Orange County Historical Society

Corridor Through the Mountains

Smith's Clove: Wartime Line of Communication and Passageway for the Continental Army, 1776-1783

Richard J. Koke

[Editor's Note: Richard J. Koke authored a series of five articles that appeared in Volumes 19 -23 of the OCHS Journal between 1990 and 1994. These articles will be presented in multiple sections over the next few years.]

Part II:
War in the Clove
Chapter 10:
An Embarrassing Situation

George Washington made his first appearance in Smith's Clove in the summer of 1777, and he came under the most trying of circumstances: he was embarrassed. One month of indecisive maneuvering and skirmishing between the armies on the Jersey plain in advance of Middlebrook had ended with Washington's reappearance at Morristown on July 3. The intent and movements of his adversary, Sir William Howe, were obscure, unintelligible and impenetrable. Preparations and troop embarkations on board British ships in New York harbor gave every indication of a sea voyage, but no one knew where it was bound - whether up the Hudson, or to the Delaware, or eastward to New England. Added to this, word was coming from the north that an army from Canada - Burgoyne's - was approaching Ticonderoga, the northern defense anchor on Lake Champlain. On July 4 Washington was calling it a situation that was "delicate and embarrassing."

Almost positive that Howe would operate on the Hudson, the commander-in-chief posted his advance division under Major-General John Sullivan at Pompton, between Morristown and Suffern's, with orders that, on the first certain intelligence that the British were moving against the Highlands, he was to march to the river and cross over to Peekskill to join Putnam and the Highland garrison in resisting the enemy until he arrived with the main army.

The broadening importance of the Clove became fully apparent with the maneuvering of the army in July. In placing Sullivan on emergency alert, Washington also cautioned him that should the King's Ferry passage be threatened or severed by British shipping, he should consider "going higher up" - in other words, crossing to the east shore at New Windsor above the Highlands, which in turn would necessitate a long march through the Clove followed by a return down the east shore; but to obviate against such a possibility he did suggest that Sullivan make inquiry whether there was a direct road from the Clove to Fort Montgomery that was passable for carriages. As it was, the roads were nothing more than mountain paths.

The necessity of getting the army to the east shore either by way of King's Ferry or New Windsor was the Crux of the thinking that dictated the use of Smith's Clove as a major artery in the strategy and tactics of the campaign. Washington ordered Sullivan on July 8 to move closer to the river, but within the day directed that he pause at the Clove and recommended that he throw up some light works if he had tools to "make the passage in those strong defiles still more defensible."

Sullivan and his two thousand men were at Suffern's at the mouth of the corridor two days later, but the presence of a British sloop and schooner and two row galleys in the Hudson forced him to the alternative of changing his route from the lower ferry to the upper.

Two days of heavy rain hindered movement until the fourteenth when it cleared sufficiently for the division to push through the Clove to within twelve miles of New Windsor, and after spending a night on the sodden ground in the Woodbury area the troops continued on the fifteenth into Ulster, crossed two days later and joined Putnam on the twenty-first.

On July 15, while Sullivan's soldiers were plodding out of the upper Clove, Washington with the rest of the army - four divisions under Greene, Stirling, Stephen and Lincoln, each of two brigades, and the park of artillery under Knox - was on the last miles of a journey that was also bringing him from Morristown to the lower Clove by way of what is now Route 202.

Five days earlier he had received a letter from Major-General Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Army, expressing apprehension over an unverified report that Ticonderoga had fallen to the enemy and the greater part of the garrison was in British hands. Washington was perplexed and dubious, even considering the account groundless, but nevertheless, convinced that Howe would act in conjunction with Burgoyne, he broke camp on the eleventh and moved with the army towards the Hudson in the path taken by Sullivan.

That evening, still on the road and close to Pompton Plains, he received another dispatch from Schuyler. The news was terse, unwelcome, hard to believe - but it was true: Ticonderoga was gone, everything in the fortress was lost, the garrison was in retreat, and it was impossible to determine where the army would make a stand. Schuyler wanted reinforcements, tents, camp kettles, cannon, artillerists, ammunition, cartridge paper, intrenching tools, supplies of every kind and even an engineer or two.

Washington was in shock; it was as if the world had dropped from under his feet. The entire north and the flank of New England was open to the enemy. To Congress on the next day he again reiterated that the situation of affairs was "delicate and embarrassing, by the late misfortune which we have experienced." The rain which started on the eleventh kept him at Pompton for two days, but on the fourteenth he advanced another eight miles along the muddy road to Oakland, and on the fifteenth to the Point of the Mountain at the entrance Of the Clove.

It had been his intent just two days earlier to transfer the army, or the major part of it, across the Hudson at New Windsor to place himself in readiness to counter a threat either against the Highlands or New England. His decision to utilize the northern crossing in preference to the exposed King's Ferry passage was evident on July 13 when he informed Schuyler from Pompton that he intended to "prosecute my march through the Clove," and Nathaniel Greene was writing on the same day that the army was on its way "to join General Putnam on the North River."

By the time he arrived at the Clove, Washington had decided to await Howe's next move. The pivotal road junction at Suffern's was a focal point from where he could advance to Peekskill either through southern Orange to King's Ferry or through the Clove to New Windsor, but if Howe perhaps opted for the Delaware - and Philadelphia, he was suitably positioned to return to Morristown and push on to Pennsylvania.

For five days, from Tuesday the fifteenth to Sunday the twentieth, Suffern's tavern in Haverstraw precinct served as headquarters of the Continental Army. Over seven thousand troops and military personnel, the artillery and the Camp equipage of the army filled the Ramapo and New Antrim fields. Preparing for a possible river crossing, Washington directed that both the Clove and King's Ferry roads be reconnoitered to ascertain all "proper places" where halts could be made and camps could be established, and the distance from headquarters to each position be noted and reported; and likewise that work parties be detailed from the Highlands to mend the roads leading inland for eight or ten miles from King's Ferry and New Windsor towards "this place."

Washington not only was beset with the perplexities of trying to learn what Howe was up to, but was saddled with responsibility of trying to reinforce and reequip the shattered Northern Army. Councils and Conferences were held, and busy aides-deCamp transcribed reports and orders and drew up letters for the commander-in-chief that were dispatched to Philadelphia, to Schuyler, Putnam, the New England governors, and to officers on the New Jersey shore where lookouts kept watch on the sea lanes for signs of movement by the British fleet.

Among the callers at headquarters was Brigadier-General George Clinton on a visit from Fort Montgomery to discuss militia matters, but mainly to impart news that he had been elected governor of the state and his presence was shortly needed at Kingston. Washington begged him to stay a few days longer until British plans could be better known.

Another welcome and most anticipated arrival on Thursday night was Major-General Benedict Arnold from Philadelphia on his way to the Northern Army; his presence a result of Washington's personal plea to Congress that he be sent to join Schuyler. He stayed only one day for consultation and on Friday evening departed on his hurried journey to Albany. "From his activity and disposition for Enterprise," Washington informed Schuyler, "I flatter myself, his presence and assistance in that Quarter, will be attended with happy Consequences. I am well assured his utmost exertions will be employed to beffle the Enemy's views, and Wishing that they may succeed." Three years later, Arnold's enterprising activity in the Highlands would be more insidious in nature.

Perhaps, one of the most interesting communications that issued from Suffern's had nothing to do with exigencies of the campaign, but with a look to the future, the need of a competent map-maker that possibly may have been a result of the reconnaissance of the King's Ferry and Clove roads.

In the waning hours of his tavern occupancy, Washington wrote to Congress on the nineteenth and urged that a position be created for a geographer to survey roads "and take sketches of the country where the army is to act," and for this he recommended Robert Erskine, ironmaster of nearby Ringwood where Lee had tarried in December. Washington had first encountered Erskine through Alexander McDougall, and the forty-one-year-old Scotsman could readily have journeyed to Suffern's to discuss the probabilities ofemployment. Washington praised him as "thoroughly skilled in this business," and one who "has already assisted us in making maps of the country; and has (as I am informed) uniformly supported the character of a fast friend to America." Congress readily acquiesced six days later and authorized that he be "geographer and surveyor of the roads" to the Continental Army; but because of commitments he was unable to begin work actively until the spring of 1778.

Robert Erskine is a legend in the Ringwood country. He and the small unit of surveyors and cartographers that he assembled toiled in the backwater of army activity, little noticed and much of the time working on their own to create a file of military maps of the roads and terrain of the Hudson River and New Jersey Countryside and elsewhere that were indispensable at Continental headquarters in the planning of troop movements.

Erskine's only public memorial is a bronze tablet erected in 1952 at his secluded grave on a gentle knoll in the quiet Ringwood vale, calling attention to him as the "forgotten general" of Washington's army; but his maps and those of Simeon DeWitt, who succeeded to the task after Erskine's death, are a unique legacy which survive to this day. In 1845 Simeon's son, Richard Varick DeWitt, presented the collection to The New-York Historical Society. Today, "the Erskines" are an incomparable source for the military student, the local historian, and the genealogist seeking a past that is not available elsewhere. It all began in a crossroad tavern in southern Orange County.

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