Powder flashes lit the night as musketry rattled tentatively along the British lines. Then the cannon spoke, and pellets of grapeshot ripped through weeds, water, uniforms and flesh. A bloody night lay ahead
No man dared speak as the American soldiers crept grimly toward the enemy-held promontory silhouetted against the midnight sky. Their orders stated that any man who spoke, fired his musket or took one step backward would be executed on the spot. Officers brandishing ugly iron-tipped pikes advanced quietly alongside their men, ready to impale the first who disobeyed. It was July 15, 1779, just before midnight.
Twenty soldiers, led by a fresh-faced 21-year-old lieutenant from Pennsylvania named George Knox, headed the American column. Collectively and aptly named the “Forlorn Hope” in testament to their dim chances of survival, the men had volunteered for the honor of leading the assault on British fortifications at Stony Point, N.Y.
Knox’s volunteers carried heavy axes with which to dismantle the abatis—thick rows of outward-facing sharpened logs the British had built into the double line of earthworks protecting their inner redoubt. The Americans would have to work quickly to enable the infantry marching behind them to storm through the breaches.
Success depended on surprise. The only possible approach to Stony Point lay across a boggy marsh and up a grassy slope devoid of shelter and covered in enfilade by well-trained British infantry. Redoubts mounting cannon stocked with grapeshot also covered the approach. The slightest noise—a splash, a cough, a clank of equipment—might alert the enemy and precipitate disaster.
Knox’s men had been told to expect no more than two feet of water in the marsh. Instead, with their first steps, they plunged into chest-deep pools of muck. Splashes resounded through the night air as they waded forward, mud slowing their pace to a nightmarish crawl. More troops toppled in behind them, slipping, stumbling and pulling each other into the morass.
As they struggled forward, a shout, then several, echoed from behind the enemy abatis. Powder flashes lit the night as musketry rattled tentatively along the British lines. Then the cannon spoke, and pellets of grapeshot ripped through weeds, water, uniforms and flesh. A bloody night lay ahead.
Myth paints George Washington as a Fabian warrior, carefully husbanding his resources and avoiding risky battles on the assumption the United States could outlast Great Britain in a protracted war. In fact, he was an aggressive commander always on the lookout for the final, set-piece battle that would shatter Britain’s army and ensure American victory. In part, this was a matter of personality—Washington was a gambler by instinct. In addition, however, Washington seriously doubted whether the fledgling United States possessed the economic wherewithal to endure a protracted conflict.
“I have seen without despondency (even for a moment) the hours which America have stiled [sic] her gloomy ones,” Washington wrote to his friend George Mason in the spring of 1779. “But I have beheld no day since the commencement of hostilities that I have thought her liberties in such eminent danger as at present.” Political corruption and economic weakness had spurred a wildfire of inflation that threatened to bring the country to its knees.
Lacking the power to enact legislation, Washington could not help thinking in terms of some military action that could restore the country’s focus and sense of purpose. Unfortunately, British-occupied New York City looked next to impregnable, and enemy forces in Georgia and South Carolina operated well out of his reach. Opportunities to bloody the enemy seemed few and far between.
On May 30 and 31, some 4,500 British, Loyalist and German mercenary troops under Maj. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton sailed up the Hudson River from New York City and occupied King’s Ferry. Protecting this important supply conduit to and from New England were small forts at Stony Point on the west bank and Verplanck Point on the east bank, which Clinton immediately rebuilt and reinforced. From King’s Ferry the British also menaced West Point, just 12 miles upriver.
Eager for action though he was, Washington sensed a trap. If he moved to retake King’s Ferry, he risked being caught between the river and the craggy Hudson Highlands on ground of Clinton’s choosing. Instead of attacking, he shifted his troops to New Windsor, N.Y., from where he could protect West Point without exposing his army.
Washington sent cavalry to probe for weak points in the enemy positions but found none. “An attempt to dislodge them…would require a greater force & apparatus than we are masters of,” he wrote a confidant. Unwilling to give up hope, he sent spies—including a mysterious group of “half-Tory women”—to infiltrate British lines. The spies returned detailed reports on the enemy positions but also could not uncover any weaknesses. Clinton had dug in well and seemed intent on staying put.
Becoming daily more frustrated with his inability to get at the enemy, Washington dispatched yet more spies, including Captain Allan McLane of Delaware, who entered Stony Point under a flag of truce. Confident in their security—or just plain arrogant—the British let him view their fortifications with impunity.
Stony Point stood on a promontory about 150 feet above the Hudson, which flowed around it to the north, east and south. To the west, the promontory sloped gradually downward to a broad marsh that lay entirely underwater, except at low tide. East of the marsh, a short distance upslope, a line of abatis bisected the promontory from north to south. Three redoubts mounting brass 12-pounder cannon protected the fortifications, which were manned by British infantry and grenadiers. The ground grew rougher as it sloped sharply upward to the main redoubt, which was protected by a second line of abatis defended by British infantry, Loyalists and several more well-stocked artillery pieces. Supporting commander Lt. Col. Henry Johnson’s troops were two British gunboats, which squatted menacingly in the Hudson on either side of the promontory.
McLane, an experienced officer with a good eye for terrain, noticed one potential weak point, though it wasn’t much: The British had not completed the abatis around a large rock on the inner line. More important, he discovered that Clinton had departed King’s Ferry with most of his infantry, leaving behind a garrison of about 600 men at Stony Point and an equivalent force across the river at Verplanck Point.
Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne, Washington’s chosen on-scene commander, remained wary of attacking. “Upon the whole, I do not think a Storm practicable,” he wrote Washington after viewing the works at Stony Point on July 3. Washington joined him three days later and snuck as close as he could to the British defenses before likewise concluding they were impregnable. He left, “mortified” that circumstances forced him to resort to “a mere defensive plan.”
Shortly after Washington departed Stony Point, a British fleet anchored off New Haven, Conn., and landed the troops Clinton had withdrawn from King’s Ferry. The Redcoats raided up and down the coast, burning farms and terrorizing civilians. Washington’s blood boiled. Scruples or no, he decided, the time had come to act. “The Reputation of the Army and the good of the Service,” he wrote Wayne, demanded an attack on Stony Point.
Anthony Wayne was the closest thing George Washington had to George S. Patton. Thirty-four years old, bold-featured, hard-drinking and temperamental, he radiated energy and a hunger for glory that readily transferred to his men. He loved spit and polish and trusted in the bayonet. Wayne was also fanatically brave and often charged into battle as if he expected to die but didn’t give a hoot, so long as he gave a good account of himself. Later in the war his men dubbed him “Mad Anthony,” but affectionately—they would follow him anywhere.
Wayne’s command, the Corps of Light Infantry, was bred for the attack. Formed in the spring of 1779, it had drilled under Continental Army Inspector General Maj. Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who emphasized discipline and skill with the bayonet. This gave a keen edge to men already hardened to the core. All were seasoned veterans, handpicked for the unit. To lead them, Washington chose the boldest attack-minded officers at his disposal, making the light infantry an armored gauntlet perfectly shaped to his fist.
Wayne roused his men early on July 15 and ordered them to shave and powder themselves. They displayed the same kaleidoscopic variety of homespun as did the rest of the Army, but at least they were clean. Next came orders to sharpen their bayonets and don battle gear. Though naturally curious, the men betrayed no nervousness as their officers set them marching early that afternoon.
Several hours passed under the broiling midsummer sun as the soldiers marched single file in column along 14 miles of winding, narrow mountain trails. By late afternoon, the morning’s powder had washed away in streaks of sweat. Near dusk the troops reached their staging area in the fields around a farm.
Assembling their men, the officers announced that just before midnight the light infantry would storm the British fortifications at Stony Point. The enemy had built strong defenses and stood ready and determined. The attack would be difficult, and many would die. The first five Americans to enter the enemy’s inner redoubt, however, would receive from $500 to $100 dollars, in order of their entry, along with their fair share of the loot.
The officers laid out the plan of attack devised by Washington and Wayne. The light infantry, some 1,150 men strong, would divide into two columns. The right column, comprising 700 men in two regiments under Colonel Christian Febiger and Lt. Col. Return Jonathan Meigs and a detachment of Massachusetts troops, would cross the marsh and advance on the south edge of the enemy abatis, which a deserter had told Washington could be bypassed at low tide along the edge of the beach. Wayne would command this column personally.
On the left, Colonel Richard Butler’s light infantry regiment, along with a detachment of North Carolina troops under Major Hardy Murfree, would follow an old farm lane and cross the marsh over the remains of a bridge directly in front of enemy entrenchments. Butler would then turn to attack the extreme north end of the British earthworks, while Murfree—whose troops were the only ones permitted loaded muskets—feigned a noisy attack against the enemy’s center. The officers were to synchronize their watches and launch the attacks simultaneously.
Twenty-man “Forlorn Hopes” bearing heavy axes would head each column, followed by advance guards of 150 men each. The latter would dispatch enemy sentries, dismantle the abatis and lead the assault, followed by the remainder of their respective columns. Each man would have to trust entirely to his bayonet to see him through the night alive.
The officers nodded in satisfaction as dozens of volunteers stepped forward for the honor of joining each “Forlorn Hope.” Many were turned down. Lieutenant Knox, of the 9th Pennsylvania Regiment, was chosen to lead the detail on the right, and Lieutenant James Gibbons, of the 6th Pennsylvania, to lead the one on the left. Commanding the advance guards on the right and left, respectively, were French Lt. Col. François de Fleury and Major John Stewart.
Their dispositions determined, the troops settled down to wait, whispering to each other and swatting mosquitoes as the night deepened.
As they rested, Wayne dispatched squads of soldiers to detain any nosy civilians and bayonet any dogs whose barking might betray the attack. He then sat down to write a letter to his brother-in-law, commending his wife and children to his care. An inner voice told Wayne he would not survive the night.
At 11:30, half an hour before the scheduled attack, the Americans stuck scraps of paper in their caps to distinguish friend from foe during the coming attack. After a final admonishment not to make noise or shirk—on pain of instant death—the officers assembled their men and marched them off.
The depth of water in the marsh took Wayne and his troops completely by surprise. Fortunately, Butler’s approach to the marsh on the left was fairly short, and he had his troops across the water and in position before the British detected Knox’s approach on the right. Thus, even as Knox and his men came under fire, Murfree’s North Carolinians made their feint against the enemy center, and Gibbons’ “Forlorn Hope” began hacking away at the north edge of the enemy abatis.
Musket and cannon fire erupted almost simultaneously along the outer line, hampering British officers’ ability to pinpoint the source of the American assault. They instinctively responded to the most immediate apparent threats: to the north, where Gibbons’ men worked to breach the abatis, and in the center, where Murfree’s troops shouted and fired wildly into the night.
All but three of Gibbons’ men fell dead or wounded as the British concentrated musket and artillery fire against them and Murfree’s stalwart North Carolinians. Fortunately for the Americans, most of the British artillery shells and shot passed over their heads. Garrison commander Johnson, meanwhile, rushed all his reserves from the main redoubt to this section of his outer line.
Johnson’s preoccupation with his right and center gave Knox’s “Forlorn Hope” critical time to crawl out of the swamp and assault the south edge of the outer abatis. Sensing they would have no time to wreck it entirely, Knox’s men chopped and yanked out just a few logs before tossing aside their axes and rushing up the rocky slope. Bayonets at the ready, the remainder of the column followed close behind, many of them slipping and slashing open their legs on the sharpened logs.
Rocks and the steep riverbank partially sheltered Wayne’s men from enemy fire as they surged uphill. And though some of the British artillery crews detected the threat to their flank, the tight embrasures prevented them from bringing their guns to bear. British soldiers shouted insults, but the Americans let their bayonets do the talking, thrusting and lunging according to Steuben’s instructions. Wayne made more noise than any of them, for as he stood up to observe the advance, a musket ball grazed his skull and sent him toppling to the ground. Raising himself to one knee, dazed and with blood pouring down his face, Wayne bellowed loudly enough to drown out the sounds of fighting across the entire promontory: “Forward, my brave fellows, forward!” With a groan, he collapsed again and begged his aides to carry him into the fort so he might die amid scenes of victory.
For victory it was. Within minutes of breaching the outer abatis, Knox and Fleury reached the British second line at the inner redoubt, only to find it practically deserted. Breaking through the sally port and hurling themselves over the parapet, the Americans quickly seized the British cannon and entire stock of supplies. Fleury barely spoke English but knew a prize when he saw it and quickly snatched the British flag. Jumping up on the parapet, he waved the flag about, threw back his head and lustfully hollered the watchword appointed for the moment of victory: “The fort’s our own!”
Fleury’s heavy accent didn’t hinder anyone’s comprehension.
The remnants of Butler’s column to the north, which had taken heavy casualties but managed to penetrate the outer and inner abatis, soon joined Wayne’s column in the inner redoubt. Johnson, still awaiting Murfree’s attack, had no clue he had been surrounded until he heard the Americans shouting victory and his own men begging for mercy.
Wayne, whom his men had dutifully carried into the inner redoubt, became so agitated by the whooping around him that he forgot about dying and joined in the celebrations. Johnson handed over his sword in token of surrender, and his men received full quarter from the Americans, who were in too good a mood to kick around their prisoners. A few hours later, as dawn broke, the Americans turned the fort’s cannon on the British gunboats, which hastily moved downstream. As his troops took potshots at Verplanck Point, Wayne sent a dispatch to Washington, announcing the victory: “The fort and garrison with Colo. Johnson are ours,” he wrote. “Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free.”
Though dramatic, the American assault on Stony Point counted for little relative to major battles already fought and those yet to come. Wayne lost 15 men killed and 84 wounded, while the British lost 20 killed, 74 wounded and 472 captured. Fleury, Knox and three wounded sergeants claimed their reward for being the first five men into the British redoubt and shared in a $200,000 government payout for the stores they had captured. Congress awarded Wayne a gold medal and Stewart and Fleury silver medals. Gibbons and Knox each won promotion to captain. Ironically, the greatest prize—the fort itself—could not be held without risking a potentially costly, large-scale engagement. Wayne, therefore, evacuated Stony Point on July 19.
Washington had not achieved a decisive military victory; that would elude him until the Battle of Yorktown, more than two years later. Nor could the action at Stony Point, by itself, restore a sense of unity to the country. Wayne’s victory nevertheless gave Americans a needed boost, proving what audacity could achieve in concert with singleness of purpose. It was a paving stone in the road to ultimate victory.
For further reading, Edward G. Lengel recommends The Revolution’s Boldest Venture: The Story of General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s Assault on Stony Point, by I.W. Sklarsky, and The Enterprise in Contemplation: The Midnight Assault of Stony Point, by Don Loprieno.