Revolutionary War Historical Article
The Storming of Stony Point
By Donald N. Moran
On May 28th, 1779 Sir Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in North America, massed 6,000 troops at Kingsbridge, New York, for an apparent attempt to take strategic West Point, known as the "Key to the Continent". The fortifications at West Point controlled the Hudson River and prevented the British from cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies. Twelve miles south was Stony Point, a fortified peninsula jutting one half mile into the Hudson River, and across from it on Verplanck's Point, was Fort Lafayette, also well fortified.
Sir Henry ordered both American posts taken. The 40-man garrison at Stony Point, observing the superior force approaching, burned the blockhouse and abandoned the works without firing a shot. On the east bank of the Hudson the American garrison was not so fortunate. Seventy North Carolina Continental troops were trapped and forced to surrender. Sir Henry ordered the defenses of both forts be significantly strengthened and started calling Stony Point "Little Gibraltar".
General George Washington moved some of his available troops to counter the anticipated attack on West Point, and wisely decided to go on the offensive. He ordered Brigadier General Anthony Wayne to prepare a plan to retake Stony Point. The plan Wayne conceived was both daring and prudent. Surprise was essential to a successful attack, as was good luck. Wayne rejected the concept of a simultaneous attack on Fort LaFayette, preferring to take it after the capture of Stony Point. Washington approved the plan, ordering it take place on July 16th.
The topography of Stony Point greatly favored the defenders. The Hudson River at Stony Point is really an estuary, not a river. At high tide the marshes on either side of the 150-foot high peninsula are too deep to wade across. At the base of the peninsula the British chopped down all the trees, creating a double row of abatis. Trenches and earthworks were thrown up making the position extremely strong. To further ensure that General Washington could not successfully attack it, Sir Henry ordered the experienced Lt. Col. Henry Johnston to command the post. Johnston commanded the 17th Regiment of Foot and the grenadier company of the 71st Highlanders, a strong detachment from the Loyal American Regiment and fifteen pieces of artillery, manned by members of the Royal Artillery. - a total of 625 battle hardened regulars.
General Wayne chose the recently formed Light Infantry Brigade, consisting of 1,200 of the best soldiers in the Continental Army, for the assault. Wayne's Light Infantry Brigade moved out of their encampment, near Fort Montgomery (seven miles north of Stony Point), and marched to Springsteel, a mile and a half from the target. Security was extremely tight, and it has been written that local dogs were killed to prevent them from barking and alerting the British. Just before midnight on July 15th, the attacking Americans moved forward. To prevent an accidental firing of a musket or friendly fire incidents, the troops were ordered not to load their weapons and to only use their bayonets! Maj. Hardy Murfree's battalion was exempted, as their attack on the center of the fortifications was a diversion. To encourage the men, a bounty was offered by General Washington. The first man to enter the fortifications would be awarded $500.00 , the second man $400.00, the third man $300.00, the fourth man $200.00, and the fifth man $100.00.
General Wayne's attack plan called for a diversion at the center of the British lines, with two other columns flanking the fortifications from the north and south sides. Both of the flanking attacks had to be proceeded by a 20-man 'Forlorn Hope' to cut gaps through the felled trees (abatis) and eliminate the advance sentries.
These parties were followed by 150 Light Infantry to actually storm the fortifications at bayonet point. The northern attack force was led by Lt. James Gibbons' (of the 6th Pennsylvania)Forlorn Hope followed by Major John Stewart's 150-man storming party from the 2nd Regiment, with Col. Richard Butler's Regiment supporting, and Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg's 300 Pennsylvanians in reserve. This would be the secondary attack. The primary assault was from the south, Lt. George Knox (of the 9th Pennsylvania) would lead the Forlorn Hope, followed by 150 men from Lt. Colonel Francois Louis Teisseydre, Marquis de Fleury's 1st Regiment. The main body would be followed by Major William Hull's detachment. General Anthony Wayne would personally lead the primary assault.
At the appointed time Major Murfree started his diversionary attack, and being the only American detachment to fire their muskets attracted the attention of British Lt. Colonel Johnston. Johnston immediately ordered a counter attack and a bayonet charge with six companies the 17th Regiment - - half his entire force. Their charge was stopped by Major Murfree and with some help from the flanking forces, preventing Murfree's retreat back to his fortifications. He and all the survivors of his charge were captured. His absence from the fort left the remaining defenders without central leadership to coordinate the defense. Johnston's decision was a fatal mistake.
Reports from the attackers say that they had to wade through four feet of water to reach the Stony Point peninsula. Both the attacking forces encountered British outposts almost simultaneously. Lieutenants Gibbons' and Knox's Forlorn Hopes, wielded their axes to cut the needed gaps in the abatis while under wicked fire, sustaining horrific losses. The Light Infantry charged through the gaps routing the British defenders at bayonet point. Lt. Gibbon's Forlorn Hope was reduced to three men!
Lt. Colonel Fleury was the first into the fortifications, personally tearing down the British Flag. He was followed by Lt. Knox, then Sergeant Baker of the Virginia line, who had received four wounds in this attack. Baker was followed by Sergeant Spencer of the Virginia line who had been wounded twice, then Sergeant Donlop of the Pennsylvania line who also had been wounded twice. A record of the payment of these monetary awards confirms the order they entered the British fort. Fleury divided his awarded of $500.00 among his advanced party who were just behind him.
Leading the primary attack from the south, General Wayne was struck in the forehead by a British musket ball. Anyone seeing him hit would have considered the wound fatal. However, it was only a very painful grazing, leaving him a permanent reminder of the assault in the form of a large scar. He rose to his knees and called to his men "Forward, my brave fellows, Forward!". His two Aide-de-Camps, Majors Henry Archer and Benjamin Fishbourne were quickly at his side. The blood soaked General immediately ordered: "Carry me into the fort, if I am to die, I want to die at the head of the column."
Major Stewart's attacking column charged into the North side of the fortifications within seconds of Fleury's Detachment. The ferocity of the bayonet wielding Light Infantry was too much for the British defenders who surrendered.
The success of a three prong night attack was a credit to General Wayne and his planning, as well as being able to maintain strict security and a lot of luck. In spite of what had to be a disabling headache from his wound, General Wayne penned the following to General George Washington:
The fort & garrison with Colonel Johnston are ours. Our officers & men behaved like men who are determined to be free.
Yours most sincerely
Sir Henry Clinton, undoubtedly shocked at the loss of the entire garrison at his "Little Gilbraltar" ordered his army mobilized and moved up the Hudson River. A large detachment was ordered to reinforce Verplanck's Point, while an even larger force was sent to recapture Stony Point.
In his reports, Sir Henry wrote: "But it is most probable, from Mr. Washington's own account of this business, what [that] wary officer suspected my intentions . . . . they precipitately abandoned their acquisitions. . ."
General Washington did not want a general engagement, therefore preferred to retreat north to his fortified positions at West Point.
The attack on Stony Point proved to be the last major action in the North.
Washington was so pleased with the victory that on July 18th, he personally rode to Stony Point and shook hands with every man that participated in the attack. Joining him was Major General, the Baron von Steuben, who considered the Light Infantry "his lads."
From a strategic point, the loss, recapture and abandonment of Stony Point has little military value. But, from a psychosocial point of view, it was extraordinarily valuable. In a report in Annual Register of 1779, Conrad A. Gerard wrote about the assault on Stony Point: "It would have done honor to the most veteran soldiers. . . . . Plan, execution, courage, address and energy, in short, the most rare qualities were found united there, and I am convinced that this action will elevate the ideas of Europe about the military qualities of the Americans."
British Commodore George Collier entered into his journal the following interesting observation: " . . . 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, There was light sufficient after getting up the heights to show them many of the British troops with arms in their hands; instead of putting them to death, they called to them" to throw their arms down if they expected any quarter. It was too late to resist; they submitted, and the strong post of Stony Point fell again into possession of the Rebels."
In the opinion of most British officers, the American army was an untrained band of irregulars, and had little respect of their military ability. However, after the battle of Monmouth Court House (June 28th, 1778) where the American Continental Line went bayonet-to-bayonet with the British regulars and held their own, and now a successful three prong night attack on what was thought to be an impregnable position changed many opinions. Although not documented, it is certain that the successful assault on Stony Point convinced Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton that all his defensive positions had to be reinforced, hence forcing him to abandon any major offensive actions.
The storming of Stony Point should be remembered as the beginning of the end of the American Revolution.
The significance of the battle was not lost on Congress. They appraised the value of the captured British military stores and artillery at $158,640 which they awarded to the officers and men in proportion to their rank, in the same manner as prize money was awarded to privateers. (General Henry Knox appraised the captured stores and artillery at $110,732.)
Three of the gallant officers that led the attack were awarded special "congressional medals". They were the Marquis de Fleury, Colonel John Stewart and General Anthony Wayne, each received one. Considering that Congress only awarded 11 such medals during the entire eight years of war, awarding three for one battle was significant. Lieutenants Gibbons and Knox received brevet promotions to Captain.
An interesting aside is the "luck factor" It was long remembered Napoleon, a serious student of Military History, would always ask the question when evaluating a general officer "Is he lucky?"