George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Major General Alexander McDougall, 19 June 1779

To Major General Alexander McDougall

West point June 19th 1779

Dr Sir

I am just setting out for Head Quarters;1 but expect to return on monday and to remain at or near this post for a few days. I have not determined what troops shall be stationary in the Garrison for the present campaign—it will depend partly on future contingencies—at this juncture a change would be inconvenient as it would be attended with a loss of time, and delay the progress of the works. My intention with respect to yourself in the general arrangement of the army is— that you shall take the immediate command of the Forts. The sooner you are on the spot the better and you will therefore be pleased without delay to remove your quarters to West point2—The troops on the East side are for the present to be disposed of as follows—Nixons Brigade to take post on the Island to carry on the works there—Parsons Brigade to take post opposite the point—to send fatigue parties daily across the river to assist in the prosecution of the works—The spot has been pointed out to Genl Parsons—Huntingtons to remain where it is to guard the main Fish kill road and those leading into it.

There are three pieces of heavy Cannon 18 poundrs just arrived here from Maryland.3 There is a carriage for one of them, two are without—You will give direction to Col. Lamb to have carriages provided and mount them as quick as possible. You will have a return prepared of all the arms and accoutrements wanting among the troops on the East side of the river—For dispatch I have directed Genl Parsons to do the same with respect to those at the Garrison. I shall give an order to have them supplied.

Lest the Adjutant Genl should have omitted sending you a copy of the orders, I inclose you the substance, appointing the mode of all future drafts of Cloathing4—You will be pleased to have all the troops immediately supplied in this manner with such articles as they really stand in need of to fit them for duty. With very great esteem & regard Dr Sr I am Yr Obet servant

Go: Washington

P.s. Be pleased to send about an hundred light Infantry to join Col. Sheldon.5

LS, in Richard Kidder Meade’s writing, CSmH; Df, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. GW signed the cover of the LS.

1GW’s aide-de-camp Richard Kidder Meade received money from Maj. Caleb Gibbs on this date, Saturday, and paid $14 to “servants at Wt Point” (Revolutionary War Accounts, Vouchers, and Receipted Accounts 1, 1776–1780, DLC:GW, Ser. 5).

2For evidence that McDougall reached West Point by the morning of 21 June, see his letter to GW of that date.

The awkward bend of the Hudson River at West Point made it the easiest spot to stop ships attempting to force passage up the river. Preventing the British from advancing further north up this water course enabled the Americans to maintain a vital inland connection between the New England and Middle Atlantic states. West Point held immense strategic value.

The need for fortified posts near West Point had been considered as early as June 1775, with authorization for their erection coming that August (see Instructions to Philip Schuyler, 25 June 1775, and n.2 to that document, and Schuyler to GW, 1 July 1775, n.6). A report from Major General Stirling to GW dated 1 June 1776 identified defensible locations along the Hudson River and described four batteries already constructed on Constitution Island across from West Point. Stirling deemed these emplacements of “very little publick Advantage” because the higher elevation of West Point, “within 500 yards,” commanded “every work” on the opposite shore. West Point, Stirling advised, contained “a level piece of Land of near 50 Acres” where a redoubt was “absolutely necessary.”

Writing to GW shortly after Stirling, Lt. Col. Henry Beekman Livingston reiterated the importance of a fort at West Point and requested permission to throw up a temporary work “to be Defended by Fifty men with Small arms” (Livingston to GW, 11–14 June 1776). The “heighth of Land” at West Point apparently remained unoccupied a month later (John Fellows to GW, 18 July). GW examined West Point on 11 Nov. 1776 and found the place, although obviously consequential, still without troops (see GW to John Hancock, 11 Nov. 1776, and n.6 to that document).

In October 1777, GW ordered Lieutenant Colonel La Radière, a French engineer, to work on the Hudson River defenses (see GW to La Radière, 8 Oct. 1777). La Radière protested a consensus that West Point was the best location for a substantial fort and only grudgingly began new defensive works there in early 1778 (see Robert Erskine to GW, 24 Nov. 1777; George Clinton to GW, 20 Dec. 1777; La Radière to GW, 13 Jan. 1778; and Israel Putnam to GW, same date). The delay aggravated GW, who urged the reluctant engineer to proceed “with all dispatch. If we remain much longer disputing about the proper place, we shall lose the Winter, which is the only time that we have to make preparations for the reception of the Enemy” (GW to La Radière, 25 Jan. 1778). Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam, who then commanded at West Point, summarized progress in a February letter to GW in which he also promised to complete the primary installation near the river “in the best & most expeditious manner” (Putnam to GW, 13 Feb. 1778). Defensive measures included a massive chain to stretch across the river that Putnam reported as “contracted for, to be compleated by the first of April.” The chain, in fact, was put in place on 30 April (see McDougall to GW, 6 May 1778).

In March, Brig. Gen. Samuel Holden Parsons briefly took over principal direction of the fortifications being constructed at West Point. “I think the Works are going on as fast as can be expected from our very few Number of Men, total Want of Materials Provided, and of Money to purchase them,” he apprised GW (Parsons to GW, 16 March 1778). McDougall, who assumed command from Parsons, inspected West Point between 7 and 11 April and subsequently reported to GW that while the main fort was “so enclos’d as to resist a sudden Assault of the Enemy,” it could not hold out if the enemy possessed heights to the southwest that dominated the position (McDougall to GW, 13 April 1778). McDougall immediately proposed “some works” on these heights, the principal one being named Fort Putnam, and stated a need for 5,000 men to secure all grounds that posed a threat near the original fort. Polish engineer Col. Thaddeus Kosciuszko had joined La Radière to supervise construction activities, and he proved much more satisfactory than the Frenchman. To end squabbling over rank between the two engineers that hindered headway, GW ordered McDougall to send La Radière to the main army and retain Kosciuszko (see GW to McDougall, 22 April 1778).

Despite improved leadership, the pace of building remained slow into the summer. To speed matters, GW ordered Brig. Gen. John Glover and his brigade to Fort Arnold (initially known as Fort Clinton), the main bastion at West Point, where that general was “to use every Exertion for carrying on & compleating the Works” (GW to Glover, 18 July 1778). Before Glover could exercise command, GW assigned responsibility for West Point to Col. William Malcom with the same exhortation to finish the fortifications (see GW to Malcom, 21 July 1778).

Upon his arrival, Malcom sent an unnerving report of confusion and disarray. Neither the works nor the garrison was in any condition for meaningful service. The only favorable development was that construction had commenced on redoubts to secure the heights that rose above Fort Arnold on the lower plain (see Malcom to GW, 26 July 1778, and notes 2 and 5 to that letter). To help GW calculate a proper garrison, Malcom described these outworks as “so many distinct Forts—they may support each other but in case of an attack—cannot reinforce” (Malcom to GW, 30 July).

Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates deemed the redoubts finished and the other fortifications at West Point “in such forwardness” by early September that he requested permission from GW to have Kosciuszko join his command (Gates to GW, 11 Sept. 1778). GW denied the request, fearing Kosciuszko’s departure from West Point “would be attended with many inconveniences, and protract the defences of the River” (GW to Gates, same date). A “Memoir on the works made in the Highlands” prepared by an engineer sent to inspect the fortifications at West Point surely confirmed GW’s sense that the situation demanded Kosciuszko’s presence (Duportail to GW, 13 Sept. 1778; see also GW to Duportail, 19 Sept.).

GW launched a renewed effort to strengthen the West Point fortifications when he ordered McDougall to take overall command in the Highlands that fall: “I need not observe to you that West Point is to be considered as the first and principal object of your attention—I am persuaded you will neglect nothing conducive to its security, and will have the works directed for its defence prosecuted with all the vigour and expedition in your power” (GW to McDougall, 24 Nov. 1778). McDougall undertook this assignment with considerable queasiness because he believed the works at West Point were still more or less defective, and their loss to an attack would leave him to absorb the blame. To determine his own course, McDougall assigned another engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Gouvion, to make a thorough report on existing installations with recommendations for necessary additions. McDougall then promised to keep a journal to record “the Progress of the work from Day to Day” (McDougall to GW, 10 Dec. 1778). A belief that a spy had procured “a Plan of our works” at West Point only increased McDougall’s anxiety (McDougall to GW, 11–15 Jan. 1779; see also McDougall to GW, 4 Feb. 1779).

GW comforted and encouraged McDougall in his next letter to that officer: “It gives me pleasure to observe your anxiety for prosecuting the works at West Point—It is certain nothing can be more important than effectually to secure the communication of the river against the next campaign” (GW to McDougall, 9 Feb. 1779). McDougall oversaw the construction of defenses at King’s Ferry and other locations in the Highlands, but as winter came to a close GW ordered him to concentrate “the whole attention” on projects at West Point (GW to McDougall, 6 March 1779). A letter from McDougall to GW a little more than a month later suggested steady progress but supplied no clear date for completion. The local commander did feel enough confidence in “the State of Works” to assure GW that “the Enemy will not make his Attack on the West Side” (McDougall to GW, 15 April).

To provide proper armaments for the new fortifications and address another of McDougall’s concerns, GW related to the Board of War that the procurement of cannon “cannot be pushed with too much vigor.” Without sufficient heavy artillery, GW concluded, the Hudson River defenses would remain in an “imperfect state” and continue as “an inconceivable clogg and incumbrance to our general operations” (GW to Board of War, 15 April). GW revealed his pessimism behind this request in a letter to McDougall, noting “our prospect of heavy cannon is very unpromising” (GW to McDougall, 19 April). His letter to McDougall of this date indicated at least some success in obtaining the needed cannon (see the references at n.3 below; see also GW to Henry Knox, 20 Aug., NjP; and McDougall, Duportail, and Knox to GW, with an enclosed report, both same date, DLC:GW).

Signs of a British attack up the Hudson River in late May added urgency to the situation at West Point. GW remained composed, believing the works at that place in adequate shape to thwart any British offensive (see GW to McDougall, 28 May). He did, however, send a special messenger to West Point to tell the garrison that it must “hold out to the last extremity” (Instructions to James Chrystie, 4 June). The British decision to pause their northward drive after capturing the small forts at Stony Point and Verplanck Point in early June spared the works at West Point from an actual test.

The lull allowed GW to inspect the forts at West Point himself on 8 June. Over the previous week, he had shifted his army from winter camp at Middlebrook, N.J., to positions in the Highlands with an eye firmly fixed on preventing a British approach against the strategic point. After his inspection, GW drew up plans that mediated severe infantry fighting on “every inch of ground leading to the Works; or to the heights above them” (Contingency Orders, 12 June, printed as an enclosure with Circular to the General Officers, 13 June). After a further inspection of West Point for a few days, GW decided on the measures expressed in his letter to McDougall of this date.

GW’s visits apparently resulted in a decision to construct six additional redoubts—three on higher ground to the southwest to guard Fort Putnam and three on hills overlooking the Hudson River in the southern portion of Constitution Island. The three redoubts shadowing Fort Putnam joined one on Rocky Hill built during the past spring. For GW’s elaboration on the importance of these redoubts, see his letter to Arthur St. Clair, 20 July. Additionally, two other redoubts—eventually named “North” and “South”—were located on elevations southeast of Nelson’s Point, which lay across the river directly east of Fort Arnold. The redoubts on Constitution Island increased firepower over the water and could bear on the West Point plain. The redoubts to the south were sited to impede any advance on the roads or defiles heading toward West Point and lessened the prospect of a dangerous investiture. These redoubts created a true system of defense at West Point, substantially more formidable than a single fort and very much an innovation. For the designations given these new redoubts, see General Orders, 24 July, and n.1 to that document.

Completing the fortifications became both a priority and a problem. “I am pursuing every means in my power to forward the defences at West point,” GW informed John Jay, the president of Congress, on 1 July. To accelerate progress, GW relocated his headquarters to West Point on 21 July and exercised personal supervision over the next several weeks. He quickly established regular hours for fatigue parties and assigned officers to specific works to end the inefficiencies that resulted from the constant change of supervisors and laborers (see General Orders, 28–30 July).

GW turned his attention in September to barracks necessary to shelter the men “required to be constantly stationed for the immediate security of the respective posts” (GW to Duportail, 22 Sept., DLC:GW). A report on the “troops necessary for the defence of the works at West Point” provided a sense of progress on the many emplacements (Duportail to GW, 24 Sept., DLC:GW; see also Duportail’s “Mémoire sur la défense de Wespoint,” a rigorous assessment of the post’s defenses, dated 20 Aug., NWM). When he assigned Maj. Gen. William Heath to command at West Point later that fall, GW directed that officer to “have the Works erecting for its defence prosecuted with all the Vigor and expedition” possible. “You are fully sensible of their importance,” GW added, “and how much their completion will ease and disembarrass our future general operations” (GW to Heath, 27 Nov., MHi). While construction apparently proceeded satisfactorily, GW never deemed the system of fortifications at West Point entirely finished.

For details on the West Point defenses, see Charles E. Miller et al., Highland Fortress: The Fortification of West Point During the American Revolution, 1775–1783 (West Point, N.Y., 1988); see also Palmer, The River and the Rock, description begins Dave Richard Palmer. The River and the Rock: The History of Fortress West Point, 1775-1783. New York, 1969. description ends and Roberts, New York’s Forts, description begins Robert B. Roberts. New York’s Forts in the Revolution. Rutherford, N.J., 1980. description ends 120–48.

3For these cannon, see GW to Richard Peters, 2 April, and notes 2 and 3 to that document; see also the Board of War to GW, 9 April (first letter), and GW to McDougall, 19 April.

4The enclosure has not been identified. The general orders for 30 May provided guidelines for “all future draughts of clothing.”

5Col. Elisha Sheldon commanded the 2d Continental Dragoons. For GW’s design in ordering out this light infantry detachment, see his letter to George Clinton of 27 June.

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