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Washington at Valley Forge
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Washington_at_Valley_Forge_LCCN2004667971.jpg

Commemorating 240 Years Ago
1779 – 2019
The Battle of Stony Point

The Battle of Stony Point

About 30 miles north of New York City, lies a triangular promontory jutting into the Hudson river. With steep rocky slopes rising up to a 150-foot summit, Stony Point boasts formidable natural defenses, virtually an island, surrounded by water on all sides but the west. This made assaulting the position a daunting task and prompted the nickname ‘Little Gibraltar’.  Today Stony Point is relatively unchanged, apart from a lighthouse and a museum with other State Park structures atop the hill.

What is today a peaceful park of green grass and trees was in July of 1779 the scene of a desperate fight to deprive the Red Coats of a strategic fortification guarding the major ferry crossing of Kings Ferry – an important place to both sides for the exchange of trade and supplies from New England to the rest of the colonies. Also, only twelve miles away was West Point. This made the Stony Point fort even more vital to the security of the region as West Point was a key strategic fortification to the Americans for keeping control over the upper reaches of the Hudson River.

Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Stony Point

At the time of the patriot’s assault on Stony Point, it was garrisoned by the Red Coats with elements of the 17th Regiment of Foot under the command of Lt. Col. Henry Johnson. The 17th was reinforced by a grenadier company belonging to one of the two battalions of the 71st Regiment, and a company-strength detachment of the Loyal American Regiment (Tories). A detachment of the Royal Artillery manned fifteen field pieces that included five iron and two brass cannon, four mortars and four small howitzers. A Royal Navy gunboat was assigned to protect the river approaches to the fortifications, and the armed sloop Vulture was also anchored in that part of the river.

The British position at Stony Point was a fortified one, but it was never intended to be a true fort in the 18th century European sense of the word. No stone was used, and no walls were constructed. The defenses consisted of earthen fleches (cannon positions) and wooden abatis (felled trees sharpened to a point and placed in earthen embankments). The defenses were situated on a rocky elevation approachable only from the west, protected in the front by a watery defile and on both flanks by extensive swampy areas.

To storm the position, General George Washington formed the Corps of Light Infantry on June 12, 1779, with command assigned to Brigadier General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, commander of the Pennsylvania Line. The Corps of Light Infantry was an elite, seasonal combat organization drafted in each of the years between 1777 and 1781 from the light infantry companies of each regiment in Washington’s army. The 1779 Corps was organized into a brigade of four regiments, each composed of two battalions of four companies of men from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.

Anthony Wayne (1745–1796), American GeneralAfter a morning muster, on July 15, 1779, the Corps of Light Infantry marched from Sandy Beach north of Fort Montgomery beginning at noon. The land was thick with Tories, so any civilians met along the route of march were to be taken into custody to prevent them from warning the British. The column, often forced to march single file over rough terrain and roads hardly more than paths, took a circuitous route to avoid detection by the British. The Corps began arriving at 8 p.m. at the Springsteel farm, a mile and a half west of Stony Point, and by 10 p.m. had been formed in the attack columns.

The men were given a rum ration and their orders. General Wayne announced that he would give prize bounties to the first men who entered the works, and to anyone else who distinguished himself in the action. The troops were also given pieces of white paper to pin to their hats in order to help them tell each other from the British in the darkness. The columns then moved out at 11:30 p.m. to their jump-off points, diverging immediately, to begin the assault at midnight. These attack columns were led by groups of volunteer soldiers nicknamed the “forlorn hope” who were responsible for breaking holes in enemy defenses and along with their weapons, were armed with axes and picks. To ensure the element of surprise, orders were given that the soldiers guns were to be unloaded, they were to fight using only bayonets.

Attributed to Providence, bad weather arrived that very night which brought aide to the Continentals. Cloud cover cut off moonlight and high winds forced the British war ships in Haverstraw Bay to leave their posts off Stony Point and move downriver. At midnight, as scheduled, the attack began with the columns crossing the swampy flanks of the point. The southern column unexpectedly found its approach inundated in two to four feet of water and required thirty minutes to wade to the first line of abatis, during which Major Hardy Murfree’s demonstration force were spotted by British sentries and fired upon.
Because of the stealth in which the Patriot assault forces approached the British defenses on the slopes of the hill, the artillery pieces that the British had placed on the summit for just such defensive purposes were unsuccessful in repelling the attack. Due to the speed at which the Patriot infantrymen were moving, the British cannons could not be lowered to an angle low enough to sufficiently harass the men assaulting up the hill.

The first man into the British upper works was Lt. Col. Francois de Fleury, an aristocrat French engineer commanding a battalion of the 1st Regiment. He was followed by Lt. Henry Knox, Sgt. William Baker, Sgt William Spencer and Sgt. George Donlop. As the men entered the British works they called out, “The fort’s our own!” – the prearranged watchword to distinguish friend from foe. The action lasted 25 minutes and was over by 1 a.m. The Patriot’s losses were 15 killed and 83 wounded. 546 prisoners were taken, 74 of whom were wounded. Some Patriot sources stated that there were 63 British dead.

Before dawn, General Wayne sent a brief dispatch telling Washington, “The fort and garrison, with Colonel Johnston, are ours. Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free.” The next day, Washington rode into the works to inspect the battlefield and congratulate the troops. For his exploits, Wayne was awarded a medal by Congress, one of the few issued during the revolution. The capturing of Stony Point was a huge victory for morale for the Continental Army and helped strengthen a positive impression among America’s foreign allies.

Picture Credits:
Anthony Wayne portrait: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anthony_Wayne.jpg
General Wayne at the Battle of Stony Point: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d2/WayneAtStonyPoint1779.jpg