Thursday, November 8, 2012

Chains of Iron

A mock up of the great Iron chain at West Point.

Today’s blog is going to be a brief overview of the famous iron chains and defenses that spanned the Hudson River blocking the British from cutting New England off  from the mid-Atlantic colonies.   We will go over the origins the chains and how they were ultimately brought about.

The Hudson River (known as the North River at the time) was well known to be a great physical dividing line in the colonies.  Any army that would like to head from the mid-Atlantic colonies to New England would have to cross over this vital waterway. The Dutch knew of this importance as early as 1672.  By the revolution, both the colonists and the British saw this importance and made immediate preparations for attack and defense.   The lower Hudson was wide enough and deep enough for large ships to traverse. This would become instrumental to any British advance to cut the colonies in two.  No better way to prevent that than to block the river.  But was it just a chain?

Not many people know there were multiple attempts at stopping the British advances up the Hudson from the very beginning of the war.    Fort Lee and Fort Washington in New Jersey and Manhattan were the first major obstacles the British would run into.  These formidable forts had many cannons and could fire down into the river as well as defend themselves on land.   A special devise known as chevaux-de-frise were sunk into the mighty North river in an attempt to stop ships from sailing up.  These devices were basically large wooden boxes of rocks and Iron with pointed sharpened poles sticking out of them at an angle.  These were then capped with Iron so they could penetrate a ship. The idea was that there would be solid enough to puncture a hull and sink a ship, or at the very least deter the enemy from trying.    This was a very sound idea and would be used in other places during the war.  The problem arose when the passage left for American vessels to travel through was betrayed to the British by a Tory. Enemy ships could pass through unimpeded.

Chevaux-de-frise spike found in Delaware river from Philadelphia campaign.

The British along with their Hessian friends attacked Fort Washington and captured it on November 16th 1776.   This was a massive blow to the patriot cause and Washington ordered a withdrawal from Fort Lee 3 days later on Nov. 19th.  The first line of defense was gone.

Materials for Fort Montgomery were being supplied as early as Jan 16th 1776.   After work had been halted at Fort Constitution on Jan5th, everything was diverted to the new fortifications to be built on the Popolopen gorge. This spot was deemed a suitable place for defense as it was a great angle down the Hudson to shoot at a longer range.    A battery was erected here that eventually garnished six 32 ponder cannons, a very formidable obstacle.  To protect the fort, a smaller but equally important fort was built on the ground above it across the creek. This was Fort Clinton.   In November 1776 the first massive Iron chain was built across the Hudson to stop the British from sailing up.  Each link weighed over 140 pounds and truly sealed the upper Hudson off from the lower. A wooden boom was also built as well as a Continental Navy flotilla including frigates and sloops and galleys designed to defend the chain.

The British plan for 1777 was to do exactly what the colonists feared most; split the colonies in two by way of the Hudson.  General Burgoyne would come down from Canada and take Albany. General Barry St. Leger would come from the West through New York and meet Burgoyne.  Finally, General Howe would attack up the Hudson and reach Albany smashing the Americans enroute.   

Well we all know the General Howe had other ideas and he went and captured Philadelphia. Burgoyne was successful but was stopped outside of a place called Saratoga NY and Barry St. leger never made it passed Fort Stanwix (Schuyler.)      

The Bear Mountain Bridge end on Anthony's Nose is the approximate location of Fort Montgomery's Iron chain east end.


The Chain at Fort Montgomery was broken through in mid Oct. 1777.  General Henry Clinton overpowered the twin forts with a massive assault on Oct. 6th, and after the 5th New York, Lamb’s Artillery, and the Ulster and Orange county militias were severely mauled, the British broke the chain and sailed north.  Kingston was burned and the enemy made it was far as Esopus NY before they stopped.  Luckily by then Burgoyne had surrendered to gates. HUZZAH!

So the waterway was open once again but the importance was still there.  Nothing could stop the British from sailing north with thousands of troops later on if something wasn’t done to plug this plan.

Enter West Point and the unfinished Fort Constitution.  In April 1778 a second Iron chain was forged and strung across the Hudson from West Point to Constitution Island.  This was where the unfinished Fort Constitution was in 1775-76.     Redoubts were built and cannon aimed in a great crossfire that would screen the river.  

This illustration shows the fields of fire from West Point and Constitution Island.

Forged at Sterling Iron works (I believe owned by Lord Stirling,) the links were shipped New Windsor and sailed down the river to be installed. The creator of the chain was the same man who was in charge of its construction at Fort Montgomery, Captain Machin.   This chain weighed over 186 tons when it was complete and like Fort Montgomery’s chain, was supplemented by a wooden boom. 

This chain remained unbroken throughout the war.  West Point grew to become one of the largest most fortified military installations of the American army.  As the war progressed, it was apparent that the Hudson could still be the key to victory.   West Point and the iron chain were almost turned over to the British by the traitorous benedict Arnold in late 1780.  This could have finally given the British the control of the river they sought from the beginning.  Luckily as we all know, Benedict Arnold’s treachery was found and the betrayal of West Point and its mighty chain was never completed.
                There were many other lesser known defenses protecting the Hudson.  Smaller forts, encampments, and even such places as the depot at Fish Kill all played an important role in keeping the area safe.  The British held New York City the entire war after it was captured in 1776 so the threat was real and constant.    Thankfully, the British never could split the colonies and the United States of America prevailed.
Today you can see some of the original chain and boom pieces at West Point and in New Burgh, NY at Washington’s HQ.  Copies of the chain pieces can be found in various museums such as Ringwood Manor State park in NJ and on Constitution Island. 
 The Chain memorial at West Point. 


 Diamant, Chaining The Hudson, 1989

Fisher, C. (2004). The Most Advantageous Situation in the Highlands: An Archaeological Study of Fort Montgomery State Historic Site, Cultural Resources Survey Program Series No. 2, New York State Museum. ISBN 1-55557-174-3

Twin Forts of the Popolopen, Hudson River Valley website

Mock chain pictures,


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