The Midnight Attack on Stony Point

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This map details the initial American fortifications at Stony and Verplank’s Points along with British additions.

While each campaign year of the Revolutionary War had its own purpose and series of events, the main focus of the campaign of 1779 was to maintain the vital lines of communication between the Eastern and Southern states. George Washington believed that the fort at West Point was “the most important Post in America,” and he treated it as such. The British knew Washington’s control over West Point would not be broken by a direct attack and decided to try to draw Washington out instead. After British forces destroyed a series of towns in Connecticut in a failed attempt to persuade Washington to face them in the open plain and abandon West Point, Washington chose to respond in a way that was entirely unexpected. Thirteen miles from West Point, the British occupied Stony Point and Verplancks Point. Located on opposite sides of the Hudson River, the ferry that ran between them was the shortest and most effective line of communication between the east and the south. [1]

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Abatis similar to what was used at Stony Point

Stony Point was a cape covered with rock and wood that extended into the river for half a mile from the western shore line. A marsh, which was two feet deep at parts, stretched around the base from the river in the north to an outlet to the south. This created an “island fortress” on which the British had erected a “series of redoubts and…disconnected batteries” with two lines of abatis-barricades of sharpened logs-that extended the entire length of the crest. Within the fortification, the British posted four companies of the Seventeenth Regiment of Infantry, one company of American Loyalists, and a detachment of the Royal Artillery. Two companies of the Seventeeth Regiment and two companies of Grenadiers defended at the second line of abatis, about a third of the way down the hill from the summit.  Stony Point seemed to “present insurmountable obstacles to any attacking force” and was so manned and protected that the only realistic proposition of capture was not by “slow approaches or the modern convenient method of turning, but by storm.” [2]

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Major-General Anthony Wayne (Pastel by James Sharples, Sr ca. 1795)

The success of this unprecedented effort fully depended upon the secrecy of preparations, the courage of the troops, and a commander who would “take advantage of every opportunity” that might be presented. For this reason Washington selected a Pennsylvania brigadier named Anthony Wayne, who had a reputation for “taking the risks of battle,” keen intelligence, and “impetuous courage.” The soldiers who were in the Light Infantry were considered to be the “brawniest and pluckiest” veterans in the Continental Army who had experienced “two, three, and some almost four years” of war. Soldiers from Maryland had a large presence, composing at least four companies that were commanded by Major John Steward of the Maryland 400. As the veteran forces in the Maryland 400 were already distinguished, men such as Francis Reveley were perfect for selection. The force was composed of four regiments of about 340 men, each led by distinguished officers such as Colonel Richard Butler who was viewed as one of the most efficient officers of the Pennsylvania line. [3]

Every effort to obtain helpful information was made before an attack was planned. Major Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee and his partisan legion picked up stray facts from farmers and deserters while Allen McLane and Rufus Putnam, the chief engineer, provided careful surveys. By July 6, 1779, personal inspections had been done by both Washington and Wayne. Lee discovered from a deserter that the Point “could be approached from the southward along a beach of sand where the marsh reached the river.” On July 10, Washington wrote a letter to Wayne that provided him with a possible plan of assault, stating that while he had put thought into the plan, Wayne was “at liberty to depart from them in every instance where [he] thought they may be improved or changed for the better.” [4]

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Fresco depicting the capture of Stony Point located in the U.S. Capitol – The Storming of Stony Point, by Constantino Brumidi.

Before the attack, it was decided that the plan would be safeguarded by the strictest security and multiple measures were taken to preserve secrecy. Not only were the men not allowed to load their muskets in fear that they would accidentally be set off, but guards were posted at nearby houses to prevent people from passing and all dogs in the surrounding area were killed to inhibit barking. Although British spies knew an attack was going to happen, they were not aware when it would occur as only Wayne knew of the plan until it was put into action. On the morning of July 15, the troops were drawn up for inspection. Instead of being dismissed afterwards, they started marching south and arrived at a farm about a mile and a half west of Stony Point around eight o’clock in the evening. [5]

Wayne ordered columns to be formed on both the right, which was led by Colonel Febiger, and the left, which was led be Colonel Butler, both of which were to proceed with “whole dependence on the bayonet.” Another group, led by Major Murfree, would move in the center, awaiting the attack before keeping up a steady stream of fire as a distraction from the real attack being acted out by the silent columns. By half past midnight on July 16, the plan moved into effect with the right column crossing the marsh. By the time they reached the far side the enemy realized what was happening and opened fire. At the same time, Major Steward led a group of men called the “Forlorn Hope,” a suicide mission to cut apart the wooden defenses of the British. The light infantry charged ahead, tearing down the first abatis and continuing to push forward. At the second abatis, Wayne was grazed in the head by a bullet and called for them to continue forward as he fell to the ground. [6]

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Anthony Wayne leading the assault on Stony Point, engraved after Alonzo Chappel, published by Johnson, Fry and Co., NY, c. 1857.

British Commodore George Collier later wrote that “the rebels had made the attack with a bravery they never before exhibited, and they showed at this moment a generosity and clemency which during the course of the Rebellion had no parallel.” The advance showed “the high state of their discipline and training,” proving their elite status and “gloriously [distinguishing] themselves.” In just a few minutes, Colonel François de Fleury was grasping the British flag as the first soldier within the entrenchments, yelling that the fort was theirs once more. After the British realized the Americans had surmounted their defenses after less than a hour, a majority surrendered. In this well planned and executed nighttime attack, the Americans killed 63 British and Hessian soldiers, wounded 74, and took 543 prisoners. Of the victorious Americans, only fifteen were killed and eighty-four were wounded.  [7]

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The back of Steward’s congressional medal, depicting Steward leading his men over an enemy’s abatis.

This victory boosted the spirits of Americans in a year where little action occurred, later being referred to by General Charles Lee as “not only the most brilliant [assault] through the whole course of this war on either side, but that it [was] one of the most brilliant [he was] acquainted with in history.” After the battle, Fleury, Wayne, and Steward all were awarded special “congressional medals.” Congress only awarded 11 throughout the entire war. [8]

Despite this great victory, nothing truly came out of the capture of Stony Point. The Americans abandoned it almost immediately after, as they found it hard to defend, and the British moved back in a week later before abandoning it as well.  Towards the end of 1779, the focus of the war shifted to the South, where the Marylanders built on their reputation for bravery.

– Taylor Blades

 

 

Notes:

[1] “From George Washington to William Heath, 21 March 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives; Samuel W. Pennypacker,  “The Capture of Stony Point.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 26, no. 3 (1902) 361.

[2] Pennypacker, 362-363.

[3] Pennypacker, 363-364, 367-369; John W. Wright, “The Corps of Light Infantry in the Continental Army” The American Historical Review, vol. 31, no. 3 (1926) 455.

[4] Pennypacker, 364.

[5] Pennypacker, 366.

[6] Pennypacker, 365-367.

[7] John Dwight Kilbourn, A Short History of the Maryland Line in the Continental Army. (Baltimore, MD: The Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland 1992) 27; Pennypacker, 367-369; Wright, 456.

[8] Pennypacker, 369.

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