Saturday, July 16, 2011

Calamities of War: Part 2

General Vaughn is sent north on the journey that will result in Clermont's burning in 1777...

The Course of the Summer Campaign Season of 1777
While Burgoyne’s Army of 7,500 men marched from Montreal towards Albany and General Howe moved to take Philadelphia with 15,000 men, General Clinton had been left to defend New York City and the surrounding area with a mixture of 7,000 British Regulars and Loyalist soldiers. Howe had left no orders for Clinton to cooperate with Burgoyne. It has been suggested by some historians that Howe started for Philadelphia so late in the campaign season (July 23) because he was waiting until he had information that Burgoyne’s army was not encountering major problems on its march south. Until this point, Burgoyne’s thrust south was wildly successful. He had taken Fort Ticonderoga (July 5) with hardly a shot fired and, in consequence, almost completely destroyed the American Northern Army which was forced to retreat all the way to the vicinity of Albany. Howe meanwhile, having embarked his men in transports July 23, did not make landfall until August 28 at Head of Elk (Modern day Elkton, Maryland) and then started moving towards Philadelphia.

General Clinton in New York was not fond of General Howe’s plan for the summer of 1777. He saw the taking of Philadelphia as a pointless endeavor. Clinton felt that with Howe so far to the south, he would be unable to cooperate with either him or Burgoyne. Clinton also feared that Washington would be able to concentrate rebel forces to either recapture New York (half of its garrison of 7,000 men was made up of 3,000 newly recruited and raw loyalists) or destroy Burgoyne’s Northern Army. As things progressed over the summer, he was to be proven correct in his assumptions.

Burgoyne had been optimistic of his situation up until mid-August. His army had advanced to Fort Edward by the end of July and he spent a considerable amount of time building up a supply base to facilitate his final push to Albany. Yet over the month of August, Burgoyne became aware that his great plan was coming to naught. Colonel Barry St. Leger’s column of British Regulars, Loyalist’s and Native Americans had been checked at Fort Stanwix by a stubborn American garrison. Even after winning a lopsided victory against a large column of American militia at the bloody Battle of Oriskany. Leger was forced to retire back to Canada when he received intelligence that General Benedict Arnold was approaching with a large relief force, causing his Native American allies to abandon his army. It was also at this time that Burgoyne became aware that Howe would be unable to cooperate with him from New York. Burgoyne’s plan had fallen apart, and the American forces in the north were now able to concentrate on his single army. Burgoyne was also encountering logistical problems and he lacked sufficient transport to adequately supply his army. To add even further to his woes, a large column of German troops and Loyalists from his army were crushed by American militia at the Battle of Bennington on August 16 while attempting to capture American supplies.

Yet under these circumstances, Burgoyne still remained optimistic that he could reach Albany. Over the 13th and 14th of September, he cut his communications with Canada and crossed the Hudson to move towards Albany. Even knowing that no juncture at Albany was certain, he felt confident that he could accomplish his objective. American forces under General Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold had by this time constructed strong defensive positions at Bemis Heights just north of the town of present day Stillwater to check Burgoyne’s advance. On the 11th of September Clinton wrote Burgoyne (encoded within a message of mundane details):

…you know my goodwill, & are not ignorant of my poverty. If you think 2,000 men can assist you effectually [sic] I will make a push at Montgomery in about 10 days but ever jealous of my flanks: if they make a move in force on either of them, I must return to save this important post I expect reinforcements every day. Let me know what you would wish.
Clinton received a communication from Burgoyne on the 5th of October which had been communicated on the 20th of September, less than 24 hours after the Battle of Freeman’s Farm. The battle, while technically won by Burgoyne’s army, had come at a terrible cost of 600 British casualties. Arnold and Gates effectively stopped Burgoyne at Bemis Heights 30 miles from Albany. Burgoyne’s whole situation had changed drastically in the 6 days since he had so confidently crossed the Hudson River. Clinton received the following message via a conversation with a messenger, Captain Campbell, from Burgoyne’s army. The message surprised Clinton;

…that the General’s whole Army did not exceed five Thousand Men, that the Consequences of the battle on the 19th were the Loss of between five and six Hundred Men. That the enemy were within a Mile & a half of him, that he knew not their Numbers for certain, but believed them to be twelve or fourteen Thousand Men, that there was besides a considerable Body in his Rear. That he wished to receive my Orders whether he should attack or retreat to the Lakes…That he wished to know by a positive Answer as soon as possible, whether I could open a communication with Albany, when I should be there, and when there keep my Communication with New York.
Burgoyne replied desperately to Clinton’s coded letter on September 23rd:

I have lost the old Cypher, but being sure from the Tenor of your letter you meant it to be so read, I have made it out. An Attack, or the menace of an Attack upon Montgomery, must be of great Use, as it will draw away a Part of this Force, and I will follow them close: Do it my dear friend directly.
Around Philadelphia, General Howe, oblivious to Burgoyne’s situation and not in a position to assist Burgoyne in any fashion, defeated Washington’s army at Brandywine (Sept. 11) and Paoli (Sept. 21), and after much maneuvering moved into Philadelphia on September 26th. Washington counterattacked the British at the Battle of Germantown on October 14th. The battle was almost an American victory and caused Howe to send for reinforcements from New York which had a direct impact on General Clinton’s operations in the Hudson Highlands.

Clinton moves up the Hudson
As Clinton wrote Burgoyne on the 11th of September, he set into motion moving troops north up the Hudson to relieve some of the pressure on Burgoyne. Clinton had received reinforcements of 1,700 men direct from England and further bolstered his numbers when 1,000 men were offered to him from the British garrison in Rhode Island. In all, Clinton could spare only 3,000 men for his expedition. His troops consisted of the British 7th, 26th, 52nd, 57th, 63rd, 71st (one company) Regiments of Foot and the 17th Light Dragoons. His Loyalist forces consisted of the Loyal American Regiment, the New York Volunteers, and Emmericks Chasseurs. The German units were the Trumbach’s Regiment and a Grenadier company of the Anspach-Bayreuth Regiment. Clinton was also assisted by a Royal Navy flotilla under Admiral Hotham that consisted of a few ships of the line, galleys and smaller craft, and transports and flatboats to move the troops.

Clinton’s objective was to take the American Forts Clinton and Montgomery in the Hudson Highlands. While these forts were in an unfinished state, the terrain surrounding them was quite difficult and was conducive to a strong defense by a determined enemy. The American forces in the Highlands had been stripped bare to reinforce both Washington’s and Gates’ armies, and American General Israel Putnam had very few troops to oppose Clinton’s expedition. In the forts themselves, he was reduced to 600 militia and a small number of Continentals. The forts were in the command of Governor George Clinton and his brother James Clinton, in Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton respectively. The landward defenses had been neglected as the rough nature of the terrain seemed to negate the possibility of an attack from that direction. In the region of Peekskill he had 1,000 Continentals and 400 militia. The numbers of Putnam’s forces may seem comparable to Clinton’s, but the militia was unreliable when facing the professional soldiers in the British ranks. Putnam himself is quoted as saying of the militia “…it would be damned unsafe to trust them.” A large chain that was laid across the river below the forts to hinder shipping going north augmented the defense of the forts. Further up the river another unfinished fort was scantily manned on Constitution Island opposite of West Point and beyond that lay another chain and chevaux-de-fris in the river. A flotilla of small warships further added to the American defenses.

On October 5th, Clinton landed at Verplanks Point taking that area after a brief skirmish. To keep Putnam confused, he left 1000 at the point and shifted the rest of his army to Stoney Point on the morning of the 6th. In a remarkable forced march of 12 miles through extremely difficult terrain led by Loyalist officers knowledgeable of the area, Clinton’s men positioned themselves to attack both forts at the same time from the landward side. At approximately 5:00 in the afternoon Clinton’s men attacked both forts. At Fort Clinton, General Vaughn ‘s 1,000 troops stormed into the fort using only the bayonet as ordered by General Clinton. At Fort Montgomery, Colonel Campbell pressed home his attack with 1,200 men. Campbell’s attack succeeded, but he was killed in the initial assault. Inside the forts, the few Continentals and the raw militia resisted as best they could against the determined professional British forces. Governor Clinton stated that his men fought “…with great spirit by Continentals as well as militia.” Inevitably both forts fell to the British with little loss while the Americans suffered 263 killed, wounded or captured and the loss of 67 hard-to-replace cannon. General Clinton in a letter to General Howe said of his losses, “Our loss was not very considerable excepting in some respectable officers who were killed in the attack.” Both Governor Clinton and his wounded brother were among those who were lucky enough to escape from the forts.

As night fell over the fallen forts, the small American fleet could not escape to the North due to contrary winds and was forced to scuttle itself on the banks of the river. Clinton notes this:

About 10 o’clock at night the rebels set fire to their two ships, Montgomery and Congress, some gallies and other armed vessels with their cannon stores &ca in them.
Another British officer gives a vivid description of the burning ships:

Flames suddenly broke forth and as every sail was set, the vessels soon became magnificent pyramids of fire. The reflection on the steep face of the mountain opposite, and the long train of ruddy light that shone upon the water for a prodigious distance, had a wonderful effect…the whole was sublimely terminated by explosions, which again left all to darkness. Charles Stedman (1794)
The following morning, on October 7th, General Clinton moved against Fort Constitution after attempting a parley for the fort’s surrender that met “…with an insolent reception unknown in any war, we determined to chastize, & therefore an embarkation under Major General Tryon, and Sir James Wallace with the gallies was ordered.” The British landed on the island only to find the fort abandoned, the storehouses and barracks burnt, and the cannon left behind intact to fall into British hands. On October 8th General Clinton (unaware of Burgoyne’s disastrous defeat the day before at the Battle of Bemis Heights) wrote Burgoyne:

“Nous y voila, and nothing now between us but Gates; I sincerely hope this little success may facilitate your operations.”
This letter was never destined to reach Burgoyne as the courier was captured and hung for espionage. Clinton staged several very successful raids into the interior from the river (most notably capturing and burning a large amount of supplies at Continental village on October 9th) while waiting to hear from Burgoyne. On October 14th, 1777 Sir Henry Clinton made a fateful decision to send an expedition up the Hudson River, in attempt to gather information about Burgoyne. This decision had a profound impact on the Livingston family and the entire Hudson Valley. Anyone who was not friendly to the Crown suffered, and the Clermont Livingstons were no exception.

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