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This Hollowed-out Ground

July 2024
12min read

A site for a proposed hydroelectric project also was the site of a grim Revolutionary War battle.

On lovely Storm King Mountain on the majestic Hudson River the Consolidated Edison Company, the major supplier of power to New York City, wants to build a $183 million hydroelectric project. Water would be stored in a 240-acre reservoir to be built at an altitude of 1,160 feet behind the mountain. At periods of peak power demand, it would be emptied into a tunnel running down into the Hudson, the force of its fall being harnessed by generators housed below ground at the river's edge. When demand slackened, the water would be pumped up to the reservoir again. Conservationists, banded together in the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference, claim that the Storm King plant will seriously impair the scenic, ecological, recreational, and historic character of the Hudson Highlands and that there are better alternate ways for Con Ed to get its power. The matter is now before the Federal Power Commission. Honorary chairman of the preservation conference is Carl Carmer, a well-known historian and a member of the advisory board of this magazine. In this article, he describes how the battered survivors of a grim Revolutionary War battle hallowed this contested ground.

An opaque fog lay close to the surface of the Hudson River on the morning of October 5, 1777. The awakening bugles of General Israel Putnam’s Continentals at Peekskill on the eastern shore of the river seemed muted by the white and misty blanket. The slow-rising sun burned irregular holes in it, however, and through these the General’s sentinels, who had been posted south of his encampment during most of the summer, saw something that banished their accustomed boredom. There were barges and galleys downriver—many of them—and above the low-lying haze rose the towering masts of British frigates. From downriver, too, came the muffled sounds of alarm guns. The long-dreaded invasion of enemy troops from occupied New York had begun.

The elderly Yankee Israel Putnam was busy at once. An oarsman, rowing desperately, bore messages across the wide stream to Fort Montgomery, an unfinished cluster of earthworks then under the command of the thirty-eight-year-old governor of the new state of New York, Brigadier General George Clinton. At this bastion, nearly a hundred and fifty feet above the spot where the Popolopen Creek joins the Hudson, the Governor received Putnam’s letter. Immediately he sent a summary of its contents to his older brother, General James Clinton, then in command of Fort Clinton, a smaller stronghold on the steep south bank of the narrow creek.

In the meantime, the British under Sir Henry Clinton (a distant cousin of the American generals of the same surname) were disembarking at Verplanck’s Point on the east bank of the Hudson, not far below Putnam’s headquarters. The grating of their boats in the shallows of the river, the sharp voices of their officers ordering immediate formations, came strangely through the thick fog to the ears of Putnam’s scouts, informing them only that the invaders were in considerable numbers.

Suddenly the enemy army was marching boldly eastward away from the river, leaving behind the mist-dulled flames of a few wooden storage buildings. The sun was now sweeping away the fog cover, however, and patriot observers were racing up the Peekskill road to tell their commander that along with the red coats of the British regulars they could see large contingents of the despised German hirelings—jägers and chasseurs in green and blue, and red and blue—and, most hated of all, a Tory regiment in green. Led to believe that these troops had been ordered to attack objectives on the east side of the Hudson, Putnam called for the quick return of all militia to whom he had generously given permission to go back to their farms to plant their autumn wheat. At the same time, the people of Peekskill, panic-stricken on learning that several thousand of the enemy were very near, began to evacuate the town. Many families hurried north, while others made for the Connecticut border.

But Sir Henry’s march to the east was only a bluff. Early next morning, October 6, again under a cover of fog, he turned his columns about and set them marching at double time back to their boats. Leaving a detachment to hold Verplanck’s Point, he had the rest carried across the Hudson to Stony Point and sent them overland around high Dunderberg Mountain to approach the American fortifications from the land side. It was full morning before Putnam and his staff realized that Sir Henry’s goal, from the start, had been the capture of forts Montgomery and Clinton on the high bluffs of the Hudson’s west bank.

Now the men of the Hudson hill farms had begun to answer the call of the downriver guns. Needing no Paul Revere to tell them of their duty, little groups of ununiformed, sometimes unarmed, countrymen hurried off toward the forts on the Popolopen. In the communities to the south on Haverstraw Bay, the rivermen were saying hasty good-byes to their wives and children and converging on the highland fortifications. From the towering cliffs of Butter Hill and Crow’s Nest, and from the Shawangunk (shon’-gum) Mountains behind them, the militia, many of whom had never seen a battle, were on their way to repel the invaders. Frantic appeals for reinforcement were arriving at the east-bank headquarters of General Putnam, but that officer, having been deceived once, had decided to wait until he was sure where the enemy would attack before he ordered his men into action.

In the meantime, George Clinton at Fort Montgomery, anxiously expecting aid from Putnam across the river, boldly sent two bands of sixty men each (more than a third of his whole command) to meet the thousand invaders who had set out to march around the rear of Bear Mountain to attack Fort Montgomery from the landward, its least protected side. (Another body of British troops stood poised below Fort Clinton.) One of George Clinton’s two bands, after doing considerable damage with a six-pounder, was driven back to Fort Montgomery. The other, under Captain John Fenno, soon met the enemy force striding swiftly along and opened fire on them with a twelve-pounder they had dragged from Captain John Lamb’s scant artillery inside the fort. Many of the advancing army fell as grapeshot from that one gun caused a sudden halt. Only when their vastly superior force sought to outflank the patriots by an encircling movement did the defenders begin inching back toward the fort. Captain Fenno, in the effort to get one more shot at the foe, stayed with the cannon too long and was captured.

From late on that hot afternoon until dusk, the British and their allies charged repeatedly up the slanting sides of Fort Montgomery, and each time they were turned back by the defenders. General Putnam, having realized that he had erred in assuming that the attack would be on his east-bank troops, was now reduced to the role of spectator, for the British had won control of the west bank and he could not cross the Hudson.

Just beyond Peekskill, Putnam, his officers, and many of his command observed the uneven struggle across the river. Putnam wrote later that he had seen three determined attacks of the well-armed enemy troops turned back by the Americans, many of whom had no weapons.

At four thirty, when the heat of the day was most oppressive, Sir Henry Clinton sent a British officer to approach the fort under a flag of truce and demand its surrender. George Clinton selected Lieutenant Colonel William S. Livingston to meet him and say that the attackers would receive courteous treatment if they would surrender.

Immediately the fighting was resumed, and Sir Henry ordered his troops to cease firing and use only their bayonets. Now the anxious watchers across the water heard few sounds. They could see the swift charges of the German mercenaries, the upward surges of the British “lobster-backs.” Only when the dark green uniforms of the Tory column of “Loyal Americans” swept up the slopes against their former friends and neighbors could the east-bank observers hear the hysterical shouts of the combatants. As Alexander Saunders, local historian of the area, recently said, “The Hudson Valley men on both sides knew whose throats they were cutting.”

So vicious did this battle of the bayonets become that Colonel James McClaghry, soon to be George Clinton’s brother-in-law, was wounded seven times by the clashing knives. Lieutenant Timothy Mix, while firing a cannon, lost his right hand but caught the falling match with his left and touched off the shot. The valiant Lewis Dubois, commanding the very few Continental regulars engaged, was stabbed in the throat. Captain Thomas Machin, though a bayonet had gone deep into his breast, kept on fighting.

Darkness had settled when Sir Henry Clinton ordered his whole command to attack at the same moment. Up the fort’s parapets they raced, pushing each other forward through the embrasures. Outnumbered by about seven to one, the defenders found that no matter how many of the attackers they disposed of, more appeared. Completely surrounded now, the Americans seemed to have no choice but surrender. At this point, however, George Clinton and a few of his men hurled themselves upon the besiegers in the desperate effort to break through their ranks and escape to the bank of the Hudson far below. The long, sturdy body of New York’s Governor crashed through the enemy line as though it were paper and plunged down the steep slope. Stones rattled about Clinton in an avalanche as he slid down the almost perpendicular palisades. At the edge of the water (as Brooks Atkinson has written) the Governor rose to shake his fist at the exulting foes above him. “I would rather roast in hell to all eternity,” he shouted, “than depend on Great Britain or show mercy to a damned Tory.” Fort Montgomery had fallen; at almost the same time Fort Clinton, which had been under simultaneous enemy attack, was also overwhelmed.

As George Clinton waded into the Hudson, a boat-load of his men appeared and rowed him (though he protested that his added weight would swamp their craft) to the eastern bank. Once there he immediately found General Putnam and began writing his orders and his reports of the battle. First was a message to the pitiful remnant of his scattered troops, many of whom had escaped into the dark fastnesses of the mountains, directing them to re-form and to proceed to Butter Hill, some half dozen miles as the crow flies, to the north of Fort Montgomery, where they might again defy the invaders. The story of their march is one of the most dramatic but least celebrated in the annals of the Revolution.

As George Clinton was writing that evening, a small American flotilla consisting mainly of the frigates Montgomery and Congress lay anchored in the river above the captured forts. A heavy iron chain buoyed up by logs had recently been stretched across the Hudson just below Fort Montgomery in the hope of stopping enemy ships from sailing northward to relieve Burgoyne’s beleaguered army near Saratoga. But with the loss of supporting fire from the fort, this was hardly enough protection for the two frigates. An adverse wind prevented them from escaping upriver, and their captains, knowing that the ships would soon be captured, set them afire.

Suddenly, as the weary files of patriots stalked through the darkness toward Butter Hill, two tall pyramids of flame shot upward from the Hudson, turning its surface into a channel of yellow light. By the flames of their own ships the heartsick minutemen of the mountains were finding their way along the steeps. While they stumbled forward they could hear the cries of wounded comrades begging for aid they could not give. Ahead of them lay miles of tortuous, rock-strewn trails before they would reach their journey’s end—at New Windsor, beyond West Point and beyond the heights of Crow’s Nest Mountain. There were walking wounded among them, as the red stains of hastily contrived bandages attested, but still the little band (ever growing as their comrades of the fort left their caves and wooded refuges) limped on in the light of burning masts and sails toward Butter Hill.

The American soldier-poet David Humphreys (then major of brigade under General Putnam) looked upon the scene from the Hudson’s east bank near Peekskill and later wrote his description of it:

The louring darkness of the night, the profound stillness that reigned, the interrupted flashes of the flames that illumined the waters, the long shadows of the cliffs … the explosion of the cannon which were left loaded in the ship, and the reverberating echo, which resounded at intervals, between the stupendous mountains on both sides of the river composed an awful night-piece for persons prepared to contemplate subjects of horrid sublimity.

Blackness and silence descended upon the river when the American frigates ceased to burn—leaving the marchers trying vainly to see whether or not the enemy had followed them. If they were being pursued by the troops that had overwhelmed them, they knew that here in their hills that day they must surrender or die. Having already made their choice within Fort Montgomery, they knew what their decision would be.

Hours passed and dawn came slowly, wrapping Butter Hill and the men resting there in cool gray. Sun streaked it and a messenger brought an order to proceed to New Windsor, where their General and the Connecticut regiment of Colonel Webb would join them. Sleepless and dispirited by their defeat, they obeyed—and were astounded to find that they were regarded as heroes. From the whole area of the rebelling states came showers of praise.

George Clinton said he would take upon himself any blame for losing the forts, since ”… the officers and men under me, of the different corps, behaved with the greatest spirit and bravery.” From Israel Putnam, who had seen the engagement, came the words “Never did men behave with more spirit and activity.” From the vicinity of Saratoga, on the eve of his own great victory, Horatio Gates proclaimed, “The noble defense of Fort Montgomery will to the latest posterity adorn the name of Clinton.” Even the great Washington wrote: “Everything was done that could be by a handful against a far superior force.”

Suddenly the New York militia were swinging their “good long Musquets” with prideful nonchalance, sniffing with disdain at a Connecticut private’s condescending compliment, “in short, they do not appear like Dutchmen; but have the manners of N. England.” The defense of Fort Montgomery was well on its way toward becoming a legend.

Meanwhile, Sir Henry Clinton was feeling that he had had enough. He had been at Bunker Hill in the spring of 1775 and had rueful memories of that. Now he had seen his army of over three thousand well-trained soldiers repulsed again and again by a few hundred American militia—ununiformed Hudson Valley farmers, many of whom had no spear, no bayonet, no gun. Nevertheless he sent an ambiguous and lighthearted message to Burgoyne, waiting in an agony of anticipation while the Continental army under Gates closed in on him.

Nous y voici,” he wrote, adding, “and nothing between us and Gates.” Unquestionably these words were meant to give the impression that the force now victorious in the Hudson Highlands would move north to rescue its comrades at Saratoga.

The message never reached Burgoyne; its bearer was captured by the Americans. And Sir Henry was not able to fulfill its implied promise. Supplying the captured forts with occupying garrisons had taken up more of his time than he had anticipated. By October 15, his fleet, having cut the chain and boom, had sailed upriver only as far as Kingston, which turned out to be, in the words of one of the British officers, “a Nursery for every Villan in the Country.” On the next day Sir Henry, frustrated and in a fit of temper, ordered the town burned.

Its embers were still glowing when he received two messages. One was from Sir William Howe, who had become nervous in Philadelphia and ordered him to bring 4,500 men to his aid at once. The other informed him that a further advance north would be useless: at the very time when the little Dutch houses of Kingston were blazing, “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne was surrendering. A few hours later Sir Henry and his fleet sadly set off downriver for New York.

Now guns boomed, bells rang, and all matters else were forgotten in the joy of the great event. The people of the Hudson River towns went wild with delight. They exulted that the conflict above the midriver waters had proved that American farmers could stand against the best-trained soldiery of Europe. Saratoga had proved this to be true beyond question. But their ecstasy over the greater victory led them to forget the heroic defense of the Hudson Highlands.

Perhaps the Battle of Fort Montgomery would have been utterly neglected had not two young American soldiers chosen to visit the site on a sunny spring day of the following year. Historians do not usually end their chapters on such footnotes as these men provided, but their reports have so documented the narrative that they deserve place here. One of them, a young chaplain named Timothy Dwight (later president of Yale College), wrote in his journal that while he was climbing from a river barge to the place where the battle had been fought, the stench of dead bodies caused him great distress.

We found, at a small distance from Fort Montgomery, a pond of a moderate size, in which we saw the bodies of several men, who had been killed in the assault upon the fort. They were thrown into this pond, the preceding autumn, by the British … Some of them were covered at this time; but at a depth so small as to leave them distinctly visible. Others had an arm, a leg, or a part of the body, above the surface. The clothes which they wore when they were killed, were still on them, and proved that they were militia; being the ordinary dress of farmers. Their faces were bloated and monstrous; and their postures were uncouth, distorted and to the highest degree afflictive …

The description of the same scene as written by Timothy Dwight’s young officer companion, Samuel Richards, added macabre details—"I saw many fine sets of teeth, bare and skeleton-like”—but ended on a philosophic note: “Mournful and impressive reflections arose in my mind. [There] lie the youth who stood in the hour of their country’s trial; they fought and fell to purchase the independence of their country; and there they lie without burial. I thought, too, of the vicissitudes to which a soldier is subject. Had the fort held out a little longer, I very probably might [have] lain among them.”

Neither Timothy Dwight nor Samuel Richards foresaw, as they looked upon the corpse-filled pond, that the Butter Hill to which George Clinton had ordered his men would come to be known as Storm King, or that the earth over which the desperate young farmers retreated after their brave fight for the Hudson Highlands on October 6, 1777, might one day be removed by the bulldozers of a utility corporation, the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, which seems more concerned about profits than about respect for the nation’s past.

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