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Thunder on the Hudson

By Noah Andre Trudeau
8/2/2018 • MHQ Magazine

If Sir Henry Clinton had been allowed to follow up his 1777 capture of two Hudson River forts, the British might have avoided their disastrous defeat at Saratoga.

In the relative tranquility of his forest glen headquarters tent, perhaps thirty miles north of Albany, New York, Great Britain’s Major General John Burgoyne began to wonder if his grand scheme for ending the American rebellion was spiraling toward disaster. The date was September 21, 1777. Two days earlier, his troops had fought the Americans around Freeman’s Farm, a daylong engagement that left him possessing the battlefield, but at the cost of 566 men killed, wounded, or missing— about ten percent of his effective force. Added to losses of nearly a thousand that his army suffered on August 16 when a detachment of foraging German mercenaries had been overwhelmed near Bennington, Vermont, the prospects for Burgoyne’s operation were growing worse by the day. Further adding to his woes, Burgoyne had learned on August 28 that a smaller supporting column, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger, supposed to link up with him after advancing from western New York by way of the Mohawk Valley, had turned back.

It was all a dramatic change from June 13, when he had unfurled the Royal Standard at St. John’s, Canada, on his way south to Lake Champlain. Then Burgoyne proudly led ten thousand soldiers southward from Canada to split the rebellious New York colony in twain and separate revolutionary New England from the remaining colonies, thought to be more loyal.

An aide reported the arrival of a courier bearing a message from Burgoyne’s friend, the commander of Britain’s New York City garrison, Sir Henry Clinton. In early August, when affairs were all going according to plan, Clinton had sent a note that seemed unimportant at the time, reporting that the principal British army in America, led by Sir William Howe, had departed the city on ships for points unknown—at least to Sir Henry. Clinton promised that even though the number of men remaining with him was “too small…to make any effective diversion in your favor,” he would at least try to do something.

Back then, brimming with confidence that he would be able to complete the northern campaign without outside help, Burgoyne had no concerns regarding Howe’s disappearance. While grateful for Clinton’s gesture, he viewed it as inconsequential to what he was doing. Now, as he looked over this newest missive, the picture was very different. “You know my good will and are not ignorant of my poverty [of soldiers],” Sir Henry wrote. “If you think two thousand men can assist you effectually, I will make a push at [Fort] Montgomery in about ten days, but ever jealous of my flanks. If they make a move in force on either of them, I must return to save this important post. Let me know what you would wish.”

When answering Clinton’s previous note, Burgoyne had been self-assured, even anticipating success. Now he struck a different tone, advising his friend that “an attack, or the Menace of an Attack upon [Fort] Montgomery, must be of great Use, as it will draw away a part of this Force [which opposes me], and I will follow them close. Do it, my dear friend, directly.”

Watching the courier depart with his restrained call for help, Burgoyne faced a crucial decision. His army had regrouped after the fight at Freeman’s Farm and was ready to resume advancing toward Albany. The Americans were clearly anticipating his doing just that. Yet Clinton’s note, however ambiguous, at least held out the possibility of aid coming from the south. Choosing between venturing into another immediate battle with no firm prospect of assistance and waiting to see if Clinton’s effort might draw off some of the forces gathering against him, Burgoyne opted to stand pat. He gave orders to entrench the position now occupied. Again and again in the days to come, his gaze would turn southward, whence he hoped Clinton might produce a miracle.

Eight days later the redoubtable courier passed Burgoyne’s note to its addressee. The message, necessarily discreet because of the possibility of interception, hinted that things were not going well for the northern army. What the courier had to add to the written words painted an even grimmer picture.

As Clinton later recollected, the northern army “had only thirty days’ salt provisions, that the communications with Canada could not be preserved, and that it was therefore the General’s intentions to endeavor at a junction with the southern army.” The problem, from Clinton’s perspective, was that the southern army plus his immediate superior were engaged in an operation that had no reference to Burgoyne’s, and he had no contact with Howe.

It is doubtful that there was then a more unhappy man in the British North American high command than Sir Henry Clinton. He possessed a solid military background, and was blessed with a keen mind and the faculty of thinking strategically. However, Clinton’s abilities were forever marred by a petulant personality and a generous supply of caution.

Present at the creation, so to speak, Clinton had advised at Boston in 1775, then served as second-in-command to General William Howe until frustration at his inability to influence events moved him to return to London to offer his resignation. It took the bribe of a title and praise from George Sackville, Lord Germain (secretary of state for the American colonies), to convince him to return.

After he had done so, Clinton found himself shut off from operational planning but left in charge of New York when General Howe set sail on July 23. Sir Henry had argued against Howe’s taking the field in any direction save to the north, an opinion that was pointedly ignored. Howe believed that the key to ending the war was to draw out the principal American army under General George Washington and decisively defeat it, and his plan had been approved in London. Clinton understood the greater possibilities offered by Burgoyne’s northern campaign.

Howe’s last message to Clinton had been dated July 30. Despite having stripped the New York garrison to below minimum levels necessary for defense, Howe appended the thought: “If you can make any diversion in favor of General Burgoyne’s approaching Albany, I need not point out the utility of such a measure.” This advice did not rise to the level of an actual order, and Clinton’s natural anxieties about protecting the city overrode his yearnings to push up the Hudson River.

Two factors now combined to motivate Clinton. The first was Burgoyne’s September 21 note, which provided Clinton sufficient justification for taking the risk. The second was the arrival, on September 25, of a sixty-ship convoy containing about three thousand reinforcements. Clinton now had the formal request to render aid and the means to act.

Some forty miles to the north of Manhattan island, the relatively broad Hudson River (sometimes called the North River) dramatically narrowed as it passed through a ten- mile belt of granite mountains, the highest reaching four- teen hundred feet. Rebel leaders had grasped the strategic importance of this region, known as the “Highlands,” almost at once. A first attempt to fortify the passage was made at midpoint through the Highlands, where the river took a sharp zigzag. Located across from a stony promontory called West Point, work began on an island battery soon named Fort Constitution. The war was still in its amateur stage, and months of work came to a halt amidst charges of poor design and construction.

Fresh surveys identified a better spot for a battery to command the river, along with a new idea for blocking the channel—a great chain. The chosen location was three and a half miles north of the village of Peekskill, where the river squeezed between the heights of Anthony’s Nose to the east and Bear Mountain to the west. The plan was to string a heavy iron chain from just upriver of where Popolopen Creek met the Hudson across to the eastern bank.

It required prodigious work of iron manufacture, herculean efforts of transportation, and great physical labor to install the chain (supported by log rafts) on November 1, 1776. The triumph lasted less than a day, as colonial engineers learned just what sixty-five million gallons of water flow per minute could do to their seventeen-hundred-foot-long construction. The Hudson, while called a river, is actually an estuary, subject to the powerful push and pull of tidal pressures that broke the chain not once but twice.

The design clearly needed improvement. A third effort in late March 1777, employing a log boom in front of the chain, proved more successful.

Just as the chain itself was something of a “learn-as-you-go” process, so too was the construction of shore defenses to cover and complement it. A grand battery built north of Popolopen Creek, directly fronting the river, was progressively expanded by protecting ramparts and redoubts until it had become a fully fledged fortress, christened Fort Montgomery to honor Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, killed in the illstarred 1775 invasion of Canada. Then someone noticed that the land on the south side of the creek was actually higher, so that a cannon placed there could command the grand battery.

A second fort was needed on that spot, so construction began in July on Fort Clinton, named after George Clinton, a popular New York politician and militia commander. As built, Fort Clinton consisted of a compact eight-pointed Star Redoubt, guarded by a four-sided West Redoubt. A large, long pond lying less than half a mile to the south considerably limited the avenues of approach for any attacking force. While not enjoying such natural protection, the western side of Fort Montgomery was covered by three four-sided redoubts (South Redoubt, Round Hill Redoubt, and North Redoubt). Connecting ramparts tied these strongpoints together, and a pontoon bridge thrown across Popolopen Creek allowed communications between the two forts. Neither had been finished by October, though Fort Clinton was the more complete of the pair.

Their armament reflected their primary purpose, which was to dominate the river passage. The centerpiece for Fort Montgomery was the hundred-foot-long Grand Battery overlooking the river, containing five thirty-two-pounder cannons. Spread throughout the rest of the fort were one additional thirty-two-pounder, ten twelve-pounders, fourteen six-pounders, and two three-pounders. Inside the Fort Clinton defenses were three eighteen-pounders, one twelve-pounder, thirteen six-pounders, and one four-pounder.

Any British force intending to penetrate the Highlands would first have to deal with the chain barrier and its protecting forts. Now determined to undertake a diversion on behalf of his friend Burgoyne, Sir Henry Clinton decided to seize the forts by what he later termed “a coup-de-main.”

Thanks to a steady flow of intelligence from Hudson Valley Loyalists, supplemented by occasional raids and scouting parties, Sir Henry had a good feel for the lay of the land. With their help, and the rock-solid professionalism of the regulars available to him, Sir Henry intended to simultaneously assault both forts.

Clinton is not noted as a brilliant tactician, but his plans for the coming operation demonstrated more than average shrewdness. Given the immense difficulties involved in moving infantry columns along the rugged Highlands trails, a surprise assault was out of the question. The trick would be to prevent the Americans from reinforcing the threatened points by focusing their attention elsewhere. A crucial additional element in his planning was the mobility of the Royal Navy. Typically, such joint operations suffered from commanders who were at loggerheads with each other. In this case, however, Sir Henry enjoyed the full cooperation of his nautical counterpart, Commodore William Hotham, who took part despite misgivings about committing so many resources for what looked to him at best a temporary advantage.

Clinton had determined that he could spare three thousand men (mostly regulars with some Loyalist regiments) for the operation. As the first wave of approximately eleven hundred soldiers clambered aboard flatboats at Spuyten Duyvil Creek, near Kings Bridge, on the evening of October 2, Clinton had his agents busy spreading the cover story that they were bound for Long Island Sound. The flotilla traveled as far as Tarrytown, where some of the soldiers were landed early in the morning of October 3. Here a column pushing along the river from the garrison he was leaving behind joined them, which successfully created the impression of a foraging raid into lower Westchester County.

In the afternoon of October 5, the leading elements of Clin- ton’s strike force appeared off Verplanck’s Point on the Hudson’s east bank, roughly two miles south of Fort Clinton, site of a well-used crossing known as King’s Ferry. The British troops stormed ashore, scattering a small militia unit guarding the crossing and capturing an outpost holding two guns. Their target now appeared to be Peekskill, a regional American military headquarters and supply base. Sir Henry’s men secured their position throughout the day, but did not venture far inland.

When Sir Henry arrived to survey his east bank foothold, he encountered another of the indomitable couriers dispatched from Burgoyne. Captain Alexander Campbell had departed the northern army’s headquarters on September 28. The message he bore was an amplification of the one sent a week before. Then, Burgoyne had encouraged his friend to mount the diversionary attack; now, he needed to know whether Clinton could reach Albany with provisions. Even more troubling, Burgoyne was seeking instructions: Should he battle his way into Albany, or retreat back into Canada? The note put Clinton in an uncomfortable position and lent an air of greater urgency to the operation that was unfolding.

Early on the morning of October 6, masked by a thick river fog, flatboats began shuttling troops across to the west bank of the Hudson, landing on the north side of another well-known promontory, Stony Point. Now the deceptions were at an end, and the real effort was underway.

The river divided American defenses in the Highlands into two sectors. The eastern portion was under the command of Major General Israel Putnam. A veteran of the French and Indian War whose officers privately called him “Old Put,” he was sixty years old in 1777 and something of a local hero for his actions at Bunker Hill and adventures before the war.

Putnam’s force had been much reduced as he siphoned off troops to the north, to confront Burgoyne’s invasion, and south, to help meet Howe, wherever he was moving (which turned out to be against Washington’s army outside Philadelphia). On October 6, he counted perhaps twelve hundred militiamen and a few Continentals ready for duty. Across the river were the two forts astride the Popolopen, which were the responsibility of American Brigadier General George Clinton who, since July, also carried the title of New York’s governor.

Both officers relied heavily on militia, which posed its own problems. Usually available only on call, and generally for relatively short periods, the citizen-soldiers were not well suited for garrison duty. Faced with the major distraction of the fall harvest, George Clinton tried to meet both his responsibilities by furloughing half of them at a time. This left him with a total garrison for Forts Montgomery and Clinton of between six and seven hundred men (a mix of Continentals and militia), well short of the three thousand considered necessary to secure the posts against attack.

Gathering intelligence is one area in which the Americans did reasonably well. The reinforcements from Britain that Sir Henry Clinton had banked upon to launch his operation had been spotted the moment they arrived. General Putnam promptly notified General George Clinton of the fact. By nature an aggressive and vigorous man, the American Clinton saw at once that the additional British units greatly increased the likelihood of an “Expedition…against the…Posts and Passes in the Highlands.” The governor immediately put the acting commander of the forts (who happened to be his brother) on alert.

The British landing at Tarrytown fooled George Clinton into believing that Westchester County was in the crosshairs, but the potential threat to the forts was enough to get him moving. On the morning of October 5, he left his home in New Windsor, a few miles north of the forts, to travel south by boat. About a mile north of Fort Constitution, he heard the signal guns being fired and saw warning beacons illuminated.

Transferring to the west bank, George Clinton arrived at Fort Montgomery at about 3 P.M., where he immediately took personal charge of the post. Assessing all the information in hand, he decided to send forward an eighty-man detachment that evening to observe the area across from Verplanck’s Point. The forts had as additional support a small flotilla gathered above the chain barrier, consisting of the frigates Congress and General Montgomery, plus two oar-powered galleys and a sloop. The craft were undermanned and undergunned, but they were nonetheless welcome. Watching the scouting party disappear into the gloom, George Clinton could only wait to see what the morning would bring.

Sometime on October 6, likely in the early hours, a courier departed Verplanck’s Point carrying Sir Henry’s reply to Burgoyne. In the circumspect language of an unsecured communication, Clinton reiterated his lack of instructions from General Howe regarding the northern army. Further, wrote Clinton in the third person, “he thinks it impossible General Burgoyne could really suppose Sir Henry Clinton had any idea of penetrating to Albany with [his]…small force.” While it was too early to know if his plan to conquer the Highlands forts would succeed, Sir Henry offered the hope that just making the attempt “may be serviceable to General Burgoyne.” Privately, all that he had learned about the condition of the northern army filled Clinton’s mind “with the most anxious reflections, as I instantly saw all the difficulties and dangers that surrounded him.”

The heavy fog that had spread across the river provided an unanticipated screen for the landing of the British troops near Stony Point, two miles below Fort Clinton. Still, some movement could be discerned through the mist, and the sounds of armed men coming ashore signaled the danger to the American scouts. The party sent a sergeant back to the forts with word that the British were coming.

Several in the party thought they should do something to oppose the landing, but the officer in command maintained that his orders were to report, not fight. As soon as the first British ashore began spreading out to establish a perimeter, the scouts retreated along the arduous trail toward Fort Clinton.

Sir Henry Clinton came ashore with about twenty-one hundred men split into two attack columns. The first, under Lieutenant Colonel Mungo Campbell, consisted of five hundred regulars (from the 52nd and 57th regiments of foot) and four hundred Loyalists. Campbell’s second-in-command was Beverly Robinson, whose local knowledge was essential to Sir Henry’s plan. Major General John Vaughan led the second column, twelve hundred strong, which was almost entirely made up of regulars or German mercenaries, including the 26th and 63rd regiments of foot, a company of the 71st Regiment of Foot, and some dismounted dragoons. Because both columns would be using steep, rocky, narrow trails, they brought no artillery. The entire weight of the assault would be borne by the foot soldiers.

The route Robinson picked led west and then north from the landing over Dunderberg Mountain (also known as Thunder Hill), then to a settlement called Doodletown. Here the trail forked, one branch leading directly to Fort Clinton, the other looping farther west and north to circle Bear Mountain before terminating on the northwest side of Fort Montgomery. For his plan to succeed, Sir Henry counted on both columns attacking at the same time. Although Clinton sent his men forward with complete confidence in their abilities, he was realist enough to station a rear guard to protect their retreat if needed.

The meager fruits of the morning’s reconnaissance did not satisfy the American, George Clinton, who worried that the landing near Stony Point might be another British feint. He sent a thirty-man detachment along the trail to Doodletown to find out. Not taking any chances, George Clinton had already dashed off a note to Israel Putnam asking that reinforcements be sent at once.

For the moment, both American officers seemed to be thinking along the same lines. Even before his messenger departed, Clinton was handed Putnam’s report of the British crossing, warning of a possible attack. Despite this alert, the elderly American officer remained focused on the enemy detachment (four hundred men) Sir Henry Clinton had left at Verplanck’s Point. Some fifty men sent over from Fort Montgomery that very morning to guard the trail over Anthony’s Nose had not returned, even though Putnam had determined that the threat prompting that reinforcement was minimal.

The second scouting party had covered about two miles from Fort Clinton and was approaching Doodletown when the soldiers were ambushed just before 10 A.M. According to a post-action account, “they fell in with a concealed part[y] of the enemy, who ordered them to club their muskets, and surrender themselves prisoners. They made no answer, but fired on the enemy and hastily retreated.” Three Americans were lost in the skirmish.

Besides bringing George Clinton proof of the British intention, the officer in charge had one more disquieting piece of information. He had gotten close enough to see a large column moving off on a trail that led around Bear Mountain. The clear implication was that the enemy planned to attack both forts.

Once again the American Clinton proved a man of action in a crisis. He sent two groups to delay the enemy’s advance. One hundred men (fifty Continentals and fifty militiamen) were hustled off toward Doodletown, while Captains Ephraim Fenno and Thomas Machin marched from Fort Montgomery into the northern hills with 120 men and a brass fieldpiece. Clinton made it a point to let them know that their little gun was expendable. Rather than spend blood to save the piece, they were to spike it and retreat if necessary.

The twelve-mile obstacle course over which the British columns toiled was one to challenge their discipline and endurance. One participant later bragged that the Americans “well might…think it impregnable, for it certainly was to any but British troops.”

The American delaying group sent toward Doodletown made first contact, around 2 P.M. The soldiers had marched about half a mile and found a stone wall that provided a natural defensive strongpoint. Spreading themselves along the barrier, the Americans were soon caught up in what one account termed “a smart engagement” with the British. Sir Henry Clinton “ordered General Vaughan’s corps…to…dislodge the enemy from their advanced station behind a stone breastwork.” Faced with superior numbers and aggressively flanked, the advance party resisted for a short while before retreating toward Fort Clinton.

In the woods north of Fort Montgomery, Captains Fenno and Machin sprang their ambush against the loyal Americans leading Colonel Campbell’s column. The sound of the little gun going into action brought George Clinton out briefly to observe the action. The cannoneers got off some eight or nine shots before they were nearly surrounded by British flanking parties. Machin recalled “a warm musketry fire” that “had some men killed & wounded.”

The group fell back several hundred feet, passing through a second delaying line hurriedly established by George Clinton that included another twelve-pounder from the fort. Again the British used their superior numbers and flanking tactics to force the Americans to spike it and retreat. The gallant Captain Fenno was captured in this phase of the fighting.

In addition to their ramparts and redoubts, both forts were also protected on their land side by abatis (felled timber lashed together and angled, with a sharpened upper end facing the enemy). For the next two hours, the British troops on both fronts gingerly probed these obstructions, examined the rebel defenses, and began to mass their men for the final rush. Faced with a relatively narrow corridor through which to attack Fort Clinton, General Vaughan sent one regiment (the 63rd) on a flanking march around the pond to tackle the West Redoubt. Once through the abatis, those confronting Fort Montgomery faced a charge across open ground.

If these unmistakable signs of a fight unfolding for the forts might have tempted General Putnam to dispatch reinforcements, he was dissuaded by the British flotilla, which pressed up the river into Peekskill Bay. Not long after 2 P.M., Putnam was seen heading toward Verplanck’s Point, further evidence that Sir Henry Clinton’s preliminary diversions had effectively frozen him in place.

It was a little before 5 P.M. when the defenders of Fort Montgomery listened with surprise as British drummers beat the call for a parlay. Guessing what it meant, George Clinton sent one of his subordinates, Lieutenant Colonel William S. Livingston, forward under a flag of truce.

Captain Machin tagged along with Colonel Livingston. As he recalled, the British officer “offered good treatment if the garrison would surrender.” Playing out this grim game of theater, Livingston passed along George Clinton’s willingness to accept a British capitulation, promising to treat them at all times “as prisoners of war.” Clinton guessed it was about ten minutes after the flags had cleared the field that the British began their general attack on Fort Montgomery, which in turn triggered the assault against Fort Clinton.

The main British force attacking Fort Clinton took full advantage of the terrain. According to the American commanding the fort’s artillery, the “enemy in their approach did not march in a regular body—[they came] up in a loose irregular manner until they got to a piece of ground about 30 yards from the fort, and not commanded by the cannon of the fort, where they formed and then assaulted the fort on all sides.”

The British infantry had help from the river, Sir Henry Clinton noted in his report, writing of the naval galleys “with their oars approaching, firing and even striking the fort, the men of war that moment appearing, crowding all sail to support us.” This sparked return fire from the American river batteries, which scored no hits but did add significantly to the cacophony. At Sir Henry’s specific order, the Fort Clinton assault was made with cold steel.

The outnumbered American defenders concentrated their fire on the enemy officers, conspicuously out in front of their men. Major Francis Still, commanding the 63rd Regiment in its advance against the West Redoubt, was killed, as was Sir Henry’s Polish born aide. Clinton himself had a narrow escape when one of the

fort’s cannons loosed grapeshot at him. The regulars quickly penetrated the thinly held ramparts, and then swarmed the main redoubt. The fighting here was desperate as English bayonets overcame clubbed muskets. Only after the Star Redoubt had fallen did the British successfully storm the West Redoubt from the rear.

The troops attacking Fort Montgomery deployed in a five regiment line—the regulars on the flanks, the loyal Americans and German mercenaries sandwiched between. Here, too, the defenders targeted the officers; hardly had the battle lines begun their advance before Colonel Campbell was fatally shot. Almost all of Fort Montgomery’s defenders were clustered in the three redoubts, trusting musketry to cover the frontage between them. American Captain Machin testified that the first British wave got within eighty paces of the walls before it was repulsed, but that the enemy promptly re-formed into a compact column that took advantage of dead spots to burst over the parapet. After that, Machin admitted, “everyone got himself off as well as he could.”

Inside both forts it became pandemonium, some parties of Americans desperately resisting, others fleeing for their lives. Captain Machin, wounded, did manage to make good his escape, as did George Clinton and his older brother James, the latter limping from a bayonet slash on his thigh. Adding to the loss of the forts was the fate of the little fleet posted behind the chain barrier. Caught in the ebb tide and with insufficient wind, the frigate General Montgomery and two row galleys were torched to prevent their capture. The sloop grounded and was taken by the British, while the other defending frigate, Congress, came aground near Fort Constitution, where it too was set ablaze. The American defeat was complete.

Sir Henry Clinton’s operation had opened a passage through the Highlands, but at a cost: forty men killed and a hundred fifty wounded—nearly ten percent of his active force. Reporting the next day to the New York legislature, George Clinton expressed his “regret [at] the loss of those posts; but I am consoled with the full persuasion that they have bought them dear.” In his memoirs, the British commander expressed much pride in his men for so successfully capturing fortifications “as strong as art and nature and the most difficult approaches could make them.” American losses were steep: seventy dead, forty wounded, 240 captured. (By comparison, the American casualties at Freeman’s Farm totaled 130.)

There was an American post-mortem on events sometime around midnight, when George Clinton caught up with Israel Putnam and his officers in Continental Village, a small military settlement just outside Peekskill. Given all that had happened this eventful day, the decision was made to pull back northward to protect the pass to Fishkill. Clinton himself intended to go to Kingston, halfway upriver to Albany, where he would rally the militia to oppose any further British advances up the Hudson.

Back at the captured forts, Sir Henry Clinton directed mop-up operations and pondered his options. The only other American river battery in the Highlands, Fort Constitution, fell on October 7 with hardly a shot being fired (when nervous Americans reacted to a British boat seeking to parlay). British engineers broke the great chain at 11 A.M., October 8, allowing a small detachment to occupy Fort Constitution.

Sir Henry felt the need to reach out again to Burgoyne, which he did from captured Fort Montgomery on October 8. There is “nothing between us but [American Major General Horatio] Gates,” he announced triumphantly. “I sincerely hope this little success of ours may facilitate your operation….I heartily wish you success.”

The man carrying this note, Lieutenant Daniel Taylor of the 9th Regiment of Foot, fell in with an American patrol and was captured a short distance north of the Highlands. Found guilty of being a spy, Taylor was executed by hanging on October 18. Two other couriers employed at this time by Sir Henry (one being Captain Campbell) could not penetrate the American security screen and turned back.

On October 9, Sir Henry sent a dispatch to Sir William Howe. After complaining about being out of touch for so long, he admitted he was “at a loss to determine what to do.” Reporting his success in the Highlands, Clinton observed that the “communication is clear to Albany, but with the small force I have I dare not look toward it.” Thanks to the woeful inefficiency of the courier system, he also did not know whether Burgoyne was marching into Albany (in which case assistance from the south was imperative) or retreating into Canada (in which case any further advance from the south would be meaningless).

Returning to New York, Clinton decided that a further effort to make contact with Burgoyne was justified. Before returning to the Highlands on October 13, he ordered that six months’ provisions for five thousand men be loaded into boats to be ready if he joined up with Burgoyne.

Now Sir Henry Clinton made one of those decisions that seemed to embrace both risk-taking and caution. He put an expeditionary force of two thousand soldiers under General Vaughan on boats and sent them up the Hudson. However, the craft used for the operation drew so much water that they would not have been able to get closer than forty-five miles south of Albany. Still, against sporadic but ineffective opposition, Vaughan proceeded north. His command captured and burned Kingston before reaching Livingston’s Manor, which, his river pilots informed him, was as far as they could go.

Enough armed rebels had shown themselves along the river as Vaughan had advanced to dissuade him from considering an overland march to Albany. Vaughan halted at Livingston’s Manor on October 17. Seventy miles to the north, Burgoyne’s army, or what was left of it, marched out of its entrenched camp to the site chosen for the surrender, where the men grounded their arms.

That same fateful day, October 17, Sir Henry Clinton at last heard from Howe. The message was brief and, from Clinton’s point of view, calamitous. He was to cease his operations in the Highlands, pull back to New York, and send four thousand men to Sir William for the Philadelphia campaign as soon as possible. With no option but to comply, Clinton ordered the Highlands forts destroyed and recalled General Vaughan’s expedition.

When Vaughan reached Clinton, he passed along the rumors he had heard of Burgoyne’s surrender. At first Sir Henry steadfastly refused to believe the stories, but they were soon confirmed. “The campaign on the side of New York being thus, after so promising an opening,” he later wrote, “[was in this] manner fruitlessly closed.”

Sir Henry’s mental flip-flops regarding Burgoyne and the northern army led more than one writer to assume that he was on a rescue mission pure and simple. However, the thread that binds together all his actions is that of mounting a diversion and nothing more. Bound to limit himself by his obligations to defend the critical British post of New York, lacking any clear directive from his immediate superior, and cautious by nature, Clinton carried out his Highlands operation on a long but firm tether, continually glancing over his shoulder.

If Washington’s main army had suddenly appeared in northern New Jersey, if a victorious Gates had swept down the Hudson with his army, it was Clinton’s primary task to hold New York. So no matter how glittering or urgent the prospects appeared, he could never operate so far up the river as to be unable to return his troops to New York City’s defense on short notice. As Sir Henry later phrased it, “all I could offer…General Burgoyne…was barely a menace of the [Highlands] forts as soon as the situation of the enemy and my own strength, permitted me to risk a move to any distance from Kings Bridge.”

Still, the impact of Sir Henry Clinton’s diversion was not inconsequential. Word of Vaughan’s approach to Kingston worried the victorious American General Gates, so that he sought to accelerate the capitulation negotiations by offering quite generous terms. His suspicions aroused, Burgoyne then stalled the proceedings, hoping for news of Sir Henry’s arrival at Albany. Gates allowed additional modifications favoring the British, and an agreement in principal was reached.

Then Burgoyne learned that Clinton’s men had reached Kingston, raising the hope that they would soon harry Gates’ rear. However, Burgoyne had accepted all the terms, and a majority of his officers held that it would be dishonorable to back out of the accord. Still grasping at any hope, Burgoyne resorted to lying, angering Gates, who peremptorily informed the British that they had one hour to accept the conditions, or renew hostilities. At that point, Burgoyne bowed to the inevitable.

The defense of the Highlands was emblematic of American fortunes in the war. Convinced he was both outclassed and outmaneuvered by the British, General Israel Putnam dared not risk committing his militiamen to battle and so could only react to the diversionary moves. The amateur element in the American military was never more evident. Across the river, George Clinton’s decision to stand fast speaks to the stubborn determination of the American citizen-soldier on his own ground.

Preserving his force for some future opportunity was clearly not in George Clinton’s plans on October 6, 1777, but it was never his intention to mount a suicidal last stand. Had his militia complement not been so diminished by home harvest concerns, and had Putnam seen through the ruse in time to send significant reinforcements across the Hudson, the bold British operation to break through the Highlands might well have shattered against the walls of Forts Clinton and Montgomery.

George Clinton went on to a distinguished career in national politics, twice being elected U.S. vice president (once under Thomas Jefferson, a second time under James Madison). He died in 1812.

Sir Henry Clinton replaced Sir William Howe as commander in chief for North America not long after the Highlands operation. Howe resigned and returned to England upon Burgoyne’s surrender. Under Sir Henry’s leadership, British forces abandoned Philadelphia and gained much by capturing Charleston, South Carolina, in the spring of 1780, but then lost a great deal more when Lieutenant General Charles, Lord Cornwallis, surrendered his southern army at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781. About a decade before his death in 1795, Clinton completed a lengthy memoir of the American rebellion that remained unpublished until 1954.

The breathtaking possibility of what he might have accomplished in the Highlands in 1777 haunted Clinton until the end. Summing up what he had achieved there despite Howe’s lack of support (and with a healthy dollop of hindsight), Sir Henry wrote: “I must confess, indeed, that I was not a little hurt and disappointed when I found my move up the North River so contrary to the Commander in Chief’s views…because I had, on the contrary, flattered myself with the hopes that, as soon as he found I had opened the important door of the Hudson, he would have strained every nerve to keep it so and prevent the rebels from ever shutting it again—even though he had been obliged to place the back of his whole army against it. And I hope I shall be pardoned if I presume to suggest that, had this been done, it would have more probably finished the war.”

 

Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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