This article first appeared in our July 2015 issue.
If you were to rank Revolutionary War battles in order of importance, this one wouldn’t make the top 10. As a historical reference point, its name is irrelevant in comparison to Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown. The fight took less than half an hour, and the winners abandoned the ground they had taken just two days later. Still, the Battle of Stony Point, just south of West Point, was a critical victory for the nascent nation’s Continental Army.
As with most things, context is key. The Battle of Stony Point took place on July 16, 1779. The war had been going on for four long years. George Washington’s Army had won very few battles, but had managed to play the British Army to a virtual stalemate. That didn’t sit well with the Crown, and Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of the British forces in America, wanted to force the issue to what was to him its logical conclusion. He would goad Washington into what military parlance of the time called “general and decisive action,” says Michael Sheehan, historical interpreter at the Stony Point Battlefield. “In other words, ‘let’s beat him and be done with this,’” Sheehan says.
In May 1779, a British force of about 8,000 men, under Lieutenant Colonel Henry Johnson, captured Fort Lafayette on the eastern bank of the river and built fortifications at Stony Point, an arrowhead-shaped peninsula on the western bank. These spots were chosen because they were near a strategically narrow point in the river where the Kings Ferry crossed, and, as such, was the key to controlling passage into the Hudson Highlands and West Point. The Brits were armed with heavy artillery, a Royal Navy gunboat was moved in to add more protection, and an armed sloop, The Vulture, set anchor nearby. Stony Point, not a fort in the true sense of the term, was defended not by stone walls but by redoubts of cannons fronted by an abatis — felled trees with sharpened points. The terrain was rocky and steep, and the swampy riverbed made approach even more difficult. Washington saw all this from his encampment at nearby Buckberg Mountain. Typical 18th-century military tactics involving straight-line approaches seemed hopeless. But he had — forgive the pun — a revolutionary plan.
Rather than attack frontally, Washington and his field commander, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, decided on a stealth approach. They called in the Corps of Light Infantry, formed only one month earlier. This was the Army’s most seasoned and well-trained unit, “the Navy Seals of the day,” says Sheehan. On July 15, Wayne and about 1,300 troops began an eight-hour march from Sandy Beach, just north of Fort Montgomery, to Springsteel’s farm just west of Stony Point. Arriving near midnight, Wayne divided his force into three columns. Two of them moved down to the river, north and south of the fort, taking advantage of low tide to gain a beachhead. These troops were ordered to carry unloaded muskets so a misfire would not alert the enemy, and to use only fixed bayonets in the attack. When they were in position, the third column began firing muskets as a diversion to draw the attention of the 564 British soldiers. The two riverside columns then crept up the hill. A group of volunteers, called the “forlorn hope” for their dangerous mission, were first in, charged with breaking the abatis with picks and axes. The troops crossed the defenses and stormed the fort. It was a bloody fight: Fifteen men were killed and 83 were wounded — including Wayne, who was hit in the head by a spent musket ball but not seriously injured. The British suffered at least 20 deaths and 74 wounded. But it was also quick, and, by 2 a.m. on July 16, Wayne sent a letter to Washington reporting the fort captured.
The Continental Army was fortunate — bad weather had forced the two guard ships downriver. But it was also brilliantly marshaled; never before had such guerrilla tactics been used so successfully. Washington visited the battle site the next day and commended his troops for succeeding in such a difficult assignment.
And the day after that, he took his army, along with a lot of British weaponry and supplies, and fled.
Washington never intended to hold the Point, because he knew he didn’t have enough men to defend the inevitable large-scale response the Brits were sure to make. The British moved back in but stayed only a few more months before turning their attentions toward the southern front. Stony Point turned out to be the final battle in the northern colonies.
So what’s the big deal? For one, the battle was in our front yard. More important, it was a turning point in several ways. The tactics that Washington deployed were “experimental,” Sheehan says. “These troops were trained to fight outside of linear formation and to go where needed. Warfare had never been done like this before by the Americans. It proved that the painful training done in previous years was solid, and proved that this was an effective fighting force.”
After a long time fighting with little or nothing to show for it, the Continental Army earned itself and the nation an enormous emotional lift to so easily embarrass the mighty British Army, which no longer could take the rag-tag army lightly. An entire British company, about 500 men, was taken prisoner, and the 15 captured cannons and additional booty was worth “in the low millions” in today’s money, Sheehan says. “For an army with nothing, this was a huge boost.” Congress agreed. Of the 11 medals in total that were awarded during the war, three went to soldiers at Stony Point. One of them was Wayne, who went on to win other stirring, against-all-odds battles, which earned him the lasting nickname, “Mad Anthony.”
The victory also helped Ben Franklin convince King Louis XVI that the Americans had staying power and that the French should continue to support the Revolution. But perhaps the true lasting value of the battle, despite its seeming second-rate status in the pantheon of Revolutionary War battles, is best summed up in the letter that Mad Anthony Wayne scribbled, semi-consciously, to be dispatched to General Washington. It reads, in its entirety:
“Dear General, the fort and garrison with Colonel Johnson are ours. Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free.”
This park features a museum and a number of interpretive programs to reenact scenes of military life and canon and musket firings. A self-guided walking tour features placards describing the Battle of Stony Point and takes you to a scenic vista overlooking the river and the Stony Point lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse on the Hudson.
The grounds are open Monday to Friday, weather and staff permitting. For more information, call 845.786.2521 or visit www.nysparks.com/historic-sites/8/details.aspx.