Frontiersmen of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
Albany, NY 1883
Volume I, Page 602
The Hudson River Obstructions.--Having in possession many important papers preserved by Capt. Thomas Machin, *and Engineer and Superintendent
*Among the officers of the American army deserving of notice, was Capt. Thomas Machin, engineer, distinguished alike for his mathematical skill and patriotic bravery. He was born March 20, 1744, O.S., four miles from Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England. His father, John Machin, a distinguished mathematician, had two sons, John and Thomas. The former was killed at the siege of some town near the outlet of the Red Sea; and the latter was one of a corps of English cadets, which with the British infantry became so distinguished for their bravery in the battle of Minden, Germany. The cadets, or fencibles, as called, were almost annihilated in that battle, which took place between the allied army under Ferdinand and the French, in August, 1759.
The Duke of Bridgewater, who may justly be styled the father of the canal navigation of Great Britain, projected at his own expense a canal from the coal measures on his lands in the town of Worsley to Manchester, a distance of some ten miles; obtaining his first act for the same of the session of Parliament for the winter of 1758 and 1759. A few years after he obtained an act for carrying a branch of it to Liverpool, nearly 30 miles. The former canal was carried by a stone aqueduct over the river irwell, 40 feet above its surface, so that shipping might pass under it in the river; and the latter over the Mecer. Those great works which were looked upon at their commencement by the incredulous as wholly impracticable, were prosecuted to completion under the direction of the celebrated engineer and mechanical inventor, James Brindley. Soon after Brindley began those works, Thomas Machin entered his employ; and it is not surprising that, under such a tutor, he too, should have become a good practical engineer. He was engaged in taking the levels for the Duke's canal; and, as clerk, paid off many of the labors employed by Brindley.
After making a voyage to the East Indies, Machin sailed for America, and, arriving in 1772, took up his residence in the city of New York. The principal object of the voyage was to examine a copper mine in New Jersey. After a short stay in New York, he went to reside in Boston, and evidently intended a permanent residence, as he warmly espoused the cause of the Bostonians against his "father land." He was one of the celebrated Bostontea party of 1773. He was engaged and wounded (in one arm) in the conflict on Bunker's Hill, while acting as Lieutenant of artillery.
on duty for several years in the Highlands, I consider it important to give the American reader some idea of the character of those obstructions, as the preservation of the navigation of the river was of vital importance in retaining a communication between the Eastern and Middle States, if, in fact, it were not a hinge upon which hung the final success of freedom's cause. On the evacuation of New York which followed the disasters on Long Island in 1776-the Americans hoped to hold Fort Washington, then eight or ten miles above New York, and Fort Lee on the palisades, a mile or two below upon the New Jersey shore.
The First River Obstruction, placed in the Hudson to impede its navigation, was just below Fort Washington. It was called a chevaux-de-frize, and consisted in part of docks or cribs of timber filled with stone, and of sunken vessels. This was an expensive experiment, as the river's channel there was some 5,000 feet, and it failed to meet the public expectation, In fact it was far from a state of completion when (July 12th) two of the enemy's vessels-the Phoenix of 44 and the Rose of 16 guns -although saluted by the batteries upon both shores, passed it and found a safe anchorage above.
On the night of August 16, those vessels with a bomb ketch and two tenders were moored not far from Yonkers, when an attempt was made to burn the flotilla by FIRE SHIPS, a plan for river defense devised by Capt, John Hazelwood, of Philadelphia. Two sloops filled with combustible materials were used for the occasion, and were conducted with whale boats for the escape of the crews, by Captains Ross and Thomas, each with nine men. The former first grappled with the Ketch, which was burned to the water's edge, and he fortunately escaped with all his men. His fire being first kindled, the approach of Capt. Thomas was discovered, but he nothing daunted grappled with the Phoenix, which was set on fire, but having a moment's warning she was saved by slipping her cables, getting free from her lurid adversary, and clawing off into the stream to extinguish her fires. Capt. Thomas and five of his men, finding their escape to their boat cut off by the flames on their own vessel, threw themselves into the river, and unable to reach their boat, were all drowned. Many of the inmates of the Ketch, are said to have been drowned. So alarmed were the captains of those ships, that they soon returned to New York; although they were somewhat injured in running the gauntlet between Forts Washington and Lee.
The Second River Obstruction.-This was a chain drawn across the Hudson near Fort Montgomery, in the autumn of 1776. Its management was given to a secret committee, from the members of the State convention: nor is it known that any professed engineer rendered them any essential assistance. A chain that had been used or designed for the river Sorel, was brought down and used, and the remainder was manufactured at Poughkeepsie. A letter from one of the Townsend family stated that the Fort Montgomery chain was manufactured at the Ring Wood Iron Works, New Jersey, and from cold short iron. Some of its iron may have been there wrought into bars, or the Sorel chain may possibly have been manufactured there in whole or in part; but the chain under consideration was much of it wrought and the whole of it arranged at Poughkeepsie. It was made of 1 1/2 inch bar iron, but from what mines it was forged, it is difficult to determine.
August 28, the secret committee reported the work of making the chain greatly delayed for the want of blacksmiths, and asked for the services of men at work there on a continental frigate; and September 3, the State committee granted their request. Again September 17, Gilbert Livingston, one of the chain committee reported to the State convention, that the chain had been delayed for the want of iron. October 22d, the convention directed Mr. Livingston to be sent down with the utmost dispatch to Fort Montgomery, with such parts of the chain as were fixed in the logs. The chain was evidently given its place about the middle of November, and soon after it parted twice, for on the 23d of that month the State Convention resolved that the blacksmiths making it should not be paid until a proper examination be made respecting it. The following certificate found among the Machin papers, explains the cause of the accident:
"FORT MONTGOMERY, Dec. 9, 1776.
"These are to certify that the chain that has been stretched across the North river at this fort, has been broke twice; the first, a swivel broke, which came from Ticonderoga, which was not welded sound; the second time, a clevin broke, which was made at Poughkeepsie, in a solid part of the chain, and no flaw to be seen in any part of said chain. Which we do certify at the request of Messrs. Odle and Vanduzer.
"JAMES CLINTON, B. GEN.
"ABM. SWARTWOUT, CAPT.
" JAS. ROSECRANS, CAPT.
"DANL. LAWRENCE, LIEUT."
In preparing a report of the chain difficulties for the Continental Congress, the State committee say: "In perfecting the obstruction between Anthony's Nose on the eastern shore and Fort Montgomery, we endeavored to avail ourselves of the model of that which had proved effectual in the river Delaware, and were assisted by the advice and experience of Capt. Hazelwood, but the great length of the chain, being upwards of 1,800 feet, the bulk of the logs which were necessary to support it, the immense weight of water which it accumulated, and the rapidity of the tide, have baffled our efforts; it separated twice after holding only a few hours." The chain was required to sustain too much bulk of timber for its dimensions. It was supported by logs, which are believed not to have been much scored or seasoned, and not anchored, or if at all not sufficiently, hence the chain was broken. The logs were lengthwise across the stream.
In this condition of things, Mr. Livingston sought a consultation with Gens. Heath and Clinton, and Engineer Machin, when the latter, comprehending the difficulty, said he could still make it subserve its intended purpose. Mr. Livingston laid the result of this meeting before the State Committee November 30th, and on the same day that body "Resolved, That Mr. Machin be requested and authorized to alter and fix the chain intended for the obstruction of Hudson's river, in such manner and at such place as he may think best calculated to answer the purpose for which it was intended, and that this committee will advance the money necessary to defray the expense thereof." Capt. Machin so altered and lessened the bulk of its timber, and so sustained it upon floats of long-spars anchored by the aid of caisson-cribs filled with stone, that the chain met the expectation of its projectors. He completed that work in April, 1777, it is believed, and left it nearly or quite in its original position.
The Third River Obstruction- This consisted of a boom of some kind, placed in the river in front of the chain at Fort Montgomery. Tradition has not only said that a chain and boom were there in the summer of 1777 ; but the British account of its doings at that point in the autumn of that year, says that they destroyed a boom and a chain at that place, and another boom near Fort Constitution six miles above. We are led to infer that the first structure placed in the river and designated as a boom at Fort Montgomery, was of an imperfect and unfinished character, constructed of logs, and designed by the committee, which originally superintended the construction of that chain, and was intended to be superseded by the one making, as toe British account says, near Fort Constitution, some distance up the river. In certifying to his public services subsequently, Gov. Clinton said: "Capt. Machin was employed in constructing and making booms to draw across the river in front of the chain (in 1777) till the reduction of that fort by the enemy." And on the 13th of January following the passage of the obstruction by the enemy, Gen. Putnam in a letter to the Commander-in-Chief, and dated at West Point, speaking of the condition of things there-where preparations were then making to place other obstructions-says: "Parts of the boom intended to have been used at Fort Montgomery sufficient for this place, are remaining." Now, as the breadth of the river would require 300 feet less of boom at West Point than at Anthony's Nose, it is easy to conjecture that it had not been in the river or the enemy would have set it afloat; and it was too bulky an affair for the foe to attempt its entire destruction upon land. Besides, had it been in place, why would he have said intended to have been used? or why should Gov. Clinton have said Mr. Machin was employed in making this boom until the enemy came, if it were in the river before?
Object of a Boom.-The reader is ready to ask the character and object of a boom. It was constructed of logs or scored timber, held together by chains at their ends, and was intended to be drawn across the river a little below the chain, which it was designed to protect. The second, or West Point boom, was constructed of timber scored and wrought into a desirable form, with no little labor and artistic skill. If I may express an opinion, I should say that the boom was not as taut in the water as the chain, and was just far enough below that to be carried to it by force. That it was intended to receive a ship under full sail, and by the time the whole mass was animated-so as to be brought upon the chain-its force would be far spent; and thus enable the chain to receive and withstand any shock abreast with the force of a ship thus blunted; besides, the chain must, of necessity, have had a little slack. It is believed that the boom and chain at West Point could have successfully withstood the shock of several ships at once.
The Fourth River Obstruction.-On November 26, 1776, the State Committee "Resolved, That the navigation of Hudson's river be obstructed near Pollopels Island, at the northern entrance of the Highlands, agreeable to the plan recommended by Gen. James Clinton, and that the committee of this State will exert every measure necessary for that purpose." This is a small island near the eastern shore, nearly opposite New Windsor. The obstruction was placed between the western shore of the river and the island, and known as a chevaux-defrize. It was planned and constructed by Mr. Machin, in the fall of 1776 and spring of 1777; and the better to define the position of the engineer, the State Committee took action in the matter January 6, 1777, as follows: "Resolved, That Capt. Machin be empowered, with the advice and under the direction of Gen. George Clinton, to employ such and so many laborers and artificers as will be sufficient to perfect the obstructions in Hudson's river, and to layout and erect such works as will be necessary for the defense thereof." This obstruction consisted mainly of square cribs of round timber, locked at the corners as log dwellings were formerly made. Those cribs were filled with stone to hold them down, and in them were iron-pointed spars projecting southward and upward at an angle of 45 degrees, intended to pierce the bottom of a ship in an attempt to pass over them. This work was not entirely completed when the enemy passed it in the fall.
The succeeding papers directed "To Capt. Thomas Machin, at Murderer's Creek," one of which was without date, were evidently written while the navigation of the river was being obstructed in 1777 :
"To Capt. Machin:
"SIR-I have already directed that no more timber should be cut on Mr. Ellison's land for the obstructions to be made in the river (except it should be such long walnut pieces as could not be so conveniently had anywhere else), until a proportionate share of timber for that use was also got on lands lying equally near the river. I am surprised, therefore, to hear that a company of carpenters are in his woods cutting away timber of every kind, which I trust may be without your order or knowledge. He is willing you should take such long walnut pieces as you want and can't get as conveniently elsewhere; other kind of timber we certainly can, and more so. I expect, therefore, you will direct the carpenters to desist cutting in his woods till further orders from me.
"I am your most obd't serv't,
"NEW WINDSOR, 31st, Jan'y, 1777.
"DR. Sir-I set out for Kingston to-morrow morning, where business will detain me a few days. I wished to have seen you before I set out. I cannot now expect it. I think the artificers neither go out early enough in the morning, or continue late enough in the evening at work. I was surprised this day to see many break off a little after three in the afternoon. It was said that they had not been home to dinner, but allowing that to be the case, from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon is not by any means a day's work. To cure this mischief I enclose you an order which you'll publish among those employed, and endeavor to carry it into execution. If you think the hours are too long, make any alteration you think right; but pray, whatever hours are fixed on, contrive to make them work.
" I am in great haste your most obed't,
"Orders to be observed by the artificers and others employed in obstructing the navigation of Hudson's river, 13th, Jan'y, 1777.
"As high wages are given by the public at this season
of the year, when the days are short and the weather fickle, in order to
have this most necessary work (on which not only the safety of this State,
but of the whole continent depends,) completed in due season :-It is therefore
expected that those who are employed and receive the public money, will
be faithful in the service and do the most they can. It is the business
of the master workmen who have contracted to carryon the work and taken
the charge of small parties under them, to see that they are diligently
employed and work faithfully. It is for this they are allowed extra wages,
and it is expected that in this way they will earn, or in justice they cannot
expect to receive it. The monthly pay rolls must be attested (if required)
by the master workmen, and an honest man can never return a man for a full
day's pay who has not done a full day's work. This would be dishonest and
punishable; but that every possible guard may be set against deception,
and that all account for pay of artificers and others may stand fair and
uncontrovertible, the engineer is to fix upon the hour in the morning at
which all hands are to be at work-the hour they are to quit for dinner,
the time when they are to return to work after dinner, and break off in
the evening; and to cause the rolls to be called over by such person or
persons as he shall appoint at those and such other times as he shall see
fit; and mark the defaulters (if any) that a proper deduction may be made
from their wages. It is. expected at present that those employed near the
barracks will work at least eight hours every day, at those employed where
the timber now lays, or at that distance, at least seven. The time for working
each day to be lengthened when the days grow longer.
"GEO. CLINTON, B.- Gen'l."
Fac-simile of a letter from Gen. Washington "to Brig.-Gen. Knox, commanding the corps of artillery." It was written during the visit of Capt. Machin to the Commander-in-Chief, at his winter quarters.
The following paper, which is without date, will explain itself:
"SIR-I am informed that the Inhabitants of Kingston are
desirous of making some Works for the Defence of their town. I approve of
their intentions, and wish to give them every assistance in my power in the
execution of this business; and that the works may be constructed on a Plan
most efficient and least expensive, I request you will repair to that place
and assist in laying them out, in which Col. Bruyn will advise. It will not
be practicable, neither do I conceive it necessary to enclose the town, as
the houses are stone, and will form (if the Windows and Doors are properly
secured) good Lines of Defence. Small Redoubts or block-houses, therefore,
at the different and most commanding quarters of the Town, are all that to
me appear necessary; which ought to be constructed each for a Piece or two
of artillery, so as to clear the lines formed by the houses; and when it can
be, conveniently, these should be so contiguous to each other as to be within
the reach of Musketry, which will be a saving of Ammunition. In constructing
these works, it is to he observed that Artillery against them is not to be
" I am your most obed't serv't,
By the next paper we perceive that Capt . Machin was given discretionary power by Gov. Clinton, to act in certain emergencies :
"To Capt. Thomas Machin:
" DEAR SIR-I received yours of this date. I approve your conduct in marching your men against those Parricides, and no pains must be spared to apprehend or destroy them. Major Logan, and every other Officer in both Counties, I know will exert themselves on this occasion in drawing out the Militia for quelling this dangerous insurrection; nor must any risk be run in taking prisoners.
" I am your most obd't serv't,
"GEO. CLINTON, B.- Gen.
"March l0th, 1777.
"P. S.-A party will march towards the Forest of Dean, to guard the defiles there."
"To Capt. Machin, at Capt. Nicolls'
"DEAR SIR-This will be handed yon by Mr. Chambers from Marble Town, who has come down with six or seven carpenters, to be employed in our works; and in a few days I expect as many more will be here from that quarter as will complete his company to 12. As these are men who were engaged at our request, when the others misbehaved and quit work, they must be employed; indeed, we can't have too many now. How you will find room for them I can't tell, but you are good at contrivance.
"I am your H. S.,
"11th March, 1777."
The following paper from Gov. Clinton to Capt. Machin,. shows the preparation making for the enemy's reception in the Highlands:
"DEAR SIR-Let one know immediately whether twelve Pounders, having the trunions broke off, can be quicker repaired by stocking them, or fixing new trunions to them. If the former way is the speediest and best, I beg you would come down here immediately and bring such Artificers with yon as can do them directly. If the latter way is the best, can't you spare Van Houton, your Smith, to work a while at this business at Fort Constitution? He shall be well used, and Barney will stay with him. On receipt hereof you will send down the two twelve-Pounders at New Windsor, with the ammunition and stores belonging to them, to this Port. In their room I have ordered yon the Brass 24-Ponnder* from Fishkill;
* As the reader would know the fate of this gun on the success of the enemy in the Highlands, I anticipate that event to say that it no doubt remained in possession of the Americans. In Gov. Clinton's report to the State Council of the loss of the forts tn the Highlands, he says: "As soon as ever I find the shipping are likely to pass the chevaux-de-frize, I will, by a forced march, endeavor to gain Kingston and cover that town. I shall have one brass 24 pounder and six smaller brass field pieces, which will make a formidable train. His effort to succor Kingston was made in vain, but we suppose the gun was saved.
it will suit you better, and you are to preserve her at all
events; if she should be lost at your Port you will be in Disgrace forever.
I expect you will have the 24-lbr. to-morrow at your Port. If you come here
yourself on an alarm, you will take care to leave behind you some persons
who can use the 24-lbr., and who will guard and save her. Gen. Putnam wants
to know how you come forward with your boom, and whether you meet any Obstructions
in that Business which you did not forsee.
"I am your most obd't serv't,
"Fort Montgomery, 3d July, 1777.
"P. S.- Wont your scow, well manned, bring the guns down quicker and easier? "
By a memorandum, found among the Machin papers, it appears that the sum of one hundred and fifty pounds was paid in one month for teams "Employed in drawing Timber for the use of the works Obstructing the navigation of Hudson River," under his individual direction. Thirty shillings was the regular price paid per day for a teamster with two yoke of oxen.
In anticipation of an attack from the enemy, under Sir Henry Clinton, the following orders were issued by Gen. James Clinton:
" HEAD-QUARTERS, FORT MONTGOMERY, July l0th, 1777.
"The signals to be given on the approach of the enemy: On the firing of Two Cannon at Peekskill by Gen. Varnum, one minute from each other; Two will be fired by Gen. Huntington; Two by Gen. Parsons, to be answered by Two at Fort Independence; Two at Fort Montgomery; Two at Fort Constitution ; and the Beacon there to be fired as usual; to be answered by two from the Brass twenty-four-Pounder, near New Windsor: upon this Signal, the Militia on the West side of Hudson's River, in the Counties of Orange and Ulster, as far up as Co1. Harbrouk's Regiment, including the same, are to march by detachments, without further notice, as a Reinforcement of this Garrison, and the Militia on the East side of the River, as far up as Poughkeepsie, including Col. Freus' Regiment, to march for the reinforcing the Garrison under Gen. Putnam.
"This order is immediately to be published by the Commanding officer at Fort Constitution, and copies of it transmitted by him to Capt. Lieut. Machin of the Artillery at New Windsor, that he may cause the same-to be published there.'"
In the month of September, Capt. Machin was engaged in the recruiting service, as his correspondence with Col. John Lamb, his commanding officer doth show. The following letters directed to Capt. Lieut. Machin; and here first published, will explain themselves:
"FORT MONTGOMERY, 2d September, 1777.
"Sir-The bearer, Lieutenant Kollock, is appointed a First Lieutenant in Capt. Bliss' company, to which company you are, with the men which you have enlisted, annexed. I have directed him to call on you at New Windsor, and take your directions respecting the Revolutionary service, in order to complete the company as soon as possible. I shall furnish you with money in a few days for the purpose of recruiting, and am,
"Sir, Your most hum'l serv't,
"JOHN LAMB, Colo. Artillery.
"To Capt. Lieut . Machin.
PEEKSKII.I., 8th September, 1777.
"SIR-I have received (per Corporal McBride) your PayRoll and Weekly Return, and am pleased to find per the letter that you have enlisted one man since I saw you last, and have no doubt of your assiduity in the business of Recruiting. The Pay-Roll is not made out exactly in the form prescribed by the Pay-Master General: this Colo. Oswald will do, and send it up by our Pay-Master, MIr. Grimshier, for you to sign, and I will give him directions to draw the money, in order to payoff your men. I have not to add, and am, sir,
" YOUR friend and servant,
"JOHN LAMB, Colo. Artillery.
"To Capt. Lieut. Machin."
"FORT MONTGOMERY, 19, Sept., 1777.
" SIR-As I am under an absolute necessity of furnishing Gen. Putnam, with a weekly return of that part of my battalion, which is now in this department, I have to request that you will punctually send me a return of the Men under your command, every Monday, to enable me to comply with the General's order. If you make your Return early, and send it to Fort Constitution, in time, Capt. Mott will forward it to me, with that of his company. You are to observe that you are to furnish Gen. Clinton, with a Return, on Thursdays; which you may send to Fort Constitution, likewise, and it will be forwarded to the General thro' the same channel as the other. I have not to add, and am,
"Sir, your friend and servant,
"JOHN LAMB, Col. Artillery
"P. S.-I wish you would make out your account for the Bounty of those men you have Enlisted since I settled with you, as I want to pay it off.
" To Capt. Lieut. Machin."
Gen. Lamb was a tine scholar, and at the beginning of Revolutionary difficulties was among the active" Sons of Liberty," in New York city. He was an efficient Colonel of Artillery through the war. Isaac Q. Leake, Esq., a nephew of his, published in 18.50, the "Life and Times of Gen. Lamb," a work I can commend as one of great merit; as it reflects much light upon certain events not properly ventilated elsewhere. I enjoyed the pleasure of meeting Mr. Leake several times in 1850, and found him an intelligent gentleman.