This Hollowed-out Ground

On lovely Storm King Mountain on the majestic Hudson River the Consolidated Edison Company, the major supplier of power to New York City, wants to build a $183 million hydroelectric project. Water would be stored in a 240-acre reservoir to be built at an altitude of 1,160 feet behind the mountain. At periods of peak power demand, it would be emptied into a tunnel running down into the Hudson, the force of its fall being harnessed by generators housed below ground at the river's edge. When demand slackened, the water would be pumped up to the reservoir again. Conservationists, banded together in the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference, claim that the Storm King plant will seriously impair the scenic, ecological, recreational, and historic character of the Hudson Highlands and that there are better alternate ways for Con Ed to get its power. The matter is now before the Federal Power Commission. Honorary chairman of the preservation conference is Carl Carmer, a well-known historian and a member of the advisory board of this magazine. In this article, he describes how the battered survivors of a grim Revolutionary War battle hallowed this contested ground.

An opaque fog lay close to the surface of the Hudson River on the morning of October 5, 1777. The awakening bugles of General Israel Putnam’s Continentals at Peekskill on the eastern shore of the river seemed muted by the white and misty blanket. The slow-rising sun burned irregular holes in it, however, and through these the General’s sentinels, who had been posted south of his encampment during most of the summer, saw something that banished their accustomed boredom. There were barges and galleys downriver—many of them—and above the low-lying haze rose the towering masts of British frigates. From downriver, too, came the muffled sounds of alarm guns. The long-dreaded invasion of enemy troops from occupied New York had begun.

The elderly Yankee Israel Putnam was busy at once. An oarsman, rowing desperately, bore messages across the wide stream to Fort Montgomery, an unfinished cluster of earthworks then under the command of the thirty-eight-year-old governor of the new state of New York, Brigadier General George Clinton. At this bastion, nearly a hundred and fifty feet above the spot where the Popolopen Creek joins the Hudson, the Governor received Putnam’s letter. Immediately he sent a summary of its contents to his older brother, General James Clinton, then in command of Fort Clinton, a smaller stronghold on the steep south bank of the narrow creek.

In the meantime, the British under Sir Henry Clinton (a distant cousin of the American generals of the same surname) were disembarking at Verplanck’s Point on the east bank of the Hudson, not far below Putnam’s headquarters. The grating of their boats in the shallows of the river, the sharp voices of their officers ordering immediate formations, came strangely through the thick fog to the ears of Putnam’s scouts, informing them only that the invaders were in considerable numbers.

Suddenly the enemy army was marching boldly eastward away from the river, leaving behind the mist-dulled flames of a few wooden storage buildings. The sun was now sweeping away the fog cover, however, and patriot observers were racing up the Peekskill road to tell their commander that along with the red coats of the British regulars they could see large contingents of the despised German hirelings—jägers and chasseurs in green and blue, and red and blue—and, most hated of all, a Tory regiment in green. Led to believe that these troops had been ordered to attack objectives on the east side of the Hudson, Putnam called for the quick return of all militia to whom he had generously given permission to go back to their farms to plant their autumn wheat. At the same time, the people of Peekskill, panic-stricken on learning that several thousand of the enemy were very near, began to evacuate the town. Many families hurried north, while others made for the Connecticut border.

But Sir Henry’s march to the east was only a bluff. Early next morning, October 6, again under a cover of fog, he turned his columns about and set them marching at double time back to their boats. Leaving a detachment to hold Verplanck’s Point, he had the rest carried across the Hudson to Stony Point and sent them overland around high Dunderberg Mountain to approach the American fortifications from the land side. It was full morning before Putnam and his staff realized that Sir Henry’s goal, from the start, had been the capture of forts Montgomery and Clinton on the high bluffs of the Hudson’s west bank.

Now the men of the Hudson hill farms had begun to answer the call of the downriver guns. Needing no Paul Revere to tell them of their duty, little groups of ununiformed, sometimes unarmed, countrymen hurried off toward the forts on the Popolopen. In the communities to the south on Haverstraw Bay, the rivermen were saying hasty good-byes to their wives and children and converging on the highland fortifications. From the towering cliffs of Butter Hill and Crow’s Nest, and from the Shawangunk (shon’-gum) Mountains behind them, the militia, many of whom had never seen a battle, were on their way to repel the invaders. Frantic appeals for reinforcement were arriving at the east-bank headquarters of General Putnam, but that officer, having been deceived once, had decided to wait until he was sure where the enemy would attack before he ordered his men into action.