Top 10 Events at King’s Ferry

Kings Ferry site in Verplanck, New York. (Photo by John Stanton, May 12, 2012)

A great deal of the American Revolution took place in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley. The region was home to a number of forts, skirmishes, battles, and encampments; one site, King’s Ferry, can lay claim to having hosted all of the above. Actually two sites separated by the Hudson River, Stony Point and Verplanck Point were together known as the King’s Ferry. The ferry itself had two termini: one dock on the north side of Stony Point where it met the mainland, the other on the eastern side of the river at the point of Verplanck, about three-quarters of a mile northeast of Stony Point. The ferry was essential to logistics and strategy for the Continental army (and at times for the British army), as Stony and Verplanck Points formed the first stricture of the Hudson coming north from New York City, where the river is a mile or more wide. Due to its deep water and short distance, the King’s Ferry was ideal for the transportation of goods, intelligence, and the army, as roads on both sides led to either the heart of New England, or New Jersey and Philadelphia.

As the King’s Ferry was in such frequent use, Stony and Verplanck Points saw one major battle, a number of amphibious landings, various forts, one treason, almost daily crossings, one Grand Encampment, a mutiny, and even a visit by a future Marshal of France. While many significant events took place at the Ferry, I have selected what I believe to be the Top Ten of them; I hope this list gives the reader a sense of how necessary the site was to the American War for Independence.

1 // Retreat from New York

The first time the King’s Ferry had any real contribution to the American Revolution was in November 1776. Having been pushed back from New York City and White Plains, the Continental army crossed the Hudson piecemeal in early November at the ferry. At this time the western terminus was roughly a mile below Stony Point, where the water was shallow. General William Alexander, commonly known as Lord Stirling, crossed on November 9 with “Haslet’s, Miles’s, & part of Weidons [Weedon’s] with our Artillery.” He noted that the landing was “inconvenient as at half-tide the Vessels are obliged to lay [a distance] from the Shore.” He suggested that the landing be moved to the “North Side of Stoney Point [where there is] deep Water.” Though it’s not clear precisely when this change took place, it is evident that Washington, to whom Lord Stirling’s  letter was sent, approved, as at least by mid 1777 the dock was on the north side of Stony Point.[1]

2 // Assault on Forts Montgomery and Clinton

“Its with the Utmost Reluctance I now sit down to inform you that the Enemy [moved to] Kings Ferry & landed on the East side.” On October 5, 1777, General Sir Henry Clinton landed a body of troops at Verplanck Point. The next morning, in a dense fog, they crossed to the west side on their way to march north and take Forts Montgomery and Clinton along the Popolopen Creek, some six miles hence. As General Israel Putnam reported to Washington, the enemy had “about 1500.” By nightfall on OOctober 6 both of the “Twin Forts of the Popolopen” had fallen, as well as the first chain to stretch across the Hudson.[2]

3 // The White Plains Encampment

On June 28, 1778, one of the hottest days on record, the Continental Army met the British Army near Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey, in one of the largest pitched battles of the war. As the British marched towards Sandy Hook to board ships for New York, the Continentals went north to White Plains to threaten New York, crossing the Hudson at the King’s Ferry in mid-July. According to Joseph Plumb Martin, as each brigade passed, they supplied their own “ferrymen … I was one of the men from our brigade.” Fortunately for the hungry soldier, “a large sturgeon … sprang directly into the boat,” raising his mess’s spirits as the army proceeded from “Kings Ferry … to the White Plains.”[3]

4 // Rescuing the Convention Army

General Sir Henry Clinton received word that the Convention Army, Burgoyne’s army captured at Saratoga, would be moved from Massachusetts to Virginia and that sometime in late November 1778, they were expected to pass over the King’s Ferry. He decided to intercept their march and rescue all or part of them. On December 5, Clinton landed “flank companies and a part of the battalion of Guards … at Stony Point.” Captain Peebles of the 42nd Regiment recalled that “Burgoynes people … cross’d the North [Hudson] River at Kings Ferry two days before we got there, so we came back again.” All that was accomplished after an hour on land was “burning some houses.”[4]

5 // King’s Ferry Campaign

In May 1779, Clinton once again decided to visit the ferry; this time the British would stay longer than an hour. Hoping to “bring Mr. Washington to generVal and decisive action at the opening of the Campaign,” Clinton moved up the Hudson, landing three thousand troops at Haverstraw to take Stony Point and three thousand in Westchester to take Verplanck. Both points had built small defenses only a few weeks earlier; a blockhouse at Stony Point with a small detachment of militia and a bombproof shelter at Verplanck named Fort Lafayette with seventy-odd troops. When the British came up on May 31, the militia on Stony Point burned the blockhouse and fled; the defenders on the other side held out another day, finally surrounded by troops on land and the Royal Navy by sea. For the next month, the British fortified both posts, complete with abatis, artillery, and naval vessels.[5]

6 // The Storming of Stony Point

The British capture of the King’s Ferry was a great loss to the Americans. Worse yet, in Washington’s thinking, the new British forts at Stony and Verplanck Points threatened the American fortress of West Point, only eleven miles north. Washington wanted the ferry back. His strategy was to take Stony Point first, and using its higher ground and captured artillery, bombard Verplanck into submission while simultaneously threatening an assault by land. To take Stony Point, Washington and the new commander of the Corps of Light Infantry, Brig. Anthony Wayne, developed a plan. Using only the bayonet, the Light Corps would storm up the steep flanks of the point while a detachment  would stay in the center, firing live rounds as a feint. The attack would take place at midnight; the first time the Americans would attempt an assault on a British fortification with just the bayonet, and in the middle of the night. In less than half hour of combat in the morning hours of July 16, 1779, Stony Point was in American hands. Within an hour the bombarding of Verplanck had begun, with American troops already forming outside its defenses. Unfortunately for the Americans, the British responded swiftly by land and sea, forcing them back into the safety of the Highlands. Although the ferry was once again in British hands, the Continental Army had won a great victory.[6]

7 // Mutiny of the Levies

The British kept the posts at the ferry until October 22, 1779, when they withdrew to New York, abandoning them to the Americans. Within a few days, Maj. Gen. William Heath explained that some troops “were employed on the works evacuated by the enemy at Verplanck’s and Stony Points.” On October 31, a major’s detachment from Pawling’s Levies “arrived … to garrison Stony Point.” For the next few weeks, the Levies seemed to have a done a fine job; that is, until the second week of December. Heath wrote to Gov. George Clinton on the December 16 that due to a scarcity of flour due to which some “Troops were Seven days without bread,” “two thirds of [the Levies at Stony Point] have deserted within a few Days past.” At the request of their commanding officer and in order to prevent further desertion, Heath ordered them “to Poughkepsy.” Though the situation never deteriorated any further, this incident is evidence that one did not have to be in Valley Forge or Jockey Hollow to suffer during the winters of the Revolution.[7]

8 // Mr. Anderson Crosses the Ferry

Aside from the actions in New Jersey during the summer of 1780, the most exciting event for the main army was the treason known as the Arnold-Andre Affair. As the scenes of the affair stretched from West Point to Tappan, New York, it was only natural that King’s Ferry found itself in the middle. On the morning of September 22, 1780, Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold and Maj. John André (under the alias of John Anderson) were gathered in the parlor of Joshua Hett Smith of Haverstraw discussing the plans of West Point and watching anxiously as HMS Vulture sailed south to escape the surprise fire from Verplanck Point’s four-pounder, which had been drawn to Croton (Teller’s) Point to get within range. As his plans for a return by water were abruptly altered, André would now be forced to return to Manhattan by land via Westchester, which meant crossing King’s Ferry. That afternoon, Smith escorted André to the ferry where, armed with passes from Arnold (who had departed that morning), they crossed and found lodgings just after dark on the eastern side. The following day the two parted, Smith to his wife in Fishkill, André to capture at Tarrytown.[8]

9 // The Road to Yorktown

In July of 1781, Lord Cornwallis was attempting to resupply his army from the port of Yorktown, Virginia. Washington, in New York, was awaiting the arrival of the Comte de Rochambeau’s French expeditionary force. Not long after the two armies joined, word was received that the French fleet from the Caribbean would come no farther north than the Chesapeake Bay. Instead of attacking New York by land and sea, Washington would have to settle for such an attack on Cornwallis. The allied army would have to cross the Hudson on their way south. Though some portions of the force crossed at Dobbs Ferry across the Tappan Zee, the majority crossed at the King’s Ferry. A French memorialist of the event, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, at the time a captain, but later one of Napoleon’s chief marshals, recorded the crossing as it took place on August 23: “The army reached the ferry at noon … it started to cross the river immediately and continued until midnight of the 25th.” Taking note of the defenses at either end of the ferry, he wrote that the eastern bank was protected “by Fort La Fayette and on the west bank by the fort at Stony Point that the Americans took by storm in 1776 [1779].”[9]

10 // The Grand Encampment at Verplanck

In the late summer of 1782, the French were on their way back to New England after wintering in the south after the capitulation of Yorktown. Once again, they would have to cross the Hudson; King’s Ferry was selected as the main crossing point. To welcome and bid them farewell, Washington ordered a large portion of the army down from the Highlands to the broad expanse of Verplanck Point. Leading up from the dock, nearly concurrent with today’s Broadway in the village of Verplanck, was the main tent street of the camp, through which Rochambeau’s force would march. Both in order to decorate for the French and provide necessary shade for the troops, Washington ordered that “Bowers should … be erected in front of the Tents [and made of] Enterwoven bows.” When the French crossed on September 17 it was noted that “the American camp was bordered by a very beautiful arbor, decorated with various designs and coats of arms.”[10]

Though the above occurrences are the most significant, there was almost daily activity at the King’s Ferry, making it one of the most vital sites of the Revolution in New York.

 

[1] Lord Stirling to George Washington, November 10, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0098.

[2] Israel Putnam to George Washington, October 8, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives.

http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0461.

[3] 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), 115-6.

[4] Sir Henry Clinton and John Peebles in Michael J. F. Sheehan, “Sir Henry Clinton Attempts to Save the Convention Army,” Journal of the American Revolution (March 26, 2015), http://allthingsliberty.com/2015/03/sir-henry-clinton-attempts-to-save-the-convention-army/. British foot (infantry) regiments were composed of ten companies: eight battalion (standard infantry) companies, and two flank companies called the light infantry and grenadiers who formed respectively on the left and right “flanks” of the regiment while on parade. The North River is the original name for the Hudson, still used with frequency during the Revolutionary War.

[5] Lord George Germain and Henry Clinton, in Don Lopreino, The Enterprise in Contemplation: The Midnight Assault on Stony Point (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2009), 2-6. At Stony Point, the militia were under Col. Ann Hawkes Hayes; at Verplanck, elements of the 1st , 2nd, and 3rd North Carolina Regiments under Capt. Thomas Armstrong surrendered to Capt John Andre.

[6] Lopreino, The Enterprise in Contemplation, 15, 25. Michael J. F. Sheehan, “The Unsuccessful American Attempt on Verplanck Point, July 16-19, 1779,” Journal of the American Revolution (December 10, 2014), http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/09/the-unsuccessful-american-attempt-on-verplanck-point-july-16-19-1779/.

[7] William Heath, Memoirs of Major-General William Heath, ed. William Abbatt (New York: William Abbatt, 1901), 204-5. William Heath to George Clinton, in Public Papers of George Clinton, First Governor of New York. 1777-1795–1801-1804, Vol. V (Albany: James B. Lyon, 1901), 421. George Clinton was also a major general of New York troops and commanded in person, narrowly escaping capture at Fort Montgomery two years previously.

[8] Richard J. Koke, Accomplice in Treason: Joshua Hett Smith and the Arnold Conspiracy (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1973), 90-100. Col. James Livingston, 1st Canadian Regiment, commanded at Verplanck. His decision to fire on the Vulture, which had irritated him by inactivity, allowed Arnold’s treason to be discovered, although he himself was briefly placed under arrest by Washington.

[9] Journal of Louis-Alexandre Berthier, in The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Vol. I, ed. Howard C. Rice Jr. and Anne S. K. Brown (Princeton University Press and Brown University Press, 1972), 255.

[10] Almon W. Lauber, ed. Orderly Books of the Fourth New York Regiment, 1778-1780 and The Second New York Regiment, 1780-1783 (Albany, New York: University of the State of New York, 1932), 612-4. Journal of Jean-Baptiste-Antoine de Verger, in Rice, The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, 165.

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