Monday, August 11, 2008
A Punchbowl on the Quarterdeck: The Forgotten Naval Battles Off Jeffrey’s Hook
Decorated with graffiti, a small column of boulders stands on a weed-choked ledge behind the east tower of the George Washington Bridge. The barely legible marker on the column reads, “American Redoubt / Fort Washington Chapter / Daughters of the American Revolution / 1910”. Overlooking the Hudson, this forgotten little monument is the only reminder on Manhattan of the dramatic naval engagements during the American Revolution that occurred on the river below, literally a stone’s throw from the rock point of Jeffrey’s Hook, the site of the Little Red Lighthouse. A moon-shaped battery, a one-gun “lunette”, stood where the lighthouse stands today. About 100 yards up the steep hill, to the northeast, was a sharpshooter’s redoubt, where the little stone column stands today.
More than once in the summer and fall of 1776 squadrons of British warships forced passage on the Hudson past the blazing cannons of Fort Lee, Fort Washington, the lunette battery and the rifle redoubt. These were the most significant naval engagements ever to occur in New York’s waters and they happened in the half-mile wide section of the river directly under the present day George Washington Bridge.
At the beginning of the war an essential British strategy in the battle for New York was control of the Hudson River, the central link between New England and the middle colonies. The American strategy was to choke off the North River section of the Hudson at its narrowest point, between the Jersey Palisades to the west and Jeffrey’s Hook on the east to prevent the Royal Navy’s passage up the river. Many years later the engineer Othmar Ammann chose this same advantageous site for his great bridge.
In the spring of 1776 the Americans built a large pentagonal earthen and timber fort on Mt Washington, the highest natural point on Manhattan Island, 220 feet above the river, and named it for the new Commander-in-chief, George Washington. On the New Jersey side two forts were constructed, Fort Lee, behind the natural ramparts of the Palisades and another atop the 300-foot cliff overlooking the Hudson, a barbette battery of 32-pounder cannons along with smaller field pieces. Ft Washington’s big guns were well within range of the river and additional smaller cannons were mounted in a battery above Jeffrey’s Hook. All together these batteries sprouted 100 cannons. In July hulks of ships were sunk in the shallower western side of the river and chained to Chevaux de Frise, ingenious wooden structures fitted with iron-spiked spears capable of piercing the hulls of oncoming warships. A secret opening in the Chevaux de Frise, to the east and just off Jeffrey’s Hook, was provided for friendly vessels to pass. This kind of obstruction had worked in the Delaware River below Philadelphia. The HMS Augusta, a 44-gun British man-of-war became ensnared in the trap and American shore batteries, firing “hot shot” into the wooden decks, set it afire, igniting the powder magazine and blowing up the ship.
In June of 1776, carrying an army of 40,000 men, the British fleet began arriving in the harbor and its commander, Admiral Lord Richard Howe (known to his men as “Black Dick” because of his swarthy complexion), arrived in late June with a squadron of ships-of-the-line, the world’s most fearsome war machines. By the first week in July, just in time for the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, hundreds of warships and transports were in the upper bay and the army encamped on Staten Island.
Admiral Howe needed to cut off the American supply line of the North River to control the upper Hudson above Manhattan and he decided to do something about it. At 3:00 in the afternoon of July 12 the 44-gun HMS Phoenix, under 36-year old Captain Hyde Parker and the 22-gun HMS Rose sailed into the river’s mouth on the incoming tide with a brisk wind from the south. Cannons at the Battery opened fire and more guns from the shore batteries at Paulus Hook to the west joined in. Parker responded with broadsides of ball and canister from both warships and continued firing into the city all the way to Greenwich Village, terrifying the citizens. It was said that the smell of powder hung in the air for hours and numerous roofs were ripped open by the cannonballs. Six men manning the artillery on the Battery were killed when one of their cannons exploded. They were buried in a single grave on the Bowling Green. By 3:30 the British ships passed the unfinished forts near Jeffrey’s Hook, the American cannons having little effect. Captain Parker celebrated on the quarterdeck of the Phoenix with a bowl of punch for his officers as they passed up the river, unscathed, past the roaring cannons.
Parker’s squadron sailed on to anchor in the Tappan Zee for the next month until, on the night of August 16, American fire ships nearly succeeded in burning his ships. The next day they weighed anchor and sailed back to the safety of the fleet off Staten Island but Howe continued to be concerned about the newly strengthened fortifications being built to block the river.
At 8:00 on the morning of October 9 Parker’s squadron, anchored for weeks in the river off Striker’s Bay, at the foot of present day 96th Street, set sail up the Hudson to test the new works at Jeffrey’s Hook. The Phoenix, followed by the 44-gun Roebuck, the 22-gun Tartar and several tenders, had a guest aboard - a brother to the ferryman at Burdett’s Ferry. He knew the American defenses in the river well and for a reward offered to guide Parker’s squadron through the secret opening in the Cheveaux-de-Frise. This time the Americans were prepared with 100 cannons on both sides of the river and sharpshooters from Moses Rawlings Maryland and Virginia Riflemen armed with Kentucky long rifles in the redoubt above the river. At about 8:30 the flotilla came near Jeffrey’s Hook, sailing in 12 fathoms in the channel to the east of the Cheveaux-de-Frise and about 40 yards from the shore. Cannons from both forts opened fire, grapeshot and ball from the forts and lethal chainshot from an eighteen-pounder in the lunette battery to the east. Chainshot ripped through rigging and sails and balls took out mizzenmasts. The Roebuck had her topmast shot away and all of the ships were shot through their hulls several times by 9:30 when the ships finally passed out of range of the American batteries. Fourteen sailors and four officers were killed and more wounded. There was no punchbowl on the quarterdeck that morning.
King George knighted Captain Hyde Parker for his daring exploits and Parker went on to a distinguished career in the Royal Navy. Fort Washington fell to an assault by German soldiers under General von Knyphausen just after noon on November 15. 2800 Americans were taken prisoner by the combined British and Hessian troops that stormed the gates. The fate of the prisoners was grim as they were marched down to temporary prisons in New York. Few of the soldiers survived imprisonment in Bridewell Prison and the sugar houses. With unashamed tears, General Washington watched from the barbette battery on the palisade cliffs as the red and white American flag atop Mt Washington came down across the river. Standing with Washington on that sad day were Generals Mercer, Putnam, Greene and Greene’s aide-de-camp, a junior officer named Thomas Paine. In The Crisis Paine describes the bitter retreat from Fort Lee and the army’s flight across New Jersey to safety over the Delaware River at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. It was there, using the head of a drum as his writing desk, that he wrote his immortal lines,“These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
General Washington ordered his officers to read Paine’s words to the soldiers on Christmas Eve, 1776 – the night before the army crossed the ice-choked Delaware to victory over the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton.
Fort Lee was captured by Lord Cornwallis on November 20 and the battle for New York was over.
Fort Lee is gone today-its earthen ramparts have vanished under the streets and buildings of the modern city of Fort Lee, New Jersey. After over 200 years not a trace of the old fort remains. However, the barbette battery position on the Palisade cliff 300 feet above the river is still there and can be visited today at the Fort Lee Historic Park, a quarter mile east of the site of the old fort. The 33 acre park includes a small museum with artifacts from the 18th century such as examples of chain shot and grape shot canisters along with maps that illustrate the events of 1776. A barbette battery, complete with a working cannon, again looks out over the river just as it did when the British ships challenged the American defenses.
The present day site of Fort Washington at 184th Street on the highest natural point on Manhattan Island has been preserved. The earthen walls are gone, but one of the stone bastions has been reconstructed and the footprint of the fort is marked with granite paving.