15 QCAHMP Revolutionary Barriers and Blazes
What extraordinary steps were taken by the Continental Army to limit British navigation of the Hudson River? We will learn about a bevy of amazing attempts and achievements in this episode.
Strategists for the Continental Army, with drastically limited resources in comparison to their opponent, looked for clever ways to achieve success. It was far easier for both men and supplies to travel along the rivers than on foot. They knew that British would be crippled if their war and supply ships could not freely travel along the Hudson River. George Washington said of the river: “The importance of the Hudson River in the present Contest, and the necessity of defending it, are Subjects which have been so frequently and fully discussed, and are so well understood, that it is unnecessary to enlarge upon them.” To understand how important the river was to the British, consider that in August, 1776, General William Howe and his brother Admiral Richard Howe had established a base of command at Staten Island that included approximately 34,000 troops and 427 ships.
Although it took some time to construct the first obstruction on the Hudson, on May 25, 1775, which were only weeks after the Battle of Lexington, the following resolve was passed by the Continental Congress:
“Resolved, that a post be also taken in the highlands on each side of Hudson’s River and batteries erected in such manner as will most effectually prevent any vessels passing that may be sent to harrass the inhabitants on the borders of said river.”
Before learning more about their attempts to block the river, let’s spend a moment learning about the installations that were built along the Hudson. They will be an important part of this story.
Fort Lee: located near the Hackensack Township in New Jersey, it is located across the river from Fort Washington.
Fort Washington: located across the river from Fort Lee, and on the highest and northern point of the island of Manhattan.
Fort Montgomery: located near Peekskill, New York, it empties into the Hudson near Bear Mountain. It is near a site known as Anthony’s nose which is named for a formation known as St. Anthony’s Face on Breakneck Ridge. Talk about painting a picture with words!
Fort Clinton: is located just across from Fort Montgomery.
Fort Constitution: This is near the site that we think of as West Point. It was the first site advocated for fortification by New Yorkers James Clinton and Christopher Tappan, However, much disagreement arose over the intricate and extensive plans developed by Dutch born surveyor, Bernard Romans. The disagreement caused plans for the site to be placed on hold and colonial strongholds were built elsewhere.
Let’s learn about the first barrier. It was a chevaux-de-frise stretching between Fort Lee and Fort Washington
Strategically located on the island of Manhattan. George Washington put troops from Pennsylvania to work building what would become Fort Washington during the summer of 1776. Before construction on the fort, itself, began, one of the first projects for the troops was to construct a chevaux-de-fries.
What is a chevaux-de-fries? Think of it, or rather them as a series of submerged boxes. In that box would be placed logs with iron points on top of them. They were invisible from the surface and intended to make navigation through the waters a treacherous business.
I have to report that I have found conflicting evidence of exactly what was sunk in the Hudson for this effort. Several authors said that the colonists used 60 foot logs which would have been no small feat considering there were no cranes or other construction equipment to hoist those logs around. Each log was secured in a caisson at the bottom of the river. However, in a letter from General Israel Putnam to General Gates on July 26, 1776, he reported specific plans for this chevaux-de-frise: “We are preparing Chevaux-de-Frise, at which we make great Despatch by the Help of Ships, which are to be sunk; A Scheme of Mine, which you may be assured is very Simple, a Plan of which I send you.” The officer in charge of the construction, a Captain Cooke, reported to the New York Convention in September of 1776 of his apprehension that the General’s plan might need a bit of tinkering. He felt that five or six ships should be sunk to the north of the original obstruction in order to increase its effectiveness. That, of course, did not sit well with the Convention for financial reasons.
Unfortunately, Captain Cook’s placements did not work as well as intended. On October 9th, Tench Tilghman, often thought of as George Washington’s right hand man, reported to the Convention: “About 8 o-Clock this Morning the Roebuck and Phoenix, and a Frigate of 20 Guns, got under way from about Bloomingdale, where they have been laying for some Time and Steered on with an easy Southerly Breeze towards our Chevaux-de-Frieze, which we hoped would have given them some Interruption…but to our Surprise and Mortification, they all ran through without the least Difficulty, and without receiving the least apparent Damage.”
One week later, the British took control of Fort Washington. There was no way to repair the obstructions, and I am guessing there was little interest in it given the complete failure of General Putnam’s simple idea.
Let’s move on to the second barrier. It was a Chain that stretched between Forts Montgomery and Clinton
Imagine a time when funding was extremely limited, materials scarce, and artisans willing to do certain work was in short supply. but yet….the colonial forces were able to construct chains that stretched across the Hudson. One of them was even known as the Great Chain.
We aren’t talking about a thin chain, mind you, but a massive one that stretched across the mighty Hudson. A map of the area surrounding Forts Clinton and Montgomery, drawn in 1777, noted that the chain may have stretched as long as 400 yards. Although each side was anchored securely to land, the chain also required floats which positioned them near the surface. Additionally, each of the floats were anchored to river’s bottom. Each of these anchors was adjusted to withstand the current of the river. But that was not the only thing that was stretched across the river. A “boom” or a protective series of logs were also stretched across the river to fortify the chain. Chains were fastened between the logs to bind them together into one long obstruction across the river. Those chains were also fastened to anchors.
As early as May 3, 1776, there was correspondence referencing a chain. George Washington wrote cryptic letters to General Philip Schuyler and John Hancock, who was the President of the Continental Congress at that time, but the letters contained only vague references lest the British learn of their existence due to the cost and difficulties in constructing them. The one referenced by Washington in those letters was installed in the Sorel River near Montreal. That chain was considered so valuable that it was taken in the retreat from a battle.
Soon after the resolution of the Continental Congress we heard earlier, construction of what would become Forts Montgomery and Clinton began. Included in the recommendations for that installation was a series of booms that would be strung together and could be pulled ashore so that colonial ships could pass through.
To further this project, a “Secret Committee” was formed on July 16, 1776 from members of the Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York to “devise and carry into Execution such Measures as to them shall appear most Effectual for Obstructing the Channel of Hudson’s River or annoying the Enemy’s Ships in their Passage up said River;”
The Committee initially asked for 150 14 foot long pine logs be secured to use as floatation devices for the chain. General Schuyler was instructed to secure the chain that had been saved from the Sorel River, and additional links From Colonel Robert Livingston’s iron works in Ancram, New York were ordered in case that chain was not of sufficient length. The chain, you see, would be 1800 feet in length.
Robert Yates was able to report to George Washington on August 13th that the chain intended for the Sorel had arrived but would only stretch across one quarter of the river. The remaining links were being forged.
By mid-November the chain had been assembled, fixed to the logs, and positioned in the river. Unfortunately, correspondence from the New York Convention to the Continental Congress on November 28th reported: “the great length of the chain, being upward of 1,800 feet, the bulk of the logs which were necessary to support it, the immense weight of water which it accumulated, and the rapitidty of the tide have baffled all our efforts. It separated twice after holding only a few hours, and we have too much reason to despair of its ever fully answering the important purpose for which it was constructed.” Although a faulty link in the chain was replaced, on October 6, 1777, the British captured both Fort Clinton and Montgomery in only 3 hour’s time. They dismantled the chain and proceeded to use as a trophy!
Although it is not an obstacle, let’s learn about a truly spectacular offensive maneuver to be sure….The fire raft on the Hudson.
Another tactic, which evidentially has been in use since the time of the Philistines, is the fire ship or fire raft. Unlike the chevaux-de-frise, you can easily visualize what goes on with these weapons. Instead of the phrase, “lock and load,” think of it as “load and light.”
On July 16, 1776, New York’s Governor Clinton received a letter that several fire rafts and vessels would be sent down the river after they were loaded with “combustibles.”
What, might you ask, was included in those combustibles? A letter from that Secret Committee noted that light wood and pine knots would be added to “as much Pitch, Tar, Turpentine, and Tar-Tubs and Barrels, as can be got.”
This party seems to have been a one-time event on the Hudson, but none the less a sight to be seen for sure. Listen to the account concerning a Mr. Joseph Bass and Captain Thomas. Mr. Bass commanded a 100 ton sloop named “the Polly,” and Captain Thomas was in a smaller frigate.
“The Fire ships had been prepared with Faggots, of the most combustible Kinds of Wood, which had been dipped in melted Pitch, and with Bundles of Straw cut about a Foot long, prepared in the same Manner. These Faggots and Bundles filled the Deck and Hold as far aft as the Cabin; and into this Mass of combustible Materials was inserted a Match, that might be fired by a person in the Cabin; who would have Time to escape through a Door cut in the Side of the Vessel, into a Whale Boat that was lashed to the Quarter of the Sloop. Besides these Combustibles, there were in each Vessel ten or twelve Barrels of Pitch. A Quantity of Canvas, amounting to many Yards, was cut into Strips, about a Foot in Width, then dipped in Spirits of Turpentine and hung upon the Spars and Rigging; extending down to the Deck. Everything had been so prepared that but a Moment’s Time was required to set the whole Vessel in a Blaze…
Besides the two British Frigates, there was a Bomb Ketch and two Tenders…As the Night was Dark, and the Fire Ships kept near the Middle of the River, they were not aware that they were near the British Vessels, until they heard, immediately on their Left, the striking of the Bells, and the Cry of the Sentinel’s ‘all’s well.’ It was twelve o’Clock, and little did those who are slumbering there imagine the Destruction that hung over them. The Shore was bold and rose above the Masts, and in its dark Shadow, the Americans could not distinguish the Situations of the Vessels, neither could they ascertain their Size; or which of them were Frigates. Bass was a considerable Distance in Advance of Thomas, and upon hearing the Cry of the Sentinels, he immediately bore down upon the Line of the British Fleet. He was already very near the Bomb Ketch before he was discovered by the Enemy, and soon struck her. The Grappling Irons were made fast in an Instant- the Whale Boat was ready to cast off – the Match was applied and both Vessels were almost immediately in a Blaze. Bass and his Crew made their way to the Shore, while the Panic-struck Crew of the Ketch were seen pouring from their Quarters in the utmost Consternation. Several of them perished in the Flames, others jumped into the Water, and were rescued by the other Vessels….the Ketch soon burned so as to part from her Moorings, when she drifted on Shore, and was consumed to the Water’s Edge.”
Unfortunately, the second craft with Captain Thomas and his men aboard, was not so fortunate. The British saw their ship because of the fire on the Bomb Ketch. They began to fire on the ship, and it was separated from its escape craft. Captain Thomas and his men dove into the swift waters of the Hudson and every man perished.”
In the next episode of American History for the Modern Patriot, we will learn about perhaps the greatest obstruction built by the Continental forces, the Great Chain across the Hudson.
Until next time, this is Dr. Susan Rempel encouraging you to remain motivated, informed, and engaged in the political process. Visit my website, www.BingoforPatriots.com with more than 500 pages of documents, products, and information designed to motivate the modern patriot.
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