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HAVERSTRAW AND STONY POINT
THE ferries on the Hudson between New York and Albany average about twenty miles apart, and often when I wanted to go from one side to some place directly opposite, my choice lay between a long and inconvenient journey around, or hiring a special conveyance. Thus it happened that I voyaged to Haverstraw by motor boat from a village on the east shore. The river here is at its widest — four miles is the official figure, but my skipper called it five and I suppose charged accordingly. The sun had set, and the western haze was suffused with color. As we cut rapidly through the water the shore toward which we were going became less vague and I could see the clustering buildings of a town with lofty hills of irregular outline behind. The most conspicuous peak in this range of hills is known as High Tor, and a local legend relates that one of the wise men of the East long ago found his way to America and on the summit of High Tor built an altar. This aroused the Indians to demand that he should worship as they did, and when he refused, they were so enraged that they prepared to attack and kill him. But he was saved by a miracle — for an earthquake opened a great gaping crack in the earth and engulfed his enemies. This crack is the channel through which the Hudson now flows.
At the edge of the Haverstraw shore, for fully two miles, there is an almost continuous row of rough, wide-spreading sheds used by the brickmakers, and from many of them the smoke was lazily rising. On their landward side the clay sediment, which had been deposited in this nook in the bygone time when the stream was wider and deeper than now, has been removed leaving a vast hollow. The workers even build coffer dams out into the river to rescue the valuable brick clay. Much more than half of all the brick made along the whole course of the river comes from here. The clay has been excavated in places till the buildings of the town are close to the precipitous bank, and their situation seems in some instances decidedly perilous.
One autumn afternoon a few years ago a Haverstraw policeman noticed that the walls of a brick building near the edge of an excavation were cracking, and he saw a loosened brick fall out. He went to the owner of the property and told him there was going to be a landslide; and as the clay there had been taken out to a depth of one hundred and eighty feet the prospect was quite disturbing. Warning was given to the families that lived in the threatened neighborhood, but they had dwelt so long in the vicinity of the danger that they thought the alarm needless and went to bed as usual. About midnight, however, the clay bank gave way carrying down houses and people into the frightful chasm. Rescuers were soon on hand, and they were busy amidst the debris when there was a second slide that overwhelmed everyone in its path. The wreckage caught on fire, and the scene of devastation was brightly lighted. About a dozen houses had gone down into the depths and a score of lives were lost. Among those who perished were a father and mother. When the first houses slid into the chasm theirs hung on the verge and they had time to take their children to a point of safety. That done they went back to get their bank book. They were never seen afterward and not even their bodies were recovered.
This experience of the town would seem to have been severe enough to make sure of adequate precautions for the future; yet the clay diggers still take chances, and in places the great excavation is creeping dangerously near certain streets. Indeed, predictions are made that Haverstraw will presently have another appalling catastrophe.
Not far north of the town is the Joshua Hett Smith house on “Treason Hill” where Arnold and André completed their nefarious bargain. I had an impression that the hill would be a barren and blasted tract, and that the house would be gloomy and forbidding; but on the contrary the upland is pleasantly pastoral, fine trees are plentiful, and the house is a simple but attractive mansion commanding a wide view of the valley.
Two miles farther on, where Stony Point thrusts its rugged headland out into the river, the broad Haverstraw Bay ends and the stream is scarcely a half mile wide. The projecting shore opposite is Verplank’s Point. Here in Colonial days was King’s Ferry, the greatest public ferry on the Hudson. It was extremely useful in the military movements of the Continental Army, and partly for its defence and partly to prevent the enemy’s ships from passing up the river fortifications were started in 1779 on the two Points to command the narrow channel.
The British were about to make a supreme effort to gain control of the Hudson, and Sir Henry Clinton with a detachment of troops landed at Haverstraw and marched against Stony Point. Workmen were building redoubts on its summit and occupied a blockhouse there. At the approach of the enemy they set fire to the blockhouse and fled to the hills. Sir Henry took possession, and during the night artillery was landed, and with vast exertion was dragged up and mounted in the empty embrasures. At daylight a cannonade was opened on the Point across the river, which was at the same time assailed by troops from the rear, and compelled to surrender.
The British immediately took up the work started by the Americans and completed the redoubts on Stony Point and armed them so stoutly as to make it “a little Gibraltar,” which they boasted was impregnable. The garrison consisted of six hundred men.
Washington realized that the British capture and retention of this stronghold would have a depressing effect on the sentiment of the country, and, more important still, he wanted to strike a blow that would cause a marauding party that was devastating Connecticut to be withdrawn. He discussed the possibility of dislodging the invaders with his officers and asked General Anthony Wayne if he would attempt to storm it.
“I’ll storm hell, sir, if you’ll make the plans,” was Wayne’s reply.
So the enterprise was entrusted to “Mad Anthony,” a nickname bestowed on him by the soldiers because of his desperate bravery. His madness was by no means blind and rash, for he was equipped with quick eyes and a cool head as well as with impetuous valor.
The rocky, precipitous Point was two hundred feet high, and was washed on three sides by the waters of the Hudson. On the fourth side it was separated from the mainland by a deep morass over which ran a single causeway that was covered at high tide. Twelve hundred men were placed at Wayne’s disposal and he prepared for a night assault. Every dog within three miles was killed that no warning bark might alarm the garrison, and not a gun was loaded lest an untimely shot should betray their approach. The officers were ordered to put to death instantly any man who should attempt to load his musket or break from the ranks. Bayonets were to be the chief dependence. Until within a few months this weapon had been lightly valued by the American soldiers. They did not know how to use it and often threw it away, or merely retained it as a cooking utensil, holding on its point the beef they roasted before their camp fires. But a change had come owing to the training of Baron Steuben who the year before had become inspector-general of the army, and now Wayne’s men were about to make one of the most spirited bayonet charges known to history.
At midnight, the fifteenth of July, they were close to the Point in two columns ready for the work that had been planned. Each company was preceded by a squad of twenty men with axes who were to clear away obstructions. Every individual in the force had a piece of white paper attached to his hat to distinguish him from the enemy in the darkness. One column, with General Wayne at its head, turned to the right and crossed the marsh, still flooded with some two feet of tide. They thus got around the abattis that protected the western base of the slope and gained the beach on the south side of the Point. The other column crossed a half-ruined bridge to attack from the opposite direction. These movements were quickly discovered by the enemy’s pickets, and the garrison was aroused and fully ready for defense on all sides by the time the Americans began to climb the height. The redcoats filled every niche among the rocks on the slope and poured down a constant fire of musketry and bad language; but Wayne’s rush was rapid and irresistible. The assailants came up the slope so swiftly that they suffered little loss, and shoulder to shoulder pressed over the works, heedless of obstacles. Wayne stood by directing the movement when a bullet struck him a glancing blow on the forehead. He fell to the ground stunned; but soon recovered sufficiently to raise himself on one knee and shout, “Forward, my brave fellows, forward!”
Then he called on two of his officers to carry him into the works where he desired to die, in case his wound proved fatal. The fight was over within twenty minutes from the time it began and the garrison surrendered. The British lost sixty-two killed, and the Americans fifteen.
As soon as daylight came the guns of the captured fortress were turned against the ships in the offing, which cut their cables and slipped out of range. About sixty of the garrison made their escape in boats to the other side of the river. Five American deserters were found in the fort; three of whom were hanged with little ceremony.
Money rewards and medals were given to Wayne and the leaders in the assault. The ordnance and stores captured were appraised at nearly two hundred thousand dollars. Congress paid for them and the money was distributed among the troops engaged.
The news of the victory caused universal rejoicing and revival of courage, and the British raiders in Connecticut were hastily withdrawn. A large force of the enemy was dispatched from New York to recover the fort, and the Americans abandoned it after holding it only three days. Meanwhile the works had been destroyed and the garrison with the cannon and stores removed into the Highlands.
In October the British in their turn abandoned not only Stony Point but Verplank’s Point and the “rebels” reopened King’s Ferry.
Stony Point is today the same rough promontory it was then. The sides are wooded, but the crest of the ridge has much open grassy land where one can trace remnants of the old earthworks, and where, from favored spots one gets beautiful views up and down the river. It will always be hallowed ground to every true American, and very properly has been made a public park to preserve it for all time.