserable enough that they would eventually call for a return to the King’s peace.
General Clinton’s response to Lord Germain’s instructions were basically trying to find the most polite and respectful way possible to say that he was out of his freaking mind. In his letters to London, Clinton noted that he had far fewer soldiers than General Howe had for the prior two years, when Howe was unable to take and hold New York State. The Continental Army also had far more soldiers in New Jersey than when General Howe last tried to maintain even a small hold within that state unsuccessfully.
Maintaining control of a larger land area meant deploying garrisons of soldiers into forward areas where they would become sitting ducks to be picked off by Continental raids. Anyone remember Trenton?
Clinton informed Germain that he would try to maneuver his army in a way to get Washington to move out of his defenses. If he could do that, he would try to attack the Continental column as it was on the march. That might give him a chance at victory. But otherwise, he simply did not have enough soldiers to push the Continentals out of areas that they held. Clinton did not seem optimistic that this would work, but he felt compelled to try something based on the encouragement that he received from London.
British Take Stony Point
In order to dislodge the Continentals from their defensive position, the British had to do something provocative. Clinton put his focus on Stony Point, New York. About 35 miles north of British-held Manhattan Island, the Americans had built defensive forts to prevent another British incursion up the Hudson River. This was the southernmost point where the Hudson River was still reasonably narrow, so that American guns could challenge any flotilla moving upstream.
On the eastern side of the river, at a place called Verplank’s point, the Americans had built Fort Lafayette. This fort, garrisoned by about 70 soldiers, was more complete, with walls and artillery, but did not have the defensive height advantages of Stony Point across the river.
In late May, 1779 the British assembled a force of about 6000 regulars, Hessians, and loyalists. On May 30, a fleet of seventy small sailing vessels and 150 flat-bottomed boats, began moving upriver and arriving at the forts early on June 1. Among those added to the force were the forces under General Mathews and Commodore Collier, who had just returned from the Chesapeake raid that I discussed in Episode 221. Also joining the force was General John Vaughn, who had travelled up the Hudson under Clinton two years earlier when the British sacked Forts Clinton and Montgomery (see Episode 164).
The small American garrison on Stony Point fled without a shot fired at the sight of a large British landing force. They burned the blockhouse and retreated before the British arrived. The larger force at Fort Lafayette fired on the British. But after the British occupied Stony Point, they began firing down on Fort Lafayette, which was now in a vulnerable position. That, in addition to cannon fire from the ships and with General Vaughn's forces surrounding Fort Lafayette on the land side, Captain Thomas Armstrong surrendered the American garrison at the fort that same day.
Immediately, the British began building up the defenses on Stony Point in anticipation of an American counterattack. They mounted eight batteries of artillery, connected by trenches. Below the artillery, they erected a semi-circle line of abatis. Below that was a series of three more reinforced defenses also protected by a second line of abatis. The lines went from one swampy waterline to another, preventing any sort of effective flanking attack. The main approach came through swampy land that would be difficult to assault, and probably impossible to bring artillery. All of these works were protected by a brigade of over 600 regulars and loyalists, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Johnson. As further reinforcement, the armed sloop Vulture patrolled the river in the area of Stony Point.
The British goal in capturing Stony Point was to force the Continentals to leave their other defenses and attack. By capturing Stony Point, just about ten miles downriver from West Point, the British were poised to capture the main American defensive position on the Hudson River.
Clinton had hoped that the Americans might panic at the seizure of Stony Point and muster their forces to counterattack quickly. The Continental leadership feared that the capture of Stony Point was only the first step toward taking West Point, and the hitting the supply depots at Peekskill and others further upriver. Washington took some actions, but did not make any major redeployments as Clinton hoped he would.
For the next month, the Continentals gathered intelligence about the British defenses. Washington sent Colonel Rufus Putnam, who had spent much of the war working on the Hudson river defenses, to inspect the British positions from a distance. He also deployed Major Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee and Major Thomas Posey for similar reconnaissance. Washington himself even personally spent a day examining the British defenses.
Considering that review insufficient, Major Lee deployed one of his best scouts, Allen McLane, to get a closer inspection. Dressed as a civilian, and under a flag of truce, Captain McLane accompanied a woman, Mrs. Smith, whose son was one of the loyalists garrisoned at the fort. McLane was able to enter the fort and make mental notes about the defenses.
According to McLane’s own later account, while he was there, one of the British officers asked him if he thought Washington would attempt to storm such defenses. McLane responded
“I am but a woodsman and can only use my rifle, but I guess the General...would be likely to think a bit before he would run his head against such works as these. … Trust me, we are not such dolts as to attempt impossibilities.”
In fact, McLane noted several weak points in the unfinished defensive works which he later reported back to Major Lee.
At the same time Washington was having the defenses examined, he also issued orders to put together a brigade of Continentals to storm the fort. He selected General Anthony Wayne to lead this force.
The Continentals had followed the British model of attaching one company of light infantry to each regiment. The light infantry was made up of soldiers from the rest of the regiment who tended to be more active members and who tended to fight better as scouts or skirmishers rather than simply standing in a line and firing. For some missions, the British had pooled light infantry companies together into a single unit for missions that required speed and less traditional field tactics. As we’ve seen in past episodes, this sometimes led to problems with companies working together without having much experience with each other.
For Wayne’s force, the Continentals used the same tactic of pooling their light infantry companies together. Wayne then spent several weeks drilling the companies together so that they would become familiar with each other. So, essentially, these were hand-picked men who specialized in fighting wilderness style.
The four regimental commanders were all experienced combat veterans. Colonel Christian Febiger of Virginia had been a combat officer since Bunker Hill and had served as second in command with Colonel Daniel Morgan, with the famous Morgan’s Rangers, before taking command of his own regiment. His second, Lieutenant Colonel Francois Fleury, was a French volunteer who fought with distinction during the Philadelphia Campaign and who we last heard from at the defense of Fort Mifflin. After that, he served under General Von Steuben during the Monmouth Campaign.
Leading the second regiment was Lieutenant Colonel Richard Butler, a longtime Indian fighter who had grown up on the Pennsylvania frontier and had recently distinguished himself during the Saratoga campaign.
Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs commanded the third regiment. He had served, along with Colonel Febiger, on Arnold’s Wilderness March of 1775. We last caught up with Meigs when he commanded the Raid on Sag Harbor in 1777 (see Episode 139).
Major William Hull had led men during the New York, Saratoga, and Princeton campaigns, as well as at Monmouth. He and Major Hardy Murfree led the fourth regiment
Stony Point Assault
Wayne gathered his men at Sandy Beach, a few miles upriver from Stony Point, on the morning of July 15. From there, the men marched a circuitous thirteen mile march over mountains and through swaps, arriving at a point about a mile and a half from Stony Point around 8:00 PM.
It was only at this time that Wayne informed the men of their mission and gave orders for a surprise night attack.
|Battle of Stony Point|
To encourage an aggressive and speedy attack, General Wayne announced a reward of $500 for the man over the wall, $400 for the second man, $300 for the third, $200 for the fourth, and $100 for the fifth man. He also issued orders that the men were to keep their muskets shouldered and unloaded during the march. Any early gunfire could alert the enemy to the surprise attack. This was reminiscent of the orders issued by Charles Grey when he attack Wayne's forces at the Paoli Massacre. Wayne issued orders that any man who unshouldered his weapons prior to an officer’s orders, or who stepped out of line, should be put to death immediately. Wayne was not going to lose the element of surprise due to soldier misconduct.
At around 11:30 PM the Americans began their assault on the fort. General Wayne marched with the right flank column that would attack the fort from the south. Colonel Richard Butler led the left flank, assaulting from the north.
Despite the effort at secrecy and the night attack, British pickets spotted the assault early and raised the alarm. The right column under Wayne had to wade through waste deep water while taking fire. The axmen began hacking their way through the first row of abatis while the forlorn hope rushed the enemy lines, drawing away the attention of the defenders. As the men made their way to the second row of abatis, still without returning fire, General Wayne took a shot to the head and fell to the ground. His men continued forward without him. As it turned out, the bullet only grazed Wayne’s skull and left him momentarily stunned. He managed to revive himself and rejoin the assault.
This had its intended effect. Seeing the enemy fire from the center, British Colonel Johnson led six companies of regulars down the hill towards the enemy fire. This was nearly half of defenders at Stony Point. As Johnson led his regulars down the hill, the two main columns of Continentals reached the main fort at the top of the hill. Lieutenant Colonel Francois Fleury, a French officer with the Continental Army, was the first man over the wall and tore down the British flag. Hand to hand combat inside the fort ensued, as swords, bayonets, and other hand weapons came into use. The British defenders quickly threw down their weapons and begged for quarter. A few companies continued to fight to the death, but were quickly overwhelmed.
Colonel Johnson, who had led the regulars down the hill, now realized the main attack was behind him. He turned around his companies and began to charge back up the hill. By this time, Wayne’s right column was already in the fort, but the bulk of the left column was still outside the fort walls. The left column descended on Johnson’s regulars. His men were overwhelmed and Johnson found himself taken prisoner.
The Continentals had planned to attack Fort Lafayette at the same time as the assault on Stony Point. General Robert Howe had been given that command. No such attack took place. Howe received his orders late, and then had difficulty making his way to the fort before the attack on Stony Point was complete.
The Americans, having captured the British cannons at Stony Point, turned them on the British garrison at Fort Lafayette. Because Stony Point held the higher ground, they could fire directly into the lower fort. The British did not bother to return fire since the cannons were too distant to have any effect.
Within a half hour of when the defenders first opened fire, the American had captured Stony Point and the battle was over. The British suffered heavy losses in the attack: 63 defenders, nearly 10% of the force at Stony point were killed. Another 70 were injured, and the remaining 543 captured. Of the American force of about 1400 men, only 15 were killed and another 80 injured. Many of the casualties came from the two groups of Forlorn Hope. Lieutenant Gibbons, who led the forlorn hope on the right wing, reported that 17 of his twenty men were killed or wounded.
|Stony Point Medal|
General Washington visited the fort on July 17. The Americans transported the prisoners to Pennsylvania and removed the captured cannons and other supplies from the fort.
The Americans realized, however, that they could not hold the position that they had just taken. The British could bring up thousands of soldiers as they had before and simply recapture the fort and any garrison inside of it. Stony Point was too isolated to maintain and the Americans did not want to deploy the large force that would have been necessary to secure it.
So, on July 18, the Continentals destroyed all of the defenses, leaving only bare rock, and evacuated the position. As expected, the British mounted a large expedition to retake the Point within days. They reoccupied the position, built even greater defenses, and left an even larger garrison.
The British saw the temporary loss of Stony Point as a failure of command. The commanding officer, Colonel Henry Johnson, endured an inquiry into his loss of the point after he was exchanged as a prisoner of war. He received a reprimand, but continued in command. He would go on to fight at Yorktown and would eventually be promoted to general.
The loss of the garrison at Stony Point was about 5% of Clinton’s total force around New York. He had been pleading for reinforcements for months, but had received only promises. Following Stony Point, Clinton gave up efforts to draw Washington into a larger general action that year
Clinton sent an offer of resignation to London shortly after the event, requesting that General Cornwallis take command. London refused to accept it, and ordered him to retain his command. He did finally receive a few hundred reinforcements, but the same fleet that brought those reinforcements also brought a camp fever which put about half of his force into hospital. So while Stony point turned out to be the only major land offensive in the north that year, the British were still interested in raiding the New England coast.
Next week, the British raid the Connecticut coast and burn Fairfield.
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Cook, Fred J. “Allan Mclane Unknown Hero Of The Revolution” American Heritage, vol 7, Issue 6, Oct 1956. https://www.americanheritage.com/allan-mclane-unknown-hero-revolution
Daigler, Ken “Allen McLane - Revolutionary War Intelligence Officer and Spy” Journal of the American Revolution, March 29, 2018. https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/03/allen-mclane-revolutionary-war-intelligence-officer-and-spy
Schenawolf, Harry “Captain Allen McLane: Death Defying Spymaster of the American” Revolutionary War Journal, March 3, 2019 https://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/capt-allen-mclane-legendary-hero-spymaster-of-the-american-revolution-or-a-regular-soldier-who-just-did-his-duty
Maloy, Mark, The Battle of Stony Point: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/battle-stony-point
(from archive.org unless noted)
The Storming of Stony Point, Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society, Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society, 1953.
Barnes, James The Hero of Stony Point, Anthony Wayne, New York: D. Appleton and Co. 1916.
Hall, Edward H. Stony Point battle-field; a sketch of its revolutionary history, and particularly of the surprise of Stony Point, American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1902.
Johnston, Henry P. The Storming of Stony Point on the Hudson, July 15, 1779, its importance in the light of unpublished documents, New York: White, 1900.
Pennypacker, Samuel W. “The Capture of Stony Point” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1902.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Bonk, David C. "Men who are Determined to be Free": The American Assault on Stony Point, 15 July 1779, Helion and Co. 2018.
Huggins, Benjamin Lee Washington's War 1779, Westholme Publishing, 2018.
Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan Company, 1952.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.