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Historic America

Thunder on the Hudson

During the Revolutionary War, New York’s Hudson River Valley was the scene of numerous battles as both sides sought to control this vital waterway.

Before automobiles and paved roads, rivers were the highways of their day. Whoever controlled a major river could ferry troops and supplies back and forth over hundreds of miles. Control of the Hudson River in eastern New York was critical to British plans early in the Revolutionary War, but Patriots blocked passage by spanning the river with large iron chains at a narrow point near Bear Mountain.

After being pushed out of New York City in 1776, Gen. George Washington established his headquarters in Peekskill along the Hudson River. He considered the area critical for keeping the Continental Army supplied. Numerous battles and skirmishes were fought for control over this vital waterway.

Battle of White Plains

The Battle of White Plains was fought on October 28, 1776 during George Washington’s retreat from New York City. Washington positioned his depleted Continental Army on hills near White Plains, New York, east of the Hudson River. He established 3-mile long defensive positions, including two lines of earthworks, anchored by swampy land near the Bronx River on one flank and Chatterton’s Hill on the other.

British General William Howe’s plan was to attack the Continentals’ right flank at Chatterton’s Hill. Hessians under the command of Colonel Johann Rahl crossed the Bronx River and occupied a hill on the extreme right while British cannon pounded the defenders on the hill.

After fierce fighting, the Hessians outflanked Continental positions, and a charge by cavalry dragoons drove them off the hill. Heavy rain delayed further attack, and by the time General Howe advanced on November 1, Washington’s army was gone.

1777 Van Cortlandtville Skirmish

In late March 1777, 500 British troops sailed up the Hudson River to raid Patriot farms and burn supplies. They landed at Peekskill Bay on March 23 and began pummeling Brig. Gen. Alexander McDougall’s 250-man force on Fort Hill with artillery.

The following day, a force of 200 British troops marched northeast toward the Van Cortlandt family manor and began pillaging. Some became separated from the main body. Sensing an opportunity, Lt. Col. Marinus Willett, newly arrived with his 80-man detachment, persuaded McDougall to allow him to attack. His men fixed bayonets and charged the unsuspecting British raiders as the sun disappeared behind the horizon.

McDougall wrote to George Washington: “…the Enemy fled with great precipitation to the main Body. They were panick struck, asserted the Woods were full of Rebel Soldiers.” The British slipped away in their boats the next morning.

Battles of Saratoga

The Battle of Freeman’s Farm and Battle of Bemis Heights are collectively known as the Battles of Saratoga. In 1777, British General John Burgoyne marched south from Canada down the Upper Hudson Valley in a plan to cut New England off from the other American colonies. He didn’t get far.

At the Battle of Freeman’s Farm on September 19, 1777, Burgoyne confronted Generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold and the Continental Army with 9,000 men to 7,200. Though technically a British victory, the engagement cost them nearly 600 casualties. The Americans suffered approximately 300 killed and wounded. Burgoyne decided to forgo an immediate pursuit.

Eighteen days later, at the Battle of Bemis Heights, Burgoyne took 5,000 effectives and advanced on the Continental Army’s positions. Benedict Arnold, furious at Horatio Gates having relieved him of command, appeared on the field and led an attack that shattered the British lines. Burgoyne ordered a retreat to Saratoga (Schuylerville), where his army was surrounded. He surrendered along with his entire army on October 16, 1777.

Forts Clinton and Montgomery

After the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the British and American armies sat licking their wounds. British Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne’s 5,000 supply-starved men hugged the Hudson River near Saratoga.

In late September, Maj. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton moved his 3,100-man army north to relieve Burgoyne and open the Hudson River to British ships. Standing in his way was New York Governor George Clinton with 600 men and 20 artillery pieces at Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery, plus the warships Montgomery and Congress and three smaller vessels.

On October 6, 1777, British Maj. Gen. Clinton split his army in two in order to assault both forts simultaneously by land. The British attack began as the sun was setting over Bear Mountain. Fort Montgomery’s beleaguered defenders were forced to flee into the river to escape British bayonets.

The Americans stubbornly resisted at Fort Clinton, but the British’s overwhelming numerical superiority prevailed. Only approximately 300 American defenders escaped, including Governor George Clinton and his older brother, Brig. Gen. James Clinton.

In total, 190 British soldiers were killed or wounded, compared to 350 Americans killed, wounded, or captured. Despite his victory, Sir Henry Clinton was still nearly 100 miles south of Burgoyne’s army, and he would never reach him.

Stony Point Battlefield

The Battle of Stony Point was a daring nighttime attack on July 16, 1779 by Brig. General “Mad Anthony” Wayne and 1,350 picked colonial troops on the British garrison at Stony Point along the Hudson River. Under cover of darkness, Lt. George Knox led a “Forlorn Hope” of 20 men who volunteered to lead the attack.

The men advanced across a chest-deep swamp to reach the British works. Aside from a diversionary formation of two companies, most men only carried muskets with fixed bayonets and no ammunition. They were expected to overwhelm the British in hand-to-hand combat.

Though Brig. Gen. Wayne himself was wounded in the head, the attack succeeded brilliantly. The Americans moved too swiftly up the hill for the British cannons to depress in time to be used effectively. Only 15 were killed and 83 wounded. They captured 546 British prisoners. Though the colonists carried off cannons and supplies, they abandoned Stony Point, as it had debatable strategic value.

Battle of Young’s House

The Lower Hudson Valley was considered a “no man’s land” between British occupied territory and Patriot forces in Upstate New York. Joseph Young’s stone house and barn in Westchester County became a fortified camp for the opposing sides. It was occupied by Continental Army forces in 1776, the British in 1778, and the Continental Army again in 1779.

On February 3, 1780, Lt. Col. Joseph Thompson and a contingent of 250 men from Massachusetts regiments garrisoned Young’s property, waiting in the harsh snow to be relieved by another unit. Unfortunately, a mixed British force of approximately 550 men, including 100 cavalry, led by Lt. Col. Chapple Norton marched north to seize their outpost.

The American patriots were alerted to the British approach by sentry fire and formed lines of battle to meet them, where they exchanged fire for fifteen minutes. The larger British force flanked them, however, and the Patriots retreated back to the house in disorder. The British soon captured Young’s House and its occupants, and destroyed it. The Patriots lost 14 killed, 37 wounded, and 76 captured to the British five killed and 18 wounded.

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