West Point New York – Washington’s Great Chains

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United States Military Academy at West Point
United States Military Academy at West Point

In 2007, Pat and I visited the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. I anticipated that the highlight of that trip would be seeing The United States Military Academy at West Point, because an institution that can produce generals like Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton Jr. has to be rather special. Now the academy, which is about 50 miles to the north of New York City, was not incorporated until 1802 when President Thomas Jefferson signed the necessary legislation.  Yet, contrary to my expectations, I found the events in and near West Point prior to 1802 to be of even more interest.  West Point stands on a plateau which commands the west bank of the Hudson River at that point. Throughout the American Revolutionary War and for a short time thereafter, the British controlled New York City and had large numbers of soldiers and ships stationed there. General George Washington’s great fear was that he would be overwhelmed by this force, if it ever attacked him.

Great Chain West Point
Washington's Great Chain at West Point

Because Washington considered the West Point area to be of immense strategic importance, he had its fortifications strengthened in 1778 and moved his headquarters there the following year.  Despite Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of Washington, West Point was never captured by the British.  Washington’s other fear was that a fast moving British fleet would sail up the Hudson past West Point, occupy the areas around Albany and Saratoga, and link up with supporting forces advancing from what is today Canada.  To prevent this, Washington installed a 150 ton iron chain across the river at West Point to make the river impassable north of that point.  The big chain achieved its purpose and did much towards making eventual victory possible for the young nation. During our tour of West Point, we saw parts of the original chain.  It is massive. The buildings of the academy are also very impressive.

Hasbrouck House Washington's Headquarters
Hasbrouck House Washington's Headquarters

Yet, even with his chain, Washington still did not feel secure. Therefore, in April 1782, he moved his headquarters up to Newburgh, which lies on the western bank of the river 10 miles to the north of West Point.  His headquarters were established in a house there within sight of the river, which was made available to him by the Hasbrouck family.  This remained his base, with thousands of soldiers from his Continental Army camped nearby, until the war was won. We toured the Hasbrouck House, which is so modest in relation to its importance to the history of the USA. Other buildings we saw included “The Tower of Victory” which was built in 1890 to commemorate the centennial of the victory. We also saw the hall where Washington persuaded his troops not to mutiny or to impose martial law because of the failure of Congress to pay them.  On that day, March 15, 1783, there was a very real possibility that Washington would be replaced as commander in chief.  The troops thought that he was far too moderate in making sure that Congress paid them.  Washington’s call for more patience carried the day and his remarks are known to history as “The Newburgh Address”.

Then, at about the same time, we have “The Newburgh Letter”.  This was a proposal by a group of officers in a letter to Washington written on their behalf by Colonel Lewis Nicola.  It proposed that Washington should become king of the United States of America.  Even though what was proposed was a constitutional monarchy rather than some kind of tyranny, Washington rejected the proposal out of hand.  Shortly afterwards in France, Napoleon received a similar proposal from his officers, which he accepted with consequences that were less than satisfactory.

National Purple Heart Hall of Honor
National Purple Heart Hall of Honor

We also visited in Newburgh the newly opened National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, which was interesting.  That medal is also something that originated in Newburg in 1782, when Washington instituted The Badge of Military Merit to be given to enlisted men and NCOs for meritorious action. This was probably an attempt at the time to boost the morale of soldiers whose pay was seriously in arrears.  That award was the forerunner of The Purple Heart.  The Hall records the stories of Purple Heart recipients by means of videos, honor rolls, etc.

The story of the nation’s struggle to exist took a further step towards a happy ending on April 19, 1783 when, from Newburgh, Washington ordered the cessation of all hostilities.

Washington leading a triumphant parade down Broadway
Washington leading a triumphant parade down Broadway

Finally, by November 25, 1783, Washington had left Newburgh and was making his triumphal march down Broadway in New York City itself.   So we arrived in the Hudson Valley expecting West Point to be our focus, but learned that Newburgh was where the great events actually happened.   The wide river, with its green banks, seems so peaceful now – but it wasn’t always.