The Hudson River Chains

The American Revolution represents the most important political events in the history of the United States. There were many helpful variables that led to the victory of the Americans against the British forces. The key elements defining the well-developed defense mechanisms against the colonists were the strategic chains built on the Hudson River and its valley. The location of the Hudson River played a significant role during the American Revolution and served as an advantage for the American military. The strategic location of the river allowed not only easy access to provisions and supplies for the army, but also contributed to the defending strategies by fortifying the river to their immediate advantage.

Both the British and Americans knew that the Hudson River passage has a strategic importance. The Americans made great efforts to devise plans to block or slow ship passage across the river. They wanted to attack the ships of their enemies which were located at the defensive forts or the ones to be constructed. The obstacles built across the Hudson River included Fort Montgomery (the West Bank of the river), Pollepel Island (the Northern part of West Point) and the Great Chain (West Point).

For a long time, the Hudson River valley was of great interest for the British and the Dutch. However, the British defeated the Dutch and had control in the territory from 1664 to 1776. A fortification was built in 1776 on the west side of the Hudson by the name of Fort Montgomery. This strategic chain denotes one of the first strategic investment project made by the American forces that contributed to the positive outcome of the American Revolution. The recommendation to fortify the Fort Montgomery chain was once again forwarded by the New York’s Provincial Congress and the chosen location of Popolopen Creek was considered strategically beneficial for the battles against the British invaders. The proponents of building the chain suggested that the geographical position of the chain and the landscape of the territory will give the revolutionaries a prime advantage over the British vessels. In particular, the existence of marshes and cliffy mountains around the area would permit an artillery unit to be positioned in order to have full control of the river on both sides. Given that the highest point of the Fort Montgomery Chain was located 100 feet above the level of the water, the American fighters were well prepared against any attacks both from water and from land. The urgency involved with the completion of the fort, the outrageous costs and delays pushed the commanding officers to make the decision of using the chain as it was uncompleted yet. Hence, in April of 1776, the fort was named Fort Montgomery, after the famous General Montgomery who died in the battle of Quebec last December. The existence of Fort Montgomery proved to show such positive results during the resistance against the British that General Washington allowed another committee to encourage the completion of the chain. Therefore, Fort Montgomery was under strict supervision and kept up to date at all times since the rough terrain was easy to defend but quite difficult to get into for the unfamiliar attackers (Sanders, 1969).

A few months later, Commander George Clinton, suggested the need to fortify another small strategic chain that would protect the south side of the Popolopen Creek because its higher location compared to Fort Montgomery. After the approval of General Washington, this considerably smaller fort began to be constructed in August of 1776 under the supervision of George Clinton; however, the name of Fort Clinton was given to his brother General James Clinton who was the commander in charge of the fort. In addition, there were five battle ships placed in this region to give better support for the obstruction. The chain made for Fort Clinton was 1800 feet long and was supposed to protect the area between Fort Montgomery and Anthony’s Nose. The importance of Fort Clinton’s location served as a beneficial factor in the battles because it was overlooking the Hudson River and its defenses were better built. All in all, Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton have undoubtedly satisfied its purpose well, but they were both defeated two years after being erected by the British forces (Carr, & Koke, 1937).

The greatest strategic chain built on the Hudson River was the Great Chain. The ponderous chain backed up by big logs was extended over the river between West point and Constitution Island in the spring of 1778. The massive iron chain was built at Stirling Iron Works Company located in Warwick and it was completed in a short period of six weeks. The completed chain weighed 65 tons which included all the links, logs, swivels and anchors. The length of the chain was 600 yards. The installation of the chain was once again given to Captain Thomas Machin, the engineer of the chain at Fort Montgomery and also an officer in the artillery, and it was conducted on April 30th, 1778. He had no “formal education, but wide-ranging practical engineer experience” (Diamant, 1990, p. 45). The manufacturer, Peter Townsend, received a huge compensation for building this chain. This is considered one of the better designed chains of that time because it consisted of pulleys and rollers that had the function of adjusting the tension of the chain depending on the river’s current and tide. The Great Chain was taken care of in the best possible way since every winter the chain moved inside and set back on the river in the spring in order to preserve it against the climate conditions. There were very few attempts to gain full control of this chain by the British which proves the chain’s essentially successful purpose. The only time when the British could have attempted to take over is when General Benedict Arnold was intending to surrender to the British forces. Following the end of the Revolution the chain suffered a few different outcomes. There were only thirteen links saved for display at West Point and are supposed to portray each one of the original states. The other parts of the chain were sent to melting furnaces to be used for other purposes. The fundamental originality and pride that the Great Chain represented led some individuals to sell fake chain links to many collectors around the world (Sanders, 1969).

The other attempt to help the revolutionaries against the invaders was the installation of Fort Washington’s chevaux-de-frise. A chevaux-de-frise is an obstruction made of sharp wires connected to a floating wooden base. During the American Revolutionary War, it was located at the northernmost tip overlooking the river from the “northern end of Manhattan Island, one mile south of Spuyten Duyvil Creek and Kingsbridge, with the Hudson River to the west and the Harlem River to the east” (Massachusetts Historical Society, 2007). Trenches were not allowed to be built around the fort as the soil was much too rocky and had to be brought from other places.

The Fort Washington’s chevaux-de-frise was set by the river’s mouth not far from the Manhattan Island. The timber cribs inserted with heavy objects were placed across the river in order to slow the process of crossing for the British vessels. However, the slow building of this chevaux-de-frise and the knowledge of the location of the passing section of the Revolutionary ships led to the failure of this fortification effort. Thus, the moment the British found out how to use the chevaux-de-frise to their advantage in July of 1776 it became evident that this particular project has failed to defend the American soldiers and led to the demolition of Fort Washington and Fort Lee (Mansinne, n.d.). Fort Washington was captured by the British on November 16, 1776. The loss of Fort Washington was treated as the most serious tactical defeat of Washington as in the previous encounters he might have lost the territory, but he managed to withdraw his army intact.

One more chevaux-de-frise was built across the Hudson River between Pollepel Island and Plum Point, north of West Point. However, the defenses were never completed as their importance was outshined by the Great Chain completion.

In the survey of the American Revolution’s chains and fortifying efforts of the Hudson River it is obvious that the only beneficial chain that was never conquered by the British was the Great Chain at West Point. The mission of not allowing any British ships past the Stony Point after 1777 was accomplished only through the building and the correct military command of the Great Chain. The familiarity with the concept of being in control during a conflict, in this case the extensive knowledge of the Hudson River, led to the construction of all the fortifying projects that helped the Revolutionaries stand against the enemy. It is undisputable that all the other forts and chains helped the Revolutionaries stand against the enemy; therefore, it is important to remember and recognize the great work of the Founding Fathers for what today is known as the United States.

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