This Hollowed-out Ground

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In the meantime, George Clinton at Fort Montgomery, anxiously expecting aid from Putnam across the river, boldly sent two bands of sixty men each (more than a third of his whole command) to meet the thousand invaders who had set out to march around the rear of Bear Mountain to attack Fort Montgomery from the landward, its least protected side. (Another body of British troops stood poised below Fort Clinton.) One of George Clinton’s two bands, after doing considerable damage with a six-pounder, was driven back to Fort Montgomery. The other, under Captain John Fenno, soon met the enemy force striding swiftly along and opened fire on them with a twelve-pounder they had dragged from Captain John Lamb’s scant artillery inside the fort. Many of the advancing army fell as grapeshot from that one gun caused a sudden halt. Only when their vastly superior force sought to outflank the patriots by an encircling movement did the defenders begin inching back toward the fort. Captain Fenno, in the effort to get one more shot at the foe, stayed with the cannon too long and was captured.

From late on that hot afternoon until dusk, the British and their allies charged repeatedly up the slanting sides of Fort Montgomery, and each time they were turned back by the defenders. General Putnam, having realized that he had erred in assuming that the attack would be on his east-bank troops, was now reduced to the role of spectator, for the British had won control of the west bank and he could not cross the Hudson.

Just beyond Peekskill, Putnam, his officers, and many of his command observed the uneven struggle across the river. Putnam wrote later that he had seen three determined attacks of the well-armed enemy troops turned back by the Americans, many of whom had no weapons.

At four thirty, when the heat of the day was most oppressive, Sir Henry Clinton sent a British officer to approach the fort under a flag of truce and demand its surrender. George Clinton selected Lieutenant Colonel William S. Livingston to meet him and say that the attackers would receive courteous treatment if they would surrender.

Immediately the fighting was resumed, and Sir Henry ordered his troops to cease firing and use only their bayonets. Now the anxious watchers across the water heard few sounds. They could see the swift charges of the German mercenaries, the upward surges of the British “lobster-backs.” Only when the dark green uniforms of the Tory column of “Loyal Americans” swept up the slopes against their former friends and neighbors could the east-bank observers hear the hysterical shouts of the combatants. As Alexander Saunders, local historian of the area, recently said, “The Hudson Valley men on both sides knew whose throats they were cutting.”

So vicious did this battle of the bayonets become that Colonel James McClaghry, soon to be George Clinton’s brother-in-law, was wounded seven times by the clashing knives. Lieutenant Timothy Mix, while firing a cannon, lost his right hand but caught the falling match with his left and touched off the shot. The valiant Lewis Dubois, commanding the very few Continental regulars engaged, was stabbed in the throat. Captain Thomas Machin, though a bayonet had gone deep into his breast, kept on fighting.

Darkness had settled when Sir Henry Clinton ordered his whole command to attack at the same moment. Up the fort’s parapets they raced, pushing each other forward through the embrasures. Outnumbered by about seven to one, the defenders found that no matter how many of the attackers they disposed of, more appeared. Completely surrounded now, the Americans seemed to have no choice but surrender. At this point, however, George Clinton and a few of his men hurled themselves upon the besiegers in the desperate effort to break through their ranks and escape to the bank of the Hudson far below. The long, sturdy body of New York’s Governor crashed through the enemy line as though it were paper and plunged down the steep slope. Stones rattled about Clinton in an avalanche as he slid down the almost perpendicular palisades. At the edge of the water (as Brooks Atkinson has written) the Governor rose to shake his fist at the exulting foes above him. “I would rather roast in hell to all eternity,” he shouted, “than depend on Great Britain or show mercy to a damned Tory.” Fort Montgomery had fallen; at almost the same time Fort Clinton, which had been under simultaneous enemy attack, was also overwhelmed.