16 QCAHMP The Great Chain.
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What was the greatest barrier built by the Continental forces on the Hudson River? What do we know about the patriot who designed and oversaw the construction of that barrier? Let’s learn the answer to those questions in this episode.
In the 15th episode of American History for the Modern Patriot, we learned about several barriers constructed by the Continental forces to restrict the movement of the British Navy on the Hudson River. Those included a chevaux-de-frise which stretched between Fort Lee and Fort Washington, as well as a chain that floated between Forts Montgomery and Clinton. We also learned about an extremely successful attack on several British ships by colonial fire rafts. Today we will learn about the greatest of all barriers on the Hudson. It happens to be called “The Great Chain.” The fact that such a chain could be constructed in 1778 is remarkable in and of itself. However, it is what was done with the chain that is truly astonishing.
From the earliest recommendations of New Yorkers Major Christopher Tappen and Colonel James Clinton, as to how to best defend the Hudson and obstruct the movement of British, a chain stretching between the placement of Fort Constitution and West Point had been envisioned.
For whatever reason, the British chose not to move up the Hudson after easily overtaking Forts Montgomery and Clinton, and instead returned to New York City.
Undaunted by the sweeping defeats at those forts, George Washington and his top generals in the area quickly began thinking about new obstructions which could be built along the Hudson.
You might recall from the previous episode that fire ships or rafts had been a popular method of damage or obstruction during the revolution. It had been suggested by Governor George Clinton in July, 1776, that a “chain” so to speak of fire vessels be used in the same place favored by Van Zandt to prevent the British from moving up the Hudson. He wrote to Washington “as I believe by drawing a chain of them across the narrowest part of the river and fixing them properly, should the enemy shipping attempt passing by, they would answer a most valuable purpose.”
As 1777 drew to a close, George Washington was writing letters of his own. He tried to light a fire under General Putnam to proceed forward with the obstruction project. He wrote to Putnam that “I shall expect that you will exert every nerve, and employ your whole force in the future, while and whenever it is practicable, in constructing and forwarding the proper works and means of defense. The troops must not be kept out on command, and acting in detachments to cover the country below, which is a consideration infinitely less important and interesting.”
Washington did not leave the matter solely up to Putnam who some thought to be slowing with age. On the same day, he wrote similar letters to both Governor Clinton and others who might drive the project.
In January, 1778, the New York State Legislature took up the matter of placement of the chain at the request of General Putnam. The project would require financial assistance from New York. The New York Convention formed a committee of Fortifications Commissioners, and upon recommendations from the committee, the entire New York Congress recommended that “if a Chain or Boom is to make a Part of the Water Obstruction, all the Iron Works in the Country which have proper Metal and Conveniences for the Purpose should be immediately employed at making different Parts of it; and that all the necessary Cables, Cordage and Anchors ought to be collected without delay.”
George Clinton, who was not only the governor, but often called the “Father of New York State” because of his 21 years of service in that office, (1777 – 1795, 1801 – 1804)) requested that Thomas Machin analyze the past failures and ultimately devise a plan for a new chain, as well as the correct location for the chain, which would insure the project’s success. He is an important figure in the story of the obstructions of the Hudson, so let’s spend a few moments learning more about his life.
Born on March 20, 1744, Machin haled from Staffordshire, England and was the son of a mathematician. At an early age, Machin was employed by a skilled British inventor and engineer: James Brindley and took part in Brindley’s construction of the Bridgewater canal. Machin traveled to New York in 1772, and established his residence in Boston. After aligning himself with the colonists, he participated in the Boston Tea Party. As a lieutenant who specialized in artillery, he was wounded during the Battle of Bunker’s Hill.
Machin’s prowess as an engineer had already come to the attention of a variety of officers, including George Washington, and he was often drawn away from his duties as an artilleryman to survey or take part in construction projects. On
July 21, 1776, Machine received his orders directly from Washington:
“Sir–You are without delay to proceed to Fort Montgomery, or Constitution, in the Highlands, on the Hudson’s River, and put yourself under command of Col.George Clinton, or the commanding officer there,–to act as Engineer in comtemplating such works as are already laid out,–and such others as you, with the advice of Col. Clinton, may think necessary: ‘Tis expected and required of you, that you pay close attention to this business, and drive on the works with all possible despatch. In case of an attack from the enemy, or in any action with them, you are to join and act with the Artillery on that station; and to return to your duty in the regiment as soon as you can be spared from the works.”
Machin had been placed in charge of the chain that was stretched across the Hudson near Fort Montgomery. Machin was also responsible for the placement of the chevaux-de-frise from Pollepel Island to Plum Point. Unlike the completely ineffective chevaux-de-frise of Captain Cook that we learned about in the 15th episode, Machin had created a box structure that was filled with rocks. Then, the trees, which were tipped with iron points, were set at an angle. They were of such concern to the British that one of the first orders given after the capture of Fort Montgomery was to locate and remove the structures.
Although Machin was a skilled engineer, he did not shy away from battle. He took part in the Battle of Fort Montgomery in October of 1777. He was shot in the chest with the ball leaving his body just under the right shoulder. He had seen first-hand the imperfections and limitations of the structure of the forts so easily overtaken by the British. It is no doubt that his experience factored into his thoughts and plans for future obstructions as he recovered from his wound in the home of none other than Governor Clinton. He had recovered sufficiently by December, 1777 that he helped Governor Clinton select a new home for his family in Poughkeepsie.
The Great Chain would be different from Machin’s first creation at Fort Montgomery. The links in the chain, which weigh more than 100 pounds each and measure two feet in length. The weight of the entire chain was estimated to be 186 tons. It would also be fortified by an additional series of anchors that were upstream from the chain. It would float on a series of rafts. These were not small rafts either. The logs used to construct the rafts were approximately 50 feet in length. The tension of the chain was maintained by the use of mid-stream anchors, pulleys, ropes, and rollers. Also, the chains that bound the boom together were lighter than the Great Chain itself. The distance between the logs were shortened to only about ten feet. It is possible that the boom may actually have been stronger than the Great Chain itself.
Machin developed the plan for the chain in conjunction with the founding member of New York’s Sons of Liberty, Hugh Hughes. For the Great Chain, Machin and Hughes looked to the Sterling Iron Works because of its fine reputation. But the owner of the Sterling Iron Works, Peter Townsend also forged a bargain that was not included in the agreement. Sterling Iron works was granted an exemption for service for their employees which extended past the time when the chain was completed. Although Hughes, who negotiated the contract, later apologized to Governor Clinton for entering into such an agreement, he felt he had no other choice but to do so.
The contract was entered into by Hughes and Townsend on Saturday evening February 1, 1778. It was said that there was so much “zeal in the popular cause” as one author noted, that Hughes, Townsend, and Machin, amongst others, braved a horrible storm, and traveled to the Ironworks, some 14 miles away to get the ball rolling. By dawn, all of the forges were fired up, and work on the chain began and did not stop until the work was completed.
As links for the chain were being forged, Machin set to work on other aspects of the project. Everything would be put together at New Windsor. He needed carpenters to build the rafts and blacksmiths to put the chain together.
During the months of February and March, the Sterling Ironworks kept up a steady pace all day and night producing links for the chain. Imagine the sight of smoke billowing from the iron works. I wonder what the British thought was happening, don’t you? Even more of a sight must have been the oxen drawn sledges with half ton loads of links, pins, and joining clevises. The sledges, a large version of a sled, carried the links approximately 25 miles. Only nine links were carried in each of those loads. The sledges, were pulled from the ironworks to a small foundry located on Murderer’s creek. It was only one mile from the Hudson itself and relatively close to the command center which had been set up by General Knox and General Green. It was in that foundry, owned by Samuel Brewster, that the sections of both the boom and the chain were joined together and readied for a ride down the river. Within only a few weeks, the foundry’s workers had turned out a chain that was 1700 feet in length. Amazing, and truly a glimpse into the future of what American manufacturers would be capable of.
If the enormity of the sledges I described earlier would not have taken you aback, consider the scene which occurred on April 7, and again on April 16, as logs that had been covered with pitch were used to float sections of the chain from the building site in New Windsor to West Point. Just as tremendous amounts of iron were required to forge the chain, lumber was needed not only for the rafts to support the chain, but for the fortifications as well.
On April 30, 1778, the day had arrived. All the necessary components had been forged. Delivered, and put together. All the construction had been completed. The chain had been fastened to a rock crib, and it was ever so slowly pulled across with a winch to the capsan on Constitution Island. I wonder if those soldiers were cheering as the chain was set into place with large anchors in the 25 foot fathom deep river, or if they were just plain exhausted?
The cost of the Great Chain was approximately 19,000 pounds. What was not figured into that amount was any fee paid to Machin himself. In fact, George Washington noted in the fall of 1778 that Machin had worked for more than 2 years without any remuneration for his engineering services.
In March of 1780, General Robert Howe took charge of West Point. Many of those from the southern colonies had not forgiven his defeat in the Battle of Savannah in 1778. Howe took charge and immediately developed several ideas of how to strengthen the chain. That could also be thought of as pointing out weaknesses in it. After a mere five months, the grumblings about Howe had caused him to be replaced by none other than Benedict Arnold. What was one of the first things that happened when Arnold arrived for his new duty? Howe gave him a tour which included notation of specific weaknesses of the chain, the installations, and the limited amount of provisions.
It is here that we will leave this story. In our next edition we will learn more about the infamous life of Benedict Arnold.