Stony Point, New York
Stony Point, New York
STONY POINT, NEW YORK. 16 July 1779. Anthony Wayne's coup de main. After a quiet winter and spring, on 28 May 1779 a large British expedition started north from Kings Bridge in four columns supported by vessels in the Hudson River. General Clinton's objective was to cut the primary route used by the Americans to move provisions from New England to West Point and its supporting forts, forcing the supplies to take a lengthy detour. The lines of communications crossed the Hudson River at Kings Ferry, the southern entrance to the Hudson Highlands, about fifteen miles below West Point. Easily defended hills anchored both ends of the ferry: Stony Point on the west and Verplanck's Point on the east. The former was lightly held, but Fort Lafayette stood on Verplanck's. The next day an expedition returning from a raid on Virginia sailed up the river to cooperate. Some of the British landed on 30 May and started working overland; the rest stayed on the transports and landed farther north the next day. Stony Point was taken without a shot on the afternoon of 31 May when its forty-man garrison withdrew to avoid being cut off. The British immediately landed some heavy artillery, including a ten-inch mortar and an eight-inch howitzer, and moved the pieces to the top from which they opened fire on Verplanck's. The seventy-five North Carolina troops holding Fort Lafayette were trapped; surrender was their only option.
Since 1778 Washington had considered the West Point complex to be the "key to the Continent" and maneuvered his field forces both to support the garrison there and to use the Highlands complex as a strategic pivot. When Clinton set out, most of Washington's brigades shifted north. The primary road from New Jersey to West Point ran through a valley known as Smith's Clove; Washington initially put his headquarters at the southern end by Smith's Tavern, although he later shifted to a safer position at New Windsor. Within a few days the Americans could see that Clinton did not intend to advance up the Hudson but only to build more formidable defenses to hold the ferry.
During June the Americans kept a close watch on the British progress. On 15 June Washington told Major Henry Lee to gather information about the Stony Point position and on 2 July Lee sent Captain Allen McLane into the works disguised as a local farmer. On 28 June Washington directed Brigadier General Anthony Wayne to study the possibilities of retaking Kings Ferry with his newly assembled light infantry corps. Washington personally reconnoitered Stony Point with Wayne on 6 July, covered by Lee's light dragoons and McLane's attached infantry company, and Wayne briefed him on a plan for a surprise night attack. Based largely on McLane's information that the works were incomplete, Washington approved. To keep the plan simple the Americans would not make a simultaneous attack on Verplanck's Point but instead would move troops into a position to do so if the more dominant Stony Point fell.
The Hudson at the ferry is only a half-mile wide and is actually an estuary subject to the tides. Just south of the ferry landing, a sharp hill rose 150 feet above the water. Marshes surrounded the north, west, and south sides of the hill, and the river covered the east. Two separate lines of abatis further obstructed the slopes, the first at the base of the hill, the second about 200 yards away protecting the crest. A semi-enclosed fort at the crest contained the bulk of the garrison, with three nearby batteries dominating the river. Trees had been cleared in front of the forward abatis, and some outworks covered the most likely avenue of approach where the ferry road crossed a causeway. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Johnson held the position with the battalion companies of his Seventeenth Foot, the two grenadier companies of the Seventy-first Foot (Highlanders), a 60-man detachment of the Loyal Americans, a composite 51-man detachment of the Royal Artillery, and 15 guns; total strength was about 625.
Wayne's recently assembled light infantry corps consisted of the light companies detached from their parent regiments and now formed a large 1,200-man brigade. Colonel Christian Febiger (a Dane) commanded the First Regiment drawn from Virginia and Pennsylvania units, assisted by Lieutenant Colonel François Louis de Fleury and Major Thomas Posey. Colonel Richard Butler's Second Regiment with companies from Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania had Lieutenantenant Colonel Samuel Hay and Major John Stewart as battalion commanders. The Third Regiment, all Connecticut men, was commanded by Colonel Return Meigs, Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Sherman and Captain Henry Champion. The Fourth Regiment had not completely formed yet but contained Massachusetts troops under Major William Hull and North Carolinians under Major Hardy Murfree. Captains James Pendleton and Thomas Barr accompanied the expedition with twenty-four gunners and two small pieces, but did not take part in the attack. Supporting troops in reserve included Lee's contingent and three hundred infantry under Brigadier General John Peter Muhlenberg.
About noon on 15 July the American light infantry and the two guns started a fifteen-mile approach march from their camp near Fort Montgomery. They swung inland to avoid detection, at one point taking a trail so primitive the men had to move single file. Around 8 p.m. they reached the final assembly area a mile and a half west of Stony Point at a place called Springsteel's and ate dinner. Because surprise was essential, Wayne prescribed strict security measures: Lee cleared civilians and dogs from the line of march and kept Johnson's positions under observation; only a few officers knew the objective; and guards surrounded the final assembly area to prevent a last-minute deserter from alerting the British. Wayne also issued orders forbidding the men (except a designated covering force under Murfree) from loading their muskets; attacking with just fixed bayonets would ensure that an accidental discharge could not give warning.
A dark night and high tide favored the attackers as they started forward about 11:30 p.m. Wayne planned to penetrate the enemy's defenses at two points, one column hitting on the north, near the ferry landing, and the other to the south, where the defenses were closest to the main enemy works. Each of the two assault columns had the same arrangement. In the lead came a 20-man "forlorn hope" to hack through the abatis; then an advance party of 150 men under selected officers followed to immediately exploit the breakthrough; and finally the third element was the main body to keep up the momentum of the attack and push on to the objective. The third force in Wayne's plan was Major Murfree's covering party, who would open fire on the British center by the causeway at the start of the attack as a diversion with Lee in support; his men were the only ones authorized to fire during the operation.
Wayne personally led the larger south column since it would make the main effort. It waded through marsh and along the bank of the river on the downstream side and turned ashore after passing the first line of abatis. Fleury's advance party estimated that they waded through water four feet deep, while Meigs led the main body. Butler's left column used a similar technique but entered the water well north of the causeway and also bypassed the first line of defense.
Schematically, the attack formation was as follows in table 1.
Shortly after midnight the two attack columns made contact, almost simultaneously, and the British sentries opened fire. The light infantry pressed forward without shooting back. The forlorn hopes chopped and clawed through a few minor obstacles and rushed for the second abatis with the advance parties on their heels. Murfree started his demonstration in the center and immediately succeeded in achieving his mission. Johnson charged down the hill with half his garrison—six companies of the Seventeenth—to repel the attack he thought was coming over the causeway.
Although most of the British firing was directed at shadows, the musketry began to take a toll of those at the front. Wayne went down briefly when a ball grazed his head but revived and maintained command. Four other officers from Meigs's regiment of the main column were hit. Fleury caught up with Lieutenant George Knox's forlorn hope and became the first man to enter the works, with Knox a close second and three sergeants following in order: Baker and Spencer from Virginia and Donlop from Pennsylvania. This sequence is a matter of exact record because cash prizes of $500 to $100 had been announced for the first five to enter the works. Fleury personally pulled down the British flag.
The left column had farther to go, and also took casualties on the final approach, including wounds to Febiger and Hay. Lieutenant James Gibbons spearheaded their attack and took seventeen casualties out of his twenty men, but Major Stewart was right behind him with the advance party. In company with Colonel Butler the left column reached the fort only a few minutes after the right.
When Johnson heard the sounds of the battle he tried to move back up to the fort but was cut off and captured by Febiger's regiment. Posey's battalion overwhelmed the other two companies of the Seventeenth Foot in the fort, and Meigs's regiment captured the Loyalist detachment on the east side of the hill. Thirty minutes after the columns crossed the beach, the fight was over, and without any of the British being killed while attempting to surrender. A British officer, Commodore George Collier, entered this comment in his journal:
The rebels had made the attack with a bravery they never before exhibited, and they showed at this moment a generosity and clemency which during the course of the rebellion had no parallel. There was light sufficient after getting up the heights to show them many of the British troops with arms in their hands; instead of putting them to death, they called to them 'to throw their arms down if they expected any quarter. (Quoted in Johnston, The Storming of Stony Point, p. 135.)
NUMBERS AND LOSSES
Wayne lost 15 killed and 84 wounded out of a total force engaged that probably amounted to 1,350. Johnson's official after-action report listed 22 killed, 74 wounded, and 472 captured; he also reported 58 missing, and only one of them is known to have actually escaped to safety. So an accurate estimate of total British casualties would be 626.
The Americans also captured a significant amount of equipment, stores and ammunition, and the fifteen guns the British had emplaced. Washington sent vessels down from West Point to take the items away, but British warships damaged the galley Lady Washington, which had the brass artillery on board. Her crew ran the vessel ashore and burned her.
The attack on Stony Point alerted Verplanck's Point, and Clinton reacted swiftly to reinforce Fort Lafayette. Guns on Stony Point were at least 1,500 yards from the east bank, too far for bombardment to have any effect. British warships prevented any kind of attack from the river and made it impossible for troops to cross from the west bank without going far upriver first. And the terrain at Verplanck's worked in Clinton's favor.
Washington wisely decided the defense of Stony Point would require more men than it was worth, so he ordered the works destroyed, and on 18 July Wayne's troops were withdrawn. Clinton reoccupied the place the next day; he then established a stronger garrison and rebuilt the defenses—only to abandon Kings Ferry altogether in the fall. He realized that if the river froze it would prevent supply or reinforcement.
For this brilliant exploit Congress voted its thanks to Wayne and a gold medal. Fleury and Stewart were voted silver medals; Lieutenants Gibbons and Knox got brevet promotions.
The operation had little strategic value, but it was a morale builder for the American army and people; it had the opposite effect on the British, but to a lesser degree. For Clinton the attack's immediate impact stemmed from the loss of the Seventeenth Foot and the grenadier companies of the Seventy-First as combat elements for the rest of the war. Stony Point's greatest impact came in its validation of the level of tactical training instituted by Washington and "Baron" Friedrich Steuben's "Blue Book." The first copies of the manual reached the Highlands in time for the light infantry to use them in their final preparations.
Johnston, Henry P. The Storming of Stony Point on the Hudson, Midnight, July 15, 1779: Its Importance in the Light of Unpublished Documents. New York: James T. White, 1900.
Palmer, Dave Richard. The River and the Rock: The History of Fortress West Point, 1775–1783. New York: Greenwood, 1969.
Sklarsky, I. W. The Revolution's Boldest Venture: The Story of "Mad Anthony" Wayne's Assault on Stony Point. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1965.
Stillé, Charles J. Major-General Anthony Wayne and the Pennsylvania Line in the Continental Army. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1893.
revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.