This Hollowed-out Ground

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As George Clinton waded into the Hudson, a boat-load of his men appeared and rowed him (though he protested that his added weight would swamp their craft) to the eastern bank. Once there he immediately found General Putnam and began writing his orders and his reports of the battle. First was a message to the pitiful remnant of his scattered troops, many of whom had escaped into the dark fastnesses of the mountains, directing them to re-form and to proceed to Butter Hill, some half dozen miles as the crow flies, to the north of Fort Montgomery, where they might again defy the invaders. The story of their march is one of the most dramatic but least celebrated in the annals of the Revolution.

As George Clinton was writing that evening, a small American flotilla consisting mainly of the frigates Montgomery and Congress lay anchored in the river above the captured forts. A heavy iron chain buoyed up by logs had recently been stretched across the Hudson just below Fort Montgomery in the hope of stopping enemy ships from sailing northward to relieve Burgoyne’s beleaguered army near Saratoga. But with the loss of supporting fire from the fort, this was hardly enough protection for the two frigates. An adverse wind prevented them from escaping upriver, and their captains, knowing that the ships would soon be captured, set them afire.

Suddenly, as the weary files of patriots stalked through the darkness toward Butter Hill, two tall pyramids of flame shot upward from the Hudson, turning its surface into a channel of yellow light. By the flames of their own ships the heartsick minutemen of the mountains were finding their way along the steeps. While they stumbled forward they could hear the cries of wounded comrades begging for aid they could not give. Ahead of them lay miles of tortuous, rock-strewn trails before they would reach their journey’s end—at New Windsor, beyond West Point and beyond the heights of Crow’s Nest Mountain. There were walking wounded among them, as the red stains of hastily contrived bandages attested, but still the little band (ever growing as their comrades of the fort left their caves and wooded refuges) limped on in the light of burning masts and sails toward Butter Hill.

The American soldier-poet David Humphreys (then major of brigade under General Putnam) looked upon the scene from the Hudson’s east bank near Peekskill and later wrote his description of it:

The louring darkness of the night, the profound stillness that reigned, the interrupted flashes of the flames that illumined the waters, the long shadows of the cliffs … the explosion of the cannon which were left loaded in the ship, and the reverberating echo, which resounded at intervals, between the stupendous mountains on both sides of the river composed an awful night-piece for persons prepared to contemplate subjects of horrid sublimity.

Blackness and silence descended upon the river when the American frigates ceased to burn—leaving the marchers trying vainly to see whether or not the enemy had followed them. If they were being pursued by the troops that had overwhelmed them, they knew that here in their hills that day they must surrender or die. Having already made their choice within Fort Montgomery, they knew what their decision would be.

Hours passed and dawn came slowly, wrapping Butter Hill and the men resting there in cool gray. Sun streaked it and a messenger brought an order to proceed to New Windsor, where their General and the Connecticut regiment of Colonel Webb would join them. Sleepless and dispirited by their defeat, they obeyed—and were astounded to find that they were regarded as heroes. From the whole area of the rebelling states came showers of praise.

George Clinton said he would take upon himself any blame for losing the forts, since ”… the officers and men under me, of the different corps, behaved with the greatest spirit and bravery.” From Israel Putnam, who had seen the engagement, came the words “Never did men behave with more spirit and activity.” From the vicinity of Saratoga, on the eve of his own great victory, Horatio Gates proclaimed, “The noble defense of Fort Montgomery will to the latest posterity adorn the name of Clinton.” Even the great Washington wrote: “Everything was done that could be by a handful against a far superior force.”

Suddenly the New York militia were swinging their “good long Musquets” with prideful nonchalance, sniffing with disdain at a Connecticut private’s condescending compliment, “in short, they do not appear like Dutchmen; but have the manners of N. England.” The defense of Fort Montgomery was well on its way toward becoming a legend.

Meanwhile, Sir Henry Clinton was feeling that he had had enough. He had been at Bunker Hill in the spring of 1775 and had rueful memories of that. Now he had seen his army of over three thousand well-trained soldiers repulsed again and again by a few hundred American militia—ununiformed Hudson Valley farmers, many of whom had no spear, no bayonet, no gun. Nevertheless he sent an ambiguous and lighthearted message to Burgoyne, waiting in an agony of anticipation while the Continental army under Gates closed in on him.