Today the Hudson Valley is prized for its great scenic beauty and pastoral pleasures. But generals during the Revolutionary War looked at the same landscape with an eye toward its strategic military value. Their determination? It was priceless.
If the British could sail up the river unimpeded, they would split the industrial Northern colonies from the breadbasket Southern colonies, dooming the Revolution. If the Americans could hold them back at what is now West Point, where an S-curve in the Hudson River forced ships to slow down and tack, the Revolution had a chance of success.
So important was this terrain that George Washington asked Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish engineer and military hero, to design and oversee construction of defenses here. Now referred to as Fortress West Point, it consisted of a collection of four forts and seven smaller redoubts.
Although still in existence, most of these installations have either deteriorated into various states of disrepair or been subsumed back into the landscape; but the mighty stone walls of Fort Putnam look just as they did in 1778, down to the reproduction field and garrison guns. “It was one of the main structures of Fortress West Point, and is the only one restored to its original state,” explains David M. Reel, director of the West Point Museum and supervisor of Fort Putnam.
Set about 500 feet above sea level and approximately a half-mile from the Hudson’s edge, Fort Putnam was the highest of the forts, with a commanding view of the river both above and below the point. It was considered virtually impregnable. On the side facing the river, Fort Putnam overlooked a steep mountainside which turned into a sloping plain. To the west, a 50-foot rock wall was impossible to scale.
Fort Putnam’s purpose was to support Fort Arnold (later renamed Fort Clinton), the main defensive garrison right on the river. It also served to safeguard the famous Great Chain — 150 tons of iron that stretched across the river and was anchored to mighty log booms the size of telephone poles — which was an intimidating barrier for sailing ships. “As a mental deterrent, it was highly effective,” says Reel. The British never even tested the chain, knowing they would face a storm of fire from both sides of the river if they attempted to cross it.
The British, however, very nearly captured West Point by very different means. In one of the most infamous acts in American history, West Point’s commanding general, Benedict Arnold, met with British Major John André on September 21, 1780, to discuss handing over West Point to the British in return for a large sum of money and a high position in the British army. The plot was discovered when André was captured; a former American hero, Arnold’s duplicity made his name forever synonymous with the word “traitor.”
Once the war was over, West Point kept its status as an army post, and in 1802 became the famed military academy it is today. But there was little reason to maintain the fortifications. “Fort Putnam was speedily disappearing under the hands of industrious neighbors, who were carrying off the stone for building purposes when the work of demolition was arrested by the Government,” wrote 19th-century American historian Benson Lossing in The Hudson From the Wilderness to the Sea, published in 1866.
When Lossing visited, Fort Putnam’s remains consisted of “broken walls and two or three arched casemates, all overgrown with vines and shrubbery.” He hoped that “the ruins of Fort Putnam will remain, an object of interest to the passing traveler, for more than a century to come.”
Lossing’s hopes were more than realized. Initial efforts to restore Fort Putnam took place from 1909-1912; the rebuilt fort we see today was finished in 1976, in time to celebrate the Bicentennial.
Today, viewing tubes at Fort Putnam direct your eye to sites of historical significance, like Constitution Island and one of the redoubts. There’s also an education building; during an 18-minute presentation given there, lights on a large fiber-optic map of the Valley show all the troop movements in this area during the war.
Sadly, Fort Putnam today faces a new challenge: Army budget cutbacks. Due to lack of personnel funding, the fort has a very limited schedule. Through the fall it is open only when the military academy has a home football game — this year, those dates are October 4 and 11, and November 1 and 22 — from 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
The West Point Museum, where you can see the actual weapons, uniforms, and memorabilia used by American soldiers from the 17th century to the present day, is well worth a visit. It is free, and open daily from 10:30 a.m.-4:15 p.m.