Clinton's Expedition

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Clinton's Expedition

CLINTON'S EXPEDITION. Clinton's expedition to the Highlands during 3-22 October 1777 (in support of Burgoyne's offensive). Sir Henry Clinton was left to defend the New York City area with about four thousand regulars and three thousand Loyalists when Howe sailed south on 23 July 1777. Clinton objected strongly to Howe's strategy, arguing that he was leaving all strategic decisions in George Washington's hands. Howe did not specifically direct that Clinton do anything to assist Burgoyne, and his letter of 17 July to Burgoyne said merely that Clinton was in command around New York City and should "act as occurrences direct." Howe's letters to Clinton spoke vaguely about his "acting offensively," and on 30 July he wrote Clinton, "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."

During August, with Clinton convinced that Washington would attack New York City and Burgoyne confident of his own self-sufficiency, there was no question of military cooperation between them. In September, however, Burgoyne began calling on Clinton for help. By this time Clinton felt capable of giving some assistance as he expected sizable reinforcements from England and Washington appeared intent on battling Howe in Pennsylvania. On 12 September, Clinton proposed attacking Fort Montgomery on the Hudson just north of Peekskill in hopes of drawing U.S. troops away from Burgoyne's army. Burgoyne got this letter on 21 September, two days after the First Battle of Saratoga, causing him to delay an attack that might well have succeeded in opening the road to Albany. Burgoyne wrote Clinton that "an attack or even the menace of an attack upon Fort Montgomery must be of great use, as it will draw away great part of their force…. Do it, my dear friend, directly." On 28 September, Burgoyne asked Clinton to instruct him whether to attack or retreat and said he would not have given up his line of communications to the lakes had he not been counting on finding British forces in Albany. Clinton responded in the third person that "Sir H. Clinton cannot presume to give any orders to General Burgoyne," thus further confounding the nearly paralyzed Burgoyne.


Major General Israel Putnam commanded the strategic region known as the Highlands of the Hudson River starting in May 1777. His strength had been reduced by the detachment of troops to other fronts, and at the time of Clinton's offensive he had only twelve hundred Continentals, most of whom were at Fort Independence, and four hundred militia around Peekskill; one hundred of the latter were unarmed and, "what is worse," wrote Putnam on 16 September, "it would be damned unsafe to trust them." On the west shore of the Hudson, four miles northwest of Fort Independence as the crow flies, about six hundred poorly equipped militia and a few Continentals held the two forts that were Clinton's objective.

Fort Montgomery, under the command of Colonel John Lamb, was well situated but uncompleted. Fort Clinton, named for New York's governor, George Clinton, was commanded by his brother, Brigadier General James Clinton. The mouth of Popolopen Creek was about 120 feet below Clinton and the two forts were separated by its deep gorge.

Clinton was the stronger fort, although smaller, and had to be taken if the British wished to hold Fort Montgomery. Approaches to the forts from the land side were through rugged defiles that could be easily defended. A system of obstructions, including so-called chevaux de frise, were strengthened by a log boom and a great iron chain that blocked the river below Fort Montgomery. Upstream from the boom was a flotilla comprising the frigates Congress and Montgomery, a sloop, and two galleys. West Point, about five miles north, was not fortified at this time, and the unfinished Fort Constitution, opposite West Point, did not figure significantly in this operation.


About 24 September, Clinton received reinforcements from England that brought his strength in regulars to 2,700 British and 4,200 Germans. On 3 October he moved north with 3,000 troops organized into three divisions. The evening of the 5th he landed troops at Verplanck's Point, on the east shore across the Hudson from Stony Point, and routed a small rebel outpost. Putnam hastily withdrew four miles from Peekskill into the hills and ordered reinforcements from Forts Montgomery and Clinton to join him, which was precisely what Sir Henry had intended to achieve by this initial diversion. Leaving 1,000 troops at Verplanck's to deceive Putnam further, the British commander landed near Stony Point the next morning under cover of a thick fog. Despite cumbersome uniforms and equipment that weighed 60 pounds and more, the troops followed their Loyalist guide, Brom Springster, quickly up a steep trail, through an 850-foot-high pass called The Timp, and down to a trail junction at Doodletown, within two and a half miles of Fort Clinton. Here, at about 10 a.m., they made contact with an American patrol and drove it back. Henry Clinton then sent 900 men around Bear Mountain to cross the creek and attack Fort Montgomery from the rear (west); the rest waited to give the encircling column time to make its difficult seven-mile circuit before attacking Fort Clinton from the south.

The forts were now commanded by Governor George Clinton, who hurried south from a meeting of the New York legislature at Esopus (later Kingston). He established his headquarters in Fort Montgomery. Washington had recommended outposting The Timp, but others—including Greene and Knox—argued that rough terrain ruled out the possibility of an enemy's using this route; the strategic point was therefore undefended. Scouts posted south of the Dunderberg informed Governor Clinton of the British landing at Stony Point, and he dispatched the thirty-man patrol that the enemy met at Doodletown. A second delaying force was driven back from the same area, although the fifty Continentals under Lieutenant Colonel Jacobus Bruyn and fifty militia under Lieutenant Colonel James McLarey conducted themselves creditably. Captain John Fenno left Fort Montgomery with sixty men to meet the column coming around Bear Mountain. Reinforced with a gun and forty more men, he took up a strong delaying position along the rugged side of the creek, about a mile from the fort, and forced the enemy to deploy. When threatened with being outflanked, the Americans spiked their gun and dropped back to another gun that Captain Lamb had run forward. Fenno was captured. When the second delaying position was threatened with envelopment, the defenders spiked the second gun and retreated to the fort.


After landing early and moving rapidly across difficult terrain, the British were not ready for a simultaneous attack by both columns until 4:30 p.m. After the customary summons to surrender and the heroic refusal, the action started. Opposite Fort Montgomery was the advance guard of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell that had led the advance from Stony Point and had then made a difficult seven-mile march to get into position. From left (north) to right were the Fifty-second Regiment, a group of New York Volunteers, Colonel Beverley Robinson's Loyal Americans (four hundred strong), Emmerich's Hessian jägers, and the Fifty-seventh Regiment. Campbell was killed in the attack, and his men, enraged by his death, the rigors of their march, and the intense heat of the day, at first refused to give quarter. Some of the defenders were, however, spared, and others escaped north or east across the river. Governor Clinton was among the latter.

Fort Clinton's main defenses were oriented southward to cover a 400-yard-wide strip of relatively flat ground between what is now called Hessian Lake and the drop-off to the river. An abatis and 10 cannon covered this approach. Since there was little opportunity to maneuver and no artillery support, the British commander committed the bulk of his forces to a frontal attack from the south. In the first wave were the 7th and 26th Regiments and a company of Anspach grenadiers. They were followed by the battalion companies of the 26th, a dismounted troop of the 17th Light Dragoons, and some Hessian chasseurs. The battalion companies of the 7th and a German battalion followed in support. The 63rd Regiment circled west of Hessian Lake to attack from the northwest. In the best tradition of European regulars, Clinton's troops pushed forward through the abatis and the enemy's fire to claw their way into Fort Clinton. The British and Germans lost some 40 killed with 150 wounded, while American casualties numbered near 300, with 260 taken prisoner. The Americans also lost 67 guns and a significant quantity of stores and had to burn their flotilla when it could not escape north against the wind.

On 7 October the British broke through the boom and routed the small garrison at Fort Constitution. Putnam then abandoned his position at Fort Independence. The royal governor of New York, William Tryon, wanted to move on to Albany, but Clinton felt he would be walking into a trap. On 8 October, Clinton wrote Burgoyne, "I sincerely hope this little success of ours may facilitate your operations."

In fact, however, these little victories made no difference to Burgoyne, who lost the Second Battle of Saratoga on 7 October. In response to repeated appeals from Burgoyne, Clinton sent General Sir John Vaughan with seventeen hundred men, supported by a flotilla under Sir James Wallace, with orders to render what assistance he could. Vaughan and Wallace picked their way through the chevaux de frise on 15 October and anchored that night near Esopus. The next day they burned the town and moved upstream to Livingston's Manor, about forty-five miles from Albany. Putnam now commanded some sixty-five hundred men blocking Vaughan's progress, and the latter's pilots refused to take his forces further upriver between the guns the Americans had placed on either side of the Hudson. Clinton received orders from Howe to abandon his gains in the Highlands and send reinforcements to Pennsylvania. On 22 October, Clinton wrote Vaughan to withdraw and the British returned to New York City.

This operation of Clinton's, although skillfully conducted, was no direct threat to the Americans around Saratoga. Nonetheless, it caused Gates considerable anxiety and raised Burgoyne's hopes, the former helping to explain the American generosity regarding the terms of the Saratoga Convention. Although exonerated at a court-martial for his conduct, Putnam never again received a field command. After Clinton's withdrawal, the Americans began construction of Fortress West Point to defend the Hudson River.

SEE ALSO Burgoyne, John; Burgoyne's Offensive; Cheval de Frise; Clinton, George; Clinton, James; Hudson River and the Highlands; Kingston, New York; Lamb, John; Philadelphia Campaign; Putnam, Israel; Saratoga Surrender; Saratoga, First Battle of; Saratoga, Second Battle of.


Diamant, Lincoln. Chaining the Hudson: The Fight for the River in the American Revolution. New York: Carol Publishing, 1989.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington. 7 vols. New York: Scribner, 1948–1957.

Palmer, Dave R. The River and the Rock: The History of Fortress West Point. New York: Greenwood, 1969.

Willcox, William B., ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954.

                        revised by Michael Bellesiles