Reflections on the Hudson River

Yesterday I took the train to New York City. The rail lines lay along the banks of the Hudson River and a ride from Albany allows you to follow the river from its northern reaches to near its outlet in New York Harbor. As the train rides on the eastern side of the Hudson, you can take in river-fronted views of the Catskill mountains and Hudson Highlands. As my train skirted its way through the Highlands, I thought about the British attempt to reinforce General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777.  (I realize that I am probably the only person on the train who thought about this.) Sheer rock cliffs jut out into the river and sometimes narrow it a great deal. When I saw how the cliffs narrow the river, I began to understand how the Highlands posed a problem for British General Henry Clinton.

The British and Americans fought the Battle of Highlands on October 6, 1777. The Americans lost the battle. Yet they ultimately won the war in part because their efforts at the Highlands made Clinton think twice about sailing for Albany. Clinton's decision not to sail up the Hudson left Burgoyne without reinforcement, which caused him to surrender his army to General Horatio Gates on October 17.

As the train passes West Point, I also catch a glimpse of the area where the Americans installed their Great Chain across the river. Clinton's victory at the Highlands scared the Americans. Although he decided not to sail to Albany, Clinton and his men sailed up the Hudson as far as Kingston and plagued the settlements in between that village and New York City. Clinton and his men returned to New York City for the winter of  1777/78, during which time the Americans planned how they would prevent future British forays up the Hudson River. In the Spring, Peter Townsend and Timothy Pickering stretched a 600-yard chain across the river between West Point and Constitution Island, one of the narrowest points on the lower Hudson. Townsend and Pickering used large logs to keep the chain buoyant and raised in place. To deter the British from running and trying to breakthrough the chain, the Americans placed a battery on one of the cliffs at West Point. The chain and battery worked. The British did not attempt to sail up the Hudson after the Battle of the Highlands.