Decades before the establishment of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the strategic plateau on the banks of the Hudson River in New York played a crucial role in American victory in the Revolutionary War.
Both British and Patriot forces understood the vital importance of the Hudson in winning the war. As the early colonial roads were difficult to cross, the river was a liquid highway to efficiently transport troops, artillery, food, and information during the American Revolution. If the British could seize the Hudson, they could separate New England from the rest of the rebel colonies and choke off the flow of troops and supplies.
“After being forced out of Boston, the British concentrated on taking New York, and they concentrated their forces at Quebec and Montreal to try to press the Americans north and south and cut off the east of west,” says Colonel Seanegan. Sculley, associate professor of history at the United States Military Academy and author of Contest for Freedom: Military Leadership in the Continental Army, 1775-1783.
General George Washington believed that West Point, located on a bluff overlooking an S-shaped curve in the Hudson 60 miles north of Manhattan, was the key to holding back the river and keeping the colonies together. Washington called West Point “the most important post in America”, and he feared its loss would bring “the most ruinous consequences”.
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The battle for control of the Hudson
From the first moments of the war, Washington worried about keeping the Hudson River in Patriot hands. Just weeks after the outbreak of war in Lexington and Concord, Washington served on a committee appointed by the Continental Congress to assess the defenses of the river. Following the committee’s recommendation, the Continental Congress approved a resolution on May 25, 1775, to erect batteries on either side of the uplands of the river to protect against British naval incursions.
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A lack of money, time, and experienced military engineers thwarted Washington’s desire to immediately fortify West Point. Instead, work began on Fort Constitution on the opposite bank of the river, and in March 1776 Washington ordered the construction of Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton to defend a giant iron chain, intended to deter British shipping. , which spanned the Hudson five miles downstream. of West Point.
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On October 6, 1777, British General Henry Clinton launched a rear ground attack on the two forts defending the range in an attempt to divert the Patriot forces engaged in the Battle of Saratoga. In a battle that claimed over 100 lives, the British destroyed the two forts along with the nearly completed Fort Constitution, dismantled the chain and continued upstream to burn the town of Kingston. But with his supply lines overwhelmed, Clinton retreated to New York and the Patriots regained control of the Hudson.
West Point is reinforced
When the Patriots set out to rebuild and strengthen the defenses of the Hudson, Washington made sure it included fortifications on West Point, where the river is narrowest and deepest south of Albany. There the British ships would be forced to navigate a nearly 90 degree turn while negotiating tidal currents and a strong easterly wind. “It’s a very difficult maneuver for 18th century sailing ships to do,” says Sculley. And it is one that would leave British naval forces exposed to cannon fire from the surrounding highlands.
With the Continental Army now possessing greater engineering expertise, Washington commissioned Colonel Tadeusz Kosciuszko to design and oversee the construction of the West Point fortifications. After impressing Washington with his defensive strategy at Saratoga, the French-trained military engineer who arrived from Poland in 1776 designed an integrated complex of forts, redoubts, and gun batteries at different elevations that would deter another ground attack.
“This is the first time, at least in Western military history, that a decentralized defensive fortification system has been devised,” says Sculley. “There were about 30 fortifications, but none of them were contiguous or physically connected to each other. They all supported each other.
The defenses protected another 65-ton iron chain that stretched 600 yards from West Point to Constitution Island to prevent the passage of enemy ships. Made up of links two feet long and over two inches thick, this “Great Chain” was supported by log rafts and could be disconnected in the center to allow the passage of friendly ships.
After paying periodic trips to inspect the building effort, Washington settled at West Point for four months in 1779 after the British captured a pair of citadels flanking a critical ferry route 12 miles to the south. The British voluntarily abandoned the forts and the ferry crossing in October 1779 as they increasingly focused on a “southern strategy”. When the completion of Kosciuszko Fortress in 1780 further deterred the British from attacking West Point, they boldly attempted to capture it without firing a shot.
Benedict Arnold’s plan to return West Point
Even as British attention turned south, West Point remained an important strategic target. “West Point has a problem north of Clinton that he can’t ignore. He always had to maintain a large contingent in New York lest Washington launch an assault to take him,” Sculley said. “Clinton cannot afford to lose New York because the port was absolutely vital to supplying his army from Britain, and it attracts men from the southern countryside.”
An opportunity to capture West Point without attack presented itself when General Benedict Arnold assumed command of the fortress on August 3, 1780. In debt and bitter at being passed over for promotions from the Continental Army, Arnold agreed to become a renegade for the Redcoats. In return for his asking price of £10,000 and a military commission, Arnold plotted to secretly weaken the defenses of West Point, which included a fort named in his honour, before handing it over to the British.
On September 21, Arnold met with British Major André to discuss transfer plans. André’s subsequent capture, however, exposed the secret plot. The traitor Arnold fled to a British warship for safety, while the Patriots executed the British major.
Throughout the American Revolution, Patriot forces never relinquished control of West Point, and it remained one of only two active Army posts after the war ended. The federal government purchased West Point for $11,085 in 1790, and the United States Military Academy was established there in 1802 to educate and train United States Army officers. Today, West Point is the oldest continuously operated military post in the United States.
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