Sunday, December 27, 2020

ARP181 West Point Chain

After the defeat and surrender of Burgoyne’s northern army at Saratoga, the threat to upstate New York diminished greatly.  The British abandoned Fort Ticonderoga without a fight and retreated back to St. Jean.  General Gates reported finding the fort had been destroyed and abandoned in November 1777.  

West Point

Even after the British abandoned Ticonderoga, General Guy Carleton still commanded a British force at Quebec.  General Henry Clinton still commanded a force in New York City, but neither had a force large enough to try to succeed where Burgoyne had failed.  The Continentals did not know if the British might make another attempt to take control of the Hudson River the following year.

In the months following the American victory at Saratoga, the Continentals began assembling an army led by General Lafayette to invade Quebec.  However, the lack of sufficient soldiers and supplies led to the mission being abandoned before it even got started.  Also that spring, the Americans debated an attack on Philadelphia or New York City.  Of the two, New York still had far fewer British defenders.  However, the presence of the British Navy around New York still made it a difficult battlefield for the Americans.

General Washington kept his main focus on the British Army in and around Philadelphia.  Upstate New York became less of a focus for everyone.  Congress left General Gates in overall command of New York, even though Gates was serving as the head of the Board of War by this time, and spent the winter and early spring of 1778 near Congress in York.

Israel Putnam Loses Command

In upstate New York, General Israel Putnam served as the commander in the field.  Gates’ overall command was again a bit of a touchy issue because Putnam was more senior to Gates and therefore outranked him.  Everyone seemed to recognize, however, that Putnam was not a strong commander.  His command in upstate New York was because no one expected large-scale combat in that area.  Gates, despite his role in the Conway Cabal, still probably had the best reputation after his victory at Saratoga.

In December 1777, Washington directed Putnam to focus on building river obstructions along the Hudson River.  Although Putnam spent part of the winter back home in Connecticut, he did focus what he could with his army on building new Hudson River defenses.  The biggest obstacle for Putnam was that, just like the soldiers in Valley Forge, his men were starving, and did not have sufficient clothing and blankets to work outdoors over the winter.

Israel Putnam

Others, however, thought that Putnam himself simply was not up to the job.  New York Governor George Clinton wrote to General Gates that same month to say that, while Putnam was certainly a brave soldier, he was not up to the task of building river defenses.

Remember that in October 1777 British General Henry Clinton had launched a raid from New York city, capturing Forts Montgomery and Clinton on the Hudson River.  Putnam had been in charge of the area including those forts.  In November, Congress demanded in inquiry into the defense of those forts, and why it had failed. Washington put off the matter that winter as he was struggling with the difficulties at Valley Forge and dealing with the Conway Cabal that threatened his command of the army.

About five months later in March 1778, Washington was able to turn his attention to Putnam and begin the Congressionally-mandated inquiry.  He relieved Putnam of his command while the inquiry against him proceeded.  Washington’s letter to Putnam is almost apologetic, saying that whether the charges were “well or ill-grounded,” that they “must be indulged.”  It seemed that New Yorkers were refusing any support for the project as long as Putnam remained in command.  To resolve this, Washington put General Alexander McDougall in command of the region.

The court of inquiry would eventually absolve Putnam of any failures of command.  It found that the loss of the forts was the result of a lack of manpower, mostly because almost all available soldiers had been sent to support General Gates’ army at Saratoga at the time of Clinton’s attack.  Despite the acquittal, Putnam did not regain his command.  Instead, Washington requested that he go back to his home state of Connecticut to recruit more soldiers for the coming campaign.

Planned River Defenses

Before Putnam left command, he identified several locations along the Hudson River to build defenses.  His successor, General McDougall took up right where Putnam left off.  The Americans identified four locations along the river where they should build obstructions and establish defenses.

Hudson Valley Defenses
This was not the first attempt to build defenses.  As early as 1775, patriots planned for ways to prevent a British fleet from making its way upriver into the Hudson Valley from New York City.  That was why places like Forts Montgomery, Clinton, and Constitution existed along the river.  The patriots had even constructed a chain across the river at Fort Montgomery in 1776 in order to block ships.  That chain proved a disaster.  When they first deployed the 600 yard chain across the river, it broke from just the strain of the river current.  After a repair and second deployment, it broke again.  

They gave up for the winter, figuring the ice would do a better job of preventing any boats from sailing up the river than their chain did.  Finally, in April 1777, they once again deployed the chain at Fort Montgomery.  When the British sailed up to the river in October, the chain proved to be only a minor nuisance.  After the British captured Fort Montgomery, they could take their time cutting the chain, then sail upriver to Fort Constitution, and then further upriver to burn Kingston, New York.

For the new defenses that they hoped would be in place for 1778, the Americans turned to European engineers for their expertise.  They turned to Louis Lesliaix de la Radiere, a French captain who had received a Continental Commission as lieutenant colonel of engineers in July 1777.  After his appointment to the Hudson River project in the fall, Congress promoted him to full colonel.

De la Radiere wanted to build the new large chain near Forts Clinton and Montgomery, close to where the old chain had been deployed.  Everyone else on the project, including the Governor of New York and General Putnam, wanted the chain further upriver near Fort Constitution.  At that point a natural bend in the river would force any ships to slow down and turn.  The width of the river was not as great there, meaning the chain did not have to be as long.

Radiere’s view was overruled and construction began at Fort Constitution.  Radiere began the work, but complained so much about the site and the project that he asked to be relieved after a few months.  He returned to Washington’s army for a new assignment.

The engineering work then fell to a new officer, Colonel Tadeusz Kościuszko, the Polish officer who most recently had been responsible for the American defenses at Saratoga and who had also been a part of the project to lay a chain across the river at Fort Ticonderoga a year earlier.

Rufus Putnam

To further support the effort, Washington ordered Colonel Rufus Putnam to join the project. Rufus’ grandfather was a cousin of General Israel Putnam. Rufus grew up in Massachusetts and served in the French and Indian War.  He joined the Siege of Boston with his militia unit right after the battle of Lexington and Concord.  When the Continental Army was formed, Putnam received a commission as a lieutenant colonel.  

Rufus Putnam
Putnam earned his engineering cred by setting up the Dorchester Heights defenses in one night.  This forced the British to evacuate Boston in early 1776.  After that, General Washington assigned Putnam to work on the defenses at New York.  In December 1776, his military career faltered when Congress rejected his plan to form a corps of engineers.  

Some sources say that Putnam resigned his commission and returned home to Massachusetts.  In his memoirs, Putnam does not mention resigning.  He says that he simply returned home to Massachusetts to recruit more volunteers for the army.  In late 1777, following Burgoyne’s invasion of New York, Putnam once again offered his services to the Continental Army.  He led two regiments during the battle of Saratoga.  

Although he was not directly involved in building the defenses at Saratoga, Putnam does say that he had discussions with Kościuszko about those defenses.  So the two officers probably began to develop a relationship during the Saratoga Campaign.

Bernard Romans

Putnam, Kościuszko, and others favored a chain across the Hudson River at Fort Constitution because it was a narrow point in the river with two right angle turns.  The hills around the river caused winds to shift suddenly.  So for sailing ships, it was a difficult maneuver even without any defenses.  Crews would have to slow down and tack their sails to make the turns and navigate the shifting winds.  The first effort to create defenses there went to Bernard Romans in 1775.

Tadeusz Kościuszko
Bernard Romans was a Dutch-born colonist who had moved to upstate New York during the French and Indian War.  He married and settled into the Dutch-speaking community there.  He worked as a surveyor and a cartographer, a job that took him all over North America, including extensive work in the Floridas.

By 1773 though he was back to living in upstate New York.  As the population divided into loyalist and patriot camps, Romans decisively sided with the patriots.  He traveled to Boston where he was present during the Boston Tea party.  He traveled throughout New England where, among other things, he developed relationships with many patriot leaders.  

Because of his engineering experience, the patriot legislature in Connecticut sent Romans in 1775 to Fort Ticonderoga to assist with its capture.  While Colonel Allen and Arnold had already taken the fort by the time he got there, Roman took his soldiers south to capture Fort George.  Like Ticonderoga, the fort surrendered without a fight.  Afterward, Romans returned to Ticonderoga and assisted Benedict Arnold with assessing the guns and ammunition captured there.  

As it became clearer that all out war was underway, New York patriots focused on the need to fortify the Hudson River.  The Continental Congress recommended Romans to the New York Commissioners.  They gave him the job of surveying the river, selecting key locations for fortifications, and building those fortifications.

Romans, working with several other locals, selected Martelaer's Rock as the site to build a fort.  This was a rocky island in the Hudson river.  He set about building Fort Constitution, which later resulted in the island becoming known as Constitution Island.  Romans began work on the fort there, which became a pretty considerable defensive fort, with four bastions and 70 cannons.  

By the end of 1775, many were questioning the choice of the site, and the cost of the fort construction. Although the site on Constitution Island made a land assault on the fort difficult, it also was not the high ground.  Across the river, a rocky point stood far above Fort Constitution, making it an obvious place to launch an artillery attack on the fort.

Disputes between Romans and the New York Commissioners resulted in Romans traveling to Philadelphia to shore up support for his leadership of the project.  Congress did not want to overrule the New York Commissioners and so reassigned him to captain of artillery and sent him off to participate in the Quebec campaign.

Hudson Forts

After Romans’ departure, Fort Constitution fell into neglect.  Many of the cannons and other resources were redeployed downriver where the Continentals focused on Forts Clinton, Montgomery, and Independence.  The British expedition under General Clinton destroyed those forts in 1777, then made its way up to Fort Constitution.  With only a token garrison, the soldiers at Fort Constitution fled without a fight. The British destroyed the fort.  From there, they continued upriver to burn the town of Kingston before withdrawing back to New York City.  For more on this assault, see episodes 164 and 166.

Sketch of West Point
In January 1778, the Americans once again began rebuilding defenses in the area, first under Louis de la Radiere and then under Rufus Putnam and Tadeusz Kościuszko.  The men rebuilt Fort Constitution, a little smaller than originally planned, but capable of delivering fire against any ships attempting to make their way around the curve in the river.

To protect Fort Constitution from the high ground on the western side of the river, they built Fort Arnold, named after General Benedict Arnold.  For obvious reasons, this fort would later be renamed Fort Clinton.  However, having established that fort, it became obvious that there was even higher ground to the west that could be used to capture Fort Arnold.  To prevent that, the team constructed a third fort known as Fort Putnam, named for its builder, Rufus Putnam.  Fort Putnam would be the largest fort and would hold the largest garrison in the protection of the other forts.

Next, the problem was that further to the west, there was even higher ground which might be used to threaten Fort Putnam.  There, the engineers built yet another outpost, simply known as Redoubt #4 to prevent any attack from there on Fort Putnam.  Collectively, the forts on the western side of the river became known as West Point.

The Chain

The defenders did not simply want to rely on artillery and the natural river bends to deter any enemy naval advances upriver.  To block passage, they constructed a large chain across the river.  I’ve already mentioned the relative lack of success of other chains.  This one, the defenders hoped, would be different by making it even larger and stronger.

West Point Chain

The officer in charge of constructing the Chain was Captain Thomas Machin.  The captain was an English-born engineer who specialized in metallurgy and canal-building.  In 1772, his employer sent him from England to New Jersey to inspect a copper mine.  Machin opted to stay in the colonies and settled in Boston.  He supported the patriots and obtained a commission in the Continental Army.  He had been working on the Hudson River defenses since 1776 and had been responsible for the Fort Montgomery chain which had proven to be a disaster.

Even so, Machin had the most experience in the area and was ready for another try.  This new chain would have to span 600 yards.  Each link was made of iron bars that were more than two square inches thick and weighed over 100 pounds each.  The total weight of the chain was over 180 tons.

Fortunately, the colonies had a large iron industry. At the time the war began, the colonies were producing 30,000 tons of iron each year, roughly 14% of worldwide production.  Production of the chain went to a local New York forge run by Peter Townshend.  If you are of a certain age might make you ask Who? But no relation.  The forge was over thirty miles away.  When asked if he could get the links overland to the fort, over poorly marked roads Townsend assured them that “I can see for miles” and to further doubt, he told them “you better, you bet.”  To concerns that the chain might break like the one at Fort Montgomery, Townsend assured them that “we won’t get fooled again.”  When asked about whether his young workers were up to the task he told them they were “talkin’ bout my generation,” that these were “rough boys,” and that “the kids are alright.”  Ok, I’ll stop now.

The individual links had to be drawn on ox-drawn sleds to New Windsor, upriver from West Point.  From there, they were floated down on rafts and assembled together on site.  Once in place, the chain rested on rafts to keep it afloat.  Each raft was over fifty feet long and twelve feet wide.  A series of ropes and pulleys allowed operators to adjust the chain as needed.   Large stone filled boxes served as anchors on each side of the river to hold the chain in place.

By April 1778 the hundreds of men working to build and move the chain had it in place across the Hudson River.  A long barrier was built about 100 yards south of the chain to slow down any ship that might try to build up enough speed to break through the chain.  The entire process took only about eight weeks from conception to completion.

If a ship had to pass upstream the team could lower a portion of the chain to create a gap.  To prevent any destruction from winter ice, the team would have to pull in the chain each winter and then redeploy it in the spring.  As such, it would take a team of hundreds of men to maintain it.  Artillery batteries sat right along shore to fire on any ships and prevent any direct assault on the coasts where the chain was anchored.  These shore batteries were in turn protected by the series of forts sitting just above them.

West Point Garrison

General Samuel Parsons served as the first fort commander.  He oversaw the building project from almost the beginning.  He would serve until General Benedict Arnold took command of the fort in the summer of 1780.

View of West Pont from Constitution Island
Over the first three years, the garrison worked to build and improve the defenses.  Kościuszko remained head engineer for several years, working directly on the defensive features of the fort complex.  He would be stationed there until 1780 when he transferred to the southern theater.

George Washington considered West Point to be a critical lynchpin of Continental defenses.  He made it his headquarters in June of 1779 and remained there for several months before moving south to Morristown, New Jersey.

The total size of the garrison was considerable.  It varied over the course of the war, but at times was over 3000 soldiers.  As such, West Point was generally considered to be an impregnable defensive point on the Hudson River which the British would not be able to pass again.  The chain would remain in place for the remainder of the war.  The British would never again attempt to make their way up the Hudson River from New York City.

I mean, the only way the British might have a chance would be if they bribed the West Point commander and convinced him to turn over the fort and the garrison in exchange for a large sum of money and perhaps a commission in the British regular army.  But what are the chances of that happening?

Next week, we return to Philadelphia as General Howe prepares to turn over command to General Henry Clinton.

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Next Episode 182 Occupied Philadelphia 

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Further Reading


Levine, David Hudson Valley Chain:

Sambaluk, Nicholas Michael. “Making the Point—West Point’s Defenses and Digital Age Implications, 

Cubbison, Douglass Historic Structures Report: The Hudson River Defenses at Fortress West Point 1778-1781.” The Cyber Defense Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 2017, pp. 141–154. JSTOR,

Great Chain at West Point:

“To George Washington from Lieutenant Colonel La Radière, 13 January 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General Israel Putnam, 13 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from George Clinton, 5 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Major General Israel Putnam, 16 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bannerman, Francis History of the great iron chain: laid across the Hudson River at West Point in 1778, by order of General George Washington, New York: Military War Museum, 1900.

Coxe, Macgrane The Sterling furnace and the West Point chain; an historical address delivered at Sterling Lake, New York, Priv. print. [by the De Vinne press], 1906.

Putnam, Rufus The Memoirs of Rufus Putnam and Certain Official Papers and Correspondence, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1903.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Diamant, Lincoln, Bernard Romans: Forgotten Patriot of the American Revolution, Harbor Hill Books, 1985. 

Diamant, Lincoln, Chaining the Hudson: The Fight for the River in the American Revolution, Fordham Univ. Press, 2004. 

Haiman, Miecislaus Kosciuszko in the American Revolution, Boston, Gregg Press, 1972.

Hubbard, Robert E. General Rufus Putnam: George Washington's Chief Military Engineer and the "Father of Ohio",  2020

Storozynski, Alex  The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution,  Thomas Dunne Books, 2009.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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