The Gibraltar of America—The Midnight Storming of Stony Point
The light infantry moved through the darkness. Though it was midsummer, the night was cold, and the wind lashed at their faces, as one by one the Marylanders and other Continentals stepped off solid ground and plunged into waist-deep, thick, green muck. Because the slightest noise could alert the British to their presence, resulting almost certainly in instant death, the men maintained silence. They were part of a twentyman commando-like team called a “forlorn hope”—in today’s lexicon, a suicide squad. Serving as the tip of a hundred-man spearhead assaulting one of the most heavily defended fortresses in North America, the men of the forlorn hope were determined to break through a formidable barrier and charge straight into British muskets and cannon, with little chance of cheating death.
Armed with heavy axes and muskets slung over their shoulders, the men had to cut a hole through the abatis—pointed, blade-like, wooden stakes that were waiting for them, poised to tear into the flesh and lacerate the limbs of any man who attempted to penetrate the British defenses. The heavy axes they carried were necessary to dismantle the first fortifications the rest of the assault force would encounter. Until the abatis was removed, the rest of the assault force would be unable to enter the fort. The forlorn hope would use the axes to slowly hack their way through the timbers while under constant fire from the enemy. If they made it through alive, they would have to begin the process again and chop through yet another row of thick abatis, which guarded a fortification bristling with guns.
Before the group had set out from the Springsteel farm, about a mile and a half west of the fort in Stony Point, New York, on the evening of July 15, 1779, General “Mad Anthony” Wayne had ordered, “Should there be any soldier so lost to every feeling of honor, as to attempt to retreat one single foot or skulk in the face of danger, the officer next to him is immediately to put him to death.” The same fate would befall any man who spoke or discharged his musket. The officers carried spontoons—long, menacing, razor-sharp iron pikes on the end of wooden poles—which would be used without hesitation to fulfill General Wayne’s order should the need arise.
At least one man disobeyed. His commanding officer later reported, “The column was ascending the hill. The man left his station and was loading his musket. [I] ordered him to return and desist from loading his musket. He refused, saying he did not understand fighting without firing. [I] immediately ran him through the body.”
The remorseful officer who carried out the execution later confided the details of the atrocity to his commanding officer, who matterof-factly explained, “You performed a painful duty, by which, perhaps, victory has been secured and the life of many a brave man saved. Be satisfied.”
Despite the suicidal nature of the assignment, the men considered the forlorn hope a post of honor. It consisted of volunteers, “desperadoes led by officers of distinguished merit.” The officer who led the forlorn hope and the advance guard attacking the left side of Stony Point was Marylander Major Jack Steward.
Steward’s role in the Battle of Stony Point had begun several days earlier. Riding on horseback to the top of Buckburg Mountain, a nearly eight-hundred-foot-high hill west of the fort, Steward and the new commander of the light infantry, Wayne, surveyed the rocky strip of and that jutted out into the Hudson River below them. The ninety-acre peninsula rose about 150 feet above the water; rugged cliffs faced three sides of the stony outcropping. On the fourth side, it was well protected from assault by a marsh that effectively acted as a moat.
A month and a half earlier, on May 30, 1779, over six thousand British troops had left their posts in Yonkers and traveled up the Hudson River. They seized Stony Point, a key vantage. At that time the bluff held a partially completed American blockhouse, which the fortyman-garrison burned to the ground as they hastily retreated from the British. Only a few days after its capture, the British were at work “like a parcel of devils” as they constructed an imposing fortress outfitted with fifteen guns.
Directly across on the opposite side of the river stood another British fort, known as Verplanck’s Point. The Redcoats immediately began fortifying both Stony Point and Verplanck’s Point, both of which offered naturally dominant defense positions. Washington Irving described the twin fortresses as the “Pillars of Hercules,” while the British called the site “the Gibraltar of America.” The two bastions guarded the vital King’s Ferry crossing point, which connected New England to the southern colonies. Approximately thirteen miles away lay West Point and the key to the American defenses on the Hudson. The two forts represented a potential dagger aimed at the American defenses at West Point, as well as a potential trap to lure Washington’s army south, where it could be cut off from the rear by an amphibious assault from the Royal Navy.
To increase their field of fire, the British cut down the trees in the vicinity. With the resulting wood, they constructed two sets of abatis. One set of sharpened logs stretched across the back side of the peninsula, extending down to the waterline and facing west. Within the fortress, they constructed two separate belts of fortifications: the upper works, which the British described as “the table of the hill,” and the lower works, which were near the marsh. In the lower works, the Royal Engineers built V-shaped fortifications called flèches, the French word for arrows. Beyond the flèches, the British placed troops and cannon that could pour enfilading fire on any American force assaulting the fort.
The British concentrated an enormous amount of firepower in Stony Point. They mounted fifteen pieces of artillery behind the fortifications. The heavy guns included a twelve-, an eighteen-, and a twenty-four-pound battery. To prevent an American assault, the British also arrayed several mortars, including one that could hurl a forty-eight-pound explosive ball and cut down an assault force like a scythe slicing through a field of wheat.
Guarding Stony Point were eight companies of the 17th Regiment of Foot (which included many veterans from the Battle of Princeton two and a half years earlier) and two grenadier companies of the 71st Regiment of Foot. Known as Fraser’s Highlanders, the 71st was raised in Sterling, Glasgow, and Inverness in 1775 largely from Scottish clansman who flocked to fight in America. Staffed by several officers who were clan chiefs, the Highlanders had been in the thick of the fighting since Long Island. A detachment of Loyalists also helped man the British defenses, among them the Maryland deserter and traitor John Williams, who had previously served in the 4th Regiment. A number of other Americans who turned coat with Williams served at Stony Point, including the colorful opportunist Michael Dougherty, who fought with the Delaware Regiment in May 1777 and deserted a month later. After a few months’ hiatus, he rejoined the regiment in August. Alongside the combatants, a number of woman and children and several African American slaves lived within the compound.
George Washington reacted swiftly to the threat posed by the fortifications and immediately began gathering intelligence for a potential assault. He assigned Wayne, the commander of his new light infantry force, to the task, writing, “The importance of the two posts at Verplanck’s and Stony Point to the enemy is too obvious to need explanation. We ought if possible to dispossess them. I recommend it to your particular attention, without delay, to gain as exact a knowledge as you can of the number of the garrison, the state of the creeks that surround the former, the nature of the grounds and the vicinity of both, the position and strength of the fortifications.”
Before Wayne took up his new post, Washington also wrote to Major Henry Lee. Known as Light Horse Harry Lee, he later became the father of the Confederacy’s most famous general, Robert E. Lee. Altogether, Henry Lee had nine children by two wives. Before the war, he had graduated from the College of New Jersey and had worked as a lawyer. An excellent horseman, Light Horse Harry proved to be one of the greatest cavalry leaders of the Revolutionary War. An extreme disciplinarian, he discouraged desertion by having one recaptured deserter decapitated. When Washington found out about the incident, he ordered Lee to hide the man’s body and not display it to the other soldiers.
This time, Washington wanted intelligence, and he wanted it immediately. He implored Lee, “I have now to request that you will endeavor to employ some person in whom you can confide, and at the same time is intelligent, to go into the works of Stony-point, or if admittance is not to be gained, otherwise to obtain the best knowledge of them you can, so as to describe the particular kinds of works, precise spots in which they stand, and the strength of the garrison. If you should succeed at this point, I must beg you will transmit me without delay a sketch of the work that I may be able to form an accurate idea of them.”
For this daunting task, Lee tapped one of the great unsung heroes of the American Revolution—Allen McLane, a Philadelphia-born merchant’s son who had moved to Delaware. Like Mordecai Gist, McLane had put his personal fortune on the line to fund his own company of men. Before Stony Point, McLane’s irregular company was detached from the Delaware Regiment and served as foot soldiers or dismounted dragoons in Lee’s cavalry. For most of the war, McLane operated as a lone wolf, acting as a scout and irregular leader, often behind enemy lines. He had a sixth sense about character and sniffed out the likelihood of Benedict Arnold’s treasonous activities months before they even occurred, but tragically was rebuffed by Washington, who dismissed his concerns.
McLane was the perfect man to penetrate Stony Point and ferret out British secrets. Using his wits and guile, McLane, donning the hunting shirt and rifle of a common frontiersman, entered the fort through the front door under a flag of truce and boldly gathered intelligence in plain sight. He accompanied Mrs. Smith, a woman from the surrounding countryside who wanted to visit her son, one of six American turncoats stationed there.
Once McLane was inside the fort’s defenses, an arrogant British officer approached to taunt the supposedly hick frontiersman. “What do you think of our fortress?” asked the Englishman. “Is it strong enough to keep Mister Washington out?”
“I know nothing of these matters,” McLane replied. “I am but a woodsman and can only use my rifle, but I guess the General—General, mind you, not Mister—would be likely to think a bit before he would run his head against such works as these. . . . Trust me, we are not such dolts as to attempt impossibilities.”
Meanwhile, with his keen eye, McLane noticed that the inner fort was incomplete. He reported this information to Lee, who in turn passed it on to Washington, who began formulating his plan.
Another valuable nugget of intelligence came from a British deserter who reported that the beach at Stony Point’s right or southern flank was “only obstructed by a slight abatis.” At low tide, the abatis did not reach all the way into the water, effectively opening a back door into the fort.
Armed with this new information, Washington dictated an assault plan to Wayne. He left no stone unturned and carefully brought the smallest details to Wayne’s attention.
My ideas for the Enterprise in contemplation are these: that it be attempted by Light Infantry only, which should march under cover of night and with the utmost secrecy. . . . The approach should be along the water on the south side, crossing the beach and entering the abatis. [The assault group] is to be proceeded by a vanguard of prudent and determined men, well commanded, who are to remove obstructions, secure the sentries, and drive in the guards. They are to advance the whole of them with fixed bayonets and muskets unloaded. These are my general ideas of the plan for a surprise; but you are at liberty to depart from them.
He then ominously cautioned Wayne about the need for secrecy: “Conceal the intended enterprise until the latest hour from all but your principal officers. . . . [If the enemy gains] a knowledge of your intention, ten minutes previously obtained will blast all your hopes.”
As the new commander of the light infantry, which had been in existence for only several months, Wayne carefully assembled his force for the assault. The Light Infantry Corps assembled for the attack on Stony Point numbered approximately 1,350 men, including many Marylanders who were detached from their specific regiments to form this elite fighting unit. They divided into two assault columns. From among them, Wayne selected two special advance guard units to spearhead the columns. Leading the men were officers handpicked by Washington himself, including Major Jack Steward.
Standing shoulder to shoulder in parade formation, the light infantry watched as Annapolis native Steward rode back and forth in front of them on his stallion. The recruitment of men to fill the advance guard units fell on the shoulders of the daring commanding officer. Seeking volunteers for the forlorn hope, he called out, “I want no men but the best, those that are willing to face death for their country.” Men eagerly strode forward to join the suicide squad, and many were turned down. Inspired by the major’s words, Vincent Vass and his messmate Samuel Arnold were among those who stepped forward three paces. Vass later remarked that Steward “spoke very clever.” Steward’s words must have hit home to encourage men to shrug off the strong possibly of death. Steward also sought volunteers for the remainder of his hundredman advance guards. Many Marylanders answered the call, including John Bantham, a veteran of the battles of Brooklyn, White Plains, Monmouth, and Germantown, and free African American George Dias (or Dice), a cobbler by trade. Another Marylander who stepped forward may well have manufactured some of the supplies Dias used in his occupation. Baltimore native Elias Pollock (also known as Joseph Smith) was from one of five Jewish families who moved to Baltimore in the 1770s; he made a comfortable living manufacturing “black balls” used by cobblers like George Dias to blacken leather on the soles of the shoes.
Armed only with unloaded muskets, bayonets, and axes, Steward’s advance guard, with the forlorn hope in the van, would make a frontal assault into the left side of the fortress. On the right flank were another 150-man advance guard and another twenty-man forlorn hope, led by French noblemen and engineer Lieutenant Colonel François-Louis Teissèdre de Fleury. He would hook around the abatis, going through the beach opening the British deserter had revealed.
In the center, Major Hardy Murfree would lead the only group of Continentals with loaded muskets. Their orders were to create a diversion, setting up galling fire to draw the British attention away from the flanks.
On the morning of July 15, the light infantry assembled. Wayne ordered them to appear “fresh shaved and well powdered.” Mad Anthony had an audacious streak and a bizarre predilection for martial dress code. He once wrote, “I must acknowledge that I have an insuperable prejudice in favor of an elegant uniform and soldierly appearance, so much so, that I would rather risk my life and reputation at the head of the same men in an attack, clothed and appointed as I could wish merely with bayonets and a single charge of ammunition, than to take them as they appear in common with sixty rounds of cartridges. For good uniforms promoted among the troops a Laudable pride . . . which in a soldier is a Substitute for almost every other Virtue.”
Around noon, Wayne’s 1,350 men set out on a rugged, thirteen mile march. Before departing, the men shed most of their equipment. Vass recalled, “We were to take nothing with us but our arms and our canteens.” They set out on a torturous route over winding paths, “much of the journey through high mountains . . . and difficult defiles, obliging [the force] to move in single files the greater part of the distance.” Vass recalled, “Off we went over the mountains, through deep morasses, rocks, there was to be no plundering. We surmounted every difficulty.” In an effort to preserve the element of surprise, Wayne kept the assault force in the dark about their objective.
Late in the evening, the troops paused for a quick dinner. Wayne closed a letter to his brother-in-law and made a total commitment to the attack, leaving it up to fate to determine if he would live or die: “I am called to sup, but where to breakfast—either within the Enemies Lines in Tryumph or in an Other World.”
About a mile from the fort the officers revealed to the men that their mission was to recapture Stony Point. Inserting a bit of competition into the endeavor, the officers told the men that the first five Americans to enter the inner redoubt, or the table of the fort, would receive rewards. A five-hundred-dollar prize would go to the first man to capture the flag. The second man in would be awarded four hundred dollars, the third three hundred dollars, and so on, on top of promotions for all. To further incentivize the troops, the officers would appraise all booty found in the fort and share it among the men. After the briefing, they used a common practice of the time to help them recognize friend from foe in pitch darkness: “we had white bits of Paper to fasten to the Crowns of our hats.” To preserve secrecy, “Guards were placed at every house to prevent any person passing.” The day before they had ruthlessly put to bayonet and sword any dogs in the surrounding area whose bark could betray the impending assault.
Nevertheless, their covert operation was jeopardized. The British had their own spies and discovered an attack was imminent. Lieutenant William Armstrong of the 17th Regiment of Foot later recalled, “I heard the company I commanded receive Orders to sleep in their Cloaths & Accoutrments, as two Spies sent out by Lt. Colo. Johnson, had come in and given intelligence. The Enemy was moving toward us.” The British braced for an attack, but they didn’t know if it would occur that night or the next day.
From WASHINGTON’S IMMORTALS. Used with permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. Copyright © 2016 by Patrick K. O’Donnell.