Volume 21: June – July 1779


A mistaken view persists that GW and his army remained largely inactive during June and July 1779. The documents presented in this volume squelch any such notion. GW and his troops marched, planned, probed, skirmished, constructed, and attacked throughout these months. Exhaustion, rather than ennui, probably emerged as their dominant experience.

A forceful British drive up the Hudson River in late May prompted a vigorous response from GW. He broke the winter encampment at Middlebrook, N.J., over the first days of June and rushed the Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland divisions northward into the New York Highlands. The artillery under Brig. Gen. Henry Knox followed close behind. During that fluid time, GW wondered whether the British primarily targeted the Continental army units then in motion or the strategically important forts at West Point, New York. He regularly communicated with Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall, who commanded at West Point, and urged him to respond appropriately to either event. The British offensive stalled after the capture of small garrisons at Stony Point and Verplanck Point—the termini of King’s Ferry, N.Y., a crucial river crossing—and never directly threatened West Point. Dismayed by the losses, GW situated his army to block further British advances and watch for ways to push them back.

To achieve these objectives, the army needed to control the Highlands and move rapidly along interior lines through the jagged terrain. GW ordered scouts and patrols to explore reported or suspected roads and paths and discover more direct routes between inland areas as well as from those places to the Hudson River. He posted his army at pivotal points and interchanges and established his own field headquarters in Smiths Clove, where roads converged heading north, east, and south. GW located the artillery park at Chester, N.Y., because more substantial roads radiated from that town and it was too far away from the river for the enemy to launch an unnoticed foray. A map of the Highlands in this volume drawn from documentary evidence and period maps illustrates the challenges and opportunities of military operations in this region.

After stabilizing the situation, which included coordinating supplies from stores at Fishkill, N.Y., and more distant depots, GW prepared for a counterattack. He focused on the British fortifying Stony Point and Verplanck Point, despite his disingenuous observation on 11 June to Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates: “An attempt to dislodge them, from the natural strength of the positions, would require a greater force & apparatu<s> than we are masters of—All we can do is to lament what we cannot remedy and to endeavour to prevent a further progress on the river—and to make the advantages of what they have now gained as limited as possible.” Maj. Henry Lee, Jr., Col. Rufus Putnam, and Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne all undertook useful reconnaissances. GW reconnoitered Stony Point with Wayne, who commanded the light infantry corps, in early July. By that date, the commanding general had shifted his headquarters to New Windsor, N.Y., where he could better monitor the movement of supplies across the river and reach West Point, some fifteen miles to the southeast, more easily.

Reconnaissance reports regularly came to GW, and this information enabled him to respond aggressively to the British raids along the Connecticut coast that began at New Haven on 5 July and ended at Norwalk on 11 July. Having confirmed early intelligence of the British initiative and begun a correspondence with Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., to address the threat, GW wrote Wayne on 9 July to accelerate his preparations to attack Stony Point. “While the enemy are making excursions to distress the country,” GW noted, “it has a very disagreeable aspect to remain in a state of inactivity on our part.” The very next day, GW detailed his thoughts to Wayne on the best manner to assault that formidable position. Those ideas included the exclusive employment of light infantry in a night attack with bayonets only. Wayne adopted all of GW’s proposals in the final plan he set forth for approval on 15 July. The sole significant amendment was to add a regular infantry reserve. Wayne believed that the courage derived from numbers would assist the main force.

The assault on Stony Point—launched in the first minutes of 16 July—succeeded admirably. “Our Officers & men behaved like men who are determined to be free,” Wayne exulted at 2:00 A.M. when he wrote GW to report the garrison’s surrender. Seeking to exploit the success, GW ordered Maj. Gen. Robert Howe to press his command against Verplanck Point. Delays in bringing up artillery to augment Howe’s effort and a concerted British counter-thrust from near New York City imperiled the movement, and the Americans retreated just in time to avoid disaster. GW, who followed these developments from the captured works at Stony Point, decided to abandon that place as too difficult and costly to hold. Final departure occurred on 19 July after everything of military value had been removed with the exception of one cannon. Eager to ease their embarrassment, the British reoccupied Stony Point later that same day.

The pace of maneuvers now slowed. The British postponed further raids along the Connecticut coast to restore their lodgements up the Hudson River. During this lull, GW concentrated on completing a system of fortifications at West Point. The need for proper defenses there had been known as early as 1775, but varying visions for the installations and squabbling among engineers had inhibited progress. To end the confusion, GW established his headquarters at West Point and brought his organizational skills to the task. In the general orders for 28-30 June, he assigned officers to specific sites and set up a regular rotation for fatigue parties. Despite the summer heat, these innovations, and GW’s presence, dramatically reduced inefficiencies stemming from the constant turnover of supervisors and laborers. For the placement of these defenses, which allowed fewer troops to secure West Point from both land and water attacks, see the map on p. 193 of this volume drawn from documentary evidence, period and modern maps, and visual inspection of fort, redoubt, and battery remains on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy.

GW displayed an intense interest in information of all sorts during these two months. Rumors of a major American military success in South Carolina excited both GW and political leaders in Philadelphia. Doubts arose in the absence of official confirmation, and all expressed exasperation when the early reports proved erroneous. GW felt similar frustration over supply shortages that delayed Maj. Gen. John Sullivan’s expedition against the Six Nations in western New York. Sullivan’s inability to coordinate with Brig. Gen. James Clinton’s command further unsettled GW. A letter from John Jay on 29 July related Sullivan’s pessimistic outlook for his command because of deficient support from the commanding general. That letter angered GW upon its receipt in August. Intriguing and less troubling news on western frontier developments came from Col. Daniel Brodhead at Pittsburgh. Maj. Gen. Lafayette, then visiting his family in France, provided intelligence from Europe.

Spies remained a foremost concern for GW, and he kept gold coins on hand to pay for their services. When Abraham Woodhull, who wrote from New York City and Long Island as Samuel Culper or Samuel Culper, Sr., indicated anxiety over his personal safety to his handler, Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, GW informed the major in a letter dated 13 June: “I would by all means wish him to employ some person of whose attachment and abilities he entertains the best opinion, to act in his place, with a request to be critical in his observations rather than a mere retailer of Vulgar reports.” Robert Townsend, the son of a Loyalist merchant, subsequently replaced Woodhull and began sending communications in late June. Townsend soon adopted the pseudonym “Samuel Culper, Jr.,” to distinguish himself from his predecessor. The capture of several spy letters from Tallmadge during a British attack on that officer’s camp during the early morning of 2 July threatened the Culper ring and other covert operations. That unfortunate incident, which irritated GW, increased the urgency to mask written items in codes or invisible ink. Both espionage tools came into use during these months. In sending the ink to Tallmadge on 25 July, GW demanded “that no mention may ever be made of your having received such liquids from me or any one else.” GW encouraged the intelligence initiatives of his subordinates and on 27 July specifically advised Lt. Col. John Taylor, the new commander at Elizabeth, N.J., “to get information of whatever passes with the enemy, particularly at New York.”

The irksome requirements of army administration did not lessen during active field operations. Officers upset over rank disputes or regimental arrangements badgered GW, who resolved many thorny complications only to see others take their place. A general agreement on prisoner exchanges remained a desirable goal, but the status of alleged parole violators blocked progress. GW appointed a board of general officers on 25 June to examine the uncertain cases. Much grumbling apparently accompanied the thankless task, completed rather quickly on 28 June. The results reached John Beatty, commissary general of prisoners, on 12 July and the balky negotiations resumed. Recruiting proved similarly resistant to rapid accomplishment. A failure to deliver clothing that state officials had promised to recruits in Virginia stalled Brig. Gen. Charles Scott in his attempts to raise troops for service in South Carolina. Scott’s predicament, and more general recruitment concerns, distressed GW, who aired his concerns on 28 June in a letter to that subordinate: “every hour brings fresh proofs that the most dangerous delays are entailed upon all our measures.” An inability to fill Continental army requisitions increasingly worried GW. He blamed ubiquitous expectations of high bounties, and diminishing zeal for the Patriot cause, as principal factors behind recruiting woes. An insufficient number of Major General Steuben’s army manuals slowed its dissemination. Consistent training and management of the army could not be put “effectually in train,” GW informed the Board of War on 9 June, “till every officer has the regulations by which he is to be governed, in his hand.” The general orders for 30 June announced the arrival and distribution of Steuben’s manual, undoubtedly a small relief for GW amid many administrative headaches.

Maneuvers compelled GW to postpone complex courts-martial involving Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s actions while commander in Philadelphia and John Morgan’s charges of malfeasance against William Shippen, Jr., in the latter’s role as director general of army hospitals. GW regularly reviewed the determinations of division and brigade courts-martial. His blanket pardon for all men awaiting a death sentence to acknowledge the anniversary of American independence on 4 July backfired when one Joseph Bettys became a notorious marauder along the New York frontier. Bettys’s murderous career did not end until local officials caught and executed him in early spring 1782.

Although consequential, administrative anxieties and missteps form the background of this volume. GW concentrated on military objectives. He wanted to control strategic points, deter or blunt British attacks, and find opportunities to smash his adversaries. Seeking insights on “what Offensive movements can be undertaken against the enemy at the present juncture,” GW convened a council of general officers on 26 July. His instructions to the council laid out the latest intelligence on British dispositions and the strength of American forces. GW requested written responses within twenty-four hours. Replies survive from sixteen of the seventeen participants. Most advised GW to assume a defensive posture. In the end, GW acted on the recommendations of Brigadier General Knox and Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene to split four brigades between New York’s borders with Connecticut and New Jersey and thus project a presence into those states while striving to complete the fortifications at West Point. Knox’s suggestion to attack New York City if any opportunity presented itself definitely resonated with GW. He gave the matter much study over the next several months.

GW worked his subordinate generals severely during June and July 1779. Unusually pensive over these months of thrust and parry, he essentially neglected his own personal affairs. Only a single letter to a relative has been found for this period, to John Augustine Washington on 20 June summarizing military news. Command pressures, however, had not crushed or distorted GW’s fundamental humanity. When Henry Knox’s wife and newborn daughter lingered near death, GW allowed him to take leave for weeks to be at their sides. The girl died but Knox’s wife survived. Such thoughtfulness suggested a decency that won loyalty more surely than brilliance or triumphs.

Jacket Essay

During the busy and challenging months of June and July-the period covered in Volume 21 of the Revolutionary War Series-George Washington remained the fulcrum for Continental Army activities. Through his exertions and leadership, the troops under his direct supervision quickly broke their winter encampment at Middlebrook, New Jersey, for positions in the New York Highlands to check a British thrust up the Hudson River that threatened West Point. He then promptly began planning an operation to reduce the British garrison at Stony Point, New York. Those efforts came to fruition with the successful surprise night attack of Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne’s light infantry in the early morning hours of 16 July. The victory boosted Patriot morale, calmed Connecticut residents recently subjected to British raids, and eased the subsequent disappointment of having to abandon Stony Point as too difficult to hold when a movement to capture the British post across the Hudson at Verplanck Point resulted in a hasty retreat. After departing Stony Point, Washington established his headquarters at West Point and concentrated his considerable administrative talents on completing a system of fortifications at that strategic location. He envisioned defenses impervious to assault from land or water but manned with fewer troops.

Washington craved information and intelligence. Subordinate officers regularly apprised him about their situations while requesting orders or reporting developments. They relied heavily on Washington for guidance and encouragement, probably exasperating the commanding general at times for their inability to demonstrate independent initiative or exercise proper discretion when given latitude. Particularly vexing were the supply and coordination problems that delayed Maj. Gen. John Sullivan’s expedition against the Indians of the Six Nations and Loyalists along the Pennsylvania-New York frontier. Untimely or vague spy reports also troubled Washington. He welcomed the transition in the Culper spy ring from Abraham Woodhull to Robert Townsend because the new man potentially would reinvigorate the vital flow of intelligence about the British in New York City and on Long Island. Washington also showed great interest in the employment of invisible ink, the concealment of spy identities, and the discovery of new informants.

Washington’s reach extended very far, but he could not control or know everything. His attempts to march Brig. Gen. John Glover’s brigade from Rhode Island to the Highlands and then maneuver in Connecticut to counter the British raids suffered complications from that general’s absence. Washington apparently did not realize that Glover, then a widower for about a year, had dallied at Providence to court eligible women. That tidbit surfaced in correspondence between Glover and Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, the former’s immediate superior and an officer who continued his pattern of irksome communications with Washington. Responding to the opinion of Gates that there existed a ‘glorious opportunity of making an attack upon New York,’ Washington wrote reprovingly on 11 June ‘that you must either greatly overrate our force or undervalue that of the enemy.’ Washington’s ability to retain his composure and think clearly while under pressure or amid confusion remained exemplary. He exhibited on a daily basis his importance to the revolutionary cause.

William M. Ferraro, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 21, 1 June – 31 July 1779. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2012.

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