The Hudson River and West Point:  Strategic and Tactical Significance
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Constitution Island Fortifications

West Point Fortifications


The Great Chain 

Hudson River

Marsh


 Sources and Author's Note  
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
During the War of Independence, both sides recognized the critical importance of the Hudson River.  The river was a critical transport route from the interior to the coast in an age when good roads were virtually non-existent.  In British hands,, however, the Hudson  would present a formidable barrier cutting New England off from the other colonies to the south.  It would also facilitate free movement of British forces between Canada and New York City--large naval vessels could navigate the Hudson all the way up to Albany, and smaller craft could move quickly by water to and from Canada via Lake Champlain.  British control of the river would hinder intercolonial trade, facilitate British troop movements both within the region and to and from Canada, and would effectively prevent the Continental Army from operating in the Hudson Valley and north, regions that typically provided substantial amounts of manpower to the Patriot cause. 

While the Hudson Valley is generally rolling terrain for most of its length, the 15 mile wide belt of the Hudson Highlands in the vicinity of West Point constitutes a crucial choke point on the river.





The Hudson in the Highlands region was at the same time an invaluable transportation route and a daunting obstacle if controlled by an enemy.   The river is 40 to 200 feet deep and quite wide, ranging from 1/4 mile before West Point to over a mile near Cornwall (its widest point in the region).  The river is actually an estuary, with significant tidal action all the way to Albany--a factor which further complicated navigation by sailing vessels.


Recognizing the importance of the Highlands in controlling the Hudson, the Continental Congress began investigating the possibility of fortifying the region as early as 1775.   The first fortifications were planned in August of 1775 by Bernard Romans, a relative novice in the field of military engineering.  Romans identified the "S" bend in the river before West Point  as an ideal location for fortifications--sailing ships travelling upriver from New York at this point would have to negotiate the tight curves with multiple tacks, and would also have to contend with current, tidal flow, and shifting winds channelled by the high hills lining the valley--conditions that would make them easy targets for cannon on the banks.  Romans chose to build his initial fortifications on the east side of the river along low-laying Martalaer's Rock, soon renamed  Constitution Island, a decision soon decried by more experienced military men.

After the Constitution Island fortifications were captured and destroyed by the British in 1777, the rebels chose to focus their efforts on fortifying the commanding heights across the river at West Point.   Throughout the war, George Washington kept substantial forces, often the main body of the Continental Army itself, in the Hudson Highlands to preserve the rebel hold on the river. 

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