The Unsuccessful American Attempt on Verplanck Point, July 16-19, 1779

The War Years (1775-1783)

September 10, 2014
by Michael J. F. Sheehan Also by this Author


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In the early morning hours of July 16, 1779, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne and the Continental Corps of Light Infantry successfully stormed and carried the British works and garrison at Stony Point on the Hudson River. Not long after, gunners from the Continental Artillery turned the captured guns across the river to fire upon the British works at Verplanck Point, half a mile away.[1] Washington wanted the possession of both Stony and Verplanck’s Points; the two termini of the King’s Ferry which had been in enemy control for nearly a month and a half.

By early June, 1779, Sir Henry Clinton, hoping to “bring Mr. Washington into a general and decisive action,” had moved against the King’s Ferry, about forty miles north of Manhattan. The ferry was one of the most important river crossings in eighteenth century America and had been used by both the Continental and British armies throughout the war.[2] The loss of the ferry was quite a blow to the Americans as Washington informed Pennsylvania’s President Joseph Reed: “They have taken our posts…on opposite sides of the river at Verplank’s and stoney points…this puts a stop to our lower communication.”[3] Determined to repossess the King’s Ferry and at the same time keep the enemy away from the vital Hudson Highlands, especially West Point, Washington put into motion the necessary steps to retake the posts. Stony Point, being the higher ground, was selected to be assaulted first; its captured guns would be turned across the river to Verplanck, and hopefully force that post into surrender. Brigadier General Anthony Wayne and his Corps of Light Infantry were selected to accomplish the task; after a brief bayonet assault, Stony Point was in American hands by one in the morning on July 16.[4]

Across the river, an American command under Col. Rufus Putnam was ordered to make a feint against Verplanck while Stony Point was being assaulted.[5] Washington had eventually decided not to launch two full scale attacks “because this would have rendered the enterprise more complex, more liable to suspicion, and less likely success[ful], for want of exact co-operation.”[6] Putnam’s feint began when the noise of Wayne’s attack drifted across the river: “we fired on their out blockhouse and guard at the creek and thus alarmed the garrison on Verplanks point, which was the only object contemplated for that night.”[7]

With the news of the capture of Stony Point, Washington wrote from headquarters in New Windsor to Major General Robert Howe of North Carolina ordering him to take the two New England brigades of Generals Nixon and Patterson to

reconnoiter the enemy’s post at Verplanck’s point, its environs and approaches-to ascertain where batteries may be erected…and best mode of an assault. You will endeavor to alarm the enemy at your approach in hopes that the first impressions [of] the loss of Stony point and the appearance of an attack…may induce them to abandon the post…gain the earliest intelligence of any movement of the enemy.”[8]

From his headquarters some twenty miles away at Philipse Wharf (modern Yonkers, New York), Sir Henry Clinton “ordered the army to be advanced…and the cavalry and some light troops to press forward to the banks of the Croton [River], to awe the land operations of the enemy against Col. Webster [the British commander at Verplanck].” Captain Ewald of the Hessian Jagers recorded that the “Commander in Chief embarked at once…with the 42nd, 63rd, and 64th regiments [General Stirling’s brigade] and sailed up the Hudson to save Verplanck’s Point.” News had also reached Mamaroneck in southern Westchester later that day near where Captain Peebles of the 42nd Grenadiers “had the disagreeable News that Verplanck’s point was surrounded by Rebels.”[9]

By the morning of the 17th, General Howe had taken his command and wrote to Washington from Peekskill, just north of Verplanck, citing the first delay the Continental forces would experience; “the field pieces you supposed to have taken on with the Brigades [for the opening of batteries] are not with them…I should be obliged to you Sir, to send such orders as may hasten [the guns] to me.”[10] Communication with Washington was delayed by a few hours as Washington met with Wayne at Stony Point to wrap up activities there. The General did, however, personally examine Verplanck from Stony Point:

it is thought from a view of the fortifications on Verplancks Point that there is a prospect of possessing ourselves of the Garrison…open a battery…as soon as possible…you will make a…shew of storming the place… as the works are enclosed it will not be proper to attempt a storm in the daytime.

Understanding the possibility of a trap between Col. Webster and General Clinton, Washington gave Howe directives as to how cautious he ought to be: “if the enemy pass Croton River [roughly five miles below Verplanck] your situation will became ineligible…you must fall back to [the Highlands][11]

The British, meanwhile, had vessels in the Hudson that were nearly helpless to take action. One such vessel, the HMS Vulture, Sloop of War, commanded by Captain Andrew Sutherland, in Haverstraw Bay, just south of Stony Point, reported that from “1/2 past 6 til 9 the Enemy fired at our Post & threw some shells…& through the whole of the day endeavored to annoy the boats in passing & repassing.” Still further down river, the boats carrying Stirling’s brigade and General Clinton were paralyzed by a “northerly wind which then blew” and would prove a handicap to Clinton in the coming forty-eight hours. Captain Peebles had heard news from the beleaguered command at Verplanck, which showed the effectiveness of the American bombardment from Stony Point on the Verplanck garrison under “Col: Webster [who] still holds out tho’ surrounded by great numbers, his retreat cut off, a heavy fire from Stony Point but only one man wounded.”[12]

While the British organized themselves to the south, and while Washington gained confidence in the coming attack, General Howe penned another letter to the Commander-in-Chief. Inching closer to Verplanck, Howe wrote that the “works appear to be…capable of considerable defense, if the numbers and spirit of the Garrison are adequate to the Task.” Despite having given “orders to expedite,” neither the cannon nor their ammunition had yet arrived from the Continental Village, a huge supply depot in the eastern Highlands near Fishkill, NY. Howe also recognized a number of issues: “if works should be necessary to be thrown up, I am not furnished with one Intrenching or other Tool…The men are out of provisions…I am without wagons…I am entirely unfurnished with Horsemen…so essential in our Situation.” At the moment, Howe could only send an express on the matter to Major General William Heath, asking to borrow some. In closing his letter, Howe gave the report of his engineer that “storming…at present wo’d be ineligible.”[13] As Howe wrote his letter, General Heath in New Canaan, Connecticut received one from Washington which ordered him

to move as expeditiously as possible to Peek’s Kill, where he would find Gen. Howe with two brigades. Our General [Heath] was to take command of the whole, and carry into effect the orders which had been given to Gen. Howe…at 12 o’clock [Heath] began his march…marched until dusk 15 miles.”[14]

As the 17th wore on, Washington received both letters from Howe. He was surprised to hear of the lack of artillery. Entrenching tools had been sent and “had gone before from West Point.” Stony Point had no provisions to spare, and Howe was advised to “obtain a Supply from [West Point];” Washington agreed that it was “essential for [Howe] to have Horse,” but General Heath could not provide any. Sometime after Howe wrote his last letter, Col. Rufus Putnam, still attached to the troops before Verplanck, wrote in his journal that the “two twelve pounders arrived, and a few axes were collected.”[15]

July the 18th dawned with the “wind [still] contrary” to Clinton and the progress of the transports up the river. Captain Peebles recalled that Clinton’s orders of the previous day called for a “genl. Forage this morning at day break” in two columns: the right would be composed of the

Light Infantry, [and the British and German Grenadiers].- The left Column, the Yagers, flank Comys. of the Guards,… Artillery 7th. 23d. & 54th. British the Hessian Regt. Landgrave Prince Charles, & Boses, the King’s American Regt. Volunteers of Ireland, Baggage & provision train, the Column to be closed by Emerick’s Chasseurs.”[16]

The British were not the only corps on the move that day; General Heath’s forces were well on their way to support Howe. Having resumed his march at three in the morning, Heath spent the day making as must haste as possible. His troops were eager and in high spirits; one of them, Joseph Plumb Martin of Connecticut, remembered that the “officers were all on tiptoe to show their abilities in…some extraordinary exploit. Verplank’s point was the word; ‘shall the Light Infantry get all the honour, and we do nothing!’ said they. Accordingly, we set off, full tilt, to take Verplank’s point.”[17]

In the afternoon, things began to move on the river; the Vulture had agreed to send a transport to Stony Point to remove the British wounded; “at ½ past Noon sent an officer up with a Flag of Truce in the William transport.” Despite being allowing the William safe passage, another boat “at ½ past [1]…was much fired upon_at 3 another boat came from…[Verplanck] to Inform us that the enemy appeared in force in front.”[18]

During the course of the day, Howe tightened the snare and moved much closer to Col. Webster’s works. In the hour from three to four p.m. however, Howe received depressing intelligence;

about 200…[British] Horse were seen…at New Bridge [near the Croton]…as I cannot doubt the credibility of these accounts…there is the greatest reason to believe the Enemy are making this Effort to get me between two Fires…Duty and Prudence enjoin me to avoid the snare…I have consulted the Brigadiers who are of opinion that no time should be lost to effect a retreat. Another express is just arrived and confirms me in the above.”

The express that had arrived may have been forwarded by Heath. At some point in the middle of the day, Heath received news from a horseman of the 4th Light Dragoons that “the enemy at this junction [Croton, or the New Bridge] lies upon the hill with…2000 foot and 500 Horse.” At this point, Heath recalled that he received a dispatch from “Gen. Washington [ordering]…our General to move into the Highlands.”[19] On the Hudson, tensions and exchanges of fire increased between British shipping and the Continental Army on Stony Point. The Vulture observed that at “5 the rebels commenced a very heavy cannonade accomp: with shells, which lasted till 9.” Captain Peebles, having joined the army near Croton reiterated what the Vulture reported: “a fire from Stony point on Verplancks in the afternoon.”[20]

By the early evening, General Heath wrote to Washington from the Highlands that he had “reached Peekskill at half past 3 PM. On my arrival I found Gen Howe had set off the Cannon & his division was filing off towards the Highlands the enemy appeared to be advancing in force.” At about the same time, Howe sent off a heartbreaking brief to Washington that highlighted his disappointment in having to retreat: “Oh: my Dear General what a Soul piercing wound has the unexpected and inevitable delay of yesterday given to Dear Sir your very Respectful and truly affectionate R. Howe.” Joseph Martin in Heath’s command remembered that “the British at Verplancks point were…advancing to attack us. We were quite knocked on the head by this news. However…we did not come in contact at that time. And thus ended the taking of Verplank’s point, and our honourable expectations.”[21]

July 19th dawned “very warm.” Howe’s command had marched through the night to Mandeville’s, across from West Point, where Howe sent his report to Washington:

deprived as I was by the Enemies’ Advance of reducing their Post at Verplanck which, but for that Event, I persuade myself I should have effected_I had nothing left but to retreat…Tho’ disappointed of the ultimate aim, if my conduct meets the approbation of my General, I shall be happy.”

Heath sent his own report, also from Mandeville’s (he had moved in the morning hours to join Howe); “I think Major Genl Howe was fortunate in making his retreat at the instant he did…I think he would have been Burgoyned.”[22]

Aboard the Vulture, Captain Sutherland “received intelligence that the enemy were prepared to evacuate [Stony Point].” The Americans spent the 19th removing what was not nailed down from Stony Point and fell back to the Highlands. From West Point, which he had reached as the day wore on, Washington wrote to Governor George Clinton of New York that the “main body of their army was moving up by land & water…part of those aboard ship were arrived [in Haverstraw, a few miles south].” That night, Col. Richard Butler, commander of the American left during the attack on Stony Point, wrote to Washington to report on the evacuation of Stony Point:

Genl Wayne being indisposed, desires that I inform your Excellency that I remained to see the…troops off the ground & just as the last party moved, A Cannonade from the Enemy’s ships began to Cover their landing at 5 oClock they took immediate Possesion of the Point.”

Brigadier Stirling had finally been able to land at the post as the wind began to shift (it was his brigade that Washington observed landing that morning). Lt. Col. Webster had been relieved and Verplanck saved. As quickly as the chance to take Verplanck appeared, it slipped from Washington’s hands. Due to a combination of an immediate British response and the lack of artillery and equipment on the American side, the Continental Army would not be able to pass the ferry for the remainder of the 1779 campaign season. Despite the energy expended in retaking King’s Ferry, the British would not stay for the rest of the war; they removed themselves to New York and eventually the Southern Campaign on October 22nd, 1779, reopening the ferry to the Americans.[23]

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Map of Stoney Point. Source: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps,]


[1] Christian Febiger’s Account of the Attack, in Henry P. Johnston, The Storming of Stony Point on the Hudson (New York: Da Capo Press , 1971), 185.

[2] Lord George Germain to Sir Henry Clinton, 23 January 1779, in Johnston, The Storming of Stony Point, 28.

[3] George Washington to Joseph Reed, 14 June 1779, in Don Loprieno, The Enterprise in Contemplation: The Midnight Assault on Stony Point (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2009), 8.

[4] Loprieno, The Enterprise in Contemplation, 9-19.

[5] Loprieno, The Enterprise in Contemplation, 17.

[6] George Washington to Congress, 20 July 1779, in Johnston, The Storming of Stony Point, 165.

[7] Extract from Rufus Putnam’s Journal, 15 July 1779, in Johnston, The Storming of Stony Point, 224.

[8] George Washington to Robert Howe, 16 July 1779, Library of Congress (LOC),

[9] General Sir 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, CT: Yale University Press, 1954), 132; Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, Joseph P. Tustin, ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 172; John Peebles, John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776-1782, Ira D. Gruber, ed. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998), 277.

[10] Robert Howe to George Washington, 17 July 1779, LOC,

[11] George Washington to Robert Howe, 17 July 1779, LOC, http:///

[12] Master’s Log, HMS Vulture, 17 July 1779, The National Archives, United Kingdom, ADM 52/2073; Clinton, The American Rebellion, 132; Peebles, John Peebles’ American War, 278. HMS Vulture is the same vessel that one year later conducted Major André to meet General Arnold and took Arnold to New York, from September 21 to 26, 1780.

[13] Robert Howe to George Washington, 17 July 1779, LOC,

[14] William Heath, Memoirs of Major General Heath by Himself, William Abbat, ed. (New York: 1901), 194. Heath’s location: John C. Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799 Volume XV (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office), 427, and Heath, Memoirs, 191-4.

[15] George Washington to Robert Howe, 7/17/1779, in Fitzpatrick, 434. Activities on Stony Point: Loprieno, The Enterprise in Contemplation, 37. Col. Putnam’s remarks: Johnston, The Storming of Stony Point, 225.

[16] Peebles, John Peebles’ American War, 278-9.

[17] Heath, Memoirs, 194; Joseph Plumb Martin, A Narrative of a Revolutionary War Soldier: Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin (New York: Signet Classics, 2010), 141.

[18] Vulture Master’s Log, 18 July 1779; Andrew Sutherland to George Washington, 18 July 1779, LOC,

[19] Robert Howe to George Washington, 18 July 1779, LOC,; Dade Payton to William Heath, 18 July 1779, LOC,; Heath, Memoirs, 195. Elements of the 4th LD were with Heath; his reluctance to share horsemen with Howe was probably due to Heath’s being between Tryon and Clinton’s forces.

[20] Vulture, 18 July 1779; Peebles, John Peebles’ American War, 279.

[21] William Heath to George Washington, 7/18/1779, LOC,; Robert Howe to George Washington, 18 July 1779, LOC,; Martin, A Narrative of a Revolutionary War Soldier, 142. Heath’s mention of the guns from Howe could be the 12 pounders being returned or other guns that never made it to the lines at Verplanck. In Martin’s account, the underlined “us” is in the original.

[22] For the weather: Peebles, John Peebles’ American War, 279; Robert Howe to George Washington, 19 July 1779, LOC,; William Heath to George Washington, 19 July 1779, LOC. It is interesting to note Heath’s use of the term “Burgoyned.”

[23] Vulture Log, 19 July 1779; George Washington to George Clinton, 19 July 1779, LOC,; Richard Butler to George Washingon, 19 July 1779, LOC,; Loprieno, The Enterprise in Contemplation, 55-8.


  • A great article which again portrays the intensity of action in the Hudson Valley. A visit to either Stony Point or Verplanck’s Point is worthwhile to see how any vessel passing would have to run a dangerous gauntlet. But VP is very flat and even if Howe had taken it, the Americans would have been subject to a landward and seaward counterattack once the winds had shifted. Taking it was one thing holding it was quite another.

  • Great coverage of a lesser-known, but absolutely important, action during the 1779 Hudson Valley campaign. SPM is correct – the actions along the Hudson that summer were brief, but intense, and important to the course of the Revolution. Well done on giving this action some attention!

  • This is an excellent article that does, at the operational level, what the late Paddy Griffith referred to as “tactical snippeting”. Congratulations, Mr Sheehan! I look forward to more articles from you on JAR!

  • Great article. I just want to note that New Bridge (“[British] Horse were seen…at New Bridge [near the Croton]”) was not “near” the Croton, it was built across it. The exact location is unknown, but it was close to the mouth of the Croton River, east of the ferry at Van Cortlandt Manor. It was built in February/March, 1779 by the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment under the command of Colonel Rufus Putnam.

    1. Thanks for the kind comments all! Marc, this information will hopefully give a better picture to where Sir Henry’s army was on the banks of the Croton; and explains the appellation of “new.”

  • Great and well researched article. Would have liked more context as to why the Kings Ferry was important at this point and also regarding the mutiny that occurred at Stony Point.

    1. Ken,

      Thanks for the kind words! Are you referring to the near mutiny of the New York Levies? That occurs in December of 1779, just out of the scope of the article; someday I’ll get a paper out on it!

      Michael Sheehan

    1. Hmm, the only mutiny I am aware of General Wayne attempting to suppress is that of the Pennsylvania Line who marched from Jockey Hollow to Trenton in January 1781. Another smaller near mutiny took place in or around Fort Ticonderoga when Wayne was in charge as Col. sometime in ’76 or early ’77. I have never read the Pumpkin Vine book, but as soon as I get my hands on a copy I will get back to you!

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