A Midnight Surprise

We have certainly read enough about General Washington to know that

he often planned to steal a march on the British. Don't you remember

how surprised General Howe was one morning to find that Washington

had gone to Dorchester Heights, with a big force of men, horses, and

carts, and how he threw up breastworks, mounted cannon, and forced

the British general after a few days to quit the good city of Boston?

Haven't we a
so read how the "ragged Continentals" left their bloody

footprints in the snow, as they marched to Trenton all that bitter

cold night in December, 1777, and gave the Hessians a Christmas

greeting they little expected?

In January, 1779, England sent orders to General Clinton "to bring

Mr. Washington to a general and decisive action at the opening of the

campaign," and also "to harry the frontiers and coasts north and


General Clinton wrote back that he had found "Mr. Washington" a hard

nut to crack, but he would do his level best, he said, "to strike at

Washington while he was in motion."

{78} The main American force was still in winter quarters in northern

New Jersey, near New York. Various brigades were stationed up and

down the Hudson as far as West Point. As at the beginning of the war,

so now in 1779, the line of the Hudson from Albany to New York was

the key to the general situation. Its protection, as Washington had

written, was of "infinite consequence to our cause."

The first real move in the game was made in May, when a large British

force marched up, captured, and strongly fortified the two forts at

Stony Point and Verplanck's Point, only thirteen miles below West

Point. The enemy thus secured the control of King's Ferry, where

troops and supplies for the patriot army were ferried across the


Our spies now sent word to Washington that the British were ready to

move on some secret service. The patriot army was at once marched up,

and went into camp within easy reach of West Point, to wait for the

next move in the game. Once more these far-famed Hudson Highlands

were to become the storm center of the struggle.

For some reason, Clinton did not push farther up the Hudson. On the

contrary, he began to make raids into various parts of the country,

from Martha's Vineyard to the James River. These raids were marked by

cruelties unknown in the earlier years of the war. The hated Tryon,

once the royal governor of New York, led {79} twenty-six hundred men

into Connecticut. His brutal soldiers killed unarmed and helpless men

and women, and sacked and burned houses and churches.

One of Clinton's objects in sending out the raiders was to coax

Washington to weaken his army by sending out forces to offset them,

or to tease him into making what he called a "false move." Washington

was, of course, keenly alive to the misery brought upon the people of

the country by these brutalities, but he was too wise a general to

run any risk of losing his hold upon the line of the Hudson. The

Continental army could not muster ten thousand men. Although not

strong enough to begin a vigorous campaign, yet it was sufficiently

powerful to hold the key to the Highlands.

Washington could, if need be, strike a quick, hard blow, either in

New England or farther south. It might be, to be sure, a sort of side

play, and yet it was to have the effect of a great battle. Indeed, it

was high time to give the enemy another surprise.

At length it was decided to attack Stony Point. Any open assault,

however, would be hopeless. This stronghold, if taken at all, must be

taken by night.

What kind of place was this Stony Point?

It was a huge rocky bluff, shooting out into the river more than half

a mile from the shore, and rising, at its highest point, nearly two

hundred feet. It was joined to the shore by a marshy neck of land,

crossed by a rude bridge, or causeway.

{80} The British had fortified the top of this rocky point with half

a dozen separate batteries. The cannon were so mounted as to defend

all sides. Between the fort and the mainland, two rows of logs were

set into the ground, with their ends sharpened to a point and

directed outwards, forming what is known in military language as an

abatis. This stronghold was defended by six hundred men.

Washington Irving well describes Stony Point as "a natural sentinel

guarding the gateway of the far-famed Highlands of the Hudson." The

British called it their "little Gibraltar," and defied the rebels to

come and take it.

And now for a leader! Who was the best man to perform this desperate


There was really no choice, for there was only one officer in the

whole army who was fitted for the undertaking,--General Anthony


Wayne was a little over thirty years old. He was a fine-looking man

with a high forehead and fiery hazel eyes. He had a youthful face,

full of beauty. He liked handsome uniforms and fine military

equipments. Some of his officers used to speak of him in fun as

"Dandy Wayne." But the men who followed their dashing, almost

reckless leader called him "Mad Anthony," and this name has clung to

him ever since.

Wayne was, without doubt, the hardest fighter produced on either side

during the American Revolution. {81} He had an eager love of battle;

and he was cautions, vigilant, and firm as a rock. This gallant

officer eagerly caught at the idea when the commander in chief told

him what he wanted. And so it came to pass that Washington did the

planning, and Wayne did the fighting.

Washington's plans were made with the greatest care. The dogs for

three miles about the fort were killed the day before the intended

attack, lest some indiscreet bark might alarm the garrison. The

commander in chief himself rode down and spent the whole day looking

over the situation. Trusty men, who knew every inch of the region,

guarded every road and every trail by which spies and deserters could


"Ten minutes' notice to the enemy blasts all your hopes," wrote

Washington to Wayne.

The orders were "to take and keep all stragglers."

"Took the widow Calhoun and another widow going to the enemy with

chickens and greens," reported Captain McLane. "Drove off twenty head

of horned cattle from their pasture."

The hour of attack was to be midnight. Washington hoped for a dark

night and even a rainy one. Not a gun was to be loaded except by two

companies who were to {82} make the false attack. The bayonet alone

was to be used, Wayne's favorite weapon. At Germantown, it was

Wayne's men who drove the Hessians at the point of the bayonet. And

at Monmouth, these men had met, with cold steel, the fierce bayonet

charge of the far-famed British grenadiers.

About thirteen hundred men of the famous light infantry were chosen

to make the attack. Both officers and men were veterans and the

flower of the Continental army.

On the forenoon of July 15, the companies were called in from the

various camps, and drawn up for inspection as a battalion,

"fresh-shaved and well-powdered," as Wayne had commanded.

At twelve o'clock the inspection was over, but the men, instead of

being sent to their quarters, were wheeled into the road, with the

head of the column facing southward. The march to Stony Point had


"If any soldier loads his musket, or fires from the ranks, or tries

to skulk in the face of danger, he is at once to be put to death by

the officer nearest him." One soldier did begin to load his gun,

saying that he did not know how to fight without firing. His captain

warned him once. The soldier would not stop. The officer then ran his

sword through him in an instant. The next day, however, the captain

came to Colonel Hull and said he was sorry that he had killed the

poor fellow. "You performed a painful service," said Hull, "by which,

{83} perhaps, victory has been secured, and the life of many a brave

man saved. Be satisfied."

All that hot July afternoon, the men picked their way along rough and

narrow roads, up steep hillsides, and through swamps and dense

ravines, often in single file. No soldier was allowed to leave the

ranks, on any excuse whatever, except at a general halt, and then

only in company with an officer.

At eight o'clock the little army came to a final halt at a farmhouse,

thirteen miles from their camp, and a little more than a mile back of

Stony Point. Nobody was permitted to speak. The tired men dropped

upon the ground, and ate in silence their supper of bread and cold


A little later, Wayne's order of battle was read. For the first time

the men knew what was before them. No doubt many a brave fellow's

knees shook and his cheek grew pale, when he thought of what might

happen before another sunrise.

Until half past eleven o'clock they rested.

Each man now pinned a piece of white paper "to the most conspicuous

part of his hat or his cap," so that, in the thick of the midnight

fight, he might not run his bayonet through some comrade. No man was

to speak until the parapet of the main fort was reached. Then all

were to shout the watchword of the night, "The fort's our own!"

One of the last things that Wayne did was to write a letter to a

friend at his home in Philadelphia, dated {84} "Eleven o'clock and

near the hour and scene of carnage." He wrote that he hoped his

friend would look after the education of his children.

"I am called to sup," he wrote, "but where to breakfast? Either

within the enemy's lines in triumph, or in another world."

Half past eleven! It was time to start.

A negro, named Pompey, who sold cherries and strawberries to the

garrison, was used as a guide. This shrewd darkey had got the British

password for the night, by claiming that his master would not let him

come in during the daytime, because he was needed to hoe corn. You

will be glad to know that Pompey, as a reward for this eventful

night's service, never had to hoe corn again, and that his master not

only gave him a horse to ride, but also set him free.

Wayne divided his little army into two main columns, to attack right

and left, having detached two companies, with loaded guns, to move in

between the two columns and make a false attack.

Each column was divided into three parts. A "forlorn hope" of twenty

men was to be the first to rush headlong into the hand to hand fight.

Then followed an advance guard of one hundred and fifty men, who,

with axes in hand and muskets slung, were to cut away the timbers.

Last of all came the main body.

The silent band reaches the edge of the marsh at midnight, the hour

set by Washington for the assault. {85} Wayne himself leads the right

column, to attack by the south approach. The tide has not ebbed, and

the water is in places waist deep. The marsh is fully six hundred

feet across. No matter for that! Straight ahead the column moves as

if on parade. Now they have crossed, and are close to the outer

defense. The British pickets hear the noise, open fire, and give the

general alarm. The drums on the hill beat the "long roll." Quick and

sharp come the orders. The redcoats leap from the barracks, and in a

few moments every man is at his post.

Up rush the pioneers with their axes, and cut away the sharpened

timbers the best they can in the darkness, while the bullets whiz

over their heads. Then follow the main columns, who climb over, and

form on the other side. Now they reach the second defense. They cut

and tear away the sharp stakes. The bullets fall like hail. On, on,

the two columns rush. They push up the steep hill, and dash {86} for

the main fort on the top. On the left, the "forlorn hope" has lost

seventeen out of twenty men, either killed or wounded.

Meanwhile, Colonel Murfree and his two companies take their stand

directly in front of the fort, and open a brisk and rapid fire, to

make the garrison believe that they are the real attacking party. The

redcoats are surely fooled, for they hurry down with a strong force

to meet them, only to find their fort captured before they can get


Wayne is struck in the head by a musket ball, and falls. The blood

flows over his face. He fears in the confusion that he has received

his death wound.

He cries to his aids, "Carry me into the fort and let me die at the

head of the column."

Two of his officers pick up their gallant leader, and hurry forward;

but it is only a scalp wound, and Wayne returns to the fight.

Wayne's column scales the ramparts.

The first man over shouts, "The fort's our own," and pulls down the

British flag.

The second main column follows.

"The fort's our own!" "The fort's our own!" echoes and re-echoes over

the hills.

The bayonet is now doing its grim work. The darkness is lighted only

by the flashes from the guns of the redcoats. The bewildered British

are driven at the point of the bayonet into the corners of the fort,

and {87} cry, "Mercy, mercy, dear Americans!" "Quarter! quarter!"

"Don't kill us! we surrender!"

At one o'clock the work was done,--thirty minutes from the time the

marsh was crossed! As soon as they were sure of victory, Wayne's men

gave three rousing cheers. The British on the war vessels in the

river, and at the fort on the opposite side of the river, answered;

for they thought that the attacking party had been defeated. The only

British soldier to escape from Stony Point was a captain. Leaping

into the Hudson, he swam a mile to the Vulture and told its captain

what had happened. In this way the news of the disaster reached Sir

Henry Clinton at breakfast.

{88} After the surrender, Wayne wrote the following letter to


Stony Point, 16th July, 1779, 2 o'clock.

Dear General,

The fort and garrison with Colonel Johnson are ours. Our officers and

men behaved like men who are determined to be free.

Yours most sincerely,

Ant'y Wayne.

General Washington.

The news spread like wildfire. Wayne and his light infantry were the

heroes of the hour.

Two days afterwards, Washington, with his chief officers, rode down

to Stony Point and heard the whole story. The commander in chief

shook hands with the men, and "with joy that glowed in his

countenance, here offered his thanks to Almighty God, that He had

been our shield and protector amidst the dangers we had been called

to encounter."

Washington did not, of course, intend to hold Stony Point, for the

enemy could besiege it by land and by water. The prisoners, the

cannon, and the supplies were carried away, and very little was left

to the foe but the bare rock of their "little Gibraltar."

This exploit gave the Continental soldier greater confidence in

himself. It proved to the British that the "rebel" could use the

bayonet with as much boldness and effect as the proudest grenadier.

The fight {89} was not a great affair in itself. Only fifteen

Americans were killed and eighty-three wounded; of the British,

sixty-three were killed and some seventy wounded.

As for Clinton, although he put on a bold face in the matter, and

spoke of the event as an accident, he owned that he felt the blow


"Mr. Washington" was still master of the situation.