In the relative solitude provided by the farmhouse he was using for his field headquarters, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne set down his final earthly thoughts. He put the time at 11 p.m., the date July 15, 1779, and the location ‘near the hour & scene of carnage. It was a brief note as these things go, but it encapsulated the man.
Addressed to the person whom Wayne considered his best and dearest friend, Sharp Delany, it would await delivery until the writer is no more. With a desperate combat in the offing, Wayne wanted the world to know that if he fell he had done so willingly in the defence of his Country and of the rights of mankind. He was a man of ambition and passion, and his adversaries were equally divided between the British and the petty forces of the new Continental government. Speaking as someone who had often battled to obtain clothing and weapons for his men, Wayne used valuable testimonial space to thunder over those Patriots who had lost their lives owing to the parsimony and neglect of Congress. Wayne’s anger flowed into a third paragraph, in which he worried that his commander, General George Washington, would also fall victim to these forces.
Coming near the end of this short missive, Wayne asked his friend to watch over his son and daughter, fearing that their mother will not survive this Stroke. He closed the note with felicitations to the Delany clan and a vow that he would sup the morrow either within the enemy’s lines in triumph or in the other World! Anthony Wayne signed his note, filed it carefully away, and then prepared himself to carry out one of the boldest and most desperate military actions of the Revolutionary War.
Two threads of history crossed this night along the west side of the Hudson River, twelve miles south of West Point. One was the personal odyssey of a civilian-warrior who had found his calling, the other a martial gesture by a mighty power mired in a war where victory lingered tantalizingly close but always out of reach.
Anthony Wayne, representing the third American generation of his family, was born on January 1, 1745, at Waynesborough in Chester County, Pennsylvania. His bloodlines were English and Irish, his sentiments decidedly republican. The road to his maturity was marked by brief detours as farmer, surveyor, land manager, tanner, and politician.
Even as he took part in the vigorous debates that were propelling the American colonies to break with England, Wayne learned the art of war by reading every book on the subject he could find. Not content to limit himself to the theoretical, he also began drilling a volunteer regiment and experiencing firsthand the qualities of citizen-soldiers. When force of reason gave way to force of arms, Wayne received command of the 4th Battalion of the Pennsylvania Line as a colonel in the Continental Army. Wayne and his unit passed through New York City in mid-April 1776, long enough for him to meet and impress George Washington, before he and his command left to take part in what proved to be a bitter coda to the Continental effort to bring Canada into its embrace. While the fighting he was engaged in at Trois Rivières was another American defeat in the midst of a failed campaign, Wayne’s coolness under fire and his steady presence during the subsequent retreat made him one of the few to emerge from this tragic miscalculation with his reputation enhanced. In the subsequent actions at Brandywine, Germantown, and especially Monmouth, Wayne, in the words of one of his peers, behaved Exceedingly Brave. Qualities emerged that clearly marked this soldier. He had a talent for organization, an ambition to succeed, and his swearing was legendary. He also understood that the freedom bestowed by a democracy did not extend into the army, where drill, discipline, and obedience were the necessary prerequisites for victory. Wayne also believed deeply (and made himself a regular nuisance on the matter) that soldiers had to look like soldiers.
Most important, Anthony Wayne was a fighter. Washington described him as more active and enterprising than judicious and cautious. Assigned the task of shadowing a strong enemy column in September 1777, Wayne pugnaciously camped so close to the foe that he fell victim to a counterstroke by bayonet-wielding British Regulars in what became widely reported (and exaggerated for propaganda purposes by both sides) as the Paoli Massacre. Some nine months later, at Monmouth, it was Wayne’s aggressive troop handling that put the Continental Army in peril and that paradoxically saved it, as he deftly staved off crushing pressure from superior forces until the Americans could rally to hold the field.
Following a fall and winter defending his decisions and angling unsuccessfully for a promotion to major general, Wayne took a leave of absence to return to the family homestead at Waynesborough. He was there, chafing at the inaction, when a note arrived from Washington summoning him to come at once to the lower Hudson Valley. Now for the field of Mars, Wayne wrote. I believe that sanguine god is rather thirsty for human gore.
Although it is seldom mentioned with an importance equaling other regions of the conflict, the lower Hudson was a constant source of concern for Washington and an inviting avenue of opportunity for his opponents. The importance of the Hudson River in the present Contest, and the necessity of defending it, are Subjects which have been so frequently and fully discussed, and are so well understood, that it is unnecessary to enlarge upon them, declared Washington. Even when a major British army was not moving southward from Canada to link with forces advancing up the river from New York, the stretch of the Hudson between the port city and West Point seethed with military activity throughout the war.
The spring of 1779 presented the officer commanding British forces in America with some difficult choices. An old enemy, France, had entered the war on the side of the colonists. The strategic planners in faraway London, meanwhile, had concluded that the ever-elusive victory in America would now be found in its southern tier. A significant part of British Commander in Chief Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton’s responsibilities became apportioning enough troops and other resources to support a southern campaign while simultaneously utilizing his powerful New York base to keep the northern region under threat.
That the rebel General Washington and his army remained close to New York was not lost on Clinton, nor on those in London, where Lord George Germain, the British secretary of state for the American colonies, was monitoring events and offering a steady stream of advice. In a dispatch dated January 23, 1779, Germain observed: It is most earnestly wished that you may be able to bring Mr. Washington to a general and decisive action at the opening of the Campaign; but if that cannot be effected it is imagined that with an army of about 12,000 Men in the field under your immediate Command, you may force him to seek for safety in the Highlands of New York or the Jerseys, and leave the Inhabitants of the open Country at liberty to follow what the Commissioners represent to be their inclinations and renounce the authority of the Congress, and return to their allegiance to His Majesty.
Germain’s instructions, often weeks if not longer in reaching New York, ranked high among Clinton’s vexations. With a diplomacy tinged with irritation, the commander in chief answered Germain’s missive on May 14: It shall be my endeavor to draw Washington forward before he is Reinforced, by indirect Manouvres, and if he gives in to my views no efforts shall be wanting to strike at him whilst he is in motion; but if he persists in keeping his present post I must not flatter myself that it will be easy to gain any advantage over him or to carry into effect, as I certainly should wish to do, the measures which your Lordship appears to recommend.
In looking for a place to land his blow and to maximize the effect of his limited forces, Clinton’s gaze turned inevitably up the Hudson River. Thanks to the presence and active cooperation of the Royal Navy, he knew he could move a strike force quickly along the waterway, virtually ensuring himself local superiority wherever he landed.
Twenty miles north of Manhattan the Hudson broadened enough that the locals called it the Tappan Zee. It narrowed quickly after another twenty miles, pinched by a pair of promontories: Verplancks Point on the eastern shore and Stony Point on the western side. Between them ran Kings Ferry, marking the principal crossing point between the New England states and the rest of the colonies. It was also an invaluable staging area for any effort against the principal American fortification along the river — West Point.
A strike at Verplancks Point and Stony Point, Clinton reasoned, was a move that Washington could not ignore. From past experience, the British commander expected Washington to react by moving some or all of his army north from its encampments in New Jersey. Such an operation thus would have the double benefit of disrupting the rebel supply chain and possibly drawing Washington’s army into the open. As an added spur, the Americans had been busy strengthening both posts: There was a finished strongpoint called Fort Lafayette at Verplancks, and working parties were putting the last touches on a log blockhouse atop Stony Point.
Once he had determined his objectives, Clinton organized an expedition that left little to chance. Numbering perhaps six thousand British, Hessian, and Loyalist soldiers transported on seventy sailing vessels and 150 flat-bottomed boats, Clinton’s force departed Kingsbridge on May 30 and landed, virtually unopposed, the next day. Major General John Vaughan and fifteen hundred men came ashore on the Hudson’s eastern side at Tellers Point, eight miles south of Verplancks Point. The rest, led personally by Clinton, landed on the west bank near Haverstraw before marching against Stony Point. Only a token American party of forty men garrisoned Stony Point, and as the powerful British column drew near, the Americans set fire to the blockhouse before fleeing north over Dunderberg Mountain. There was a subtlety in the British plan, as Vaughan’s men — on the eastern side — did not move directly against Fort Lafayette, but instead secured the roads leading from it. During the night, British soldiers and sailors, displaying what one of their officers termed infinite fatigue and labor, hauled several cannons up Stony Point’s rugged slopes to bear on Fort Lafayette. On the morning of June 1, the American garrison of seventy-four men (mostly North Carolina Continentals) was shelled from Stony Point and menaced by the sight of the sloop-of-war Vulture choking off any river escape. An effort made to evacuate toward Peekskill was blocked by Vaughan’s men, leaving the isolated soldiers no option but surrender, which they did to Clinton’s aide-de-camp, Major John André. Sir Henry had taken both strategic outposts with the loss of just one casualty.
Not knowing whether this move was the extent of the British effort or if it portended an even deeper thrust into New York’s interior, Washington put his army in motion, as Clinton had anticipated. Also as Clinton had foreseen, Washington moved defensively, not directly challenging the move but positioning his forces to protect West Point and to prevent any less than full-scale advance the enemy might attempt from its newly won outposts. Washington’s own headquarters were first at Smith’s Clove and then at New Windsor.
A brief waiting game ensued while Clinton maintained his positions on the off chance that Washington would rise to the bait, so the British commander might, as he wrote, avail myself of any false move he may make. Clinton’s soldiers used the time to improve their defenses, especially at Stony Point, where the rebel works had been rudimentary at best. An American officer who observed them toiling at long distance thought that they labored like a parcel of devils. Clinton had been hoping for reinforcements from England that would make Washington’s situation even more difficult. When they did not appear, however, he still decided to continue his program of disrupting the region in the hope of catching Washington out of his defenses.
Accordingly, beginning on June 27, Clinton commenced withdrawing the majority of his troops from the two captured posts to support a raid targeting the Connecticut coast, undertaken by Maj. Gen. William Tryon. Left behind at Stony Point was a garrison of some six hundred men consisting, as Clinton later reported, of the 17th Regiment of Foot, the Grenadier Company of the 71st Regiment, a Company of the loyal Americans, and a small Detachment of the Royal Artillery, [all] 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.
A month earlier Washington would have seconded this assessment. Soon after the loss of Stony Point and Verplancks Point, he noted that an attempt to dislodge them, from the natural strength of the positions, would require a greater force and apparatus than we are master of. All we can do is to lament what we cannot remedy. As time passed with no further offensive moves on Clinton’s part, Washington began to reconsider. A concentrated intelligence gathering was ordered. Cavalry, under the capable Major Henry Lee, began collecting information along both sides of the river. Some was obtained through direct observation, while other bits came from the interrogation of civilians who supplied the British with provisions. There was even a spy named Allan McLane who took the part of a local farmer and in this guise entered the Stony Point fortifications to observe their location and development.
This process was well underway when Anthony Wayne arrived in response to Washington’s summons. On July 1, Wayne took charge of an elite strike force styled the Light Corps. Patterned after similar units in the European armies, this command had been personally drilled by Washington’s chief disciplinarian, Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Consisting of veteran troops taken from the Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia Lines, its first assignment was to shield West Point, probe the enemy dispositions and intentions, and look for an opening to strike back. To this end, the Light Corps was split between the eastern and western sides of the Hudson, and continued to train, especially on Wayne’s weapon of choice, the bayonet. There was one more item that Washington saved for Wayne’s eyes alone. It is a matter I have much at heart to make some attempt upon these [enemy-occupied] Posts…if warranted by the probability of success, he informed his aggressive, ambitious subordinate.
It was Stony Point that drew Washington’s greatest attention. While the disruption of Kings Ferry is often cited as a prime motivation for this interest, Washington saw its closure more as an inconvenience than a catastrophe. He understood, perhaps better than most, the symbolic gesture that Clinton was making by maintaining such an advanced position and the morale-boosting value for the Colonial cause if it could be retaken. The Virginian also appreciated that Clinton was stretched thin and such a dramatic blow to one of his forward positions could add even more caution to his increasingly conservative strategy. So, well before Wayne arrived, Washington was scrutinizing every scrap of information gathered about the Stony Point defenses, hoping to unlock their mysteries.
What he learned was initially disheartening. Gone were the days when the British military treated the American soldiery with disdain. Colonel Johnson, the Stony Point commander, worked diligently to improve its natural advantages. The promontory was scraped bare of trees, leaving a stark landscape of earth, rocks, stumps, brushwoods, and defensive works. The main position had been established on the 150-foot-high plateaulike summit set against the point’s eastern tip, called by the British the Table of the Hill. It encompassed the most powerful cannons and all administrative and command stations. Unconnected strongpoints were at the corners of the Table, the most significant of which was known as the Flagstaff Battery. The principal defensive line for this core citadel was indicated by an abatis (tightly packed felled trees with their interlocked branches pointing toward the enemy), which ran from the southern shore to an especially steep escarpment bordering the north side. There was one artillery position along this line, the Howitzer Battery. Several engineers thought that this main position was the only one worth defending.
When work on the upper fortifications began, a temporary outer line was established along some lower rises overlooking a stream and marshy ground lying west of the promontory. The outer abatis was run here from south to north. The northern end terminated at the shoreline, but the water on the southern side was shallow enough that worried officers extended the abatis some fifty yards into the bay. The rises of higher ground along this broken ridgeline became the sites for three triangular, open-ended artillery positions — called flèches — which were numbered consecutively from south to north. The rough ground between the outer and inner abatis provided protected spots for other guns, and one, the Three-Pounder Battery, was established behind the flches.
The final touch in the defensive scheme came courtesy of the Royal Navy, which provided additional firepower off both flanks of the inner abatis. To the south a small gunboat took station, while to the north Vulture covered the shoreline. To further guard the land side against a surprise attack, picket posts had been established along the west side of the swampy moat. Although the 564 men who garrisoned the position represented less than half of what Washington later decided the fortress required, they were steady, veteran soldiers who would not succumb to panic.
Pursuant to Washington’s orders, Wayne completed his first reconnaissance of Stony Point on the evening of July 2. He pronounced the enemy position formidable, and rejected the prospect of a regular siege approach as too time consuming. Upon the whole I do not think a Storm practicable — but perhaps a Surprise may be Effected, Wayne noted, and invited Washington to join him in examining the layout of the target. Washington obliged and afterward, on July 10, sent a plan of attack for Wayne’s consideration that revealed him to be a solid analyst and a bold planner. Designating the Light Corps for the operation, Washington identified an approach along the promontory’s southern shore as offering the best chance for success. He proposed a party of picked men precede the column to silence the sentries and to open gaps in the abatis. The bayonet was to be the principal weapon, and to maintain the stealth of the whole affair the men were to march with muskets unloaded. Once the position had been taken, they were to turn the captured cannons on the enemy shipping and against Verplancks Point, which would then be attacked by another column moving along the Hudson’s east bank.
Washington also thought of small but vital elements of the plan. Knowing that defenders normally stand on alert at sunrise, when an attack was considered most likely, he suggested that the troops should move on the works at midnight rather than at the morning dawn. It speaks to the confidence Washington had in his new Light Corps that he unhesitatingly suggested a plan based on the most difficult military operation — a night attack.
The battle orders Wayne submitted to Washington on July 14 were essentially those he had received, with two important modifications. Instead of just one assault against the southern side of the position, there would be a second from the northern side. This wing would also provide an important diversion by sending one detachment with loaded weapons to demonstrate against the center of the enemy’s position, where the presence of a causeway made it most vulnerable. This small force was to draw attention to itself even as the strong columns closed from the north and south. Washington pronounced the alterations to be an improvement upon his own plan and approved the operation.
Secrecy was the overriding concern; if the British were alert and waiting, the Americans would be slaughtered. The hitherto separated wings of the Light Corps were quietly joined at Sandy Beach, near Fort Montgomery, for the July 15 march. A roundabout line of march was plotted to avoid observation of the strike force, the loose cavalry screen on the land side of Stony Point was tightened, and any inhabitants encountered during the approach march were detained until the action was over. It was a fourteen-mile trek along narrow trails, with the column often moving single file. The time was nearing 8 p.m. when the leading elements reached the staging area — the clear fields around David Springsteel’s farm, a mile and a half west of Stony Point.
Only now were the rank and file told what was ahead of them, and volunteers were called for to form the advance parties. These men in turn were divided into a support group and a smaller lead element that would actually open gaps in the abatis. The latter party, carrying axes as well as guns, was aptly named the forlorn hope. To aid in the difficult task of identifying friend from foe at night, the soliders received a square piece of white paper that was affixed to the front of their caps. General Wayne’s rousing orders of the day were read, and the men were told that at the special request of General Washington, the first five soldiers or officers to reach the enemy’s main work at the summit would be rewarded with tiered payments from five hundred dollars for the first to one hundred dollars for the fifth. Finally, they were instructed that once the enemy works had been taken they were to shout again and again, The fort’s our own!
In the few hours remaining, the men made ready. Some, like Wayne, wrote final letters and wills. Although Wayne had a powerful premonition that he would fall in the coming fight, he was no less determined to personally command the southern assault force. When preparations were complete, the men were drawn up in columns with bayonets fixed, and the forlorn hope moved to the front. At about 11:30 p.m., the word to advance was given.
What Wayne and Washington never knew was that the high degree of secrecy they had imposed on this operation had been compromised. In testimony at his later court-martial, Colonel Johnson stated: The Intelligence I received between eight and nine o’clock on the evening of the 15th from the scouts I had sent out the preceding evening…gave me reason to expect an attack. However, those scouts (two, based on other testimony) also indicated that the American plan required artillery that had not yet arrived, so Johnson refrained from issuing a full alert. According to the orders he did circulate, the soldiers at Stony Point were to lay with all their clothes on at night, [except coats, with which] their arms, ammunition, and accouterments is to be carefully put up in such a manner as they can get them upon the shortest notice.
Despite this advantage, the British defenses at Stony Point suffered from some serious deficiencies on the night of July 15. Unlike Clinton, whose relations with the Royal Navy were generally effective, the cooperation between Colonel Johnson and the two vessels assigned to aid him was almost nonexistent. It was not unusual for the gunboat to be unaccountably absent from her station, as she would be on the night of the 15th, and while Johnson was unhappy with the situation, he did nothing to resolve it. Also this night, again without informing Johnson, the sloop Vulture had repositioned herself in midriver, so that her guns no longer bore on Stony Point’s northern flank.
Compounding this serious loss of firepower, Johnson had yet to concentrate all his defenses on the core redoubts located on the Table of the Hill, so that most of his troop strength this night was divided between picket duties and manning the outer abatis. This created the unusual situation where the American attack plan designed to bypass the outer abatis almost perfectly mated with the weaknesses of the British defense, even though some of those components — such as the absence of both flanking vessels — could not have been anticipated.
The American attacking force of perhaps 1,150 men had been divided into two unequal wings. The largest, approximately seven hundred soldiers, was to go below the fort, march up the bank of the river, and attack it from the south side recorded one officer present. The forlorn hope preceding it was led by Lieutenant George Knox, who would be closely supported by the advance party under Lt. Col. Franois Louis de Fleury, a French soldier who had fought with distinction at Fort Mifflin and Brandywine. Behind them marched Anthony Wayne and the heavy columns made up of the regiments of Lt. Col. Christian Febiger, Colonel Return Meigs, and Major William Hull.
The left, or northern, wing consisted of 450 men of which 150 would be detached for the diversion in the center. Here the forlorn hope was commanded by Lieutenant James Gibbons, followed by the advance party under Major John Stewart. Colonel Richard Butler was in charge of the column, while Major Hardy Murfree was responsible for the diversion. Attached to both wings were parties of trained artillerymen, whose assignment was to put the captured cannons into action against the vessels in the river and the British posted at Verplancks Point. Spread among the various commands were specially ordered short pikes, called espontoons.
Luck was with the Americans as their northern column passed through the enemy’s outer picket line. Lieutenant John Ross of the 71st Regiment, in charge of the Jaeger Post, heard first one of his men and then another fire warning shots. He had the drummer beat to arms and gathered his thirty men together. I saw no enemy, Ross later reported, and the night being extremely dark and very windy, made me suppose that what the men reported to me to have heard was occasioned by the wind rustling amongst the bushes. While Ross hesitated, Butler’s column passed through the swampy barrier.
On the southern end of the British picket line, Corporal Simon Davies was warned by his advanced sentries that there was a large body of the enemy advancing. When he fell back to the reserve post he found the sergeant supposed to be stationed there was absent. Davies and those with him continued back to the outer abatis, but before leaving that advanced area the corporal distinctly remembered hearing a noise in the water on my left, which appeared to me to have been occasioned by a large body of men wading through it.
Lieutenant Gibbons’ party leading the main northern group successfully penetrated the outer abatis without arousing any reaction. On the far right, the southern column was still moving into position when Major Murfree’s diversionary force opened fire in the center. The British forward defenses came alive with fire, most of it musketry. Ironically, the very steepness of the slopes bordering the shore, which made the position seem so strong, worked against many of the artillerymen, who could not depress their guns sufficiently to bear on the dark forms scrambling toward them. Only two of their cannons came into play. The Three-Pounder Battery opened fire in a predetermined direction that cut down some of Butler’s leading parties.
The other British cannon, the short brass twelve-pounder in Flèche No. 1, could barely traverse because of the restrictive nature of its embrasure. Its commander, Lieutenant William Horndon of the Royal Artillery, actively shifted fire from the left to the right in order to scour the swamp in front, but he looked on helplessly as the discharge blasts illuminated the thick rebel columns pressing along the south shore that he could not hit. A Connecticut officer in that southern force remembered wading through water that came up to his waist. He also recalled the British fire as very brisk and that the men of the Light Corps advanced with the greatest regularity and firmness. In addition, he noted that the enemy wasted their fire mostly over our heads.
Aroused from his sleep, Colonel Johnson reacted with more hot impetuosity than cool assessment. After ordering the men around him to stand to arms, he gathered fifteen or twenty and rushed toward the center of his line, where Major Murfree’s soldiers were giving a convincing imitation of the main attack. Johnson’s abrupt move also had the effect of disrupting the chain of command, leaving groups of soldiers gathering at various strongpoints, as per standing orders, with no instructions about what to do. A variety of signal rockets and alarm fires were part of the defensive plan, but in Johnson’s absence no one thought to employ them.
Behind the departing Johnson, Lieutenant John Roberts of the Royal Artillery reached his post at the Left Flank Battery, where he immediately encountered Captain Robert Clayton who snapped in a most ungentlemanly fashion, For God’s sake, why are not the Artillery here not being made use of, as the enemy are in the hollow and crossing the water. Roberts tried to explain that it was common practice not to store explosives in the open near the guns, and even if there had been munitions, the cannons could not bear on the enemy below. Realizing that there was nothing here for him to do, the artilleryman set off for the Howitzer Battery.
Wayne’s larger column, meanwhile, struggled up a slope that was, in the words of an officer present, almost perpendicular in places. There was a brief backup at the inner abatis, where the axmen had been only partially successful in chopping openings. Finally, the men just swarmed ahead, clawing and pulling themselves past the barrier. They lived up to their elite status by promptly re-forming before pressing on to summit redoubts. North of them, Butler’s men, penetrating the outer abatis, overran the brass twelve-pounder and two mortars positioned in Flèche No. 3 before they could be fired. In the center, where Murfree’s diversionary force continued to blaze away, Colonel Johnson arrived with the first of his reinforcements. Sergeant Henry Gillott recalled hearing Johnson caution the men to be sparing with their ammunition and not fire unless there was an object in sight. Captain William Darby, then posted on the southern flank, heard Johnson first order the men to fire and afterwards to stop firing as one of the picquets who was coming in called out that they were friends.
Johnson’s impulsive rush to the center left Lieutenant William Armstrong, holding a section of the inner abatis, uncertain whether the troops he heard moving in his front were friend or foe. I halted the fire for fear we would kill our own people whom I supposed to be amongst them, he later testified. He also realized that there were not enough men available to fully man the inner abatis, so he concentrated those with him to cover the sally port. Most of the men crowding up to and then through the inner abatis were Americans with the gallant de Fleury leading the way and Anthony Wayne nearby. Suddenly Wayne felt a blinding blow to his head and he went down, certain his premonition had been fulfilled. Forward, my brave fellows, forward! he gasped as the world reeled around him. When his aides caught him, he said: Carry me into the fort. If I am to die, I want to die at the head of the column.
The fighting had been roiling for perhaps thirty minutes, and both the north and south ends of the upper defensive line were covered with Americans. The men made free use of the bayonet, said Major Hull. We were compelled to continue the dreadful slaughter owing to the fierce and obstinate resistance of the enemy. In a dramatic gesture, Colonel de Fleury went to the main flagstaff and hauled down the British ensign flying over Stony Point. Once the men and officers of the English garrison realized that the enemy was in strength behind them, resistance began collapsing. After nearly being run through by a group of bayonet-wielding Americans, Colonel Johnson raced back to the upper summit only to hear the Americans’ cry, The fort’s our own! Convinced that a very superior force of the enemy now possessed his works, Johnson surrendered to Colonel Febiger, who ordered him to his tent.
Lieutenant Horndon was grimly determined to keep fighting from his position in Flèche No. 1, even if meant reversing the twelve-pounder to fire toward the Table of the Hill. When it became clear that the hillside behind them was swarming with the enemy, Horndon considered a breakout attempt with the twenty-six or so men with him, but two scouts he sent to examine an escape route reported the Rebels were thick on the water side as they could be. Turning to his men, Horndon acknowledged their hopeless situation. My lads, he said, I believe we are prisoners. The last major battle of the Revolutionary War to be fought in the North was over.
Despite the fact that a portion of the captured garrison consisted of what the British called Loyal Americans, and whom the Patriots called Tories, there is no evidence of any acts of retribution, although three soldiers taken who were identified as recent deserters from the Continental Army were hanged. In a final irony, when the American cheers were heard by the sailors on Vulture and the garrison at Verplancks Point, it was assumed that they were British celebrations signaling the repulse of the American attack and were enthusiastically answered, so for a while at least, both sides of the Hudson echoed with cries of victory.
By now Wayne realized that his head wound was not fatal. After being assured that his men were now in full control of Stony Point, he sent a note to Washington, time-dated at 2 a.m.: Dear Gen’l, — The fort & garrison with Col. Johnston [sic] are ours. Our officers & men behaved like men who are determined to be free.
The dawn of July 16 revealed the extent of the American victory. Fifteen of the Light Corps had given their lives in the effort, with an additional eighty-three wounded. The losses on the British side were nineteen killed, 543 taken prisoner, and two who escaped: Lieutenant Roberts and Captain Lawrence Campbell. After leaving the useless Left Flank Battery, Roberts had tried for the Howitzer Battery, only to be turned back by parties of enemy soldiers ranging across the hillside. By the time he had returned to the Table of the Hill, the distinctive Huzza of the Americans told him that the post was lost. Roberts finally worked his way down to the southern side, intending to wade the bay to hide in the country below, but hearing Vulture fire a gun, he swam to the sloop where he was taken aboard. Captain Campbell of the 71st Regiment, though wounded, reached the ferry wharf and commandeered a flat-bottomed boat.
From the American perspective, the only sour notes regarding this affair involved the cooperating force that was to attack Verplancks Point once Stony Point had fallen (it never got organized enough to act), and the fate of the sloop-of-war Vulture, which when she came under fire from the captured Stony Point cannons, slipped her anchor and escaped downstream.
There were honors aplenty on the American side. It was finally determined that the five who led the way into the Flagstaff Battery making them claimants to Washington’s cash prizes were, first, de Fleury; second, George Knox; and the remaining three, sergeants named Baker, Spencer, and Donlop. In addition, Washington recommended and Congress approved treating the captured stores as confiscated property whose value (more than $160,000) was to be divided proportionally among the officers and men of the Light Corps. Finally, there were medals struck by Congress — gold for Wayne and silver for de Fleury and Stewart. The de Fleury medal, which is still issued to outstanding American military engineers, carries an inscription in Latin that translates as A memorial and reward for courage and boldness.
For Clinton, perhaps the most difficult moment came on July 25, when he had to report matters to Lord Germain. The success attending this bold and well-combined attempt of the enemy procured very deservedly no small share of reputation to the spirited officer who conducted it, Clinton wrote, and was, I must confess, a very great affront to us, the more mortifying since it was unexpected and possibly avoidable. One of Clinton’s key subordinates termed the affair this singular and unfortunate Event, which has filled every one with astonishment.
An even greater embarrassment lay in the future for Sir Henry Clinton, when he lost most of his southern army under Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, in 1781. By May 1782, Clinton had been replaced and returned to England. He spent his final years in obscure service for country and king and writing his memoirs, which would not be published until the middle of the twentieth century.
Colonel Johnson faced a court-martial in early 1781 in New York. The court found his disposition of forces at fault for placing so many along the outer abatis, and reprimanded him for not protesting more vigorously at the unannounced absences of the gunboat. However, the court did praise the Stony Point garrison, saying that Johnson and his command behaved with alertness, activity, and bravery that do them honor.
It was not the position but the act of taking it that was important to the master planner behind the entire operation. After hauling away all the captured stores and arms, Washington determined that it would tie down too many men to retain, so he abandoned the strongpoint on July 18. Pride required that Clinton reclaim it, which he did, and it was refortified, though its symbolic value was spent and not recoverable. In late October the British drew back to New York and the memory of Stony Point receded into the events of 1780 and beyond.
The American victory at Stony Point was a brief but bright flare that brought renown to Anthony Wayne. From Congress came the gold medal and from Washington unstinted praise. Wayne’s physician and friend, Benjamin Rush, wrote to him that he had established the natural character of our country; you have taught our enemies that bravery, humanity, and magnanimity, are the national virtues of the Americans. Ahead of Wayne lay some dramatic trials, personal failures, and more battlefield victories. Death would find him on December 15, 1796, still in the uniform and in the service of the democratic nation he helped bring to life.
Wayne attracted a number of nicknames throughout his colorful career. Thanks to his outspoken insistence on demanding a soldierly appearance by his men, some called him Dandy Wayne. Following a successful operation in 1778 when he both collected livestock provender for the army and badly rattled a powerful British detachment sent to snag him, his enemies took to tagging him Drover Wayne. The most lasting was seemingly bestowed on him in 1781 by a private under arrest who was something of a character himself. When his friend, the general, refused to intercede on his behalf, he declared: Anthony is mad! Farewell to you; clear the coast for ‘Mad Anthony’s friend.’ This one stuck and into the history books went the name of Mad Anthony Wayne.
George Washington’s Stony Point reward had come on July 17, when he visited his just captured prize. I recollect how cordially he took me by the hand, remembered Major William Hull, who was part of Wayne’s column, and the satisfaction and joy that glowed in his countenance. In his report to Congress, Washington identified what had been accomplished. First, there was the diminution of the enemy’s forces, which will be felt in their present circumstances. Next were the stores, armaments, and munitions captured. Finally, there was a boost to public morale, and the confidence that the victory instilled in the troops.
After carefully examining the British defenses and then viewing the difficult terrain where the American columns had pierced those lines, Washington expressed his astonishment that we were enabled to surmount the difficulties and attain our object with so inconsiderable a loss, wrote Hull. And here he offered his thanks to Almighty God, that He had been our shield and protector amidst the dangers we had been called to encounter.
Noah Andre Trudeau is a frequent contributor to MHQ. His latest book is Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (HarperCollins, 2002).
This article was originally published in the Fall 2003 issue of MHQ. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History today!