Hero of Stony Point - James Barnes

The Climax—Stony Point

While the Americans had decidedly the best of the day at Monmouth, and while the moral effect of the battle was excellent, the results were otherwise small. No booty was captured from the vast British baggage train, and the army was not turned back from its advance on New York, All that the American army could do after its victory was to hang on the rear of the enemy, and, after he had gained his haven in New York, to so dispose the lines that any attempt to advance on the country to the north, on the west bank of the Hudson, could be effectually checked. In the midst of this irksome idleness, during the succeeding summer and autumn months, Wayne again renewed his attempt to persuade Congress and the authorities of Pennsylvania to send the needed supplies to the soldiers. The results were as unsatisfactory as formerly, however—a plethora of large promises and a vacuum of practical performance. Finally, in March, 1779, he succeeded in effecting the passage of a law by Congress giving officers half pay for life; exempting from taxation all land held by soldiers during their lifetime, and, wonderful to relate, providing that they should receive a suitable uniform while in the service.

Wayne, however, was too zealous in the service, too bold in his demands, too entirely devoted to the welfare of the men under him. Such a man as he could be requited only with the highest honors, or merely passed over with mere mention. The latter was the fate of Wayne, the indefatigable commander, the brave soldier and the real victor of Monmouth. As a part of the "new arrangement" of the Pennsylvania Line in February, 1779, be was quietly, even contemptuously, superseded in his command by General Arthur St. Clair, who was best known to his contemporaries as the man who had—needlessly, as it was alleged—evacuated Fort Ticonderoga, and to posterity as the "most unfortunate officer in the Revolution." This was, of course, an occasion of the greatest chagrin to Wayne, who was so angered and disappointed that he actually contemplated for a time resignation from the army and return to civil life. His patriotism and better judgment, however, finally persuaded him to ask only for a leave of absence until his services should be required to command a new corps of the army. During his period of retirement he busied himself in pleading the cause of the army with the government, and in securing such benevolent legislation as has been mentioned in the recognition and rewards of both rank and file.

On Wayne's retirement from the army on leave of absence, General Washington had promised to secure his appointment as commander of a Light Infantry Corps, then in contemplation. This corps might seem to have been organized expressly for Wayne, and its officers and men picked expressly because qualified to serve under him in his daring military movements. On the announcement, in May, 1773, that he was to command this corps, a large proportion of the field officers of the Pennsylvania Line earnestly solicited permission to be transferred to it. So numerous were petitions of this nature that Wayne wrote to Washington, "I had better be absent while the corps is being organized, lest it be supposed, however erroneously, that partiality of mine for certain officers had tended to bring them into the corps."

Wayne assumed command of this newly formed body in the latter part of June, 1779, scarcely three weeks before the momentous exploit in the capture of the fort at Stony Point, with which his name will be forever associated. In this corps were one and one-half battalions of Pennsylvania troops, with two regiments from Connecticut and one from Virginia. In the words of Colonel Francis Johnston, in a letter to Wayne, the command was "preferable to that of any in the army." Excellent as the personnel was declared to be, and, indeed, as it showed itself to be, it could be no more than worthy of its gallant commander. He had made himself a new Leonidas in the orchard at Monmouth, and was destined to make even greater history in the famous surprise and capture of Stony Point.

The fortified post of Stony Point was on the west side of the Hudson River to the south of West Point, and directly opposite to Verplanek's Point, on which was another fortification. The position was upon a rocky promontory 150 feet in height, surrounded on all sides by water, when the tide was high, and access from land was possible only through a stretch of mud flats, when the tide was out. The British had gained possession of it early in June, and had greatly strengthened its defenses, as a preliminary to a determined onslaught upon West Point. Indeed, the possession of West Point, then regarded as the most important fortress in America, was so strongly desired by the British that Howe and Burgoyne had attempted to make a junction, with the view of investing it, in 1777, and, now, the occupation of Stony Point and Verplanek's had been accomplished as a move in a new and well-projected campaign. The defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga had destroyed the British hopes in 1777, and the capture of the position by Wayne again thwarted them. They made but one more attempt, when, in the following year, they succeeded in corrupting General Benedict Arnold, whose proposed surrender was prevented only by the capture and subsequent execution of Major John Andre, a talented man, capable of better things and worthy a nobler end.

It is decidedly indicative of Washington's strong confidence in Wayne's soldierly abilities that he waited impatiently for the latter's return to the army that he might entrust him with the hazardous undertaking of an attempted surprise on Stony Point. Certain it is that Wayne had not been many days installed in his new command before he was at work upon his plans for the attack. Both Wayne and Washington carefully examined the position, and took into consideration every possible plan for entering the fort with the smallest loss of men. A general assault that day would have been out of the question, since the position was amply fortified against the fire of any artillery then in use, and could be approached near enough for an attempt at assault by infantry in mass only after a most appalling loss of life. The plan adopted, therefore, was that Wayne, with a picked body of men, should attempt a surprise attack.

So we come to the night of July 15, 1719, when the surprise attack was made, and the capture of the fort accomplished. Every detail of the work was carefully mapped in advance, nothing had been forgotten or overlooked. The troops, drawn up into separate parties, each with its own particular duty to perform, were fully informed. There were three columns in all. Two were advance columns consisting of 150 picked men, one to work up to the fort on the left side from the land, the other, on the right side; each of them preceded by a "forlorn hope" of twenty tried and trusty volunteers, destined to swift death or lasting renown. These detachments were to prepare the way for their more numerous supporters by clearing away the abates, dispatching or capturing the pickets, and finding the paths over which the remainder could move in approaching the formidable works. The third party was to charge up the slope in the center, and, as the others reached given indicated points, to open a tremendous fusillade, with a view to drawing the fire of the defenders, and thus covering the advance of the surprise detachments on either hand. The left-hand column was commanded by Major Jack Stewart, of Maryland, the right-hand by Colonel Louis Fleury, a French officer in the American service, who was supported by the column under command of Wayne himself. The center was under Colonel Murfrees, of North Carolina.

The attacking corps marched from their camp near New Windsor to Stony Point, a distance of fourteen miles, after dark, arriving in time to open the attack at 11:30 o'clock. The way was wholly along unkempt country roads, upon which the men were often obliged to march in single file. Utter silence was commanded as the prime requisite, and the men were forbidden to drop out of the ranks on any pretext whatever. Wayne was still the exacting disciplinarian, who sternly required literal obedience to the military law. In his address to the men of the Light Infantry, on assuming command, he had said:

"Should there be any soldier so lost to a feeling of honor as to attempt to retreat a single foot, or skulk in the face of danger, the officer next to him is immediately to put him to death that he may no longer disgrace the name of a soldier, or the corps, or the State, to which he belongs." Nor can we doubt that he gave precisely similar directions to these same men on this, the most momentous evening of his career.

All the precautions were well timed to effect a successful issue. The British, in a calm sense of perfect security, believing that the fort could be assaulted only by a front attack, enfiladed by their cannon, had retired for the night, after posting only the usual number of guards. No one had heard or seen the advancing Americans, who were already on the slopes below the work even before the pickets had detected their advance guards. The attacking column on the right, under Colonel Christian Febiger, and General Wayne, were obliged to wade through deep water, which considerably delayed their progress. Once they reached the abates, however, the path was quickly cleared, and the advance was rapid. Suddenly, from Murfrees' men, moving up the slope in the center, a noisy and continuous fusillade burst forth, awakening the garrison, who soon began answering the fire with musketry and grape shot. The American advance on the left suffered severely, finding the removal of the obstructions more difficult than did their comrades on the right, and being caught in the midst of a hail of bullets. Seventeen out of the twenty men in their "forlorn hope" were stretched dead or wounded on the ground, and the advance column suffered severely also, before the sally port of the fort was finally gained, and the defenses were at their mercy. The three columns arrived at the door of the fort almost simultaneously, and there began a fierce hand-to-hand fight, in which there was no firing—only cold steel and the steady pressure of an overwhelming mass of men.

Anthony Wayne


Just before entering on the fight, Wayne had written a personal letter to Sharp Delany, whom he addressed as "my best and dearest friend," bidding him an affectionate farewell, as he did not know whether he should breakfast "within the enemy's lines in triumph or in the other world." Even his dauntless spirit was impressed with the awfulness of the situation and the desperate character of the attempt upon which he was about to enter. But in nothing did he show that he was afraid to die. About half-way up the laborious slope a musket ball plowed a jagged furrow across his scalp, so narrowly avoiding the infliction of a fatal wound that the gallant General fell stunned and helpless in his tracks. Small wonder that he supposed his end was come, for such a wound is both staggering and keen. But he roused himself to a shoat:

"Forward, my brave fellows, forward? Victory is already in your hands!" Then, to those beside him he added:

"If I am fatally injured, carry me within the fort, and let me die there in triumph." Having bound up his hurt, his men lifted him on their shoulders and carried him forward to the top of the rise. The rumor spread quickly that General Wayne had been killed, but the soldiers, far from falling back discouraged, rushed forward all the more eagerly, determined to extort an even heavier penalty in their revenge. In such a moment as this the lust of blood rushes in upon men; they turn blind, deaf and senseless to all save the ecstasy of battle!

Only a few minutes more, and the Americans were within the works driving the defenders before them. It was a slaughter grim and merciless, no firing, no sabering, but the continuous stabbing of the bayonets, thrust and thrust! Sixty-three of the British fell by the bayonet within the fort—precisely the number sacrificed in the Paoli "massacre," a life for a life—before the driven regulars threw down their arms and cried for quarter. Nor were the captors relentless. No foeman begged for mercy who was not spared! And they could afford to be lenient. They were victors? Among the American officers Colonel Fleury was first upon the walls. It was he who lowered the British standard, declaring the fort captured. In his broken English he shouted in the hearing of all, above the noise and turmoil of the fight, "Ze fort is ours."

The advance of the American lines began at 11:30, and at 2, Wayne dispatched a note to General Washington, brief, soldierly, generous, with no reference to his own most painful wound:

"The fort and garrison with Colonel. Johnston are ours. Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free."

There were taken with Stony Point 543 prisoners of war. The Americans lost fifteen killed, and forty-three wounded. Of the British an even sixty-three were killed, and many more seriously injured, something like twice that number.

Immediately on capturing the fort the guns were trained on the works on Verplanek's Point and on the British ships in the river. Before morning the river and its shores were clear of British soldiers and sailors.

The reputation of General Wayne's victory at Stony Point was immense. He received congratulations from the most distinguished persons in military and government circles, among them his old enemy Charles Lee, who wrote with what seemed to be evident sincerity:

"I do most sincerely declare that your action in the assault of Stony Point is not only the most brilliant, in my opinion, through the whole course of this war on either side, but that it is one of the most brilliant I am acquainted with in history. Upon my soul, the assault of Schweidnitz by Marshal Loudon I think inferior to it. I wish you, therefore, joy of the laurels you have so deservedly acquired, and that you may long live to wear them."

The American Congress, also, a body so curiously insensible to Wayne's earnest, persistent and long-continued appeals for clothing and supplies for the suffering soldiers, voted him a grand gold medal, inscribed in excellent Latin, after the manner of the times, "Antonio Wayne Duci Exercitus" ("To Anthony Wayne, Leader of the Army"), and to several of his foremost officers, silver medals to the same effect. Thus was Anthony Wayne received among those whose fame is imperishable.