|This Week in History
Victory at Stony Point Forces a Change in British Plans
July 12 - 18, 1779
The Battle of Stony Point, the last major battle of the Revolutionary War fought in the Northern states, was not only a military victory, but a moral one. It was planned and executed in response to a vicious policy by the British Crown which consciously targetted American civilians in order to terrorize them into submission. The American response was purely military, but its sheer audacity and brilliance of execution forced General Sir Henry Clinton to reevaluate his strategy.
This battle's story begins in 1778, when the signing of America's treaty of alliance with France caused Britain to shift the theater of the Revolutionary War to the Southern states. The move was made in order to facilitate a rapid deployment of troops to and from the British islands in the Caribbean, where the French fleet also had bases.
Sir Henry Clinton, commanding the British forces in New York City, was ordered to send 5,000 of his troops to the British island of St. Lucia, and to dispatch another mixed force of British, Hessian, and Tory soldiers to capture Savannah, Ga. Taking stock of what he had left, Clinton matured his plans. The ill-fated British attempt to split the colonies in two had been defeated at Saratoga, but Clinton still dreamed of capturing West Point, which George Washington regarded as the key to the continent.
If Clinton could capture and hold West Point, a projected chain of British posts from there southward to New York City could effectively check the flow of men and supplies from New England to the Continental Army. New England was responsible for providing the core of the American army, as well as important food and materiel for the troops. At this point, an order arrived from King George III and his Minister, Lord George Germain, which ordered the British Army to plunder, burn buildings, and ill-treat civilians in order to awe them into submission.
Clinton saw in this order a way to lure George Washington out of the mountain fastnesses of the Hudson Highlands and engage the Continental Army in a head-on battle. First, he would put the British Army in a position to attack West Point. On May 30, 1779, Clinton personally led an expedition up the Hudson, capturing the two small American posts at Stony Point and Verplanck's Point, only a few miles below the entrance to the Hudson Highlands. Then, he set his men to work building heavy batteries to control both the river and the surrounding land. The British posts were backed up by ships of the British Navy which had sailed up the Hudson.
Now it was time for the second phase of Clinton's plan. Under his command was William Tryon, an experienced army officer who, when he had served as Royal Governor of North Carolina, had been dubbed "The Wolf" by his suffering subjects. Subsequently, Tryon had been appointed Royal Governor of New York, but he had sought safety on a British ship in New York Harbor when the Revolution began. Now he was itching for revenge, and had already vented his spleen against Greenwich, Conn. by leading a force of 1,500 British and Hessian soldiers which plundered the inhabitants of everything valuable.
Leading another such expedition out of New York on July 3, Tryon in the course of just over one week devastated the Connecticut coast. His attack force plundered New Haven on the 5th, burned East Haven on the 6th, destroyed Fairfield on the 8th, and plundered and burned Norwalk on the 12th. While Norwalk was in flames, Tryon consciously imitated the Roman Emperor Nero by sitting on a nearby hill in a rocking chair, rejoicing over the scene of devastation. He later boasted about his gracious clemency in allowing a few houses on the Connecticut coast to remain standing.
The Americans felt bound to answer such lawless behavior by the British Army, but General Washington did not react the way Clinton had hoped. Washington concentrated his forces at strategic positions in the Hudson Valley in case Clinton should try a direct attack on West Point, and moved his headquarters upriver to New Windsor. Then, he began to plan the recapture of Stony Point.
Reconnaissance missions were sent out to assess the strength of the fortifications the British were building, and Washington himself studied them with his spy glass from the nearby hills. He decided that this attack required the special talents of Anthony Wayne. Wayne was known for his audacity and bravery, and had just been named to the command of four regiments of light infantry. Before the Revolution, Wayne was well-read in military history, had worked as a surveyor in his native Pennsylvania, and had served in the legislature as well as on the state's Committee of Safety.
On July 6, while Tryon was burning East Haven, Washington took Wayne with him to the top of Buckberg Mountain, a mile northwest of Stony Point. He told Wayne that he wanted a surprise night attack on Stony Point. The attackers were not to give away their numbers or their positions by firing their gunsthey were to rely on bayonets. "Can you do it?," Washington asked Wayne. "General, I'll storm Hell, if you'll only plan it," Wayne answered. "Perhaps you had better try Stony Point first," suggested Washington.
The position which Wayne was to attack and capture was a daunting one. Stony Point was and is a steep, rugged promontory which rises 150 feet above the water and juts out half a mile into the Hudson River. A marsh, which went under water at high tide, protected the promontory from any advance from the shore, and the British had felled all the trees in the area to protect against a surprise attack.
Clinton had pushed a semi-enclosed fort to completion; its gun batteries were guarded by rows of abatissharpened tree trunks which would impede any invading force. Seven hundred men under Lt. Colonel Henry Johnson manned the works, while Navy ships guarded any approach from the river. The British soldiers dubbed the promontory "Little Gibraltar."
Wayne drilled his men for the attack, but only a few officers knew their destination. In the hours immediately preceding the attack on the night of July 15, Wayne used elaborate security precautions in order that no word of his plans could reach the British. All civilians who happened to be abroad that night were escorted home, and an unseen screen of pickets surrounded the approaches to Stony Point itself.
The American forces were divided into three columns; the ones attacking from the north and south along the shore were armed only with unloaded muskets which carried bayonets. A third column approached over the marshy causeway and purposely opened fire with their loaded muskets to cause a diversion. Each man had a white piece of paper in his hat to distinguish himself from the British.
Each of the flanking columns was preceded by an officer and 20 men who were to take care of the sentinels and cut through the abatis. Second came 150 men who were to dash for the top, loudly yelling, "The fort's our own." The rest of the troops in the two flanking columns were to climb the sides of the promontory and deliver the final blow.
As the American column came across the causeway firing their weapons, the British reacted just as Wayne thought they would. Colonel Johnson came charging down the hill with six companies of troops, convinced that he was facing the main attack. As the southern column reached the slopes behind him, he realized his mistake and tried to regain the central redoubt, but his forces were cut off. The British were split into small pockets of resistance, and all were forced to surrender. Meanwhile, General Wayne had fallen with a head wound. Thinking he was dying, he asked his men to carry him to the top so he could see the American victory. Fortunately, he survived to drive the British from America's Northwest Territory in 1794-96.
The British soldiers now called for quarter, but under the rules of warfare at the time, night attackers were not required to grant their enemies mercy. There had been several infamous British massacres of Americans by that time in the war: Wayne's troops at Paoli, Baylor's Massacre, the Hancock Massacre, and six other incidents. But the Continentals did not avenge themselves; they called on the Redcoats to throw down their arms, and took them prisoner. The British vessels in the river, which included the soon-to-be-infamous "Vulture," slipped their cables and headed south toward New York.
At 2:00 a.m., on July 16, Wayne sent the following message to General Washington: "The fort and garrison with Colonel Johnson are ours. Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free." The victory at Stony Point greatly moralized the American forces in all theaters of battle, but Washington wisely determined that his relatively smaller force could not hold the captured post without taking away troops needed at West Point. The Americans destroyed the fortifications and moved out the armaments.
General Clinton briefly reoccupied Stony Point, but when winter came he abandoned it. He also called a halt to British operations in Connecticut, and concentrated most of his manpower along the lower Hudson Valley to keep a close eye on the unpredictable George Washington. Only once again would he dream of capturing West Point, and this time it was by treason. But that, too, failed, and the HMS Vulture again slipped her cables and sailed down the Hudson, carrying the fleeing traitor Benedict Arnold to a meeting with a very disappointed Henry Clinton.