Battles of the American Revolution: Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery

During the fall of 1777, Sir Henry Clinton, whom Howe had left in command at New York, was trying to make a diversion in his favor on the lower and middle waters of that stream. Among the Hudson Highlands were three forts with feeble garrisons. Fort Constitution was upon a rocky island opposite West Point. Forts Clinton and Montgomery were upon the west bank of the river, one on each side of a small stream with high rocky shores. From the latter the Americans had stretched a chain and boom across the Hudson to Anthony's Nose, to prevent the passage of vessels up the stream. These forts were under the supervision of General Israel Putnam, whose headquarters were at Peekskill, a little below the Highlands; and Forts Clinton and Montgomery were under the immediate command of Governor George Clinton and his brother General James Clinton. Putnam had injudiciously granted so many furloughs or permits to be absent, that his whole force at Peekskill and the Highland forts, did not exceed two thousand men, at the time we are considering. Tories had informed Sir Henry of the weakness of the Highland forts, and as soon as reinforcements from Europe, which had been floating on the bosom of the Atlantic Ocean for almost three months, arrived, he prepared vessels suitable for transporting troops and munitions of war up the river. Vigilant Whigs below had informed Putnam of these preparations before the close of September, and the general had sent the news to George Clinton, governor of the lately organized State of New York, who was attending a session of the legislature at Kingston. With what forces of militia he could gather, the governor hurried to Fort Clinton, his brother being in command of Fort Montgomery.

On the 4th of October, Sir Henry Clinton went up the Hudson with between three and four thousand troops, in many armed and unarmed vessels commanded by Commodore Hotham, and the next morning landed them on Verplanck's Point, a few miles below Peekskill, feigning an attack upon the latter post. This feint deceived Putnam, and he sent to Forts Clinton and Montgomery for reinforcements. This was precisely what Sir Henry wished. But the more sagacious Governor Clinton was not deceived, and held all the forces within his reach, at the Highland forts, which he rightly believed to be the baronet's objectives.

Under cover of a dense fog, Sir Henry embarked a little more than two thousand troops, and at dawn on the morning of the 6th, landed them on Stony Point, opposite Verplanck's to make a circuitous march around the lofty Donderberg and fall upon the Highland forts. At the same time orders were given for the war-vessels to anchor within point-blank cannon-shot distance of the forts, to beat off any American vessels that might appear above the chain and boom. Sir Henry divided his forces. One party led by General Vaughan, and accompanied by the baronet, about twelve hundred in number, went through a defile west of the Donderberg, to fall upon Fort Clinton, while another party, nine hundred strong, made a longer march around Bear Mountain, to assail Fort Montgomery. On the borders of Lake Sinnipink, at a narrow pass near Fort Clinton, Vaughan had a severe engagement with some troops sent out by the governor; at the same time, the latter sent to Putnam for aid. The messenger turned traitor and deserted to the British.

Campbell and his men arrived near Fort Montgomery in the afternoon, and at five o'clock a peremptory demand was made for the surrender of both forts. It was treated with scorn, when a simultaneous attack upon the forts by both divisions of the British, and the vessels in the river, began. The garrisons were mostly militia, and behaved well, making a vigorous defence until dark, when they were overpowered and sought safety in a scattered retreat to the adjacent mountains. Many got away, but a considerable number were slain or made prisoners. The governor fled across the river, and at midnight he was in the camp of Putnam planning future operations. His brother, badly wounded, made his way over the mountains to his home at New Windsor, where he was joined by the governor the next day. American vessels lying above the chain and boom slipped their cables and attempted to escape, but there was not wind enough to fill their sails; so their crews set them on fire to prevent their falling into the hands of the British. By the light of their burning vessels, the fugitive garrisons were enabled to make their way over the mountains to settlements beyond. Among the vessels burned was the frigate Montgomery, a sloop of ten guns, and a row-galley. The conflagration was a magnificent spectacle. A British officer wrote: "The flames suddenly broke forth, and, as every sail was set, the vessels soon became magnificent pyramids of fire. The reflection on the steep face of the opposite mountain and the long train of ruddy light which shone upon the waters for a prodigious distance, had a wonderful effect; while the ear was awfully filled with the continued echoes from the rocky shores, as the flames gradually reached the loaded cannon. The whole was sublimely terminated by the explosions, which left all again in darkness."

Early the next morning, the chain and boom were broken by the British, and a flying squadron of light vessels under Sir James Wallace, bearing the whole of Sir Henry's land force, went up the Hudson to devastate its shores, and draw from Gates some of the troops that stood in the pathway of Burgoyne, for the protection of the country below. Sir Henry wrote a despatch to Burgoyne, on a piece of tissue paper, saying: "Here we are, and nothing between us and Gates." He inclosed it in a hollow silver bullet, gave it to a careful messenger, and returned to New York. That messenger was arrested in the American camp, in Orange county, as a spy. He swallowed the bullet. It was brought from his stomach by an emetic, and its contents being discovered, the bearer was hanged.

The marauders spread terror over the middle region of the Hudson, by their doings. They landed near Kingston, where the New York legislature were in session, and burned the village. Their advent was very sudden, for they moved with great celerity. Near their landing-place, some Dutchmen were at work. They fled in terror (not stopping to look back) across a meadow, in which the hay-makers had left a rake lying the previous summer. On this one of the flying Dutchmen trod, when the handle flew up and struck him on the back of the head. Not doubting it was a blow from a pursuing Briton, the fugitive threw up his arms and exclaimed, "Mein Got! I gives up! Hurrah for King Shorge!"

Leaving Kingston in ashes, the marauders went over to Rhinebeck, and destroyed much property there, and then went up to Livingston's Manor and applied the torch. There they were arrested by the alarming news of Burgoyne's defeat, and made a hasty retreat to New York. So ended the efforts to carry out the plan of the British ministry for taking possession of the valleys of the Hudson and Lake Champlain.

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