Saturday, July 14, 2012

Intern's Corner: July in the Revolution

The Assault on Stony Point, NY, July 16, 1779
By Mark Relation, DLAR Intern

          The campaigning season of 1779 opened with a decisive move from the British in late May.  General Henry Clinton amassed some 6,000 men and began to capture American forts on the Hudson River including Stony Point, which threatened the critical American position of West Point 12 miles north of the British positions.  Clinton was maneuvering his forces into the Hudson Highlands to lure Washington’s force away from its defensible position in the New Jersey hills to more open ground, where the British would have the advantage.  This would also open up Washington’s supply bases of Trenton NJ and Easton PA to an attack from a body of British reinforcements expected to arrive soon from England.  Washington did move his forces into the Hudson Highlands, but occupied a strong defensive line against the British based around West Point, refusing to play to the British hand by meeting them on open ground. 

          The British strategy faced another setback when the reinforcements did not arrive on time.  They would eventually turn up in New York City in August, but would be too late to assist Clinton in any meaningful way during this campaign.  However, the British were not entirely losing the campaign.  They had taken Stony Point and Ft. Lafayette, securing King’s ferry and effectively closing off the Hudson River to American supply lines.  Without access to King’s Ferry, American supply convoys and messengers were forced to take detours of more than 30 miles to reach Washington’s men.  The Americans were losing morale, and Washington desperately needed a victory to boost spirits and ensure the continuation of the war effort. 

          Washington turned his eye upon Stony Point, whose British garrison was considered an “affront” to the Americans and would greatly help the American position and morale if taken.  Initially, the fort seemed too strong to take, as the British had been busily fortifying their position, and the fort was already naturally well defended by water on three sides and swamplands on the third.  The 625 British soldiers even dubbed the place “Little Gibraltar,” out of confidence that their position was unassailable.  After extensive reconnaissance on the fort and its defenses, the Americans began to spot weaknesses in the British fortifications, and a plan was made for an attack. 

          Washington tasked an elite unit of Light Infantry under General Anthony Wayne to launch a bayonet attack on the fort in the dead of night and capture the British garrison.  Receiving these orders, Wayne moved his 1,350 troops with the utmost care and discipline.  Soldiers placed pieces of white paper in their caps to distinguish friend from foe in the darkness, and soldiers were strictly ordered not to fire their muskets, call out, retreat, or disobey any order under penalty of death.  Once his men were in place, Wayne charged the British on the moonless night of July 16, sowing confusion and disarray in the British garrison.  The daring and courage of the American men, fueled by their battle cry, “the fort’s our own,” combined with the inability of the British to mount an effective resistance in the confusion of the night caused the fort to fall with very little bloodshed. 

          The Americans lost some 20 killed and 74 wounded to American losses of 15 killed and 83 wounded.  Along with the fort itself, the Americans captured $158,640 worth of military stores and ordinance, including 15 artillery pieces.  For his service in the battle, General Anthony Wayne was awarded a gold medal by Congress, and two of his subordinates were awarded silver medals.  This victory was a substantial boost to American morale and effectively ended the British campaign for the season in the north. 

Blanco, Richard L., and Paul J. Sanborn. The American Revolution: 1775-1783 : An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1993. Print. p. 1590-1595.

The Battle of Stony Point, by J. H. Brightly.  1818

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