Sir Henry Clinton Attempts to Save the Convention Army

The War Years (1775-1783)

March 26, 2015
by Michael J. F. Sheehan Also by this Author


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In late October of 1777, America celebrated its first capture of a British Army; General Horatio Gates had defeated General Sir John Burgoyne near the village of Saratoga in upstate New York. The prisoners, known as the Convention Army after the semi-treaty that effected their surrender, were moved to a camp outside of Boston. By the autumn of 1778, it had been decided that the Convention Army would be moved to camps in Virginia, relieving the burden on Massachusetts. In doing so, they would have to cross the Hudson River, and the place selected to do so was at the King’s Ferry, between Verplanck and Stony Points.

As was customary in the Revolution, it was not the responsibility of the victorious army to supply those they captured. To that end, Washington ordered a boat from the British in New York to be permitted to pass “King’s Ferry with Cloathing and other necessaries for the troops of the Convention,” as they were due at the end of November.[1] The same day, Washington sent a letter to General Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander-in-chief, to which he responded days later that he had “sent Major Bruen, Deputy Quarter Mr [Master] General of the Army to King’s Ferry with the Money & Necessaries.”[2] Not two and a half weeks later, on December 5, Washington received information from Col. Christian Febiger that “52 Vessels yesterday morning were…up the North River with flat bottom boats…we cannot tell what their object is…The enemy certainly must have some object…and I should suppose [it a] rescue of the Convention troops.”[3]

A week earlier, Col. Beverly Robinson forwarded intelligence to General Clinton that the militia of Orange and Ulster Counties and a portion of the Continental Army were distracted by the recent attack at Cherry Valley and had been shifting towards Minisink, away from the Hudson. It was this letter on which Clinton later scribbled “occasioned my move to Verplanck’s” for the purpose of rescuing “at least part of those troops [of the Convention]” which inspired him to move up the Hudson.[4] Capt. John Peebles of the 42nd Regiment of Foot said that by late on the 4th, they had advanced to “about 5 miles below Kings Ferry.”[5] The troops aboard ship were under the overall command of Brig. Gen. Edward Matthew, “while Brigadier General Sir William Erskine marched by land as far as Tarrytown.” In New York, the famous Jäger captain Johann Ewald recorded that Erskine had with him about two thousand men “advanc[ing] over the pass of Kings Bridge,” and that the shipping had about four thousand. Clinton was to accompany the force on the Hudson.[6]

In a detailed letter to Washington, Major Richard Platt, adjutant to General Alexander McDougall, commander of the Highlands, described the British flotilla and movement of troops as actions unfolded on the 5th. After spotting the “eighteen Vessels anchored in Haverstraw Bay,” McDougall ordered from West Point “Lt Col [Udny] Hay with 500 Pennsylvanians & Genl Nixon’s Brigade” down to and across King’s Ferry.[7] During their march, the stores of flour and pork at King’s Ferry had been sent to Haverstraw Village under the care of Col. Ann Hawkes Hay. Lt. Col. Udny Hay and General Nixon had arrived at Stony Point by 3AM on the 5th and began crossing King’s Ferry to the Verplanck side; this was slowed by there being only two Boats (the rest having been previously sent up the River with Stores). By day break, “3 companies of Col [Rufus] Putnam’s Regt” were prevented from crossing by the advance of the British vessels. Instead, they marched south to take “post upon the Hill at Col [Ann Hawkes] Hay’s…The enemy…debarked in 20 boats…and landed at Stony Point.” Nixon’s brigade “immediately moved towards them; but before [they] got within a Mile…[the British] set fire to two or three small huts.” No sooner had they done so than they got into their boats and went back to the shipping “without destroying any Stores or taking any Cattle.”[8]

Clinton recalled in his memoirs that he had encountered a “delay of four days in our passage up the river…[that] prevented the…attempt on [the American rear]…as I had come so far and the weather fine for the time of year, I landed the flank companies and part of the battalion of Guards…at Stony Point.”[9] Captain Ewald, who was not part of the expedition, recalled that they “arrived at Verplancks Point two days too late, wherupon they returned.” Captain Peebles, who was part of the cruise up the Hudson but did not disembark from his vessel the Royal Sceptre, recalled that “a body of men landed from the Transports on the Jersey shore, & having marched a little way, a smoke arose that look’d very like the firing of small arms but believe it was only burning some houses tho’ we saw about 200 of the rebels at a house a mile or two from thence the troops staid ashore about an hour & Reembark’d again.” Peebles also agreed with Ewald and said that “Burgoynes people…cross’d the North River at Kings Ferry two days before we got there, so we came back again.”[10]

Major Platt’s letter reached Washington at Paramus, New Jersey later on the sixth. Washington moved immediately to oppose the British in case they lingered in Haverstraw Bay. To Col. Thomas Clark of the North Carolina line, Washington wrote that Clark “Be pleased…to move the [North Carolina] Brigade…to a good piece of Ground seven or eight miles towards the Ferry…If the enemy should have landed any men, you will send out scouts to reconnoitre them…keep them from penetrating the Country.” Washington also ordered the Pennsylvania and Virginia brigades of Generals Anthony Wayne and Peter Muhlenberg “to Suffrans,” just in case Clark required backup.[11] Although Washington was quick to respond to Clinton’s movements, he was still puzzled as to the reason. In a letter to General McDougall, he confessed that he could not “account for this odd maneuvre of Sr Henry Clinton in any other way than be supposing that he was misinformed as to the quantity of Stores at the ferry, or that it was a demonstration above, to forage with more security below.”[12]

As the next few days passed Washington sent his reports to various officers, members of Congress, and Governors, it became clear that the British withdrawal was permanent; the Continental Army and militia could now settle down into winter quarters and have a fairly peaceful Christmas while the Convention Army, still in the hands of the Americans, marched slowly to their new quarters in Virginia.


[1] George Washington to James Clinton, November14, 1778, Founders Online, National Archives. All letters from the National Archives or the Library of Congress accessed on November 1, 2014. Hereafter, the National Archives will be referred to as NA.

[2] Sir Henry Clinton to George Washington, November 19, 1778, NA. Major Bruer was from the 15th Regiment of Foot.

[3] Robert Hanson Harrison to Nathanael Greene, December 5, 1778, cited as a note in GW to NG, December 4, 1778, NA. The North River was an alternative term for the Hudson during the eighteenth century.

[4] 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), 114-5. Beverly Robinson had been living in the Hudson Valley since the early 1770s and so was useful to Sir Henry regarding the area. He commanded the Loyal American Regiment and his confiscated home was the headquarters for commanders of West Point.

[5] John Peebles, John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776-1782. Ira D. Gruber, ed. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998), 237. The point five miles below the ferry lies between Croton Point and the northern section of Hook Mountain, near the Hi Tor.

[6] Clinton, The American Rebellion, 115. Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Joseph P. Tustin, ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 157.

[7] Richard Platt to George Washington, December 6, 1778, NA. Lt. Col. Udny Hay of Pennsylvania became Assistant Quarter Master of the region in the late war, and is not to be confused with Col. Ann Hawkes Hay of the 2nd Regiment Orange County Militia of New York.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Clinton, The American Rebellion. It is not quite clear what delay Clinton is referring to, as no other British memorialists of the event recall or record any delay, weather related or otherwise.

[10] Ewald, Diary of the American War, 157; Peebles. John Peebles’ American War, 237-8. The Royal Sceptre, which Peebles called a “Cork Victualer” must have been one of the transports. Since Peebles’ unit was a Grenadier, or “flank,” company it is not clear why he, nor anyone on his vessel did not join the other flank companies in landing. The mention of the “Jersey shore” refers to what is now the shore of Rockland County on the west side of the Hudson, as before the Revolution the area had been disputed between New York and New Jersey. The troops seen near a “house a mile or two from” Stony Point were the troops from Putnam’s regiment, amassing on the hill above Hay’s. That site is now the grounds of Helen Hayes Hospital, better known as the grounds of the “Treason House,” in Haverstraw.

[11] George Washington to Thomas Clark, December 6, 1778, NA.; Robert Hanson Harrison to Nathanael Greene, December 6, 1778. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799. Clark, though a Colonel, commanded the brigade of North Carolinians.

[12] George Washington to Alexander McDougall, December 7, 1778, NA.


  • “Anton Adolf Heinrich Du Roi’s Diary of the Convention Army’s March from Massachusetts to Virginia,” translated by Dr. Gerhard K. Friesen and published in the Journal of the of the Johannes Schwalm Historical Association, vol. 7, no. 1 (2001), pp. 19-29, provides the best account of the march that I am aware of and gives details like dates, miles travelled that day [707 miles total], the location of the overnight encampment and local observations. Lieut. Du Roi was the Adjutant of the Specht Regiment in the service of the Duke of Brunswick.

    The Convention Army spent the winter of 1777-1778 in the former Continental Army barracks on Prospect Hill and Winter Hill in Cambridge but the British troops had been relocated to the new POW compound at Rutland, Massachusetts, prior to the commencement of their march to Virginia. The march was organized into six divisions, three British and three German with the design that once joined, the following division would occupy the quarters vacated that morning by its predecessor division. The British departed from Rutland and the Germans from Cambridge on the same day, viz. 09 Nov 1778. The first German division comprised the remainder of the Dragoon Regiment and Grenadier Battalion, the second division comprised Regiment von Riedesel and Regiment Specht, and the third division included the Light Infantry Battalion von Barner, the Hessen-Hanau Regiment, and the Hessen-Hanau Artillery Company. Lieut. Du Roi was appointed by General von Riedesel as commissary for the second German commissary for the second division which allowed him to ride ahead of the march, get ‘first choice’ on quarters and to have a horse for his servant.

    On the evening of 29 Nov 1778 at Fishkill, Lieut. Du Roi would dine with George Washington and Brigadier Sprecht, et al., serving as interpreter as Sprecht spoke no English and Washington spoke no German. Washington departed on 30 Nov 1778 which was also a day of rest for the second German division. On December 1st, the division marched to Hudson River where they crossed in two-mast vessels carrying about 150 men each. The crossing took four or five hours to transfer the division and its baggage, after which they marched on to Newburgh (220 miles from Cambridge). Although not specifically stated, it must be assumed that the third and final German division crossed the Hudson on Dec 2d well upstream from any British forces in pursuit.

  • Mr. Brooks, thanks for the input; that sounds like an excellent source. Is it available digitally?

  • Sorry folks, I just came across a reference that General Nixon might not have been with his Brigade during the course of my article…it may have been commanded by Col. John Greaton, 3rd MA, as I think Nixon was on leave. Randomly came across this today, wish I had been more exacting before submitting the article. Does not change the rest of it, just the possibility that Nixon was not present.

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