In the summer of 1779, both Henry Clinton and George Washington needed a battle.
With the entrance of France and most recently Spain into the war against Great Britain, regiments that Clinton needed to decisively crush the Continental Army were fighting in India, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. Without those troops, Clinton, bottled up in New York, had to force Washington to make a mistake and expose the Continental Army. To that end, he planned devastating raids into the countryside. Washington didn’t take the bait.
Washington also needed a battle, but on his own terms. The fortress at West Point, which prevented the British from sailing up the Hudson River and isolating New England, and arguably the most important piece of ground in the Thirteen Colonies, was an ideal defensive position to which Washington could withdraw when Clinton attacked. But it was too strong of a position, so frustratingly, Clinton also wasn’t taking the bait.
Washington’s need for a victory was nearly as great as it was two and a half years ago at Trenton. The Continental Army seemed about to disintegrate. Morale was rock bottom. Its supply situation was abysmal. The raids and constant skirmishing with loyalists were eating up gunpowder at a prodigious rate. Even worse, food was scarce. The winter of 1778/79 was the worst in a hundred years, worse than even the previous one at Valley Forge. It was so bad that New York Harbor froze solid. Spring was late in coming and the results of the first harvests were meagre at best.
What food there was couldn’t be bought anyway. Runaway inflation made Continental script virtually worthless. No amount of financial wizardry by Robert Morris and organizational leadership by Nathaniel Greene was sufficient to overcome the difficulties suffered by the Army Commissariat. (The crisis came to a head in 1780 when the Congress abdicated its responsibility to supply the army completely and delegated it to the states.) Furthermore, Iroquois warriors, Canadian militia, and loyalist Rangers had set the Colonies’ frontier on fire killing and enslaving its inhabitants. The fertile western valleys of New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were barely able to provide for their own regiments much less the rest of the Continental Army. Von Steuben, DeKalb, Lafayette and others worked hard to professionalize the Continental Army, and that was being threatened by its logistical problems. Only a victory would take the soldiers minds off their empty stomachs.
The professionalization of the Continental Army continued after Valley Forge and its regular units were more than a match for the British regulars and their Hessian mercenaries. By the spring of 1779, the trainers whom Von Steuben drilled at Valley Forge had successfully imparted their knowledge. The best of these trainers established the regimental light infantry companies during 1778 reorganization. On 12 June 1779, Washington’s Corps of Light Infantry, based on the British model since 1777, was expanded. In addition to the regimental light infantry companies, the best of these light infantrymen were formed into the “Light Infantry Brigade” of four regiments. The Light Infantry Brigade was the Continental Army’s first elite unit. Its regiments had no state designator as the brigade was comprised of men from throughout the Thirteen Colonies. If you don’t count Washington’s Headquarter’s guard, the 1779 Light Infantry Brigade was America’s first “All American” unit, and established the nearly unique American concept of dual use light/heavy infantry, which we still use today. Unlike British elite units, such as the Grenadiers and Guards, the Light Infantry Brigade was tailored to the American way of war on the frontier and trained to screen, patrol, raid, skirmish, and conduct reconnaissance, not unlike the Robert Roger’s rangers. But like the British elite, they were trained as disciplined and resilient assault troops and drilled relentlessly in the use of the bayonet, so much so that Von Steuben specifically referred to the Brigade as “his lads”.
Von Steuben’s lads were given to the Washington’s most aggressive commander, “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the commander of the Pennsylvania Line. Wayne’s first task was capturing Stony Point, 14 miles south of West Point on the west bank of the Hudson. According to legend, Wayne said, “General, if you plan it, I’ll storm Hell.” Washington supposedly replied, “Perhaps we had better try Stoney Point first.”
Stony Point was the gateway to the Hudson Highlands and dominated the river crossing at Kings Ferry where Clinton hoped to lure Washington into an engagement. Stony Point was seized by the British in May and the rocky and marshy 150 ft high shallow peninsula was heavily fortified over the next two months. Earthworks were constructed, trenches dug, and the marsh trees felled so they formed a double row of abatis. Lt. Col. Henry Johnston, whose 17th Regiment of Foot reinforced with a company each of grenadiers and loyalist regulars formed the garrison, deemed Stony Point impregnable and Clinton referred to the position as “Lil Gibraltar”. Johnston knew that the difficult terrain limited the amount of troops that could be deployed against him at any one time, and even if Washington assaulted the position with the entire Continental Army, his 750 men and fifteen cannon could easily hold until reinforcements were ferried from across the river.
Unfortunately for Johnston, Washington’s spies noted that the defense of Stony Point had a fatal flaw. At high tide the abatis covered the entire length of the position correctly rendering the position seemingly impregnable. At low tide, however, disciplined troops could wade the four feet of water on the southern edge and move around the obstacles to a small uncovered beach farther out on the river. The beach could be observed by two Royal Navy ships off shore, but if the attackers were undiscovered they could get off the beach and into the earthworks before the ships could fire.
On the afternoon of 15 July 1779, the 1150 strong Light Infantry Brigade infiltrated the ten miles over Dunderburg Mountain through the loyalist riddled countryside to Stony Point. They arrived just out of sight of the British at 8 pm. The plan was for one regiment to demonstrate to the front of the British position, while another feint to the north fixed the British eyes in that direction. The main assault would come from the south led by Wayne himself. The demonstration to the front had the only American troops with loaded weapons. Both the northern and southern attacks were with bayonets fixed on unloaded muskets to prevent accidental discharges on the approach march, which would alert the garrison. Each assault column was led by a 20 man volunteer “forlorn hope” armed with axes and picks to clear the abatis. Each forlorn hope was supported by a picked 150 man assault element to exploit the breaches. The rest of the regiments would follow and assume the assault. Wayne relied on surprise and aggressiveness to make up for the limited amount of men available in the initial assaults. He promised $500 to the first man inside the British position, $400 to the second, etc, down to $100 for the fifth. After a final ration of rum at midnight, the columns stepped out of their assault positions into the darkness.
Wayne’s southern column took a bit longer to infiltrate through the marsh and chest deep river water, but they were unspotted in the cloud covered darkness until after Major Hardy Murfree’s diversion had the full attention of the British. Lt Col. Johnston personally led a bayonet charge to clear the rebel scum, which was promptly surrounded and captured due mostly to Murfree’s quick reactions to the counterattack. In the first minutes of the battle the British lost their commander and 1/3 of the garrison. Murfree’s men were the only Americans to fire their weapons that night.
As soon as they were close enough, the forlorn hopes launched themselves at the abatis with a fury, hacking away and digging up the trees, through withering fire, to clear large enough paths through the obstacles for the regiments to pass. Most of the American casualties were from the two forlorn hopes, and the southern one, reduced to three men at the end of the battle, distracted the British further from the soaked men charging up the uncovered beach. Lt Col Francois Teisseydre, the Marquis de Fleury, commander of the 1st Regiment was the first into the British entrenchments, and personally tore down the British colours.
Back in the water, Wayne was shot in the head leading the southern assault group, and admonished his men to carry him into the impregnable fortress, where he hoped “to die at the head of the column”. Both the northern and southern pincers penetrated into the fortification and the remaining British and loyalists were overwhelmed at bayonet point. 472 surrendered. Wayne’s three pronged assault on Stony Point was the last major action of the war against Clinton’s army in the north.
The Light Infantry Brigade suffered 15 killed and 83 wounded, including Wayne, for killing or capturing Johnston’s entire force. Wayne’s wound was bloody and painful, and left a scar that reminded him of the battle for his remaining years, but it was not fatal. He sent off a message to Washington which read in full,
The fort and garrison, with Colonel Johnston, are ours. Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free.”
Yours most sincerely,
Washington was ecstatic at the news. He and Von Steuben rode down from West Point the next morning to the sound of Johnston’s guns manned by American crews firing on the British across the river. They both literally shook the hand of every survivor in the brigade. Furthermore, Washington forced Congress to honor Wayne’s pledges to the first men to enter the British fortifications. Fleury received $500 which he gave to his men. Lt George Knox, commander of the southern forlorn hope, received $400 followed by Sergeants Baker and Spencer of the Virginia Line, and Sgt Dunlop of the Pennsylvania Line. Their names were recorded in the minutes of the next session Continental Congress. The Battle of Stony Point was a massive morale boost for Americans who were frustrated with the hardships and static nature of the war in 1778 and 1779. Congress assessed that Wayne captured $150,000 worth of stores and cannon and awarded the Light Infantry Brigade prize money as if they were privateers.
In the entirety of the American Revolutionary War, Continental Congress only awarded eleven “congressional medals”. Of that small number, three were awarded to participants in the Battle of Stony Point: General Anthony Wayne commander, Lt Col John Stewart the commander of the northern feint which wasn’t supposed to break through the British defenses but did so anyway, and Lt Col Fleury, the first man through the breach.
The battle thoroughly depressed Clinton and the British and loyalists. Descriptions of the disciplined three pronged night bayonet assault surprised members of Parliament and belied the false descriptions they were told of the Continental Army. This was magnified by Wayne’s treatment of his prisoners, a clemency that was not extended to his troops massacred at Paoli the year prior. After Stony Point the Continental Army was a given a respect that had eluded it so far in the war. The British would no longer look at Washington’s army the same way again.