This Hollowed-out Ground

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Nous y voici,” he wrote, adding, “and nothing between us and Gates.” Unquestionably these words were meant to give the impression that the force now victorious in the Hudson Highlands would move north to rescue its comrades at Saratoga.

The message never reached Burgoyne; its bearer was captured by the Americans. And Sir Henry was not able to fulfill its implied promise. Supplying the captured forts with occupying garrisons had taken up more of his time than he had anticipated. By October 15, his fleet, having cut the chain and boom, had sailed upriver only as far as Kingston, which turned out to be, in the words of one of the British officers, “a Nursery for every Villan in the Country.” On the next day Sir Henry, frustrated and in a fit of temper, ordered the town burned.

Its embers were still glowing when he received two messages. One was from Sir William Howe, who had become nervous in Philadelphia and ordered him to bring 4,500 men to his aid at once. The other informed him that a further advance north would be useless: at the very time when the little Dutch houses of Kingston were blazing, “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne was surrendering. A few hours later Sir Henry and his fleet sadly set off downriver for New York.

Now guns boomed, bells rang, and all matters else were forgotten in the joy of the great event. The people of the Hudson River towns went wild with delight. They exulted that the conflict above the midriver waters had proved that American farmers could stand against the best-trained soldiery of Europe. Saratoga had proved this to be true beyond question. But their ecstasy over the greater victory led them to forget the heroic defense of the Hudson Highlands.

Perhaps the Battle of Fort Montgomery would have been utterly neglected had not two young American soldiers chosen to visit the site on a sunny spring day of the following year. Historians do not usually end their chapters on such footnotes as these men provided, but their reports have so documented the narrative that they deserve place here. One of them, a young chaplain named Timothy Dwight (later president of Yale College), wrote in his journal that while he was climbing from a river barge to the place where the battle had been fought, the stench of dead bodies caused him great distress.

We found, at a small distance from Fort Montgomery, a pond of a moderate size, in which we saw the bodies of several men, who had been killed in the assault upon the fort. They were thrown into this pond, the preceding autumn, by the British … Some of them were covered at this time; but at a depth so small as to leave them distinctly visible. Others had an arm, a leg, or a part of the body, above the surface. The clothes which they wore when they were killed, were still on them, and proved that they were militia; being the ordinary dress of farmers. Their faces were bloated and monstrous; and their postures were uncouth, distorted and to the highest degree afflictive …

The description of the same scene as written by Timothy Dwight’s young officer companion, Samuel Richards, added macabre details—"I saw many fine sets of teeth, bare and skeleton-like”—but ended on a philosophic note: “Mournful and impressive reflections arose in my mind. [There] lie the youth who stood in the hour of their country’s trial; they fought and fell to purchase the independence of their country; and there they lie without burial. I thought, too, of the vicissitudes to which a soldier is subject. Had the fort held out a little longer, I very probably might [have] lain among them.”

Neither Timothy Dwight nor Samuel Richards foresaw, as they looked upon the corpse-filled pond, that the Butter Hill to which George Clinton had ordered his men would come to be known as Storm King, or that the earth over which the desperate young farmers retreated after their brave fight for the Hudson Highlands on October 6, 1777, might one day be removed by the bulldozers of a utility corporation, the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, which seems more concerned about profits than about respect for the nation’s past.