As the center of the colonies at the time of the American Revolution, the Hudson River Valley provided a nexus for the conflict and hosted many key figures, battles, and political events throughout the eight years of war. The Sons of Liberty, as active in New York as they were in Massachusetts, printed broadsides, encouraged boycotts, rallied, rioted, and dumped British tea into the New York Harbor even as Patriot housewives throughout the Valley threw their own “tea parties” at the expense of merchants and Loyalist neighbors. The social fabric was ripped apart by the struggle first between the powerful coalition of the DeLanceys and Livingstons and then the Loyalists and Whigs or Patriots.
The New York Provincial Congress established itself at the White Plains Courthouse in July 1776, creating the State of New York with its acceptance of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776. New York adopted its Constitution in Kingston on April 20, 1777 and on February 6, 1778, ratified the Articles of Confederation, tying its fate to the rest of the United States of America.
Throughout the War, battles raged from Manhattan through the Mid-Hudson, including White Plains (1776), Forts Clinton and Montgomery (1777), Kingston (1777), and Stony Point (1779). In October 1777 Patriots watched helplessly as the British burned sites as far north as Clermont before turning back toward New York City. Major General Horatio Gates would right some of the wrongs when he accepted the surrender of Lieutenant General John Burgoyne’s British army at Saratoga on October 17, 1777, marking the turning point in the war. Starting in January 1778 the Americans would follow up on this victory by turning their attention from the ruins of Fort Constitution to building Fortress West Point with its famous chain across the Hudson, a complex that General George Washington called the “key of America.” In the summer of 1781, the French commander, the comte de Rochambeau, marched his 5,000-man army from Rhode Island to Philipsburg, New York, to join the Continental Army, first in the siege of New York and then in the pivotal Yorktown Campaign in Virginia.
Conflict would rage on the frontiers as Native American tribes allied with the British raided settlements and an American army under Major General John Sullivan and New York Brigadier General James Clinton exacted retribution. General Washington and his Main Army would encamp at Newburgh and New Windsor Cantonment in 1782 and 1783 as an Army of Observation for the British army in New York City. Finally on November 25, 1783, Governor George Clinton would lead the Americans into that city after the British evacuation. A War that started in Massachusetts had shifted and remained centered and then ended in New York.
In addition to the prominent roles played by the likes of New York’s first Governor, George Clinton, unsung heroes of the Hudson Valley did their duty as well. Sybil Ludington, New York’s own sixteen-year-old female Paul Revere, rode out of Carmel to raise the militia in defense of the burning Danbury, Connecticut. Chief Daniel Nimham of the Wappingers, a Native American member of the Sons of Liberty and a captain in the American militia lost his life in battle for the cause of liberty.
The American Revolution played out along the Hudson’s banks –from the first riots protesting the British Quartering Act on Golden Hill in Lower Manhattan, to the chaining of the Hudson and Benedict Arnold’s attempted betrayal of West Point in the Highlands in 1780, to the Battle of Saratoga along its northern shores where Arnold played the role not of traitor, but of hero. The Hudson River Valley was essential to the birth of our Nation.
The Great Chain
Major General Alexander McDougall, commander of the Hudson Highlands, wrote cryptically in his diary on April 30, 1778: “chain put aCross.” He was of course referring to the Great Chain at Fortress West Point. As of April 1778 Captain-Lieutenant Thomas Machin with his chain had finally done what Colonel James Clinton and Christopher Tappen had envisioned almost three years before: he had blocked the Hudson River from Fort Constitution to West Point. From spring until fall for the rest of the Revolution, the Great Chain was now a feature of the Highlands. Until at least 1782, soldiers removed the chain each winter and reinstalled it each spring to avoid destruction by the freezing river. General William Heath described the chain as he supervised its removal on November 14, 1780: “The links of this chain were probably 12 inches wide, and 18 inches long; the iron about 2 inches [ 2 ¼] square. This heavy chain was buoyed up by very large logs, of perhaps 16 or more feet long, a little pointed at the ends, to lessen their opposition to the force of the water on flood and ebb. The logs were placed at short distances from each other, the chain carried over them, and made fast to each by staples, to prevent their shifting; and there were a number of anchors dropped at distances, with cables made fast to the chain, to give it a greater stability.” This formidable obstacle of chain and rafts, which may have weighed as much as 100 tons, became the centerpiece of the fortifications at West Point—Washington’s “key of America”–as the supporting batteries, forts, and redoubts rose above it. In that spirit today, the United States Military Academy at West Point each year graduates leaders of character who are keys to the national security of the United States.
A link and swivel bolt from the Second Chain are displayed in Boscobel’s Carriage House visitor center.
General George Washington understood that the Hudson River was the nexus of population, industry, agriculture, commerce, communications, and logistics. As a strategist, he recognized that the Hudson was at once an avenue and a barrier, particularly in the Highlands. It was an invasion route to and from Canada at the one end and New York City on the other. Command of the Hudson influenced the economy and affected the movement of manpower and supplies. In his “Sentiments on a Peace Establishment” in 1783, Washington argued that the defense of the fortifications at West Point on the Hudson River–his major pivot point throughout the war–had been the “key of America.” He probably had first thought about the significance of the Hudson in the French and Indian War, because as early as May 1775 he had joined the other members of a committee of the Continental Congress to recommend fortifying both of its sides in the Hudson Highlands. The Continental Congress accepted the committee’s findings on May 25th and directed the erection of batteries there “in such manner as will most effectually prevent any vessels passing that may be sent to harass the inhabitants on the borders of said river.” The results would be first Fort Constitution on Constitution Island across the Hudson from West Point in 1775 and then Fortress West Point itself beginning in 1778. Washington would never waver in his commitment to the Hudson throughout the war and ventured away from it only when he felt that he had no other choice. He personally spent about one-third of the war in or near the Hudson Highlands. West Point remains the oldest continuously occupied post of the United States Army.
Boscobel possesses a panoramic view across Constitution Marsh and Constitution Island to West Point.
*Special thanks to Col. Jim Johnson for contributing these texts.