15 AHMP Revolutionary Barriers & Blazes
What extraordinary steps were taken by the Continental Army to limit British navigation of the Hudson River? What is a chevaux-de-fries, a boom, and a fire raft? Is it truly possible that a chain could be stretched across the Mighty Hudson? We will learn the answers to these questions in this episode.
In the 14th edition of American History for the Modern Patriot, we learned about the Separation of Powers which is a barrier created for us by our Founders to assure our liberty. We will learn in this episode about a series of great barriers created across one of the most important waterways during the American Revolution.
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. Not only did the ships carry supplies, but they carried soldiers, munitions, and communications as well. Of the river, George Washington said in a letter to General Israel Putnam on December 2, 1777: “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. These Facts at once appear, when it is considered that it runs through a whole State; that it is the only Passage by which the Enemy from New York, or any Part of our Coast, can ever hope to cooperate with an Army from Canada; that the possession of it is indispensably essential to preserve the Communication between the Eastern Middle, and Southern States; and further, that upon its Security, in a great Measure, depend our child Supplies of Flour for the subsistence of such Forces as we may have occasion for, in the course of the War, either in the Easter or Northern Department, or in the Country lying high up on the West side of it.” 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. Out manned, out gunned, and out financed, the colonists had to use strategy to their advantage wherever they could.
Although it took some time to construct the first obstruction on the Hudson, on May 25, 1775, which was 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; and that experienced persons be immediately sent to examine said river in order to discover where it will be most adviseable and proper to obstruct the navigation.”
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. The fort was built just above Burdett’s Landing on what is known as the Hudson Palisades.
Fort Washington: located across the river from Fort Lee, and on the highest and northern point of the island of Manhattan. The fort sat on top of a large outcrop of rock known as Manhattan schist.
Fort Montgomery: located near Peekskill, New York, Fort Montgomery was built where the Popolopen Creek 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: Just across from Fort Montgomery, and on the south of Popolopen Gorge, was a structure known as Fort Clinton. It was a slightly smaller fortification than Fort Montgomery, but it was better defended and on higher ground than 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, and it would have rested on a 160 acre island in the middle of the river known as “Martelaer’s Rock.” However, much disagreement arose over the intricate and extensive plans developed by Dutch born surveyor, Bernard Romans. Not to mention the considerable expense of building such an extensive fortification on such a difficult location. Romans was unwilling to modify his plan saying “a less or more imperfect plan would only be beginning a stronghold for an Enemy.” Consequently, building stopped and Fort Montgomery became the focus of construction.
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 cheval 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. It seems that such a barrier was first proposed to the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety by a Mr. Robert Smith in July of 1775. In a meeting, chaired by Benjamin Franklin, it was noted “Mr. Robert Smith, carpenter, appeared at this Board with a model of a Machine for obstructing the navigation of the River Delaware, and explained the construction of it, which was approved of.” Although Mr. Smith’s suggestion was for a chevaux-de-fries to be placed else ware, it quickly became a popular method of obstruction in rivers and harbors throughout the colonies.
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. Another author said that the obstruction was not limited to logs. The soldiers reportedly spent more than a month moving large boulders from the highest point of Manhattan Island to 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: Let me read it to you: “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 two Ships’ Sterns lie towards each other, about seventy Feet apart. Three large Logs, which reach from Ship to Ship are fastened to them. The two Ships and Logs stop the River two hundred and eighty Feet. The Ships are to be sunk and when hauled down on one side, the Picks will be raised up to a proper Height, and they must inevitably stop the River, if the Enemy will let us sink them.” 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. It was noted on October 3rd that Captain Cook was “now up the River cutting Timber for the Chevaux-de-Frize. As he is much wanted here to sink the old Vessels, the Gen. begs that you would immediately send him down; we are at a Stand for want of him, for as he has Superintended the Matter from the beginning, he best knows the properest places to be Obstructed.”
Unfortunately, Captain Cook’s placements did not work as well as intended. On October 9th, Tench Tilghman 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, while our Batteries played upon them; 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
When I learned about one of the barriers that we will study about in this episode I was truly amazed. Imagine a time when funding was extremely limited, materials scarce, and artisans willing to do certain work was in short supply. And yet….not one but two chains were built and placed across the Hudson River. 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 were 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.
Chains were used in rivers other than the Hudson both during the French-Indian war as well as the American Revolution. As early as May 3, 1776, there was correspondence referencing a chain. George Washington wrote to General Philip Schuyler that “You will also receive the Chain which General Lee ordere’d and which I think should be sent to and fix’d at the place it is designed for, with all possible Expedition. It may be of great Service and Benefit.” Two days later, he wrote to John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress, that he had ordered Schuyler to “have the Boom fixed, as soon as possible.” Unlike the specificity of the letter from General Putnam that we heard earlier, there are few letters discussing the specifics of the earliest chains lest the British learn of their existence due to the cost and difficulties in constructing them. The one referenced by Washington was installed in the Sorel River near Montreal. That chain was considered so valuable that it was taken in the retreat from a battle in late May.
Soon after the resolution of the Continental Congress we heard earlier, New Yorkers Major Christopher Tappan and Colonel James Clinton recommended to the Congress on June 13, 1775 that construction of what would become Forts Montgomery and Clinton begin as soon as possible. Included in their recommendations was the following statement: “Your Committee beg leave to observe, that they are informed that by means of four or five booms chained together on one side of the river, ready to be drawn across the passage can be closed up, to prevent any vessel passing or repassing.” So what, you might ask, is a boom? It is some type of obstacle or obstruction strung across a river or another body of water, and it is generally something that floats.
Noting that the simple chevaux-de-frise had not even given pause to the British ship, they moved on to a chain and boom configuration which stretched from Fort Montgomery to Anthony’s Nose.
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; and that this Convention Pledge themselves for defraying the Charges incident thereto.” The committee included Mr. Paulding, Robert Livingston, Major C. Tappan, Robert Yates, and John Jay.
The Committee initially asked for 150 14 foot long pine logs be secured to use as floatation devices for the chain. On July 25th, Samuel Tudor, Augustus Lawrence, and Jacobus Van Zandt were appointed to oversee the project if Committee members were not available. They instructed those men that “if it should be found Impracticable at or near the said Fort, then to fix the same at or near Fort Constitution. 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.
At one point, it was believed that they would not have access to the already made chain. The Committee, therefore, made detailed plans for a new one. On August 1, 1776, the Committee: “Resolved, Therefore that Mr. Jacobus Van Zandt, Mr. Lawrence, and Mr. Tudor be directed to form the Rafts agreeable to the following Plan: That each Raft be formed of five Logs of not less than fifty feet in length, placed ten feet apart and framed together by three cross Pieces; that each Raft be placed fifteen feet apart and Connected by strong Chains of 1 ½ inch thick, and anchored with their Butts down the River; that the Butts be shod with iron. That each Member of this Committee be directed to Enquire for and Purchase as many Anchors and Cables as they can procure and send Word to this Committee by the 7th Day of this Month of the Number they can obtain.”
Luckily, Robert Yates was able to report to George Washington on August 13th that “the chain intended for the Sorel is arrived, and will form a quarter part of the one designed for Hudson’s River. The iron for the remainder is come to hand, and the smiths began this day to forge it. We have agreed to fix one end of it at Fort Montgomery and the other at the foot of a mountain called Anthony’s Nose. It will cross the river obliquely, and for that reason be less exposed to the force of the tide, and less liable to injury from the ships of the enemy. The length of the chain will, at least, be twenty one hundred feet.”
Debate continued between that time and mid-October as to whether the chain should be placed at Fort Montgomery or Fort Constitution. Although Jacobus Van Zandt favored the site at Fort Constitution, there was harsh criticism of plans dawn by Bernard Romans for that site. Consequently, work there was delayed. Because of that reason, as well as the chain’s length would be shorter if situated at Fort Montgomery, the committee voted “that Mr. Machin immediately prepare a place on each Side the River at Fort Montgomery to fasten the Ends of the intended Chain to: that he place two or three Funs in a small Breast-work to be erected for that purpose on the flat place just under the North end of the Grand Battery, where the Fire-Rafts now lay; also a small work, if Time permit, near the Water Edge, on the South side of Poplopen’s Kill.”
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.”
Here is where we will meet an important figure in this story: Captain Thomas Machin. Machin, an engineer, was authorized on November 30th to take charge of the project.
Machin was placed in charge of the chain. A faulty link in the chain broke because of the swift river tides. It was repaired, and the chain was again placed across the river.
Unfortunately, On October 6, 1777, the British captured both Fort Clinton and Montgomery. Within 3 hours, General Sir Henry Clinton and his troops took both forts. They dismantled the chain and proceeded to use it as a trophy! It was estimated that the chain that was strung from St. Anthony’s Nose to Fort Montgomery cost the colonial forces £70,000 pounds in the currency of the day.
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, Mr. Van Zandt wrote to New York’s Governor Clinton: “As you were please to forward us Genl. Washington’s Orders to complete a Number of Fire Rafts and Fire Vessels, we have the Pleasure to inform you that four Fire Rafts will be lanched this Evening. Tomorrow, we propose to fix them in the best Manner we can with dry Wood, Tar and such other Combustibles as we can procure at this Place. Two or three old Vessels we shall fix as fast as possible for the same Purpose. We shall send the Fire Rafts down to Col. Clinton as soon as completed.”
What, might you ask, was included in those combustibles? Correspondence from the Secret Committee we discussed above on July 27 included the following list: “Light Wood and Pine Knots for Fire Vessels, to begot at Esopus and Albany. Mr. Tappan to procure three old Sloops and send them down to Poughkeepsie loaded with those Knots and Light Wood, and as much Pitch, Tar, Turpentine, and Tar-Tubs and Barrels, as can be got. Mr. Livingston and Mr. Yates to procure the same Number of Sloops and to send them down loaded with the same Materials. The Pitch, Tar, and Turpentine not to exceed 100 Barrels. Also Oakum and Junks of Rope. Also to Procure 100 Ash Oars from 14 to 20 feet long. Mr. G. Livingston to procure six Long Boats and send them to Poughkeepsie. To get about twelve Fire Grappling Irons made. To get 1,000 Fire Arrows made. To fill up one or two armed Sloops at Albany. To send to Salisbury for all the Cannon and all the Shot that can be procured there.”
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, as printed in the 1826 Worcester Magazine, of Mr. Joseph Bass, who under the command of Commodore Tupper, was in charge of a fire ship on the evening of August 16, 1776: “The Commodore selected Bass to take Charge of one, and put the other under the Command of Captain Thomas who belonged to New London. The Vessel commanded by Bass was a Sloop, called the Polly, of about one hundred Tons burthen, nearly new. That commanded by Thomas, was of a smaller Size. The Frigates lay about eight Miles above Kingsbridge, but having had Information that they might be attacked, removed their Station towards the western Shore of the River, where the Water was deeper than on the east side.
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.
The Fire Ships started from the Spuyten Duywell Creek about Dark, with a south Wind and a fovourable Tide. The Night was Cloudy and Dark, with occasionally a little Rain. Bass had nine Men attached to his Vessel, three of whom he stationed in the Whale Boat, four had Charge of the Grappling Irons, and one acted as Pilot, while Bass stationed himself in the Cabin to fire the Materials.
Besides the two British Frigates, there was a Bomb Ketch and two Tenders; which were moored near them. They were anchored in a Line about North and South; first the Phoenix of about 44 Guns; next the Rose of 36 Guns; then the Bomb Ketch, and above it the 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 of the Fleet; and the Ketch soon burned so as to part from her Moorings, when she drifted on Shore, and was consumed to the Water’s Edge.
Capt. Thomas was not so fortunate. He was far in the Rear, and the Light from Bass’s Ship showed his Position to the Enemy; who opened a vigourous Cannonade and prepared themselves to meet the Attack. But, nothing daunted by being discovered, he bore down on the Phoenix, and became grappled with her. He then applied the Match to the Combustibles, but in such a way that his retreat to the Boat was cut off, and he was oblidged to leap overboard to escape the Flames. Five of his Men were compelled to follow his Example, and not being able to reach the Boat, all perished in the Water.
Notwithstanding the Phoenix, was on Fire in several Places, she was saved from Destruction by cutting away Portions of her Rigging, and slipping her Cables. In the Attack, the Enemy lost nearly seventy Men, besides some Women and Children, who were on board the Ketch.”
I found this account particularly interesting in light of the story I told about another ship named the Polly in the 7th episode of American History for the Modern Patriot.
Although this tactic was used several times on the Delaware River, it was notably used one on one occasion on the Hudson.
Let’s return to learning about barriers. That would be another Chevaux-de-frise which was constructed between Plum Point and Pollepel Island.
After the chain near Fort Montgomery had snapped in November, 1776. General James Clinton suggested that a chevaux-de-frise be built approximately 10 miles upriver from Fort Montgomery.
General Clinton reported to the New York Convention on March 12, 1777 that “The Obstruction of the Navigation is in great forwardness; a number of Frames and Blocks are ready for sinking.” Although he estimated that the work would be completed by mid-April. Notes from the Convention on April 26th indicated that 2000 pounds were authorized for continued work on the project. Evidentially, cost overruns on defense projects is not a new thing…
This project seems to have been a much more effective obstruction that the one constructed by Captain Cook. It was the first order of business for British Commodore Hotham to order Sir James Wallace to proceed and the river and locate a passage way through the barrier as soon as the capture of Forts Clinton and Montgomery were completed in October, 1777. Less than six days after that order was issued, British Major General Vaughan and his accompanying troops were noted to progress up the river on October 14.
In the next episode of American History for the Modern Patriot, we will learn about perhaps the greatest obstruction built by the Continental forces, and the patriot turned traitor who sought its destruction.
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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