Don’t Cross the River

A Mea Culpa
New Year’s Day 2023

Not even six months ago, I posted my thoughts on James Fenimore Cooper‘s novel of espionage set during the War for Independence. I took that opportunity to indulge myself in dissecting Cooper’s geography of New York‘s Westchester County.

In doing so, I felt certain I stood on solid ground; the observations I offered were all based on first-hand experience. Just to revisit one example, there are few places in the county that satisfy two of Cooper’s key criteria for the Wharton homestead,  a primary location of the action: it must lie close to the Bronx and it must offer a landscape that falls away to long views of Long Island Sound. I remain adamant about the probable location of The Locusts.

Yet I should have known better and quit while I was ahead. I ended my skewering of the author with a snarky comment about traversing the Hudson River. That sentence has proven to be a bridge too far and so I must undo the wrong.

Your orientation aid. Stony Point lies near the top left of the map.

I’d remarked Cooper treated crossing the Hudson as easily as if there were a span across the river. Silly, modern downstate me. As if a commercially minded people would allow the physical landscape to impede commerce.

Of course, the river could be crossed. As it turns out, it could be crossed quite easily. From Westchester County on the eastern bank, no less. You could not construct a better trifecta of being wrong.

The sad thing is, I would have persisted in my ignorance had I not decided my children needed to be wrenched from their school vacation digital immersion. It’s occasions such as this that exist to remind me why I am eternally a student who still has quite a bit to learn.

The means of my awakening was that most time-honored and shop-worn parental time filler, a field trip. We could have visited any number of places, but I chose a nearby site of historical significance: the Stony Point Battlefield in Stony Point, New York.

A closer look at the top of Haverstraw Bay.

While my interest in the Revolutionary period has long been focused on the political side, I’m not unaware of the military engagements. From Lexington and Concord to about 1780 I can offer a respectable gloss. So I knew that Stony Point was the last significant battle in the northern states.

I also knew that “Mad” Anthony Wayne was involved. I know, that contradicts what I just said, but I’d read a biography of Wayne in elementary school and never crossed his path again. I had been satisfied, until this past week, with being able to explain why there was a section of Harriman State Park that bears his name.

Now I know better because the Battle of Stony Point is worth learning about. More than just a major victory for the American side, the battle plan itself was audacious.

Wayne leads the troops at Stony Point in this 19th cent. engraving. Some say he earned the nickname Mad from this battle.

Stony Point is a rocky peninsula, joined to the mainland by a narrow neck. The British had fortified the high ground, expecting a full frontal assault straight up the neck. Ever confident in their naval prowess, they believed the riverside, steep-faced and lying under the protection of an armed English sloop and a gunship, was secure.

Wayne gave the British what they expected, but with the smallest part of his force. He split his men into three groups. The largest on the downstream side, waded across Haverstraw Bay, guns held over their heads, unloaded, with bayonets fixed, a white badge sewn to their hats,  a sort of textile IFF.

A slightly smaller group came up the marshy northern side of the neck. The smallest group, which came straight on just as the British had expected, served as a diversion. The Americans struck near midnight in what was a quick decisive battle. The British were defeated and the Americans took possession, for a while at least, of the Point.

The battlefield, showing American troop movements and the ferry crossing.

What, you may be asking, does all this have to do with Fenimore Cooper and bridges? Well, everything. At Stony Point, the Hudson River narrows and the distance between the western shore and Verplanck’s Point, on the Westchester side, is a mere half mile. The crossing was known as King’s Ferry.

In the age of automobiles and suspension bridges it’s easy to forget the impact of the natural landscape. Between Manhattan and New Jersey there were many ferries. Further north, King’s Ferry was the first major crossing, an important trade link between New England and the Middle Atlantic and Southern states. That’s why Stony Point, and the Hudson Valley, were so important to the Amercian war effort.

All of this was unknown to me before my visit. On the stretch of the Hudson with which I am most familiar, south of the GWB, the river is a mile, or more, wide. Moving upstream, just beyond the New York-New Jersey border the river opens to its widest expanses, the Tappan Zee and above that Haverstraw Bay.

I’ve always said, if I can’t live near the beach I need to live near the Hudson River.
CC BY-SA 3.0

The narrowing at Stony Point, so apparent on nearby maps, never registered with me. Up in Poughkeepsie, at the Walkway Over the Hudson, the river is again close to a mile wide. That narrower stretch of river,  in which West Point, Garrison and Cold Spring lie, serves as a natural pinch point, and so is of great strategic value and well worth fighting for.

It’s not every vacation week that results in me ending up a little more knowledgeable and having to admit the parochial limits of my lived experience. I’d say that’s a pretty rewarding respite from the workplace.

Happy New Year!


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