|Brigadier General "Mad" Anthony Wayne.|
As Revolutionary War battles go it was neither large nor in the long-run that significant. But in a surprise attack at midnight on July 16, 1779 elite light infantry of the Continental Line stormed Stony Point, a British strong point on the Hudson River and swept aside a garrison of more than 600 seasoned troops with formidable artillery in a bayonet charge. The garrison and its commander were vanquished and captured in less than an hour with a loss of 20-50 men dead, while the attacking Americans lost only 15 men killed and 85 wounded.
The attack had been personally planned in detail by Commanding General George Washington based on his personal reconnaissance and the carefully constructed intelligence operation which he ran as his own spy master. In field command was Washington’s best infantry commander, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne of the Pennsylvania Line. For his daring-do at Stony Point and other actions Wayne earned the nick name Mad Anthony from his troops.
The troops under Wayne’s command were assembled in a special unit, the Corps of Light Infantry on June 12, 1779, expressly for the attack on Stony Point and other British outposts on the Hudson. The men were hand-picked veterans from the best infantry regiments of the line organized into a brigade of four 300-340 man regiments. They were the cream of the Continental Army and they knew it.
Together they executed as near perfect an operation as was ever conducted by the American military.
By 1779 the Wiley Washington had largely checkmated a much larger and better equipped British Army in based in New York. The defeat of General John “Gentleman” Burgoyne at Saratoga two years earlier had smashed British North American Commander in Chief, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton’s hopes for severing the Colonies in two along the Hudson River, then turning on Washington’s army and decisively defeating it in the field.
But Washington somehow managed to keep his sometimes starving army in the field, holding them in a ring of strong points in a wide arc around New York with the bulk of the fore in Hudson Highlands north of the city. Despite Clinton’s repeated attempts to force Washington to come out and engage in a battle of main forces, the American commander refused to take any bait offered. The war bogged down to raids, diversions, and small scale actions while the frustrated Clinton begged for ever more troops and materiel from home.
Clinton’s main plan for the 1779 campaign season was a series of strong raids along the Connecticut shore which he hoped would force the Continental garrison at Middlebrook to come out and fight. With that portion of the army dealt with Clinton then hoped to turn north to finally draw out Washington’s main force. There would be other, diversionary attacks as well, effectively dividing his own force. But once again Washington wasn’t biting and Clinton dithered while awaiting more troops.
Still, he opened the campaign in late May by personally leading a force of 6,000 up the Hudson with the aim of capturing key river fords by which Washington could maneuver his forces between both sides. The first, and most important, target was a Continental block-house and garrison at Stony Point, on the bluffs above King’s Ferry 30 miles north of the city. Clinton sailed up the river on ships and barges escorted by the Royal Navy and landed his mixed force of Redcoat regulars, Hessian mercenaries, and Loyalist (Tory) troops. The American garrison of only 40 Patriots quickly abandoned the post burning the nearly completed block house as they left.
Clinton hauled fifteen field pieces that included five iron and two brass cannon, four mortars and four small howitzers up the steep slopes of the Point to shell another near-by Yankee strong point, Fort Lafayette. Clinton and his main force returned to New York, leaving behind a 500 man force under Lt. Col. Henry Johnson consisting of elements of the 17th Regiment of Foot, a Grenadier company of the 71st Regiment, a detachment of the Loyal American Regiment, and gun crews of the Royal Artillery. In addition a Royal Navy gunboat and the sloop of war Vulture were anchored or patrolling nearby to defend a river approach.
The British did not have time to erect a classic European masonry fortress on the summit, or even to rebuild the burned block house and erect palisade walls, the standard of frontier fortifications. Instead they dug their guns in behind earthwork breast works with projecting redans and erected outer defenses of abates—logs sharpened to a point and placed in trenches in front of the earthworks. The defenses were placed a rocky elevation approachable only from the west, protected in the front by a watery defile and on both flanks by extensive swampy areas.
The British thought it impregnable to assault without the extensive use of artillery. In fact Clinton hoped Washington would haul out his guns for just such an attack, a maneuver that could be easily detected. Then as Washington lay siege to Stony Point, Clinton would rush up from the city for the kill.
Washington knew that the occupation of Stony Point was an annoyance, but hardly fatal, as would his attempt to take the post by siege would be. As construction of the defenses continued through June the commanding general personally came to observe the situation through his telescope from the top of near-by Buckberg Mountain. He also gained detailed information on the south side of the post which he could not directly see from careful questioning of local merchants who supplied the post, area farmers, scouts, and quite possibly soldiers in mufti acting as spies. Washington gathered a detailed profile of the enemy’s dispositions, routines, and even the types and styles of passwords used by sentries.
In mid-June he mobilized his Light Infantry Corps consisting of the 1st Regiment, commanded by Col. Christian Febiger of the 2nd Virginia Regiment consisting of six companies of Virginia and two of Pennsylvania troops; the 2nd Regiment, under Col. Richard Butler of the 9th Pennsylvania with four companies each of Pennsylvanians and of Marylanders; the 3rd Regiment under Col. Return Jonathan Meigs of the 6th Connecticut with eight companies of Nutmeg State troops; and the 4th Regiment, a volatile mix of six companies of Massachusetts troops and two of North Carolina, temporarily commanded by Major William Hull of the 8th Massachusetts.
Then Washington carefully laid out his plan of attack exploiting a fatal flaw in the fortifications—abatis along the southern shore of the point were not extended into the deep water of the Hudson and could be outflanked by attackers along a narrow beach at low tide. This would be the route of the main attack with secondary and diversionary attacks along the north shore of the point and across the causeway to the center—the point where the British expected any attack to be made.
Meanwhile in early July Clinton dispatched 2,000 troops, including some that had earlier been posted to Stony Point, on his Connecticut raids, which Washington left to the local militia to handle while he concentrated on Stony Point.
To work, the attack had to be a surprise. Wayne would bring his troops from up river to Fort Montgomery, an American strong post on the west side of the Hudson where a giant heavy chain was stretched across the river channel to prevent the Royal Navy from sailing further north. From there, they would set off on July 15 on a wide meandering path taking him west of the river through rugged territory and over roads and cowpaths. Along the way any civilians the column encountered would be taken captive to prevent word of the advance getting to the British. The force carried no baggage and had not artillery so as to be able to move fast and quietly. As planned the circled the redoubt and approached the post from the south undetected.
Washington had one last order—a highly unusual one that if it failed would lead to disaster. The main attacking force was to advance with un-loaded muskets and fixed bayonets only. This was to prevent an accidental discharge of a musket as the men scrambled up the steep sides of the point and alerting the garrison.
Despite this meticulous planning, Washington had great confidence in Wayne and gave his field commander the rare latitude to change the orders as conditions demanded. It turned out Wayne would have to make few ad lib tactical adjustments.
The force arrived at Springsteel’s Farm approximately two miles from Stony Point in the early evening of the 16th. At officer’s call Wayne outlined his final order of battle. Butler’s 2nd Regiment of approximately 300 men would make a largely diversionary an assault along the northern shore of the point, while Wayne himself would lead the main column of 700 consisting of the 1st and 3rd Regiments, and Hull’s detachment of Massachusetts light infantry from the south. In advance of each of these columns were about 50 pioneers armed with axes to chop through the abates including 20 men each designate the forlorn hope charged with piercing the defenses and leading the others through. Two companies of North Carolina light infantry under Major Hardy Murfree, which Wayne ordered to cross the causeway, and stage a demonstration attack at the center of the British defenses, where the British expected an attack to come. These were the only men engaged on the American side with loaded muskets. They were instructed to “lay down a galling fire” which was to be the signal for the two flanking attacks to make the final push. It was also hoped that the British would draw men from the flank defenses to meet the apparent attack on the center
|The wounded Gen. Wayne is carried on his troops shouldiers for the final assault on Stony Point.|
Each man was given a scrap of white paper to pin to their hat for identification in the dark. As the flanking columns began their move about 10:30 the weather cooperated with heavy clouds obscuring the moonlight and wind masking the sound of their movements. But Wayne’s main column soon encountered the only major unforeseen snag of the operation. The beach on which they were supposed advance at low tide was flooded under two to four feet of water blowing ashore in the stiff wind. That slowed Wayne’s advance as his men struggled ahead in the water and the noise alerted sentries who opened fire.
Although total surprise was lost, Col. Johnson did not have enough time to try and lower his artillery to fire on the forces almost directly below them. And when Murfree launched his demonstration, just as hoped Johnson diverted forces to the center assuming that Wayne’s attack was the diversion. Both flanks began their final assault almost exactly midnight, just as planned. Wayne’s column scrambling up the steep rock terrain first breached the outer defense line at which point the commander was rendered briefly unconscious when he was struck in the head by a nearly spent musket ball. Col. Febiger briefly assumed command and pressed the attack until Wayne recovered, had his head bandaged, and was carried forward on the shoulders of his men.
Meanwhile Butler’s pioneers had hacked through the abatis on the north with the loss of only one man. The two forces almost simultaneously pushed for the earthworks at the summit. Lt. Col. Francois de Fleury, a French aristocrat and engineer commanding a battalion of the 1st Regiment became the first man to breech the defenses and enter the fortifications followed by Private Peter Francisco, Lt. Henry Knox, Sgt. William Baker, and Private George Dunlop. These men earned a special cash purse promised by Wayne. As the troops poured over the defenses bayonets to the fore the called out the watch word “The fort is ours!” which encouraged those behind them to press forward. Col. de Fleury cut the British colors from the flag staff.
The red coats were overwhelmed and disorganized and could put up no real fight inside the walls. The battle was over less than 35 minutes after sentries had fired the first shots. Col. Johnson had no choice but to surrender his garrison to a force that according to all of the military textbooks was too small to successfully storm such a well-defended fortress. In the early morning hours Wayne was able to send a terse message to Washington, “The fort and garrison, with Col. Johnson, are ours. The men behaved like men determined to be free.”
The British reported losses of 20 killed, 74 wounded and the entire force except for 63 men reported missing was captured. American losses in the assault were 15 killed and 83 injured. Although historians have tended to take the British reports at face value, some think that the toll of dead could be has high as 50 including most of the missing men who may have drowned in the Hudson trying to escape.
It was a triumph of arms. Washington and his staff rode down to survey the battle scene the next day and lavished praise on Wayne, his officers and men. He ordered the British guns trained on occupied Verplanck’s Point across the river, but the distance was too great and the barrages did little damage. But the cannon fire frightened the English gun boat which cut anchor and drifted down stream and kept the sloop Vulture at a distance.
Washington sent General Robert Howe to lead the two brigades to besiege Verplanck on the 17th, but the force was not provisioned with adequate artillery or siege equipment, and could do little more than blockade the fort. On the 18th some British troops were landed from ships sent upriver, and more were rumored to be coming overland, so Howe decided to withdraw.
Washington now assessed the situation. He had dealt the British a stinging and humiliating defeat and provided a huge moral boost for the war wear Continentals. He had as prisoners of war a large force of veteran British soldiers. But he also now had a sizable force in the field and perhaps subject to destruction if Clinton moved up fast and in force from New York. So on the 19th Washington ordered the fort evacuated taking the artillery and a large store of much needed shot, powder, and supplies with the retreating troops. The fortifications were meticulously destroyed.
Clinton did order a force to re-take the vacated fort. But he was now shy of Washington’s unexpected maneuvers. The following October he abandoned the fort permanently along with Verplanck and other Hudson strong posts hoping once again to build up strength in New York for a fresh campaign come spring. But Clinton was to be disappointed. Stony Point was almost the last major action in the North while British hopes concentrated on the South Where Lord Cornwallis rampaging out of the Carolinas and into Virginia where Lafayette was pulling together a force to oppose him.
Clinton’s withdrawal left King’s Ford open and unmolested just when Washington would need it to march his whole army from New Port, Rhode Island south to the Head of Elk, Maryland at the head of Chesapeake Bay where they would board French ships to transport them and a sizable French army to Virginia to join Lafayette and trap Cornwallis at Yorktown. You know the rest.
As for General Wayne, he was an instant American hero and icon. Congress voted him a special medal, one of only a handful of such awards made through the entire war. He served with notable distinction at Bulls Ferry opposite New York City in 1780. His Pennsylvania Line troopers failed to capture a block house and cannons. He then had to help Washington quell a mutiny in the Pennsylvania Line as troops demanded back pay from Congress and menaced Philadelphia and rebuild his troops.
He was assigned to reinforce Lafayette in Virginia a head of Washington’s main army and again earned honors for the Battle of Green Spring during the Yorktown Campaign when he broke out of a trap by superior British forces with another daring bayonet Charge. After Cornwallis’s surrender, Washington sent him to the deep south with the rank of Major General to mop up British and Tory operations there. He was also to split the British from their main Native allies in the South—the Creeks and Cherokee. He succeeded at both tasks and made treaties with both tribes. A grateful Georgia presented him with a plantation and slaves in gratitutde.
After the war Wayne retired to Pennsylvania where he followed a political career, and then settled on his Georgia plantation.
In 1793 now President Washington ignored Wayne active political opposition as a member of the half-formed Jeffersonian anti-Federalists to command the new nation’s first army in the field since the Revolution—The Legion of the United States. Wayne carefully drilled and trained his recruits molding them into smart Regular troops and unleashing a campaign against the hostile Shawnee and allied tribes of the of the Western Indian Confederacy. At the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers he smashed the native forces under Blue Jacket. He then systematically raided and burned villages throughout the territory. The decisive campaign opened Ohio for settlement and statehood by 1803. Wayne was a national hero all over again.
Wayne died of complications from gout on December 15 1796, during a return trip to Pennsylvania from Fort Detroit, and was buried at Fort Presque Isle now Erie, Pennsylvania. His bones were later moved and reinterred at family plot in St. David’s Episcopal Church cemetery in Radnor, Pennsylvania.
His Legion of the United States was allowed to go out of existence but was soon replaced by a small professional U.S. that was scattered over wide ranging frontier and costal fortifications.