On this day in 1779, General “Mad Anthony” Wayne launches an attack in New York. He and his men would take back the fort at Stony Point, which had been lost to the British mere weeks earlier.
George Washington himself had drafted the original plan of attack, then tasked Wayne with carrying it out. Washington’s plan exploited a flaw in the fortifications, and it called for the attack to be made in the middle of the night—an unusually difficult time to attack. But Washington had confidence in the men who had been selected for the operation. They were among the best that the Continental Army had to offer.
He must have especially trusted Wayne?
Washington authorized “Mad Anthony” to deviate from his original plan “in every instance where you think they may be improved or changed for the better.” Wayne added a feint at the center of the British lines, hoping the diversion would distract the British from the main attacks.
Preparations were made in complete secrecy. Even the men in the attacking force did not know what they were to do until the last minute. Washington’s plans called for them to carry unloaded muskets and to attack with bayonets. (A loaded musket might accidentally fire if someone stumbled on the way to the fort.) Legend has it that local dogs were killed so they would not bark and raise an alarm, although no direct evidence of such an order has been found. More likely, soldiers just worked to keep locals confined until after the battle.
Despite all these precautions, the mission was risky. There was no night vision back in those days. Instead, Washington asked that the men pin a “white feather or Cockade, or some other visible badge of distinction” to themselves so they would be able to identify their comrades in the dark. Taking the fort would be no easy task.
Some men, including Wayne, drew up wills in the hour before the attack.
“I know,” Wayne wrote a friend, “that friendship will induce you to attend to the education of my little son and daughter. I fear their tender mother will not survive this stroke.” He speculated that he would take his breakfast either “within the enemy’s lines in triumph, or in another world.”
So many risks taken and sacrifices made by our founding generation, weren’t there?
Shortly before midnight on July 14, the men were at their appointed locations. They sloshed across a marsh and descended upon the fort. The battle was quick and decisive. Soon, the men were shouting a watchword, indicating that the works had been forced: “The fort’s our own! The fort’s our own!” The fort was soon in American possession.
At 2:00 a.m., Wayne sent a brief note to George Washington:
“The fort & garrison with Col. Johnston are ours. Our officers & men behaved like men who are determined to be free.”
You won’t be surprised to hear that such a stunning victory provided a morale boost to the Patriot cause. Importantly, the battle proved to be the last major military action in the northern theater of the war.
Charles J. Stillé, Major-General Anthony Wayne and the Pennsylvania line in the Continental Army (1893)
Henry P. Johnston, The Storming of Stony Point on the Hudson (1900)
John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (2007)
Letter from Brigadier General Anthony Wayne to George Washington (July 16, 1779)
Letter from George Washington to Brigadier General Anthony Wayne (July 10, 1779)
Michael J. F. Sheehan, The Mythology of Stony Point (Journal of the American Revolution; Nov. 3, 2016)