George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, 1 July 1779

To Brigadier General Anthony Wayne

New Windsor July 1st 1779

Dear Sir,

Herewith you will be pleased to receive general instructions for your conduct—This you will consider as private & confidential.1 The importance of the two posts of Verplanks & Stoney points to the enemy is too obvious to need explanation. We ought if possible to dispossess them.2 I recommend it to your particular attention, without delay to gain as exact a knowledge as you can of the number of the garrisons—the state of the Creeks that surround the former—the nature of the ground in the vicinity of both—the position & strength of the fortifications—the situation of the guards—the number & stations of the vessels in the river—& the precautions in general which the enemy employ for their security.

It is a matter I have much at heart to make some attempt upon these Posts (in the present weak state of the garrisons and before the enemy commence any other operations)3 if warranted by a probability of success.

I must entreat your best endeavours to acquire the necessary information, after having obtained which, I shall thank you for your opinion of the practicability of a surprize of one or both those places, especially that on the west side the River. I am Dr Sir Yr Most Obedt Servt

Go: Washington

ALS, PHi: Wayne Papers; DfS, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing with revisions in GW’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

A letter from GW’s aide-de-camp Richard Kidder Meade to Q.M. Gen. Nathanael Greene, written at New Windsor, N.Y., on this date, reads: “His Excellency desires me to request that you will furnish Genl Wayne with a Boat which he will keep with him.

“You will be pleased to in⟨for⟩m the Genl, as soon as possible ⟨the⟩ number of Pack saddles & bags ⟨tha⟩t can be collected in a short t⟨i⟩me in this neghbourhood, should th⟨e⟩re be occasion for them” (DLC:GW). Meade wrote a second letter to Greene on this date: “His Excellency desires me to say by way of explanation that his views in making the inquiry about Pack Saddles & bags this morning—were in case the enemy should make the Forts their object—when we of course must take post in the highlands & no mode for the transportation of provision to be used but that of pack horses. … P.s. If any express should be going towards Easton or Wyoming be pleased to give information of it” (DLC:GW). It is very likely that GW desired an express to send his letter to Maj. Gen. John Sullivan of this date.

1See instructions to Wayne, this date, printed as an enclosure to this letter.

2GW had pondered retaking Stony Point and Verplanck Point ever since the British had captured the King’s Ferry termini in early June. Although his initial contemplation had been decidedly pessimistic, GW had determined to attack one or both places by the time he wrote his letter to Wayne of this date (see GW to Horatio Gates, 11 June). GW compiled information from several reconnaissances—including his own—as he planned offensive action (see GW to Henry Lee, Jr., 28 June; William Heath to GW, 30 June, and n.1 to that document, and 3 July, and n.2 to that document; Wayne to GW, 3 July, and n.9 to that document, and 9 July; GW to Wayne, 5 July, n.5; GW to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 7 July, n.4; and Rufus Putnam to GW, 13 July, and n.1 to that document).

The British raids along the Connecticut coast accelerated GW’s preparations, and he wrote Wayne on 9 July that the army must strike to maintain civilian morale, and that the “importance of Stoney Point to the enemy” made it the proper objective. Detailing his thoughts the next day in a letter to Wayne, GW called for a surprise night attack by light infantry only. He identified secrecy as the most important factor in success. Trying to coordinate an assault on Verplanck Point risked detection of the attempt on Stony Point, GW concluded, and he scuttled his original idea of a combined operation. Some unstated circumstances argued for a postponement of the attack on Stony Point, but GW informed Wayne in a letter of 14 July that he should execute his final plan on the following night. For Wayne’s plan, which followed GW’s design in all essentials but added a supporting column of regular infantry, see Wayne to GW, 15 July, and the enclosure printed after that letter.

Wayne’s force marched south along a lengthy, rather winding, route during the afternoon and evening of 15 July. A right column of roughly 170 men and a left column of approximately 120 men formed near the approach to Stony Point. The troops launched their bayonet attack shortly after midnight. Both columns penetrated the British works, creating an advantage that led the garrison’s commander, Lt. Col. Henry Johnson, to surrender by 2:00 A.M. on 16 July (see Wayne to GW, that date [first letter], and 17 July; see also Nathanael Greene to John Cox, Jr., 17 July, in Greene Papers, description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends 4:236–39; Lee to Joseph Reed, 18 July, in “Letters of General Henry Lee,” Va. Mag. description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 1893—. description ends 6 [1898]: 155–57; and William Hull, “Capture of Stony Point, July, 1779,” Magazine of American History description begins Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries. 30 vols. New York, 1877–93. description ends 28 [1892]: 182-85). For casualties and prisoners on both sides, see Wayne to GW, 16 July (second letter), n.1, and GW to William Woodford, 22 July, n.1; see also Andrew Sutherland to GW, 18 July, and Lee to GW, 21 July (second letter). The victory also caused squabbling among officers over premiums and promotions. These disputes annoyed Wayne and ultimately involved GW (see n.8 of Wayne’s “Plan of Attack,” printed as an enclosure with his letter to GW, 15 July).

With Stony Point under American control, GW ordered Maj. Gen. Robert Howe to reduce Verplanck Point. The effort ended in a hasty retreat after a British advance from the New York City outskirts threatened Howe’s force (see GW to Howe, 16 and 17 [two letters] July, and Howe to GW, 17 [two letters], 18, and 19 July; see also the second letter from William Heath to GW, 19 July). GW, who had been at Stony Point since 16 July, now decided that post was too expensive to fortify properly as well as too vulnerable to hold without the necessary improvements. He ordered the evacuation of the captured stores and cannon and left Stony Point himself only after the withdrawal came to a close on 19 July. The British promptly reoccupied Stony Point later that same day (see Richard Butler to GW, 19 July, and GW to John Jay, 21 July). No positions changed as a result of the American victory at Stony Point, but it gave a significant boost to Patriot morale at the expense of British morale. For extended treatments of the capture, see Henry B. Dawson, The Assault on Stony Point … with a Map, Fac-similes, and Illustrative Notes (Morrisania, N.Y. 1863); Johnston, Stony Point; and Loprieno, Stony Point; see also Posey, Thomas Posey, description begins John Thornton Posey. General Thomas Posey: Son of the American Revolution. East Lansing, Mich., 1992. description ends 48–73.

The American capture of Stony Point dismayed British military commanders. Trying to put the best face on events, Gen. Henry Clinton wrote Lord George Germain from Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., on 25 July: “On the night of the 15th instant the enemy suddenly assaulted and carried the lines at Stoney Point. The greater part of the garrison, consisting of the 17th regiment of foot, the grenadier company of the 71st regiment, a company of the Loyal Americans, and a small detachment of the Royal Artillery, under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Johnson of the 17th regiment, were either killed or taken. I have not yet been able to procure accounts sufficiently satisfactory to form a decisive judgment upon this accident. …

“The enemy immediately began a heavy cannonade with our guns from Stoney Point upon Lieut.-Colonel Webster who commanded at Verplanks, with the 33rd regiment, Loyal Americans, and detachments from the Royal Artillery and from the 71st regiment. At the same time Lieut.-Colonel Webster was informed that a considerable force was in his rear who, if they did not mean to attack him from that quarter, at least would make his retreat, should he be driven to that extremity, very difficult.

“Upon the first intelligence I received of this matter I ordered the army to advance to Dobbs Ferry, pushing forward the cavalry and some light troops to the banks of the Croton River to awe the enemy in any attempt by land against Verplanks.

“Brigadier-General Stirling was in the meantime embarked with the 42nd, 63rd, and 64th regiments for the relief of Verplanks or the recovery of Stoney Point. The northerly winds, rather uncommon at this season, opposed Brigadier-General Stirling’s progress till the 19th, when upon his arriving within sight of Stoney Point the enemy abandoned it with precipitation and some circumstances of disgrace” (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends 17:168–70; see also Willcox, American Rebellion, description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends 124–33).

Maj. Gen. James Pattison, who commanded the British forces in New York City, wrote a more lugubrious account to George Townshend, British master general of ordnance, on 26 July: “In the Letter I had the Honor to write to your Lordship of the 9th of June from Stoney Point, I took the Liberty of giving a Detail of the several Movements of this Army, from its taking the Field to that Time. …

“I am exceedingly sorry now to inform your Lordship of the very extraordinary and sudden Revolution which has since happen’d at Stoney Point—a Post considered to be safe against any Coup-de-Main, and capable of resisting almost any Open attack that cou’d be made against it, but the Enemy notwithstanding made a very bold & daring Attempt on the 15th Instant about 12 o’Clock at Night, and carry’d it by Storm in less than twenty minutes.—The particulars of this Singular & Unfortunate Event, which has filled every one with astonishment, are as yet very little known.—The wounded Officers who are brought down to New York differ so much in their Relation of that Night’s Transactions that it is difficult to form a real Judgment of them.—

“The Military Character of Lieut. Col. Johnson of the 17th Regt who Commanded there has been so well Established, as not to admit easily of a Belief that he suffered his Garrison to be surprized, yet it is too certain that two if not three Columns of the Enemy penetrated different Abbatis at the same Time, were almost instantly in possession of the advanc’d Works, and in a very few Minutes Masters of the Body of the Place—What the Number of the Assailants were, is not positively known.—They give out themselves that it did not exceed six hundred, if that be true, their Enterprize must have been a very rash one, as the Defendants were nearly as many.—

“The Attack was Commanded by a Brigr Genl Wayne, and it must in Justice be allow’d to his Credit, as well as to all Acting under his Orders, that no Instance of Inhumanity was shown to any of the unhappy Captives—No one was unnecessarily put to the Sword or wantonly wounded” (Pattison, “Letters,” 95–99). For contemporary reflections on the capture of Stony Point from other British and German military personnel, see Kemble Papers, description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers. 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 16–17. description ends 1:181; Ritchie, “New York Diary,” description begins Carson I. A. Ritchie, ed. “A New York Diary [British army officer’s journal] of the Revolutionary War.” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 50 (1966): 221–80, 401–46. description ends 428–29; Ewald, Diary, description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends 172; Krafft, Journal, description begins Journal of Lieutenant John Charles Philip von Krafft. 1882. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends 87; Döhla, Hessian Diary, description begins Johann Conrad Döhla. A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution. Translated and edited by Bruce E. Burgoyne. Norman, Okla., and London, 1990. description ends 108–9; and Burgoyne, Diaries of two Ansbach Jaegers, description begins Bruce E. Burgoyne, ed. and trans. Diaries of two Ansbach Jaegers: Lieutenant Heinrich Carl Philipp von Feilitzsch and Lieutenant Christian Friedrich Bartholomai. Bowie, Md., 1997. description ends 61. For an argument that British intelligence failed prior to the attack on Stony Point, see Roger Kaplan, “The Hidden War: British Intelligence Operations during the American Revolution,” WMQ, description begins The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History. Williamsburg, Va. description ends 3d ser., 47 (1990): 123–26.

The British defeat at Stony Point jarred Loyalists. William Smith, royal chief justice of New York, wrote in his memoirs under 16 July: “About 9 o’Clock heard that a Report had just come to Town of the Taking Stoney Point by Surprize last Night. Went to Town. I believe it is true. Colonel Johnson commanded there. The Garrison said to be but 450 Men. 14 Peices of Brass Ordnance and 2 Mortars lost. The Town greatly depressed” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends (1971), 132–33). Smith added under 20 July: “What a Blunder to leave a Weak Garrison to be taken, which not only discredits the King’s Arms but will prevent Connecticut from quarrelling with Washington for not coming to their Relief!” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends (1971), 138). Ewald Gustav Schaukirk, a Moravian pastor in New York City, wrote in his diary for 16 July: “News reached the city that the rebels had surprised the fort at Stony Point, up the North River, and taken it; with the addition that they had put the whole garrison to the sword, which made the account more alarming” (Schaukirk, Occupation of New York City, 9). In Philadelphia, Grace Growden Galloway wrote in her diary for 19 July: “stonny Point was taken by Waine & basely given Up by Johnston every thing I think is over with Us” (Galloway, Diary, 159). She added in her entry for 30 July: “Col Johnston Deserves to be shot to let 12 hundred men take ye fort with 600 men[.] it was a greater exploit then all ye british army has ever Done” (Galloway, Diary, 163).

3GW inserted this parenthetical phrase on the draft manuscript in his own writing.

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