[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.]
1779: A Crucial Year
Chapter 7: The Present Interesting Occasion
The words are George Washington's, written in Smith's tavern in appraising of the existing situation on the Hudson. With the Clove occupied and the divisions positioned at the heads of the eastern crossroads, Washington was ready for any eventuality and immediate measures were taken to move eastward into the mountains. Two days after the arrival at Smith's, Stirling and St. Clair were directed to send working parties to open the roads leading from June's and the Widow Van Ambrose to the Forest of Dean to enable “a march in sections”, and the chief engineer, assisted by the geographers, was requested to furnish headquarters with a map of West Point and the surrounding country, stressing especially that the roads leading to the Forest from June's and Van Ambrose’s were to be surveyed first.
The searching need to know the terrain was obvious, too, when the quartermaster was directed in General Orders to assign four good guides to each division who were to remain close to the division commanders and ready for any sudden call. “These men,” the orders stressed, “must have a competent knowledge of all the roads, paths and cloves laying between this encampment and the river, about the Forest of Deane and towards Haverstraw.”
The Virginia division was ordered to post fifty men on the Clove Road on the right of their encampment; the Maryland division a like number on the Haverstraw road leading from June’s, and Colonel Otho Williams of the 6th Maryland was sent with a detachment to the Forest – the hub of it all – to relieve the light infantry that had been sent to reinforce Malcom. Hamilton, from headquarters, offered advice to the Marylander: “Mind your eye my boy, and if you have an opportunity, fight damned hard!”
Washington made a special point to commend Malcom and his militia for their swift action in taking post on the crossroad when the encirclement of West Point had seemed a possibility five days earlier – even though the British never attempted such a move – and he extended his “warmest thanks for the zeal and alacrity with which they turned out upon the present interesting occasion”, and suggested that Williams consult with the Scot “on acct. of his having great knowledge of the grounds and passes”.
The real work of defense was going on at West Point where the outlying approaches were all blocked with felled trees and the garrison was working feverishly day and night to strengthen the forts, which was to continue all summer and into the autumn. What the enemy intended was uncertain, puzzling, inexplicable. Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, for one, felt it was but a matter of time and as soon as the British received reinforcements "we shall have some serious business among those dreary Hill & dales”. In the Maryland camp near Earl's, de Kalb, the German giant who preferred walking to riding and was able to cover twenty to thirty miles a day on foot, wrote on June 10: “It would seem that a severe and exhausting campaign is before us. If we remain here much longer, we shall be compelled by want of forage to send our horses away from the camp.” He was one who could appreciate the problems of supply that Greene had to contend with.
On June 13, preparing for the eventuality of attack, Washington drew up an order of battle to govern the disposition and movement of the army and West Point garrison, in accordance with which the Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania divisions were to advance from their encampments to the Forest of Dean, and a battalion from Stirling's division was to be sent out onto Haverstraw road from June's as a cover for the army's right to prevent it from being turned; and, after detailing deployments within the mountains, if a mishap or separation of troops should take place, the first place of rendezvous was to be headquarters at Smith's tavern and the second, if circumstances required, at Chester, seven miles farther inland. Two days later, Washington issued orders that a corps of light infantry be formed, whereby sixteen companies drawn from the three divisions in the Clove were organized into four battalions, and the command assigned later in the month to Brigadier-General Anthony Wayne. Barely little more than a month later, Wayne's diverse corps was to cover itself with glory and become the toast of the Continental Army.