Episode 053

You Mad Bro? – “Mad” Anthony Wayne & The Battle of Stony Point

Under orders from George Washington and with a numerical disadvantage "Mad" Anthony Wayne pulls of a daring surprise raid at the garrison of Stony Point, NY

Tryon’s Raid

For the past few weeks, we’ve talked alot about the war in the South, this week we’re coming back to the North, specifically to New York and if you’ll remember from the beginning of last week’s episode where I gave an update on George Washington and his men, you’ll no doubt recall that the British forces in New York City were primarily concerned with defending the city and its important harbor. The military activity in the northern states was reduced significantly, and the armies of George Washington and Sir Henry Clinton warily watched each other in the New York area. Washington based his defense in New Jersey and at West Point, where he guarded critical communications and supply links.

In 1779 Lieutenant General Clinton hatched a plan that he hoped would convince General Washington to move his army so that he might be engaged in a “general and decisive action”. He first launched an expedition in late May that seized Stony Point and Verplanck’s Point, opposite sides of a key crossing point on the Hudson River. Although Washington did move additional troops into the New York highlands, Clinton felt the position too strong to attack.[2] He then decided to dispatch Major General William Tryon who organized an expedition to raid the coastal communities of Connecticut, while Clinton staged a body of troops at Mamaroneck, New York that would go after Washington when he moved troops to oppose the raids, and also attack Continental Army positions in New Jersey.

Tryon assembled a force of 2,600 men, and embarked them on a fleet commanded by Sir George Collier. One division, led by Brigadier General George Garth, consisted of the 54th Regiment along with several companies of Royal Fusiliers, Foot Guards, and Hessian jägers. The second division, led by Tryon, consisted of the Hessian Landgrave Regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and the King’s American Regiment, the latter being a provincial regiment of Loyalists[1] raised by Yale College graduate Edmund Fanning.

The fleet sailed from New York on July 3, and reached New Haven two days later. Immediately disembarking, Garth’s division rapidly gained control of New Haven, and went to work. Although Tryon had given orders that included burning the town, Garth did not do this; he limited his activities to destroying public stores, and seizing or destroying the town’s armaments and ships in the harbor. Tryon’s division landed in East Haven, where it met spirited resistance from a band of local militia, but managed to take Black Rock Fort. In addition to destroying barns filled with grain, Tryon had local manor houses put to the torch. By the time the British withdrew, over 1,000 militia had mustered from the surrounding towns.

The expedition reembarked on the fleet on the afternoon of July 6, after having spent the night in armed camps. They sailed for Fairfield , arriving two days later. There the inhabitants fled upon the fleet’s arrival, and Tryon’s force, with little or no opposition, went on a destructive rampage. In addition to destroying 54 barns and 47 storehouses, they burned 83 homes, two churches, and municipal buildings including a schoolhouse, the courthouse and the local jail. After another night ashore, the expedition sailed across Long Island Sound, where it spent two days resting and resupplying in Huntington, New York.

The fleet arrived at Norwalk , late on July 11. The troops did not finish landing until 3 am on the 12th, so they rested until daybreak. The two divisions, which had landed on opposite sides of the harbor, were weakly opposed by about 50 local militia, which were easily dispersed. The destruction then began, with most of the village and its commercial infrastructure destroyed. The fleet returned to Huntington, where on July 14 Tryon received orders to return to New York.

Tryon reported losses of 26 killed, 90 wounded, and 32 missing. Historian Charles Hervey Townshend compiled a list of 23 Americans killed, 15 wounded, and 12 captured in the New Haven raid; a contemporary news account reported 27 killed and 19 wounded.

Tryon was pilloried by both Patriots and Loyalists for the raid. Washington accused him of making war against women and children, and Silas Deane called the raids acts of “barbarity” and “almost beyond description”. John Pownall, a colonial administrator in London, wondered “what could have induced our friend Tryon to countenance […] the wanton severities”. General Clinton insisted on a written report justifying the burnings, and complained of the raiding he had been reduced to ordering, “I have been a buccaneer already too long; I detest that sort of war.”

General Clinton’s plan was an utter failure. General Washington, on hearing of the invasion, immediately ordered the entire Connecticut division, stationed near West Point to move with all possible speed to counter the invasion. But they arrived after Tryon had sailed, and missed the opportunity to defend their own state.[10] Washington however, may have benefited from Clinton’s weakening of the garrison at Stony Point in order to provide men for Tryon’s expedition. Let’s not confuse Stony Point in NY with the battle of STONO River in Charleston, SC. They are two completely different places and battles.

“Mad” Anthony Wayne

The British position at Stony Point was a fortified one, but it was never intended to be a true fort in the 18th century European sense of the word. No stone was used and no walls were constructed. The defenses consisted of earthen fleches (cannon positions) and wooden abatis (felled trees sharpened to a point and placed in earthen embankments). The defenses were situated on a rocky elevation approachable only from the west, protected in the front by a watery defile and on both flanks by extensive swampy areas.

Stony Point was garrisoned with elements of the 17th Regiment of Foot under the command of Lt. Col. Henry Johnson. The 17th was reinforced by a grenadier company belonging to one of the two battalions of the 71st Regiment, and a company-strength detachment of the Loyal American Regiment. A detachment of the Royal Artillery manned fifteen field pieces that included five iron and two brass cannon, four mortars and four small howitzers. A Royal Navy gunboat was assigned to protect the river approaches to the fortifications, and the armed sloop Vulture was also anchored in that part of the river.

Washington observed construction of the fortifications through a telescope from atop nearby Buckberg Mountain. Historians also believe he used intelligence gathered from local merchants to get a better idea of the strength of the garrison, the types of watchwords in use, and the placement of sentries – especially on the south side of the point, which could not be seen from Buckberg. During this time he formulated a plan of attack and selected a commander to lead it – Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, commander of the Pennsylvania Line.

Who was this “Mad” Anthony Wayne? At the onset of the war in 1775, Wayne raised a militia unit and, in 1776, became colonel of the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment. He and his regiment were part of the Continental Army’s unsuccessful invasion of Canada where he was sent to aid Benedict Arnold, during which he commanded a successful rear-guard action at the Battle of Trois-Rivières, and then led the distressed forces on Lake Champlain at Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. His service resulted in a promotion to brigadier general on February 21, 1777.

On September 11, 1777, Wayne commanded the Pennsylvania Line at Brandywine, where Wayne held off General Wilhelm von Knyphausen to protect the American right flank. The two forces fought for three hours until the American line withdrew, and Wayne was ordered to retreat.[4] Later, Wayne was ordered to harass the British rear in order to slow General Howe’s advance towards Pennsylvania. Wayne’s camp was attacked on the night of September 20–21, in the Battle of Paoli. General Charles Grey ordered his men to remove their flints and attack with bayonets in order to keep their assault secret. The attack earned General Grey the nickname “No Flint,” but the Americans used the tactics and casualties as propaganda regarding British brutality. General Wayne’s own reputation was tarnished by the American losses, and he demanded a formal inquiry in order to clear his name.

Only days later, on October 4, 1777, Wayne again led his forces against the British in the Battle of Germantown. Wayne’s soldiers pushed ahead of other American units, and, according to his report, when the British retreated, they “pushed on with their Bayonets – and took Ample Vengeance.” Generals Wayne and Sullivan advanced too quickly, however, and became entrapped when they reached two miles ahead of other American units. As General Howe arrived and reformed the British line, American forces retreated. General Wayne was again ordered to hold off the British and cover the rear of the retreating body.

After winter quarters at Valley Forge, Wayne led the American attack at the 1778 Battle of Monmouth. During this battle, Wayne’s forces were abandoned by General Charles Lee and pinned down by a numerically superior British force. Wayne held out until relieved by reinforcements sent by Washington. Wayne reformed his troops and continued to fight. Because the body of Lt. Colonel Henry Monckton was discovered by the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment, a legend grew that he had died fighting Wayne.

But why was he called “Mad”? Unfortunately, a misconception arose that it meant he was wild, reckless and careless. This was inaccurate. But it was popularized by the famed novelist Washington Irving years after the Revolutionary War ended. Others have thought that the nickname was given to Wayne because he always seemed to lead his men into the hottest spots during battles.

But the real reason was that Anthony Wayne had a legendary and fiery temperament. He bristled at any hint of incompetence or challenge to his honor. In fact, at the Battle of Paoli, a reason some of his officers complained about Wayne’s conduct was due to his angry treatment of an officer. The hapless subordinate had incorrectly reported that some pickets had disappeared from their post. While Wayne was “hot-blooded” about some matters; he was equally “cold-blooded” when in actual battle. He shunned danger and consistently led from the front lines.

The nickname “Mad Anthony” came about several years after the Paoli Massacre. Wayne, like George Washington, was a strict disciplinarian and demanded obedience and loyalty from his men. But he also was very loyal to them, struggling constantly to improve their circumstances. Muster rolls of the Pennsylvania Line show that many of his soldiers repeatedly returned to fight under him.

The American plan to take Stony Point, centered around Wayne and his abilities. The overall tactics breakdown as follows:

To storm the position, the Corps of Light Infantry was formed on June 12, 1779, with command assigned to General Wayne. The Corps of Light Infantry was an elite, seasonal combat organization drafted in each of the years between 1777 and 1781 from the light infantry companies of each regiment in Washington’s army. The 1779 Corps was organized into a brigade of four regiments, each composed of two battalions of four companies, with the following order of battle:

1st Regiment, commanded by Col. Christian Febiger of the 2nd Virginia Regiment: six companies of Virginia and two of Pennsylvania troops
2nd Regiment, Col. Richard Butler (9th Pennsylvania Regiment): four companies each of Pennsylvanians and of Marylanders;[9]
3rd Regiment, Col. Return Jonathan Meigs (6th Connecticut Regiment): eight companies of Connecticut troops
4th Regiment, a partially organized detachment of six companies of Massachusetts troops and two of North Carolina, temporarily commanded by Major William Hull (8th Massachusetts Regiment). The 4th Regiment was fully organized in August and assigned to the command of Col. Rufus Putnam.

The plan called for a night attack on the fortifications to be carried out by the 1,350 men of the corps. Each regiment consisted of 300 to 340 men, and the total force included an artillery detachment to man captured British field pieces. According to 18th century military doctrine, this was not enough men to take a well-prepared defensive position, but in addition to the element of surprise, Washington’s plan exploited a fatal flaw in the fortifications.

The wooden abatis along the southern shore of the point were not extended into the deep water of the Hudson and could be outflanked by attackers along a narrow beach at low tide. The main attack would be along this approach, but Washington advised that if practicable, secondary and diversionary attacks could also be made along the north shore of the point and across the causeway to the center.

Washington gave Wayne his instructions, along with permission to modify the plan as necessary. This was an unusual act for Washington, and indicates the high opinion he had of Wayne’s tactical abilities. The assault would be difficult: it would be carried out in the dead of night, called for the men to scale the steep, rocky sides of Stony Point, and required surprise. To accomplish this last element, Washington ordered that the men carry unloaded muskets and attack using only bayonets in order to prevent a musket blast from alerting British sentries.

The exception to loaded weaponry were the two companies of North Carolina light infantry, which Wayne ordered to cross the causeway, and stage a demonstration attack at the center of the British defenses, where the British expected an attack to come. This battalion, commanded by Maj. Hardy Murfree, was instructed to lay down a “gauling fire” with their weapons as a diversionary tactic.

Wayne selected Butler’s 2nd Regiment of approximately 300 men to conduct an assault along the northern shore of the point, while Wayne himself would lead the main column in the south, consisting of the 1st and 3rd Regiments, and Hull’s detachment of Massachusetts light infantry. The columns deployed an advance force of 100 and 150 men respectively wielding axes to clear obstacles, with 20 men from each advance force assigned as the forlorn hopes, to protect the force and to be the first to enter the works. Wayne announced that he would give prize bounties to the first men who entered the works, and to anyone else who distinguished himself in the action.

After a morning muster, on July 15, 1779, the Corps of Light Infantry marched from Sandy Beach north of Fort Montgomery beginning at noon. Any civilians met along the route of march were to be taken into custody to prevent them from warning the British. The column, often forced to march single file over rough terrain and roads hardly more than paths, took a circuitous route west through Queensboro to the west and over Dunderberg Mountain to avoid detection by the British. The Corps began arriving at 8 p.m. at the Springsteel farm, a mile and a half (2 km) west of the fortifications, and by 10 p.m. had been formed in the attack columns.

The men were given a rum ration and their orders. They were also given pieces of white paper to pin to their hats in order to help them tell each other from the British in the darkness. The columns then moved out at 11:30 p.m. to their jump-off points, diverging immediately, to begin the assault at midnight. These attack columns were led by groups of volunteer soldiers nicknamed the “forlorn hope” who were responsible for breaking holes in enemy defenses and along with their weapons, were armed with axes and picks.

Bad weather that night aided the Continentals. Cloud cover cut off moonlight and high winds forced the British ships in Haverstraw Bay to leave their posts off Stony Point and move downriver. At midnight, as scheduled, the attack began with the columns crossing the swampy flanks of the point. The southern column unexpectedly found its approach inundated in two to four feet of water and required thirty minutes to wade to the first line of abatis, during which it and Murfree’s demonstration force were spotted by British sentries and fired upon.

Under fire Wayne’s column succeeded in getting inside the British first line of defenses. Wayne himself was struck in the head by a spent musket ball and fell to the ground, leaving Col. Febiger to take over command of Wayne’s column. Meanwhile, Butler’s column had succeeded in cutting its way through the abatis, sustaining the only loss of life on the American side while doing so. The two columns penetrated the British line almost simultaneously and seized the summit when six companies of the 17th Regiment of Foot took positions opposite the diversionary attack and were cut off.

Because of the stealth in which the Patriot assault forces approached the British defenses on the slopes of the hill, the artillery pieces that the British had placed on the summit for just such defensive purposes were unsuccessful in repelling the attack. Due to the speed at which the Patriot infantrymen were moving, the British cannons could not be lowered to an angle low enough to sufficiently harass the men assaulting up the hill.

The first man into the British upper works was Lt. Col. Francois de Fleury, an aristocrat French engineer commanding a battalion of the 1st Regiment. He was followed by Peter Francisco, Lt. Henry Knox, Sgt. William Baker and George Dunlop. As the men entered the British works they called out, “The fort’s our own!” – the prearranged watchword to distinguish friend from foe. The action lasted 25 minutes and was over by 1 a.m.

Wayne’s losses were 15 killed and 83 wounded. 546 prisoners were taken, 74 of whom were wounded. Some Patriot sources stated that there were 63 British dead but military historian Mark M. Boatner accepts the official British report of 20 killed. However, the report (from Lt-Col. Johnson to Sir Henry Clinton on July 24, 1779) also lists 58 missing separate from killed, wounded, and captured, many of whom may have drowned in the Hudson.[11]

Before dawn, Wayne sent a brief dispatch telling Washington, “The fort and garrison, with Colonel Johnston, are ours. Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free.” The next day, Washington rode into the works to inspect the battlefield and congratulate the troops. For his exploits, Wayne was awarded a medal by Congress, one of the few issued during the revolution.

While the strategic value of capturing Stony Point was up for debate, it was regardless a huge victory for morale for the Continental Army. Its minimal strategic value was that it asserted Washington’s foothold on the nearby West Point. Washington visited the battle site on the 17th of July, and applauded the men responsible for its capture after viewing the harsh terrain that was traversed by the assaulting forces.

Washington’s instructions to Wayne had allowed for the possibility of an assault on Verplanck’s Point once Stony Point was taken. As part of the attack on Stony Point, Washington had directed two brigades to begin moving toward Verplanck’s, and dispatched Colonel Rufus Putnam with a small force to divert the attention of its British garrison. Putnam was able to begin diversionary fire against Verplanck’s shortly after the assault on Stony Point began, and he successfully distracted the British until morning.

On the morning of the 16th Wayne’s forces turned Stony Point’s cannons against Verplanck’s, but the fire at long range did no significant damage. The fire was sufficient, however, to prompt the Vulture to cut her anchor and drift downstream.Washington then sent General Robert Howe to lead the two brigades to besiege Verplanck’s on the 17th, but the force was not provisioned with adequate artillery or siege equipment, and could do little more than blockade the fort. On the 18th some British troops were landed from ships sent upriver, and more were rumored to be coming overland, so Howe decided to withdraw.

Washington had not intended to hold either point, and Stony Point was abandoned by the Americans on July 18, after carrying off the captured cannons and supplies. The British briefly reoccupied the site only to abandon it in October, as General Clinton prepared a major expedition to the southern states.

Some of the captured officers were exchanged immediately after the battle, but the more than 400 prisoners of other ranks were marched off to a prison camp at Easton, Pennsylvania. An unsuccessful attempt by a small number of prisoners on July 17 to overpower their captors resulted in one British sergeant killed and about 20 other ranks wounded.

Contemporary Patriot accounts note that Wayne had given quarter to the garrison of Stony Point despite the alleged treatment of his own men at the “Paoli Massacre” in 1777. (One asserted that King George III fought back tears when he heard of the “mercy” that had been shown to his troops). British reports also remarked that unanticipated clemency was immediately shown the garrison. Because of the relative easiness with which the Continental Army took over the fort however, the British commander of Stony Point, Colonel Johnson, was court martialed in New York City with accusations against him of inadequate defense.

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