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16 AHMP The Great Chain

16 AHMP The Great Chain

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, a chain that floated between Forts Montgomery and Clinton, as well as another chevaux-de-frise  which was constructed between Plum Point and Pollepel Island.  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. The chain was ultimately strung across the Hudson River and floated between capstans affixed on  Constitution Island and West Point.

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.

On November 24th, 1777 General James Clinton wrote to General Gates: “I know of no other method of obstructing the passage of Hudson’s River, but by Chevaux-de-frise, Chains, and Booms, well defended by heavy artillery and strong works on the shore. The former is impracticable at any place lower down than where the present are, near this place, and even there, the river is rather too wide to admit of their being properly defined; they may, however, when completed, be a very considerable obstruction. This with a Chain or boom at a part of the river called the West Point, where it is quite narrow and the wind, owing to the crookedness of the River, very uncertain, with proper works on the shore to defend it and water-batteries calculated to annoy Shipping, would, in my opinion, perfectly obstruct the navigation.”

Of course, you might recall this suggestion had been previously made by Jacobus Van Zandt. Approximately 16 months before General Clinton’s letter, Van Zandt had favored placing a chain near Fort Constitution instead of Fort Montgomery. However, the plans for the proposed installation were so extensive, not to mention expensive, that work had focused on Fort Montgomery.

You might also 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 “I have dispatched Expresses to owners of sloops and boats 20 miles up the west side of the river, ordering them down to Fort Constitution, 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 feared that the British would return up the river the following spring, and destroy Albany which was the only town of importance along the river that was still left untouched. He wrote to Putnam that “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.” He went on to say, “I therefore request you, in the most urgent terms, to turn your most serious and active attention to this infinitely important object. Seize the present opportunity, and employ your whole force and all the means in your power for erecting and completing , as far as it should be possible, such works and obstructions as may be necessary to defend and secure the river against any future attempts of the enemy.” Putnam was ordered to consult with Governor Clinton, General Parsons, and Lieutenant-Colonel Radiere. Washington ended his letter leaving no uncertainty as to Putnam’s orders: “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 Major-General Gates. Gates had recently been appointed as President of the Board of War, but Clinton focused in on the matter. He whole heartedly recommended to Washington that a “strong fortress should be erected at West Point opposite to Fort Constitution.”

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 including John Hathorn, Henry Wisner, Zephaniah Platt, Robert R. Livingston, and John Sloss Hobart. That committee would work in conjunction with General Putnam, Governor George Clinton, and Captain Machin, as well as with input from Generals Sterling, Lee, and Schuyler. In a report issued by the committee regarding possible placement of a chain near West Point, they noted that “Three hundred feet less of Chain will be required at this place than at Fort Clinton. It will be laid across in a place where Vessels going up the River most usually lose their Headway. Water Batteries may be built on both sides of the River, for protecting the Chain and annoying the Ships coming up the River, which will be completely commanded from the Walls of the Fort.” However, they were concerned that the enemy could quickly land, and a fort constructed at West Point would be unable to withstand a lengthy attack. Conversely, they also considered possibly resurrecting the chain near Fort Montgomery. After weighing all options, they concluded that West Point would be the best place to obstruct the river. However, they cautioned that sufficient personnel would be necessary to guard the precious chain.

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. In a letter from Governor Clinton to Machin on December 19, 1777, he noted that “Gen. Washington is anxious about securing the river. Putnam is ordered to turn his whole attention to that business, and will be up with his troups in a few days.”

In the15th episode of American History for the Modern Patriot, we briefly learned about an engineer named Thomas Machin. 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. Machin took part in Brindley’s construction of the Bridgewater canal. Not only did he receive solid training as an engineer, but as Brindley’s clerk he was responsible for managing financial matters (such as employee payments as well). 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. As you will recall in the 15th episode, a Secret Committee had been created by the New York State Congress to devise a plan for obstructing the Hudson. It was Machin, who was sent by George Washington, in response to the Committee’s request for an expert to improve upon their ideas. He wrote to the committee on June 21, 1776 regarding Machin: “he is as proper a person as any I can send, being an ingenious faithful hand, and one that has considerable experience as an Engineer.”

It is no surprise that Machin came into Washington’s view in that he served as a second lieutenant in Henry Knox’s artillery regiment. Machin’s prowess as an engineer had already come to the attention of a variety of officers, and he was often drawn away from his duties as an artilleryman as evidenced by the following letter:

Boston, June 19,, 1776–Wednesday evening. “To Lieut. Machin, at Nantasket:

“Sir–I informed the committee that you could go to Sandwich on the survey if it could be taken this week; in consequence of which, we agreed that you might set out as soon as you thought proper, and begin the survey, and that we would follow, and be there next Tuesday. I beg you would let me see you to-morrow evening, that the committee may hear what to depend on.

“Sir, your most humble serv’t-


That letter was written by James Bowdoin. Given the nature of Bowdoin’s praise for Machin’s abilities, it is no surprise that he received another letter written on  July 21, 1776:

“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. “I am, sir, your most humble serv’t. GO. WASHINGTON.”

The confidence given to Machin was of such a level that we find the following letter being written to him by Brigadier General James Clinton on August 10, 1776: “Fort Montgomery, 10th August, 1776. To Lieut. Machin–As I am now ordered to march with the new levies to Kings Bridge, and as you will want many necessaries for compleating the new works we have begun on the south side of Poplopin’s Kill and the works to be erected for securing the pass of Anthony’s Nose. You are to use your best endeavors by all means in your power, (applying to Col. Clinton from time to time for his aid and advice) to purchase and procure such articles as may be wanted, of which the clerk of the Check is to keep a just account. The artificers already employed and such others as may be wanted, are, (in the erecting of these works) to be under your directions, for which purpose Col. Clinton will be given the necessary orders.”

Machin had been placed in charge of the chain that was stretched across the Hudson near Fort Montgomery. It was also Machin who was 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. 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 be 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 in conjunction with the founding member of New York’s Sons of Liberty, Hugh Hughes. At that time, Hughes had resigned as a teacher, and had gained the title of 2nd Deputy Continental Army Quartermaster. Eventually, Hughes went on to become a Quartermaster General.

For the Great Chain, Machin and Hughes looked to the Sterling Iron Works because of its fine reputation. An agreement was entered into between Noble, Townsend & Company, who were the Proprietors of the Sterling Iron Works and Hugh Hughes, for the Army of the United States that on or before April 1st or sooner if possible the following would be ready for delivery “an iron chain of the following dimensions and quality, that it, in length five hundred yards, each link about two feet long, to be made of the best sterling iron, two inches and one quarter square, or as near thereto as possible, with a swivel to every hundred feet, and a clevis to every thousand weight, in the same manner as those of the former chain. That said Noble, Townsend & Company also engage to have made and ready to be delivered at least twelve tons of anchors of the aforesaid iron, and of such sizes as the said Hugh Hughes as or his successors in the office shall direct in writing, as soon as the completion of the chain will admit. In consideration of which, the said Hugh Hughes, in behalf of the United States, agrees to pay to the said Noble, Townsend & Company on their order, at the rate of four-hundred and forty pounds for every ton weight of chain and anchors delivered as before mentioned, unless the general regulations on trade, provisions, etc., which are now supposed to be framed be deputies from the United States, shall be published and take effect before the expiration of four months from the date of this: in which case the price is to be only four hundred pounds per ton for the said chain and anchors.”

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, in April of 1777 in order to work on chain. That included 82 forgemen and 42 furnacemen. In that Noble & Townsend knew of the great desire by all those in the Continental Army, beginning with George Washington, for completion of the obstruction, they also demanded that 60 Sterling Iron workers be granted examptions for 9 months in 1778. Although Hughes 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 (Simms, p. 623), 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. As examples of what a laborer was paid each day, an expense bill written by Machin and dated April 7, 1778, included 8 s per day for carpenters, 12 s per day for foreman of the carpenters, and the two men who rode the sledges pulled by two yoke of oxen to deliver the forged material to New Windsor were paid 23 s per day

Both speed and the public safety was on Machin’s mind as the project progressed.  In a letter to the New York Council of Safety in New Windsor dated Feburary 22, 1778, he wrote: “GENTLEMEN–It will be needless for me to point out to you the necessity of some speedy obstructions being made in Hudson’s river, against gun-boats, galleys and small crafts that will probably come up at the first opening of the spring, and prevent our making such necessary works as may preserve the good people on the banks of the river, from the revenge of a merciless enemy (remember Kingston), towards effecting which, much time has already elapsed and but little done, which drives me to the necessity of applying to the Honorable Committee on this occasion.

“We shall want a large quantity of timber for the Chain, which cannot be got up the river on account of the frost; and when the frost breaks up it will be too late for our business. I shall not think it consistent with my duty to distress any individual by cutting all the timber off one man’s land, and thereby render a good farm of little value; and I cannot always be with men in the woods: unless destruction may be made by them unless over seen by somebody to prevent it. For this purpose I should be glad if the Honorable Committee will appoint a Wood Ranger to oversee the business, that the Master Carpenters may apply to him for such timber as they shall receive orders to get. It ought to be a person in disinterested circumstances, a man of honor, resolution and stability. A compliance with this will much forward the present business and oblige–gentlemen,”

Despite Machin’s steady progress with the chain, the same could not be said for the fortification at West Point. Seemingly months of disagreement and resistance had gone on between Colonel La Radiere, the second in command of the Army engineers, and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish engineer who had worked so effectively at Saratoga.

The two seemed to differ over everything. La Radiere ultimately asked for a pass to leave West Point and offer his resignation directly to Washington. A seemingly exasperated General Parsons wrote the following to Machin on March 11, 1778: “Sir:–As Col. Laradiere has left us, I wish you, if you can be absent from New Windsor for a day to come to this port to-morrow or the day after, to advise about the proper method of fortifying this place.” On March 17th La Raidere met with Washington, and tendered his resignation saying that Kosciuszko and General Putnam had damaged his honor, as well as the public interest. The general then sent word to the Continental Congress that “From the information I have from Colo. Radiere, who has just come from thence, I find that the intended defences are far less advanced than I had any idea of, tho’ I have repeatedly and constantly urged the presecution of them with all possible industry.”

Despite the entrance of a new and decisive commander in the Highlands, General McDougall, the squabble between La Radiere and Kosciuszko continued. On April 22, Washington wrote to McDougall stating: “As Colo. Radiere and Colo. Kosiusko will never agree, I think it will be best to order La Radiere to return, especially as you say Kosiusko is better adapted to the genius and temper of the People.”  Upon La Radiere’s return to Valley Forge, it had been clarified that Kosciuszko was in charge of the fortifications, and Machin was in charge of the chain.

But let’s move back in time a few months to see how the chain came 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 carried the links approximately 25 miles. Only nine links were carried in each of those loads. The sledges, which were a much larger version of a sled, 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.

The following letter was written to Machin in March of 1778. Not only does it give you an idea of how things were progressing, but of the day to day troubles that Machin dealt with. “Monday afternoon, March 11th, 1778.
“My Dear Captain:–You will receive by the bearer some paper and all the white rope of the size mentioned we have. I have sent off Charley this minute to forward the cordage from Danbury, as well as from Fairfield, but can’t say what size there is at the latter, as it is sent by Mr. Shaw, of New London, at the request of Gen. Putnam, who never told me the sizes he ordered. I believe there are no more cables to be expected of Mr. Ives till he gets more hemp–at least, I understood him so. In my letter to Gen. Putnam, I informed him, while he was in Connecticut, that all sizes would be wanted, and advised that the whole cargo should be bought.

“He referred the matter to Governor Trumbull, (and I imagine) the Governor to Mr. Shaw, who may, possibly, serve himself first. However, as I said before, Charles is gone to learn the true state of what is on the road, and forward it along. When he returns, which will be in two or three days, I expect, you shall hear further. I will wait on the general, and let you know his orders concerning the hands. Inclosed you have the general’s order for the men required. I am, Dear Captain, “Yours in truth, “J. HUGHES. “P.S. You have also an order on Sheaf at Wappinger’s creek.”

Despite the difficulties, the project progressed. On March 16th, General Parsons notified George Washington that “If the Chain is completed, we shall be ready to stretch it across the River next week.”

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 3rd, 1778, General Parsons wrote to Machin: “Sir–if ’tis possible to spare any timber from the creek, I beg you to order it rafted immediately for this place, where we are in the greatest need of it; it ought not to be delayed a moment, our information being of a nature which requires immediate attention to compleating the batteries.  Your obedient serv’t, SAM’L. H. PARSONS. 3d April, 1778.”

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 following is the copy of a letter from Capt. Machin to Gen. McDougal, which shows when the work was completed:

“Honored Sir–Lieut. Woodward who I told you was at Sterling iron works inspecting the chain, is now returned, and informs me that seventeen hundred feet of the Great Chain, which is equal to the breadth of the river at the place last fixed upon, is now ready for use. The capson [capstan] and docks are set up at the lower place; the mud blocks are launched and only wait for good weather to carry them down: four cannon, twelve and nine pounders are at the beach, also waiting for weather to go down: four more will be ready by Saturday; and if no unforseen accident should appear, I shall be able to send down four cannon next week. If the weather should be favorable, I am in hopes we shall be able to take the chain down all fixed in about 6 days. Lieut. Woodward was ordered by Ge, Parsons to assist me at those works, and as he is a gentleman well skilled in mechanical powers, and a person of steady application, it will put me much out of the way to have him removed at this time. Should therefore be glad if you will continue him in the work, as somebody must be in his place, and to take an entire stranger at this time will be onerous and dangerous. I am, dear sir, Your humble servant, THOS.MACHIN.” “The Honorable Maj. Gen. McDougal. April 20th, 1778.”

All must have gone well because Governor Clinton wrote the following letter to Machin on May 3, 1778: “Poughkeepsie, 3d May, 1778. “Dear Sir–I received your letter of yesterday and am happy to learn that the chain is across the river, and that you had the good fortune to accomplish it so expeditiously and so much to your satisfaction.

“I am informed that old Mr. Teabout, who lives (or did lately) at Van Deuzens, near the Clove, has a phaeton that he will dispose of. If so, and it is a neat, good one, as I am told it is, I wish to buy it, provided it can be had at a reasonable price. A new one used to cost about L80. I would be willing to give something more now. Will you call and take a look at it–know the price, and if good and reasonable purchase it for me. The sooner you see it the better. Yours sincerely, GEO. CLINTON. apt. Machin”

A description of the installed chain was found in West Point army surgeon Dr. James Thacker’s journal. He noted it was “at the short bend in the river, under the fire of batteries on both sides. The Links are about 12 inches wide and 19 long, the Bars about two inches square. It is buoyed up by very large Logs about 16 feet long, pointed at the ends to lessen their opposition ot the Force of the Current at flodd and ebb Tide. The Logs are placed at short distances from each other, the Chain carried over them, and made fast by Staples. There are also a number of Anchors dropped at proper distances, with cables made fast to the Chain to give it greater stability.”

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, and learn in the next edition why that tour laid the groundwork for Arnold’s plan to betray his country.