I realize we seem to be jumping from place to place for the last few episodes. But there are just too many things going on in too many parts of the country all at the same time. In the fall of 1777 the British had four separate large commands in North America. General William Howe had just settled into Philadelphia. General John Burgoyne was trying to move south through the upper Hudson Valley of New York. General Guy Carleton commanded a force in Canada - mostly around Quebec and Montreal, and General Henry Clinton commanded the base of operation in New York City. There were some smaller detachments in Rhode Island, Florida, and elsewhere, but the bulk of the troops were in those four places.
At the beginning of the year, the ministry in London seemed focused on Burgoyne’s campaign being the primary effort for the year and thought that the other three armies would support the Burgoyne. The three other commanders were all more senior to Burgoyne and, although they would not admit it publicly, were pretty irritated that this more junior officer had gone back to London and essentially told the King and the ministry that he was the only one up to the job and that the other generals were too timid to make the daring march through the Hudson valley to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies.
General Howe, pretty much on his own, decided to attack Philadelphia from the south. Early in the year. In London Secretary of State Lord Germain, seemed to think that Howe would march his army across New Jersey and threaten Philadelphia from that direction, drawing Continental troops away from Burgoyne’s army to the north. Germain also said he thought Howe would wrap up the campaign rather quickly and be in a position by mid to late summer to move some of his forces north to assist General Burgoyne.
Instead, Howe did not even leave New York until late July, 1777, after Burgoyne had already captured Fort Ticonderoga. When Howe did depart, he boarded ships and slowly sailed down to Maryland. He did not really begin his march on Philadelphia until September. That left the Americans plenty of time to focus on Burgoyne, all summer. Howe was still fighting with Washington’s Army at Germantown in October. He still had not cleared the Delaware River, which he needed to do to open up supply lines for his army So even by mid-October, Howe was in no position to provide any support for Burgoyne.
Months later, after all this blew up, many would accuse General Howe of leaving Burgoyne isolated. Howe defended himself by saying that if he had just sat in New York for the whole summer, his detractors would have accused him of doing nothing with his large army while simply waiting for Burgoyne to do all the work that year. Instead, he went out and captured the American capital.
The fact was that Howe viewed Burgoyne as a reckless upstart. There were reasons why armies moved slowly and cautiously to avoid ambush and counter-attack, as well as maintain secure supply lines. Burgoyne was brushing aside all that in his effort to win glory through a roll of the dice. If Howe had just moved out of New York City and up the Hudson Valley, Burgoyne still would have received all the glory, even if Howe had to bail him out. Similarly, Generals Carleton and Clinton had a selfish incentive to see Burgoyne fail for the same reasons. A Burgoyne victory would make them all look like old ladies who were too afraid to engage in the necessary offensives to defeat the rebellion.
Even if the generals really felt that way, they could not let it show through words or deeds. Letting a fellow officer fail for petty personal reasons would have been highly dishonorable and certainly would have ended your own career. With Burgoyne’s army in trouble in upstate New York, his fellow generals had to do what they could to assist him.
As I said, Howe was still too engaged around Philadelphia. As I covered last week, Carleton in Canada did not have enough forces to be of much help. And besides, with the threats against Fort Ticonderoga, those reinforcements could not reach Burgoyne anyway. That left General Clinton in New York, if anyone could help Burgoyne.
Henry Clinton has had a recurring role in our story so far. Here’s a quick recap. Henry Clinton was the son of Admiral George Clinton. Henry spent much of his youth in New York while his father was royal governor. As a teenager, Henry Clinton purchased a commission in the army. His money and connection allowed him to rise to captain before the Seven Years War began. Two years into the war, he had risen to lieutenant colonel. Clinton fought multiple actions in the German states during the war, He suffered a serious wound at the battle of Battle of Nauheim in 1762 while serving as aide-de-camp to Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick.
|Sir Henry Clinton
During his service as a young officer at war, he got to know other officers serving beside him, including Charles Lee and William Alexander (aka Lord Stirling). He would later face these two men as enemy commanders in the revolution. Also during these early years, Clinton developed a relationship with Lord Cornwallis.
When the Seven Years War ended, Clinton found himself navigating the highly political world of British elites. His father had died near the end of the war and Clinton spent years trying to settle the estate. He also got married during this time, though his wife died from complications in childbirth several years later. Clinton found a valuable patron in the Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III. He also got elected to the House of Commons. Political power was important to his advancement as an officer. His primary interest though, was the military. This member of Parliament spent less time in London and more surveying the battlefields of Europe and studying the art of war under officers who had fought under Frederick the Great.
In 1772, Clinton received promotion to major general, and in 1775, he shipped out with two other major generals, William Howe and John Burgoyne, to Boston to assist General Thomas Gage with the rebellion that had recently broken out there. When London recalled Gage a few months later, the more senior General Howe took command and Clinton became his second.
Howe and Clinton had seemed to get along well at first, mostly because they could both bash General Gage’s decisions. Once Howe took command, the relationship quickly soured as Howe seemed to want to keep Clinton sidelined and was not interested in his advice.
|Gov. George Clinton
(Tenn Virtual Archive)
The loss at Fort Sullivan hit Clinton hard. He feared that it would tarnish his reputation forever. Instead, he obsessed over it and grew paranoid over how the loss might be used against him. It made him even more desperate for a military victory to put the loss behind him.
Clinton supported Howe’s invasion of New York, although he continually grew frustrated that Howe would not give him a free hand to capture the enemy army. In a pique of frustration Clinton told Cornwallis that he would rather have an independent command of only three companies than to continue as Howe’s second in command. Cornwallis, of course, relayed these comments to Howe and the relationship between the Howe and Clinton was permanently broken.
Howe gave the more junior Cornwallis the lead role in chasing Washington’s Army across New Jersey. In late 1776, Howe ordered Clinton to take Newport, Rhode Island. Howe then reduced the number of soldiers under Clinton’s command so that he could not safely engage in offensive operations. Then Howe started sending notes to Clinton asking why he was not operating more aggressively. Clinton saw that he was being shoved onto the back-burner and that Howe was building a paper trail to show that Clinton was not an effective military leader. In January 1777, Clinton took a ship back to London to resign his commission.
He arrived in time to learn that King had granted an independent command to the more junior General Burgoyne to invade upstate New York. At the same time, London refused to accept Clinton’s resignation. Instead they awarded him a knighthood and told him he was doing a simply wonderful job. They then ordered him to return to New York and continue as Howe’s second in command.
Sir Henry Returns To New York
Clinton arrived in New York City in July, while General Howe was still preparing to launch his fleet for his eventual campaign to Philadelphia. The two generals argued as Clinton said that his move against Philadelphia this late in the season would leave Burgoyne’s army without any support. Clinton also complained that Howe was taking almost the entire army with him. Although Clinton had several thousand soldiers under his command, most of them were either Hessian or local militia. Howe was taking all the best combat units with the fleet. Clinton, was responsible for defending more than a thousand square miles of territory, from Long Island to Staten Island. H feared he could not withstand a serious attack, let alone engage in any offensive operations. Howe told Clinton that he had no orders to assist Burgoyne and that Clinton was a big boy, capable of defending New York city against a few rebel militia.
|Gen. James Clinton
Over the late summer and early fall, the Americans did conduct several raids against Long Island and Staten Island, always testing British defenses. Clinton could do little but play defense and watch how things played out. He communicated with General Robert Pigot in Rhode Island to see if troops in Newport could launch an action to distract the Continentals. Pigot had taken over after the locals had kidnapped the previous commander, General Richard Prescott. Howe had also left Pigot with too few troops to do much of anything. Clinton did launch one small raid into North Jersey to capture some cattle, but that failed to elicit much of any response.
On September 11, the same day Howe was attacking at Brandywine, Clinton’s growing concerns about Burgoyne’s predicament prompted him to write to the general to see if a small incursion into Hudson Valley might help to distract the enemy. Getting messages through enemy lines was difficult. Burgoyne received the letter ten days later, just after he had fought the Americans at Freeman’s Farm. His response did not reach Clinton until September 29, saying that such an attack would prove helpful. With that, Clinton prepared to launch an offensive with the hope of drawing off some of the Continental forces challenging Burgoyne.
Burgoyne did not describe exactly how desperate his situation had become, but the message did make clear that he had no intention to withdraw. He would continue to press forward in hope of linking up with Clinton in New York City. With that, Clinton felt obliged to try at least something with his limited resources to relieve the pressure on Burgoyne.
The Hudson Valley
North of New York City, the Americans retained control of the area. Recall that General Howe had sent a raid to Peekskill in April 1777 to test American defenses (see Episode 133). American resistance had been enough for the British to forget about any further raids. Washington had given command of the area to General Israel Putnam, the old Connecticut officer who was third in command of the Continental Army, behind only Washington and the recently disgraced General Schuyler.
|Gen. Israel Putnam
In New York City, General Sir Henry Clinton packed nearly half of his available soldiers, about 3000 men, into ships on October 3rd. To distract and confuse the enemy, Clinton first sailed his fleet toward Long Island Sound, as if they were moving toward Connecticut. Then he doubled back and moved up the Hudson River toward Peekskill. On the morning of October 5, the British landed a force on the east bank of the river a few miles below Peekskill, capturing a small Continental artillery battery there.
The landing convinced General Putnam that the British would march north to Peekskill and take the town again, just as they had in the April raid. He moved his 600 soldiers into the hills, and sent word to Forts Clinton and Montgomery to send whatever reinforcements they could spare. That was exactly what the British general wanted. With Forts Clinton and Montgomery even further weakened, the British re-boarded their ships, sailed up river and disembarked on the west bank of the Hudson at Stony Point, just below the forts.
|Hudson Valley Campaign 1777 (from Wikipedia)
The first column commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Mungo Campbell, with about 900 soldiers, including 400 loyalist militia, launched an attack against Fort Montgomery. Fort Montgomery deployed about 100 defenders under the command of Captain John Lamb with a field cannon a little over a mile from the fort. Lamb’s division halted the British column for a time, but had to retreat before the superior numbers. The Americans had to abandon and spike their cannon before they left. They then set up a second defensive line closer to the fort, leading to a second skirmish. Again the defenders retreated. However their actions delayed the British from reaching the fort until shortly before dusk.
The defenders managed to inflict a fair number of casualties as the British stormed the fort walls. Once inside, according to American accusations, the attackers massacred part of the surrendering garrison. The fort commander, James Clinton, with a portion of the garrison managed to escape into the woods north of the fort.
Fort Clinton similarly mounted a defense against the British column, under the direct command of Sir Henry Clinton. The attackers far outnumbered the garrison and stormed the fort. Like his brother, Governor Clinton managed to avoid capture. He slipped down to the river and crossed on a gunboat as the fort fell.
Of the 600 defenders at both forts, the Americans suffered about 75 killed or wounded, with another 263 captured. The attackers reported 41 killed and 142 wounded.
With the American defenders captured or disbursed, Sir Henry Clinton remained at the forts for several days, hoping to receive word from Burgoyne that he had pushed through and would be linking up with them soon.
Clinton also sent another detachment upriver to force the surrender of Fort Constitution, just across the river from West Point. The small garrison there abandoned the fort and fled inland. Over the next week, the British cleared the river of obstructions, including the chain that the patriots had installed across the river to block the British Navy.
|Ruins of Fort Montgomery Magazine
Sir Henry received a final message from General Burgoyne, which had been sent on September 28, informing him that Burgoyne’s army of 5000 was facing an American army twice their size, but that they still hoped to reach Albany, and could Clinton meet them there with supplies? Burgoyne also said that since he was nearly in New York, he awaited Clinton’s orders. Burgoyne’s message made clear that he could only hold out for a couple of weeks without support. After that, he would be forced to withdraw.
Clinton saw the note as a thinly veiled attempt for Burgoyne looking for political cover for his imminent loss. He wanted to toss the command to Clinton before his army surrendered. On October 7, having taken the forts, Clinton wrote a response to Burgoyne saying that he had made his move into the lower Hudson as a diversion, but there was no way he could make it to Albany. He also made clear that he could not provide any orders since he had no idea what Burgoyne’s situation was on the ground. Clinton sent the response via three messengers, but none of them ever made it back to Burgoyne.
A few days later, Clinton returned to New York City, leaving General John Vaughan in charge of the force still occupying the lower Hudson Valley. Clinton’s return was not simply that he had gotten tired of the fight or time in the field. Two of his top officers had fallen ill and the next in command was a Hessian officer with a reputation for drunkenness. Clinton’s primary responsibility was the defense of New York City. His fear that Washington, having lost Philadelphia, might turn on the depleted defenders of New York led Clinton to return to shore up the city’s defenses.
By October 13, Clinton was back up in the Hudson Valley, hoping to make contact with Burgoyne. However, he still had no intention of risking his force all the way to Albany. Clinton was not going to make the same mistake that Burgoyne had made, by stretching his supply lines too far, and also risking his base in New York.
Clinton had hoped that once Howe secured Philadelphia, he would send reinforcements back to New York so that Clinton could then send a large force into the Hudson Valley. It was clear, however, by that time that Howe was not going to be able to provide any reinforcements anytime soon. In fact, Howe wanted the opposite. On October 17, Clinton received a note from Howe ordering him to send 3000 of his soldiers to Philadelphia. Howe likely sent this message shortly after the American attack at Germantown.
With the loss of nearly half of his command, Clinton could not hope to hold the forts in the Hudson Valley. He burned Forts Clinton and Montgomery and withdrew his forces back to New York City. With Howe’s demands for reinforcements, Clinton was left with only a few regiments of mostly Hessian soldiers under his command, along with about 3000 loyalist militia of dubious value.
Next week, with no rescue coming from Clinton, General Burgoyne prepares for battle at Bemis Heights.
Next Episode 165 Bemis Heights (2nd Saratoga)
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Forts Clinton and Montgomery Taken: http://www.historycarper.com/1778/05/11/forts-clinton-and-montgomery-taken
The Battle of Fort's Montgomery and Clinton: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1777/battle-forts-montgomery-clinton
Fort Montgomery: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/fort-montgomery
Levine, David A 75-Ton Chain Once Stretched Across the Hudson River to Stop the British and Protect the Hudson Valley: https://hvmag.com/life-style/history/a-75-ton-chain-once-stretched-across-the-hudson-river-to-stop-the-british-and-protect-the-hudson-valley
Video: The Battle of Fort Montgomery: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0t9iXAVBrl0
(from archive.org unless noted)
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Hill, George Canning Gen. Israel Putnam, Boston, E. O. Libby and company, 1858
Hudleston, Francis J. Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne : misadventures of an English general in the Revolution, Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1927.
Riedesel, Friederike Charlotte Luise, Freifrau von Letters and journals relating to the war of the American Revolution, and the capture of the German troops at Saratoga, Joel Munsell, 1867.
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga, Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War, Henry Holt & Co, 1997.
Luzader, John F. Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution, Casemate Publishers, 2008
Mintz, Max M. The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates, Yale Univ. Press, 1990.
Philbrick, Nathaniel Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, Viking, 2016.
Schnitzer, Eric H. & Don Troiani Don Troiani's Campaign to Saratoga - 1777: The Turning Point of the Revolutionary War in Paintings, Artifacts, and Historical Narrative, Stackpole Books, 2019.
Snow, Dean 1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga, Oxford Univ. Press, 2016.
Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952.
Willcox, William Bradford Portrait of a general; Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, New York: Knopf, 1907.
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