West Point, New York

The long trough of land which runs 384 miles from New York to Montreal, consisting of the Hudson River Valley, Lakes George and Champlain and the Richelieu River Valley, is without doubt the most vital of American natural highways and its importance has been recognized from the earliest days of American history. The French in the days when the lilies of France waved over half of the American continent sent their war parties down this depression to prey upon the English settlements, and hence came about the building of Ticonderoga at the northern entrance to the long march. The American colonists years afterward, when they had need to defend the southern mouth of the valley, fortified West Point and its neighboring points and crags, their first cover being taken at Peekskill some three or four miles south of West Point. It will be remembered that in 1777 came about that menacing campaign in the Hudson in which the British from the south under Sir Henry Clinton and in the north under General Burgoyne attempted a juncture of forces at Albany, the intention being to divide the American colonies along the line of the historic Hudson Valley and then to reduce each half at leisure while the British fleet prevented any efforts at union by way of the seacoast. Burgoyne surrendered in October of that year at Saratoga, which is roughly half way between Lake George and Albany, but to Sir Henry Clinton, whose campaign was one of disaster to the Americans, a few moments may be given in profitable speculation.

The American forces opposed to Clinton on the lower Hudson consisted of about 1200 Continentals under the command of the choleric old General Israel Putnam and were concentrated several miles south of West Point, where three forts had been built at great expense earlier in the year. Fort Independence was on the east side of the Hudson just north of Peekskill; Forts Clinton and Montgomery were on the west side directly opposite, Montgomery being the more northern of the two. South of the location of the forts stood Dunderberg Mountain, outpost of the highlands of the Hudson. The river was obstructed by a boom and chain opposite Fort Montgomery and protected from British approach by two frigates on the northern side of the chain.

Forts Clinton and Montgomery were under the command of General James Clinton, brother of the recently elected Governor George Clinton of New York, at this moment attending a session of the legislature at Kingston. Hearing of the approach of the British against the forts, he adjourned the legislature and hastened to his brother’s assistance with such militia as he could gather.

This completes the convocation of the Clintons in this engagement; Sir Henry Clinton, in command of the British forces, General James Clinton, in command of the two western forts; and Governor George Clinton, hastening to the aid of brother James at Fort Clinton.

The approach of the British caused General Putnam to place his Continentals on the eastern shore behind Peekskill and to bring over from the western shore a large force to reinforce his own. The British galleys advanced far enough up the river to prevent communication between the two American bodies, and it then became plain that it had been the hope of the English commander to cause the Americans to divide their forces by making a feint at the eastern shore where Putnam supposed that the strength of the British would be. The Americans had played into his hands. On the morning of the 6th of October Sir Henry Clinton landed his main forces on the western shore, and by sending a detachment around Dunderberg Mountain managed to attack Forts Clinton and Montgomery from the rear while another force engaged them from the south.

The result of this engagement was that while the Americans fought pluckily they were overcome by the British, with a loss of 250 killed, wounded and missing, as opposed to the British casualty list of 40 killed and 150 wounded, and that the two western forts fell into the hands of the English. The boom and chain across the river were destroyed, and the British fleet sailed up the river and attacked Fort Constitution on Constitution Island opposite West Point. Fort Constitution was hastily abandoned.

Such a signal success on Sir Henry Clinton’s part should have caused him to push quickly on to effect a junction with Burgoyne, who had written him of his desperate straits at the northern end of the Hudson, but, having done this much, the English knight seemed to think that nothing more was expected of him, for, beyond sending a marauding expedition up the Hudson as far as Kingston, he made no further northern advance and retired to New York with his entire force. Had he joined Burgoyne in time to prevent the capitulation of the latter, it is probable that the whole history of this country would have been written in another fashion from that date.

Fort Constitution, which held so short an argument with the British fleet opposite West Point, was the first fortification of the series of works, which lie in the vicinity of West Point. In August 1775, a committee appointed by the State of New York and consisting of Isaac Sears, John Berrien, Christopher Miller, Captain Samuel Bayard and Captain William Bedlow, began the erection of forts and batteries in the vicinity of West Point. As an adviser to this committee Bernard Romans, an English engineer, was employed, and under his direction Martelaer’s rock, now Constitution Island, was chosen for the site of the principal fortification. The fort, which was commenced under Romans’s supervision but finished by another military architect, was named Constitution and cost altogether about $25,000. The remains of the fort are still visible on the island, the outlines of the walls being discernible, with the location of the principal point.

Kosciuszko Monument
Kosciuszko Monument

After the retreat of Sir Henry Clinton from before West Point, a voluntary retreat, it should be observed, the Americans saw that they must strengthen their defenses at this place. Anxious to have the passes here strongly guarded, General Washington wrote to General Putnam, asking that he would give his most particular attention to the matter. Duty called Putnam to Connecticut and little was done in the matter until the arrival of General MacDougal, who took command on March 20, 1778, by whom West Point was approved as the location of the principal defenses.

There now comes upon the scene the Polish patriot Kosciuszko, who had been appointed to succeed a French engineer, La Radierre, in the Hudson Highlands and who had taken up his new duties coincidentally with the arrival of General MacDougal. Kosciuszko pushed forward the construction of the works with great vigor.

The principal redoubt was constructed of logs and earth, was 600 feet around within the walls, and its embankments were 14 feet high with a base of 21 feet. The work was situated on a cliff, which rises 187 feet above the river, and upon its completion in May was named Fort Clinton. The remains of Fort Clinton are carefully preserved today and comprise that line of grass covered mounds which edge the eastern side of the plateau on which West Point Academy is situated. In the midst of these quiet green mounds stands a monument to Kosciuszko, erected by the corps of cadets of 1828. From the ruins a beautiful view of the Hudson is to be obtained, though the new buildings of the Academy cut off much, which formerly was contained in the view from this point.

Entrance to Fort Putnam, West Point New York, winter
Entrance to Fort Putnam, West Point New York, winter

To support Fort Clinton works were constructed and batteries placed on the hills and mountains of West Point. On Mount Independence, which overhangs the military school, a strong fort was built and named, when completed, Fort Putnam, in honor of the sturdy patriot of Connecticut.

The remains of Fort Putnam, or “Old Put,” as it came to be known in the neighborhood, were for many years the scene of picnickers’ journeys up the steep hillside whose crest it crowns and for many years were allowed to lie in a condition of disorder and decay. Of recent years the United States Government has taken in hand the old works and has restored them to as near their original condition as can be learned. The walls have been rebuilt been rebuilt where necessary and the brick casemates relaid. The result is that Fort Putnam today is the best preserved and most interesting of the souvenirs of the warlike days of West Point.

A rocky, inhospitable looking, irregular stone enclosure, Fort Putnam today gives one a very good idea of the stern, rude conditions with which our forefathers labored in the founding of our republic. From the walls of the fort a most enchanting prospect is to be gained from any direction, enchanting to either the lover of beautiful natural scenery or to the lover of historic memorials; for the Hudson Valley and its towering hills lie out before one to any point of the compass. Upon the points of these high hills were located batteries and strong works in the days when Putnam was young, each battery and work with its quota of rough colonial militia determined to fight to the last man against the trained soldiers of Europe. South of Fort Putnam were two small works known as Fort Wyllys and Fort Webb upon the eminences to be seen from “Put.” On the crown of Sugar Loaf Mountain was a redoubt known as South Battery.

Fort Putnam's Rocky Interior
Fort Putnam’s Rocky Interior

In addition to the construction of Forts Clinton and Putnam and their supporting batteries. Fort Constitution was strengthened and re-garrisoned, and between West Point and Constitution Island was stretched a huge iron chain, links of which are preserved in the museum at West Point. The chain was manufactured by Peter Townshend, of the Stirling Iron Works, Orange County, and was made of links two feet in length and in weight over 140 pounds each.

At the close of 1779 West Point was considered the strongest military post in America, and a large quantity of gunpowder, provisions and munitions of war was collected there. These considerations, in addition to the strategic value of the place, made of it a great prize for the enemy, who tried in various ways to seize it for his own. Yet the great menace to the place lay not without, where the British soldiers were, but within, and the story of that fact is one of the saddest things of American history.

The treason of Benedict Arnold had its setting at West Point, though its foundations were laid months before he assumed command of this important locale. Indeed, at the moment of Arnold’s appointment to the command of West Point, the American general had been in correspondence with Sir Henry Clinton for eighteen months.

It is supposed that the defection of Arnold and his plans for the surrender of West Point began in Philadelphia during the winter of 1778, when he was appointed governor general of that city after the evacuation by the British. Fond of show and feeling the importance of his station, he began to live in style far beyond his income, and pecuniary embarrassments began to multiply around him. He lived in the mansion that had once sheltered William Penn (and which is still standing), kept a coach and four, and gave splendid banquets. When impatient creditors began to press him for funds, he resorted to devious ways of raising money. So open did the scandal become of his indecent use of his position for private gain that charges were laid against him before Congress implying abuse of power, and the whole matter was handed over to Washington to have tried before a military tribunal. The verdict in the trial was rendered January 26, 1780, after a lengthy consideration of the case, and two of the four charges against Arnold were sustained. Washington was ordered to reprimand the officer, convicted by a jury of his peers, and did so in as kind a fashion as ever a reprimand was given. Indeed, at the time, Washington, himself, came in for censure because his reprimand was so ambiguously worded that it might be construed to praise the impetuous warrior who had fought for the new republic rather than to reprove the errant administrator. However, from this time it is supposed that Arnold planned to benefit himself and to deal the American cause a vital blow.

The military importance of West Point being plain, it was equally plain that the British would be willing to pay handsomely for its surrender. Arnold settled upon the place as the prize that his treachery should hold out to the English, and by various pieces of wire pulling succeeded in having himself appointed its commander-in-chief. The general opinion of this American leader then was that he was headstrong and self-willed but not characterless. His impetuosity and violence were esteemed good qualities, which fitted him for the work of the soldier while they unfitted him for administrative duties. His good will toward his fellow countrymen was not doubted. In August 1780, Arnold took command of West Point and made his headquarters in a rambling old house, which had belonged to Colonel Beverly Robinson, Colonel Robinson having espoused the English side of the quarrel during the Revolutionary War and having been obliged to take refuge in the English lines in consequence.

The North Wall "Old Put"
The North Wall “Old Put”

The chief correspondent of Arnold in the English ranks was Major Andre, and for a long time Sir Henry Clinton did not know the identity of the American general with whom Andre was in communication. To his missives Arnold affixed the signature of Gustavus and wrote in the character of a commercial correspondent of a business house. Andre on his part signed his letters John Anderson.

The general plan by which Clinton was to take possession of West Point through Arnold’s connivance had many ramifications, but its chief text as concerns us was that Clinton should make a strong demonstration against the post and that Arnold, after a weak defense, should yield it to him. The final negotiations which touched the amount of money which Arnold was to receive for his treachery were concluded by Clinton through the intermediation of Andre, who assumed the guise of a spy in order to carry out his commander’s behests. It was while returning from this trip to Arnold’s headquarters and but one day before the drama was to be consummated that Andre fell into the hands of American forces and the papers which he bore were brought to light.

The morning of the 24th, the day set by Arnold for his surrender to Clinton, dawned bright and fine. Washington was expected at Arnold’s headquarters from Hartford. As he sat at breakfast Arnold received a message from Colonel Jameson, stationed to the south, which contained the intelligence not that the British were approaching, but that a Major Andre had been captured. Hastily asking to be excused, Arnold made his way to the room of his young wife, the beautiful Margaret Shippen, of Philadelphia, and bade her a brief farewell; then he let himself out of the house by a back way and took a short path to the water shore where he summoned a boatman and had himself rowed to the British fleet. Washington arrived at Arnold’s headquarters in time to gather up the loose ends of things and prevent the dreadful catastrophe that the loss of the strongest of the American positions would have meant.

It has been claimed that the influence of Arnold’s wife, who was of a Tory family and had been an ardent British sympathizer before her marriage, had much to do with Arnold’s desertion from the cause he had first embraced. There is no evidence to finally set at rest this conjecture. Margaret Shippen had many friends amongst the British officers and Major Andre was the chief amongst these friends, but there is no reason to believe that she was base at heart, that she was not devoted to her husband, or that she could not realize how utter would be his undoing. After his downfall she rejoined him in New York and shared with him patiently all of the contempt and odium that were his portion for the rest of his life, from American and English alike.

The military academy at West Point was established by Act of Congress, which became law March 16, 1802. The establishment of such a place had been proposed to Congress by Washington in 1793, and even before the close of the Revolution he had suggested such an institution and had even fixed on West Point as the location. Little was done in the matter even after the act of Congress of 1802, until in 1812, by a second enactment, a corps of engineers and teachers was organized and the school actually started. The beautiful buildings of the Academy are the fruit of the last generation’s labor.

Stony Point lies south of West Point, separating Peekskill Bay on the north from Haverstraw Bay on the south. Opposite is Verplanck’s Point. The river here is very narrow. In 1779 Clinton had strongly fortified Stony Point, thus cutting off West Point’s communications from the south and establishing a strong base from which to proceed against that place. Washington saw that Stony Point must be captured.

To carry out his bold scheme for the spot was deemed impregnable to assault he called upon General Anthony Wayne “Mad” Anthony and asked him if he would undertake such a commission. “General, I’ll storm hell if you’ll only plan it,” Wayne is said to have replied.

The situation of Stony Point was a fortress in itself. At high tide it was practically an island, the ravine on the shore side through which the railroad passes nowadays being then a marshy inlet of the river. From the river the rock rose precipitously, and was at its highest point 700 feet above tide.

The assault was made under cover of darkness, July 15, 1779, the American forces advancing secretly under the guidance of an old Negro who had learned the watchword of the fort for that night. This watchword was, “The Fort’s Our Own.” The phrase has been carved above the doorway of the reservation, where it may be seen by all visitors today. One by one the sentries were approached and overpowered, and the Americans were almost within the walls before their presence was discovered. By two o’clock on the morning of July 16 the fort was the possession of the assailants.

The stores of the English were destroyed and the post was evacuated.

Stony Point is now a public reservation of the State of New York. The battleground is in charge of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, which has marked the locality of the redoubts and of interesting points.

Forts, History,

Hammond, John Martin. Quaint and Historic Forts of North America. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, London. 1915.

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