- Historic Sites
A Hessian Visits The Victors: 1783
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
When one observes the narrow and unfinished roads which cross these mountains, it is amazing that the Americans permitted us to penetrate into this region without interference four or five years ago, when two or three determined officers with a hundred men could have stopped at each step the best and strongest armies for several days, and where each step of the attacking party would have had to have been bought with blood. Due to the bad roads there are few vehicles in this area, and all travelers of both sexes whom we met on the way were on horseback.
Toward midday we arrived at Nelson’s Ferry, where a well-built country house of medium size lies on a small plain on the left bank of the North River [i.e., the Hudson River]. This plain is commanded by two redoubts, called North and South redoubts, which are constructed on steep and rocky heights.
Even in this house, which is occupied by a well-to-do man named [Caleb] Nelson, is another residence where one finds lodging as a “favor” and for a stiff price. In front of the door we found a middle-aged woman whom I asked to accommodate us, and who quite politely consented, after making it clear to us that her house has no tavern.
Here in this house I soon found an American officer who related to me that his brother had been shot by the Jägers at Elizabethtown in the Jerseys. I regretted this and steered the conversation to the question of whom I should turn to for permission to see the fortifications at West Point. We were informed that a General McDougall [Major General Alexander McDougall] resided scarcely a mile from here, but he did not have the command of the fortifications. Nevertheless, we considered it our duty to pay a visit to this gentleman. We were scarcely halfway to the general’s residence when he met us, and as soon as we had identified ourselves he offered us the hospitality of his house with all politeness for as long as we intended to stay. But since we could not accept this, out of courtesy, we asked him for a pass to cross the North River. He accompanied us to the plantation where we were to descend, furnished us with a pass, ordered his boat, and himself accompanied us to the opposite shore. When we thanked him, he invited us to his table the following day.
As soon as we arrived at West Point we found a battery of four guns which commanded the narrow channel of the river between this place and Point Constitution. This point is a complete peninsula, which is attached to the left bank of the North River by a marshy isthmus. It extends into the river so close to the opposite point that the river, which makes a sharp bend here, is only four hundred paces wide but fifty to sixty fathoms deep. This peninsula forms a steep cliff on all sides, on which three redoubts had been constructed to sweep the river and the side where it connects with the left bank by a marshy tongue of land. On this side there is a barracks for three hundred men, which, however, is not protected from the water side.
The duty officer of the battery at West Point received us very politely, and immediately provided us with a noncommissioned officer who led us to the quarters of the commandant, who is General Knox [Major General Henry Knox]. As soon as we climbed up the steep bank … we found ourselves on a natural place d’armes about one and a half German miles long and a good half mile wide.
We were received very courteously by General Knox, whose figure is quite distinguished and venerable. He consented at once to our request to inspect the fortifications. Since I strengthened his conviction that it was a formidable and impregnable position, he asked us to his table and provided us with his adjutant, Captain [John] Lillie, as an escort, who probably was instructed to what extent he should show us the fortifications.
We then went to Fort Clinton, which is situated on the point above the water battery mentioned. It is quadrangular, with broken flanks, and commands the river from all directions. Afterward, we inspected the barracks, which are secure against all armed vessels, since the right bank of the river is very high and the rocks at most places rise perpendicularly.
On this walk the captain took us to the artillery park, which consists of approximately eighty pieces, all of which had been captured from the English during the war, and on which the place and occasion of capture were engraved in big letters. What touched me most strongly and profoundly, and led me into deep reflection for several minutes, were three light 3-pounders which looked as simple as a Quaker. They had been cast at Philadelphia, were the first cannon in the American army, and had comprised their entire field artillery in the first and second campaigns.