In 1779, General George Washington made a series of strategic decisions that defeated a British offensive, maintained control of the Hudson River, and protected critical Continental Army resources.
The Strategic Situation
In December 1778, Washington moved the Continental Army into winter quarters around Middlebrook, New Jersey. His British opponents, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton, held New York City and the surrounding area and Newport, Rhode Island. In Philadelphia, Congress deliberated the strategy for the coming year and pressed Washington for plans to invade Canada. Instead, Washington decided to visit Congress and discuss the situation.
In January 1779, Washington and Congress’s “Committee of Conference” discussed three strategic options: assaulting Manhattan and Newport, an offensive in the Niagara region and Canada, or maintaining the defensive to react to British moves. The general frankly explained how the Continental Army was unprepared for a large offensive. The army suffered shortages of arms, uniforms, and artillery; 3,000 soldiers would leave the ranks due to expiring enlistments; and the training program and reforms begun at Valley Forge were not complete. After much deliberation and analysis, Washington and the Committee finally settled on the strategy of maintaining a defensive posture, continuing reforms and training, and remaining ready react to British moves.1
On British-occupied Manhattan, General Clinton also strategized. Clinton planned a summer offensive that would begin with sending Crown forces from New York to raid the Chesapeake Bay to wreck Rebel commerce and destroy military stores. Next, more of the New York-based troops would sail up the Hudson River, cut the American supply line to New England at King’s Ferry, and threaten West Point, the key American bastion anchoring the Hudson. A third expedition would raid ports in Connecticut. Clinton believed that his offensive would draw the Continental Army into open country where British forces could destroy it in battle.
The British Offensive Opens, and Washington Responds
Clinton began his campaign as planned in early May, with a British expedition that raided along the Elizabeth River in Virginia, capturing or burning American ships and destroying military supplies. Two weeks later the expedition returned to New York and gathered more troops. Now 4,000 soldiers strong, the force sailed up the Hudson and seized King’s Ferry and its two lightly held landing sites on the banks of the Hudson, Stony Point and Verplanck’s Point.
The Americans were unprepared for action. Washington sought intelligence on British plans through the spring. But his spy network in Manhattan, what would become the famous Culper Ring, was in its early stages and had provided little information on enemy intentions. In early May, Washington called his army “illy enough prepared Heaven knows” for a campaign, while it completed its training program and still lacked sufficient equipment and ammunition.2 Nevertheless, Washington considered it strategically vital to maintain control of the Hudson and the supply line to New England. He quickly ordered three divisions camped at Middlebrook to force-march north to the Hudson Highlands.
Clinton kept his forces south of King’s Ferry, ready to counterattack if Washington attacked Stony Point. But Washington kept the Continental divisions in defensive positions around West Point on both sides of the Hudson, re-establishing the supply line to New England. Although he called the situation “a very interesting crisis,” Washington’s response blocked the British advance and denied Clinton the opportunity to trap the Continentals in open battle.3
Still eager to draw the Americans into battle, Clinton launched his planned raids at New Haven, Fairfield and Norwalk on the Connecticut coast. The bulk of his army waited in Southeastern New York, ready to strike at the Continental Army if it marched to Connecticut’s aid. Washington refused the bait and kept his forces close to the Hudson, the region’s strategic center of gravity.
Washington Seizes the Initiative
American reconnaissance and intelligence gathering revealed that Stony Point was a heavily fortified post, manned by 600 British and Loyalist soldiers with 16 cannon. Washington and Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, commander of the elite Corps of Light Infantry, determined that a night attack on the post’s flanks would foil the defenses. Washington gave Wayne detailed guidance for attacking the post. On the moonless night of July 15-16, Wayne’s Light Infantry seized Stony Point in a bayonet assault, suffering less than 100 casualties compared to over 100 British casualties and over 500 prisoners. Surprised, Clinton ceased the raids in Connecticut and planned to re-take Stony Point. The Americans evacuated the post on July 18, but Clinton was now reacting to Washington’s moves.
Keeping Clinton Off-Balance
At the end of July, the new Culper Ring spy Robert Townsend reported that although “much alarmed” by the Stony Point assault, Clinton intended to renew the offensive upon arrival of reinforcements from Britain. Such reinforcements would give Clinton a numerical advantage and the Continentals lacked the gunpowder needed for a major battle. On July 26, Washington convened a council with his senior commanders to consider further offensive operations. All recommended remaining of the defensive but Washington continued watching for opportunities for limited attacks.4 On August 9, Washington approved a plan from Major Henry Lee to raid the fortified British post at Paulus Hook, New Jersey. In the early morning of August 19, Lee’s force attacked Paulus Hook in another bayonet attack that caused netted over 150 prisoners. Only five of Lee’s troops were killed or wounded.
Washington’s Strategy Succeeds
The losses throughout the summer convinced Clinton to abandon the campaign and begin pursuing offensives in the Southern states. Overall, the 1779 campaign cost Clinton nearly 1,000 soldiers killed, wounded or captured with no gains in territory or strategic position. Having defeated the British offensive with minimal American casualties while protecting Continental resources, in October Washington wrote with satisfaction, “the enemy have wasted another campaign.”5
1. George Washington to the Continental Congress Committee of Conference, 13 January 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-18-02-0689.
2. Washington to John Augustine Washington, 20 June 1779, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-21-02-0167.
3. Washington to John Jay, 3 June 1779, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-21-02-0036.
4. Council of General Officers, 26 July 1779, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-21-02-0544.
5. George Washington to Benjamin Harrison, 25 October 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-23-02-0037.
Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion, Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775-1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents, William B. Willcox, ed., (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1954).
John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Henry P. Johnston, The Storming of Stony Point on the Hudson, Midnight, July 15, 1779 (New York, 1900, reprint, Da Capo Press, 1971)